Monday, February 18, 2019

In search of perfection

One thing that I always got frustrated with during my years working on conventional dressage with Nimo is that it seemed like there was this expectation that the first time you asked for a movement, you were supposed to get something really good.  That is, of course, quite illogical.  I think it is a rare thing that the first time any human or animal tries to do something, whether it is walking or reading or climbing or skipping, that it is perfect or at least close to it.  Instead, we must try over and over again and some may spend years or even their whole lives trying to perfect a skill.  Yet, in dressage instruction, it is hard to find images of something less than really good.  There are probably thousands of books and videos that show how to do something right (and occasionally how to do something wrong), but it is unusual to find instructions that show the process of going from something that is a first effort to something that is perfect.  I can only remember ever seeing something that showed a first effort once.  It was a Sylvia Loch video where she showed what looked like an 8-year-old kid on a pony attempting half-pass at the walk for the first time.  It was barely recognizable as half-pass, but it may well be the single most defining instructional video I ever watched because it showed a first attempt.  And Ms. Loch's voiceover talked about how you have to start from something and improve it instead of expecting perfection from the beginning.  After I saw that video, I started working on half-pass with Nimo.  This was years ago, so I didn't really know what I was doing, but I remember it was so empowering to think that if some 8-year old on a pony could try half-pass, so could we!

But with all the expensive horses bred exclusively for their beautiful, dressage-worthy gaits shown over and over on Facebook and Instagram and the internet, it can be hard for the average person with the average horse to visualize the process of dressage training.  I spent years stuck in a place where I thought Nimo could never do anything beyond a basic walk, trot, and canter.  He is a Friesian and not bred for dressage, so there is a limit to what he can do, right?  Even after I started Science of Motion, I really didn't hold out much hope that we would be able to do much beyond improving the basics.  One thing that kept me going, though, was all the videos people posted on the In-Hand Therapy Course Facebook forum.  Here I was seeing the true process, from first steps to small successes to true lightness.  I would watch these videos and sometimes see my own struggles and other times see things I aspired to create on my own.  But the most valuable thing is that the videos show the process.  The first steps of anything, whether it is piaffe or canter half-pass, don't look like the end goal, and seeing those first steps on a regular basis reminds me that achieving perfection is a process.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, I set a goal for us to learn how to piaffe.  I made that goal from about the same place that I made my goal of doing endurance riding with Nimo.  I had read some books, watched some videos, and had a general idea of what the end point was supposed to look like without a lot of knowledge about the intermediate steps.  So it was all well and good for me to set the goal, but when it came to coming up with a plan for getting there, I was kind of at a loss beyond continuing our work at the collected trot.  Thankfully, I have a great instructor, who has a whole lot of patience and problem-solving skills:)

So I thought I would take some time today to write about the progress Nimo and I have been making in our Science of Motion work.  A couple of weeks ago, we had a really amazing lesson and our collected trot had improved enough that my instructor asked if we wanted to work on piaffe because she thought were ready.  Of course!  I was so excited to try, but I had no clue how we would approach it.  The traditional approach to teaching piaffe (in the US, at least) seems to be for a ground person to use a whip to tap the horse's hind legs while the rider does something else (I've never figured out exactly what - maybe ask for some movement?).  My sense is that tapping with the whip is supposed to somehow help the horse figure out to lift his legs and stay in place, but I will admit that I really don't understand that process and I've never had any instruction on it.  So if it is something you are familiar with, I hope you'll forgive my ignorance on the topic.

Science of Motion does not use a ground person with a whip.  In fact, I'm not sure that there is a standard approach to teaching piaffe.  During my lesson, my instructor said she used a walk pirouette to really collect her horse to help set him up for piaffe and then asked for basically a trot in place coming out of the pirouette.  He had been taught using the traditional US approach first, though, so she had a bit of a challenge to help him understand what she was looking for.

