Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC

Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC
Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Saddle Fitting - How to Know When the Horse Says No

Recently I've come across a bunch of online articles about saddle fitting.  Most of them focus on the long term effects of ill fitting saddles:  white hairs, muscle atrophy, soundness problems.

What if your horse could tell you from the very beginning whether the saddle and tack were right?  Surely the horse knows whether it hurts as soon as you put the saddle on, just like you know as soon as you put on a pair of ill fitting shoes.  Sometimes it takes a quick walk around the store to confirm a bad fit, but it certainly doesn't take years of foot pain to determine that your shoes hurt.

Over the years I've met many horses with saddle and tack fitting problems.  The first horse I had who insisted I learn what I was doing with saddle fit was Thai, a 17.1 hand OTTB with high withers and a wide, long back.  He got me into saddle fitting because he was SO particular.  To express his opinion, if a saddle wasn't EXACTLY right he would buck until the saddle came off.  I suspect this is why no one had ever owned him for more than a year before I bought him at age ten.  I quickly learned to lunge him with a new saddle before I got on to test ride it, and I found out exactly how far it was to the ground from that height many times.  Once I got the saddle right, however, he was a truly incredible ride, jumping 4'6" courses like they were nothing.

Thai, the OTTB that got me started with saddle fitting
Since Thai, I have developed a pretty thorough system for evaluating saddles.  However, despite what I may find with my measurements, a practiced eye, and years of experience, the MOST important aspect of saddle fitting is the horse's opinion.  Even if everything looks absolutely perfect to me, if the horse says no, that's a deal breaker. 

How do I know if the horse says no?  Here are several ways that horses have communicated this to me, and ways your horse might be trying to tell you that things aren't exactly right:

1 - Tensing up when you place the saddle on his back.
Especially if the horse has been ridden in the ill-fitting saddle before, he knows that one hurts.  I've met some stoic quarter horses who don't say ANYTHING about the saddle hurting, other than to tense up a little when it's placed on his back.

2 - Making faces at you when grooming or tacking up, "cinchy" or "girthy"
Sometimes if the horse thinks you weren't paying attention when he told you by tensing up, he will make faces at you when tacking.  Sometimes he will just raise his head high in the air.  Other more obvious signs are pinned ears and biting the air (or you) when you set the saddle on his back or try to girth it up.  These are hallmarks of "This saddle hurts me".  I VERY rarely find a horse who is girthy just to be contrary.  Those behaviors almost always indicate something hurts, whether it's the saddle, pad, girth, or he has a belly ache because of ulcers or parasites.

3 - Wiggling around when you place the saddle on his back
People often mistake this for disobedience and then focus on teaching the horse to stand still, when most of the time the horse is trying to escape something that hurts.

4 - Won't stand still for mounting
This is another one that gets mistaken for disobedience.  While it's true that a horse should be taught to stand quietly for mounting, if he really insists he CAN'T by always moving away from you I get suspicious of saddle fit.  When the rider puts weight in one stirrup to get on, it yanks the saddle to one side and can be dramatically painful to have a pressure point exaggerated by the weight of the rider entirely on one side.  A mounting block can alleviate some of this, which is why I always insist riders use one even when the saddle is a great fit.  Though the fact remains - if the saddle hurts, putting strong pressure on only one side of it is going to hurt, and your horse is trying to escape that pain.

5 - Horse won't lift his back/won't shift his weight to his haunches/won't rock back on his hocks.
These are different ways to express the same concept, depending on what style of riding you do.  Sometimes if a horse is struggling to do these things the saddle is to blame. To shift weight back on his hind end he must engage his abdominal muscles and core trunk muscles, which lifts his back.  If the saddle is uncomfortable, he isn't going to want to lift his back into something that is hurting him.  These can also manifest as trouble with jumping bascule, or shape of his back over jumps because he doesn't want to lift his back into the pain thus increasing it.  Flying lead changes, halts, backing, and sliding stops become problematic for the same reason, he must lift his back to do a clean flying change, halt squarely, back correctly, or slide to a stop.

6 - Horse is "high headed"
This is the foil of number 5.  The back comes up and the head goes down.  The back goes down and the head comes up.  This is another way for the horse to avoid the pain of a saddle poking him in the back.  By keeping his head up, his back stays down and farther away from the painful saddle.

7 - Bucking
This is one of the loudest ways a horse can protest his ill fitting saddle.  If previous efforts to get a human to listen and remove the pain haven't worked, bucking generally gets a human's attention.  Often the horse won't buck from saddle fit until he starts cantering.  This is along the same lines as sections 5 and 6.  When a horse is cantering with any kind of impulsion, due to the pattern in which his limbs move physics dictates his back has to come up.  If his back comes up and he hits something painful, instinct for a horse is to buck.  It fits really well with the species' natural tendencies.  If a horse is in the wild, a predator going after him will jump on his back.  Survival instincts kick in and he will buck and kick to try to remove the threat.  Ill fitting saddles slide right into this instinctual behavior, I'm surprised more horses don't do it!

8 - Tapping the equipment
Once horses realize that I'm trying to determine what tack they want, they start to help me out by becoming more expressive.  On multiple occasions I've had a horse turn his head around and tap the part of the saddle that is pinching him with his nose, sometimes even grasping a saddle flap and trying to pull it off.  I've had horses take a girth in their teeth and shake it gently while staring at me to say they wanted a different one.  When I replaced the girth with one that fit better they stood completely still facing forward.

It's amazing to me how much horses will try to communicate with us humans.  They generally start out subtle, and get louder with their opinions if we ignore them.  If your horse is showing you any of these signs, it would definitely serve you well to have the saddle fit checked.  A qualified and experienced saddle fitter will do the best job, and every good saddle fitter I know agrees that your horse is the one wearing the saddle, and so it's his opinion that matters the most.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Gwenyth Rides in a Group, Over Obstacles, and in the XC Field

Gwenyth the clydesdale continues to make good progress in her riding training.  Most recently we have been learning about riding with other horses, going over ground poles, and riding out in the back forty. 

Her first ride with another horse was with Beauty, a level headed quarter horse who rides like a sports car.  The second ride in the arena with other horses we had four total.  Beauty again, Dewey the OTTB, and Rain the paint.  Sweet Gwenyth is so thoughtful, if she's confused about what is going on her default is to stop and watch, then once she's done thinking about it we continue on.  Because everyone was working on different things and riding in different directions, we had a few moments where she had to deal with arena traffic. 

Gwenyth is just starting to get the hang of leg yielding.  While trotting along and as we approached another horse with shorter legs who was going slower, I pressed with my outside leg to get her to move over a little.