Nimo has never had any formal training in piaffe, so figuring out how to communicate the concept of trotting in place would be a series of educated guesses that would be refined given his feedback.  First, we did try walk pirouettes, but I wasn't able to get him collected enough to try piaffe.  So then we just worked on really collecting the walk while on a circle.  That was a lot more effective and I was able to ask for piaffe from a super collected walk.  Probably not surprisingly, Nimo was pretty confused about the idea of trotting in place and gave me his version of passage instead.  For those unfamiliar with dressage, the passage is considered an advanced form of trotting, much like piaffe.  It is a very elevated, collected trot, with a lot of suspension.

When it happened, I remember saying to my instructor, "It feels like piaffe, but there is still forward movement.  Are we on the right track?"  And she laughed and said, "That's passage!"  And all I could think was, "Wow!"  (In fact, I pretty much spent the next day wanting to shout at random people that we passaged!  It's possible that my husband got a bit tired of me talking about it...)  I'm sure that Nimo didn't look like the horses you might see at international competitions performing passage, but it was a pretty cool feeling.  And it really wasn't that hard to get, likely because Nimo and I have been developing a system of communication that isn't based on specific rules or aids.  I didn't do something special with my legs or my arms or a whip or spurs (in fact I don't wear spurs and while I do carry a whip and use it occasionally, I didn't feel any need to use it during this process).  Instead, we are learning to communicate using the tone of my body.  So when I need him to collect, I try to really firm up my abs and the whole front of my upper body.  I have no idea which muscles I'm using, so I couldn't give you a scientific explanation of what I'm doing.  It is more of a feeling (I get that that probably sounds a bit woo-woo from someone who is trying to use science to ride better, but I don't have a better way of explaining it).

And the feeling didn't come from me just getting on the horse and thinking, "OK, I have to collect him now."  Because it isn't that simple.  The feeling came from what is now years worth of effort on my part to try to figure out how the changes in my body affect him.  Essentially Nimo is my textbook.  I expect that if I got on another horse and tried the same thing with my body, it would either be less effective or not work at all because I wouldn't have put in the time to work with that horse.  The principles of how I use my body apply generally to other horses, but each horse is going to have a specific way of responding and might require more or less tone or other shifts in my position based on its training history, conformation, physical asymmetries, and preferences.  Identifying the specific way to communicate with any horse requires a certain base of knowledge and experience, but it also requires trial and error and a willingness to experiment a bit to figure out what works best for the individual horse.  This concept is so opposite from what is typically taught in lessons that I probably spent more time working on letting go of the formulas for aids then I did on figuring out how to use my body to communicate with Nimo.

I've started to think of riding a bit more like pairs figure skating or ballroom dancing.  There are technical things to know, like what a half-pass is and what cantering looks like, as well as a certain familiarity with my own body.  But there is this back-and-forth communication that can't be defined very well and that is the result of day after day of practicing and really paying attention how Nimo responds to things that I do.  I've never skated with anyone and my dancing skills are limited, but I remember from a few dance classes and lessons I've taken that the technical information can only get you so far before the two dancers have to figure out a way to work together to execute the movements.

So the passage Nimo and I got during the lesson was the result of a lot of things coming together.  My understanding of what we were trying to do (the piaffe), my instructor giving me some ideas and feedback about how to approach the problem (how to tell Nimo I wanted him to trot in place), and Nimo and I communicating with each other.  If I had to write out our dialogue, it might look something like this:

Me: OK, so you need to walk a lot slower.

Nimo: Is this slow enough?

Me: No, even slower.

Nimo: You're kidding me.  This is the slowest I can go.

Me: Well, I think you can go slower.  Try elevating your withers a bit.

Nimo: OK, how about this?

Me: Better!  Yes, that is the idea.  Now try trotting.

Nimo: You are insane!  That is impossible!  I can't do that!

Me: Yes, you can.  Just try it.

Nimo: I don't know how to go forward.

Me: Move your legs like you are trotting.

Nimo: Ga! This is so hard!

Me: I know, but you're doing it!  Keep trotting, but try to slow down.

Nimo: Grunt, grunt, grunt.

Me: Yay! You can take a break.

Nimo: I'm totally awesome!

Me: Yes, yes, you are:)

I think some people would have been tempted to keep working at getting the piaffe, but we didn't do any more that day.  For one thing, Nimo didn't really know the end goal.  He responded to my body absolutely correctly, given his base of knowledge.  He gave me more collection than he'd ever given and he basically performed a new movement and has a new understanding of how his own body can move.  I'll use that new understanding to help bridge the gap between passage and piaffe over the next days, weeks, and months to help him figure out what I want him to do.  (Teachers might use words like bridging or scaffolding to describe this kind of process.)

Over the next week, I continued work on explaining the concept of piaffe to Nimo.  I still wasn't completely successful, but the idea of passage did seem to be taking hold.  Unfortunately, I hit a week-long stretch where I wasn't able to ride, either because of the weather or my schedule, and with that much time off, it seems like it takes us a couple of rides to get back in sync with each other again.

We had another lesson yesterday, and I was really hoping to be able to get a video of us attempting piaffe, but we ended up working on a couple of other things instead.  My instructor really wants to get us focused on collected canter.  Collected canter is our nemesis, which my instructor knows very well, and she has, I think, decided that we might need a bit of pushing, which is OK, and probably necessary for our advancement.  I admit that the idea of piaffe is much easier for us than collected canter and I possibly don't work on collected canter as much as I should.

But before we could do anything, we had to address Nimo's use of his left hind leg.  He typically has a tendency to leave it on the ground a bit too long.  Some people might be tempted to think he has a stifle issue, but in reality, it is the coordination of his back that is the root of the problem.  If he coordinates his back and bends through his thoracic area, the stifle "problem" miraculously goes away.  For whatever reason, he was struggling a bit more than usual (perhaps the time off he'd had), so we spent the better part of half an hour working on shoulder-in and walk pirouettes to help him achieve better coordination.  We also sprinkled in a little collected trot.  When we finally had him moving well, we tackled the collected canter.

It was brutal.  Nimo is too dramatic.  I'm too dramatic.  But my instructor is nothing if not patient and determined, so she kept working with us.  And pointed out that we were giving up too soon.  (At least we were giving up as a team?)  So I worked on keeping myself together so Nimo would learn from me, hopefully.  And after what seemed like about 8 hours, we finally got what was 7-8 strides of really decent canter.

Part of my problem is that I have trouble recognizing Nimo's collected canter when it happens because it feels flat to me.  His canter has been so dramatic and full of upward movement for so long, that to feel practically nothing confuses me.

However, we made a little more progress on Nimo's collected trot in this same lesson, and I realized that his collected trot feels like nothing too.  In fact, at one point, I stopped him because I couldn't even tell what he was doing.  I had to ask my instructor if he was trotting because I could tell he was moving forward, but I had no idea at what gait.  It didn't feel like anything I'd ever felt before and I thought he might have suddenly turned into a pacer.  It was so smooth and effortless.

I had always assumed that there was a lot of work involved in collected gaits, and I guess there is in the sense that you have to do all this preparation to get the horse to the point where his body is ready to handle the collection and the rider is knowledgeable enough to ask for it.  But the actual collection itself feels almost effortless.  My brain is having some trouble with this concept.  And so is my body.  If I'm not struggling to balance and sit the trot, I feel like something is wrong because I spent so many years riding the equine equivalent of a jackhammer and being told that I simply needed to figure out how to control my body to handle all that movement.  (My favorite is when the instructor I had at the time told me that I had to keep sitting the trot for long enough that my body became exhausted and relaxed enough to handle the movement.  If your instructor gives you advice like this, you may want to get a new one.  It apparently never occurred to her that Nimo's movement didn't have to be reminiscent of a jackhammer.  That if it felt like that, we needed to work on changing it.  How awful that so many horses and riders are going through this when they don't have to!)  So when there is no movement, my body is at a loss about what to do.  As I discovered (and you can see for yourself in a bit), my body will try to bounce anyway because it doesn't know what else to do.

After we finished our work on collected canter, we went back to collected trot and worked on improving it.  I asked my instructor to take a short video so I could see what we looked like because I was honestly having trouble imagining what we looked like based on what I was feeling.

When I saw the video, I was really surprised by two things: how fast we were going (I would have sworn that we were going half the speed we really were) and how much I was still moving in the saddle.  I have spent a considerable amount of time training my body to be still at the walk, and although I spotted a few bobbles in the video, I think I'm well on my way to getting the hang of it.  For the trotting, though, I can see that I have some work to do convincing my body that it doesn't need to be moving around so much.

If you watch the video, you'll see 3 or 4 canter transitions.  Those are all Nimo.  I didn't ask him for them.  I think he still wanted to work on canter, so he added in a few transitions on his own when he felt like he could handle them.  That is fine, and you'll see that I don't correct him.  I simply let him do his thing and then we go back to collected trot work.

Our search for perfection is still very much underway, but I hope sharing part of our process is helpful or at least interesting.  There are times when he is overbent or going too fast or not coordinated enough.  All those moments are part of our search for perfection, and without going through them, we won't ever get better.  Mistakes are simply part of the process and we use them as feedback for what we can improve.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Price of Domestication

I had been planning on writing a couple more posts along the lines of, "This is how my week in riding went…" when something happened at the barn that made those posts seem sort of irrelevant.  It was Sunday, February 3.  I had had a lesson earlier in the day that went really well (I promise to give you the highlights soon because we totally rocked!), and I came back out to the barn late in the evening to give Nimo his second dinner (he's like the horse version of a hobbit!).

After I turned him out, I settled into the car.  My husband got a new car last year because the old one's transmission died a very permanent death, and it has an exciting gadget in it that allows me to plug in my iPhone and play my Napster playlist over the speakers.  (It also has Bluetooth capability, but my husband and I have agreed that we are too old now to take advantage of that technology, so we still plug things in with cords...)  I got my playlist going and was happily nodding my head along with ACDC's "TNT" when my headlights flashed on the thing that is probably among the top three Worst Things That a Horse Owner Can Ever See - a horse was down and there were three legs stuck through a fence.

I screeched to a halt, unplugged my phone and experienced that sense of time where everything seems to be moving too slowly.  I frantically scrolled through my contacts list for the barn owner's number while running to the fence.  I immediately knew which horse it was despite the mud and blanket he was wearing.  He was a lesson horse leased by the barn.  Sometimes he would be in the stall next to Nimo and he hated being in a stall.  He would bang on the door and use "the Eye" to convince someone to either turn him out or to give him more hay.  By all accounts, his ground manners left something to be desired, but he was a capable jumper.  And now he looked like he was dead.

While I waited for the phone to connect with the barn owner, I assessed the horse.  At first glance, I wasn't sure he was still alive.  The eye that I could see was mostly closed and lifeless.  One hoof was caught in the bottom wire that typically has electricity running through it and my first thought was to get that hoof off the wire.  I pinched the phone between my cheek and shoulder so I had both hands free and I moved his hoof off the wire.  I didn't get shocked so either the electricity was off or it had shorted out.  Both hind legs were up in the air - one above the first board from the ground of a three board fence and the other above the second board.  His body still felt warm and I eventually identified breathing.  He was still alive, but I didn't know for how long.

The barn owner answered her phone and I explained there was a horse stuck in the fence and that I couldn't help him by myself.  She said she would be there as soon as she could (she lives 10-15 minutes away).  After I disconnected, my brain tried to remember anything I'd read or heard about rescuing a horse stuck in a fence.  Nothing.  Not a goddamn thing.  I will forever hate my brain for that failure.

While I waited for the barn owner, I decided to grab some lead ropes from the barn.  I couldn't picture a rescue that wouldn't involve hooking ropes to his legs and turning him over.  He was so close to the fence that there was just no leverage to move him without flipping him over to the other side.  I prayed the horse wouldn't think I was abandoning him, and ran to the barn for ropes.

When I got back, nothing about the situation had changed and no bright ideas had occurred to me about the logistics of getting the horse untangled.  But as the seconds ticked by at what seemed like a million miles an hour and I envisioned the horse getting ever more closer to death, I realized I could call someone else.  The maintenance guy for the farm lived on the property and had given me his cell number (something he does not do for everyone) in case of emergency.  I figured if there was ever an emergency, this was it.  I called him and thankfully he picked up and agreed to come right away.  (I found out later that he had actually been in bed and had gotten up for something he forgot which happened to coincide with me calling.  If he'd been in bed, he would never have heard my call.  Sometimes the universe doesn't suck.)  His house is about a half mile away from the barn and the location of the horse and so I used the time waiting for him to ponder what to do.

The maintenance guy got there within a few minutes and the two of us messed around with the horse's feet and legs for a few minutes.  We moved them around to see if we could at least get them out of the fence, but they were too jammed up.  That left only one option.  We had to cut the fence.  Thankfully, this lovely man literally had a box full of all tools imaginable in his truck bed and he pulled out a little saw.  The horse had gotten stuck in the fence near the run in shed which had an electrical outlet that worked, and with an extension cord, the saw could reach the section of fence that needed to be cut.

The maintenance guy cut the bottom board (it was the white plastic kind of fencing) and pulled it out.  Now one of the horse's hind legs was free.  We waited a minute to see if he would struggle, but he stayed still.  We moved the legs again, but there was still not enough room to move him or flip him.  So the middle board was cut and pulled out.  Now we had some room.  In fact, I thought if the horse struggled a bit, he might be able to get himself up, although a big part of the problem was that his hind legs were on one side of a post and his front legs were on the other side.  Trying to get the post out would have been a nightmare, but I worried that we might have to try.  The horse showed no sign of wanted to move.  I imagine his hind legs were full of pins and needles from being wedged up against the fence.  And his eyes alternated between looking terrified and praying for death.

By then, the gentleman who rents the house next to the barn had noticed the commotion not far from his house and he had come out to help too.  The three of us were in the process of putting ropes over the horse's legs to turn him over when the barn owner and her husband pulled up.  The husband offered to bring one of the farm's tractors over, thinking we might need a lot of power to move the horse.  I said that I didn't think we should use one because it would probably terrify the horse and it might have too much power and injure the horse.  Everyone else agreed that we should try without the tractor first.  We finished getting the ropes around the horse's legs and I was preparing to help pull the front legs over when the barn owner's husband diplomatically told me that I was absolutely not allowed to help with that task.  We were all worried that the horse would start kicking or struggling and someone would get kicked, but so far, he had been very quiet.

I moved away to take over holding the other horse that was in the paddock.  She had mostly stayed out of the way, but as we got ready to move the horse from the fence, she'd become aggravatingly inquisitive and was definitely not helping.  I could only watch with hope as all three men first tried to pull the horse over (pulling horses is apparently still Man's Work in Virginia).  I could tell they were straining as hard as they could, but it wasn't enough.  The barn owner saw the difficulty they were having too so she rushed to grab the rope her husband was holding to help pull.  Her extra effort finally was enough to pull the horse over and he was clear of the fence!

He quickly got to his feet without hurting anyone and walked over a few steps to start eating hay as if nothing had happened and it was totally routine for a bunch of people using a saw and ropes to extract him from a fence.  The rest of us needed some time to decompress.

The barn owner asked me if I thought she should call the vet (she is a good barn owner but doesn't have a huge amount of knowledge about horses).  I told her we should wait for about 10 minutes to see how the horse moved and then she could decide if she wanted the vet out that night or the next day for a check up.  The horse did move a bit funky on one hind leg for a few minutes, but as the barn owner started walking him to the barn for a session in the wash stall to check for scrapes, he seemed to be doing better.  I recommended she have the vet out the next day just in case soreness or injuries became apparent overnight.  (The horse continued to be fine and was back to jumping in short order.)

I headed home shortly after that.  And I did not hook up my iPhone or listen to the radio.  I needed some quiet to mull over the event and try to get my adrenaline levels back down to somewhere resembling normal.  When I got home, my husband took one look at my face and immediately asked what happened.  I told him the story, hoping it would help settle my brain a little, but it really didn't.  Sleep was a long time coming that night.

You might be wondering why I was so wound up about a situation that turned out OK.  Well, there are a few of reasons.  One, that horse could have been any horse, including mine.  I think we've all heard stories about horses getting caught in fences and being injured.  The idea that there could be a point in time when Nimo might be caught in a fence and reach a point where he doesn't think he is going to untangle himself and quietly waits for death is about more than my heart can bear.

Two, based on the horse's manner when I found him, he had probably been stuck like that for awhile.  Maybe even before I got to the barn.  But I didn't see him when I drove up the driveway because I was busy looking for the renter's dog on the other side of the road.  The dog was a rescue, I think, and when she first came to live at the farm, she was really awful about cars.  I almost ran over her once when she darted in front of me.  She's gotten much better, but the renter leaves the porch light on when she's out so I know to look for her.  But if I had just been more observant when I got to the barn, I might have seen him sooner and saved him about a half hour of suffering.

Three, the situation has me thinking about the price horses pay for domestication.  If they lived in the wild, there would certainly still be bad situations.  Nature pulls no strings and seems as happy to feed her animals well as she does to kill them by the millions (  I've read stories about wild animals, including horses, getting trapped because of flooding or quicksand or some other unforeseen problem.  But our domestication not only adds hazards to horse's lives like fences and small stalls, it may also rob them of the problem-solving skills to handle the hazards.

You may remember the study that looked at the way domesticated dogs and wolves handled a problem when their ability to access food was impeded.  The dogs would often not even try to solve the problem, simply looking to the nearest human for help immediately.  While the wolves never looked for help from people.  Wild animals learn to solve problems for themselves because they don't usually have the luxury of someone checking on them every day to make sure they are fed and safe.  That doesn't mean they can solve every problem nor does it mean they never get into trouble, but they do possess a certain aptitude for problem solving and independent thinking that I don't think is as common in domesticated animals.

You might point out that you know one or more horses who are perfectly capable of getting themselves out of trouble or solving problems, and I believe you.  I've seen Nimo actually put his foot through a fence and then take it back out all on his own.  He is also quite capable of climbing with all four legs into a water tank and getting back out again.  He can even dump said water tank and drag it all over his field (thankfully he does not do this anymore, but for many years, it was a common occurrence).  And there have been times out on the trail when his ability to work with me and think through the situation has helped us get out of trouble.  I've seen horses who have a good sense of where their feet are and negotiate difficult terrain or untangle themselves from ropes or wire.  I've also seen horses permanently damaged because they couldn't extricate themselves.  And then there are the escape artists, who can open latches and let themselves and their barn mates out to freedom.  Those same horses may become injured as a result of their efforts, though, which means their problem-solving skills may not be well-suited to their continued survival.

Anyway, my point isn't to insist that domesticated horses can't be problem solvers.  Nor is it to say we shouldn't put horses in fields with fences.  But I wonder if we shouldn't be doing more to mitigate the impact of domestication.  Breeders breed for things like temperament and athleticism and color and tiny noses.  But I'm not sure how much attention most of them pay to the ability of their breeding stock to solve problems or think for themselves (working ranch horses may be an exception).  And I don't know how many horse owners do either.  For as long as I have ever been involved with horses, I have heard people say over and over again that obedience is a good thing and disobedience is bad.  Yet, for a horse to always be obedient (i.e. doing what you say when you say it), I expect he gives up his ability to think for himself in many ways.

I don't know that I can ever really prepare Nimo for getting stuck in a fence or that I can train him to develop the skills to get himself unstuck.  But it occurs to me that I can support him when he does think for himself to encourage the development of more independent thought.  I can't take down his stall doors or give him the freedom to be wild.  But I can let him know that he can have his own thoughts.  That he can experiment with ways to do things without fear of punishment.  That not everything we do together must be my way or not done at all.  One thing I've always loved about endurance riding is that there is room in the sport for those horses who are good problem-solvers.  Not the kind of problem-solving a show jumper or eventer would do, but the kind of problem solving that comes about because a trail is blocked or the horse got caught in sticker brush or the rider is having a problem.  Or even the problem of how to move more efficiently to conserve energy.

That horse who got stuck in the fence may actually have been better off because he didn't keep struggling, but he sure spent a lot of time in a mental place that probably wasn't very much fun to be in while he waited.  Or he might have managed to extricate himself with a few serious scrapes and a broken fence if only he had struggled more.  I don't have the omniscience to know what could have happened, but I do know that the experience of helping him has given me some things to think about.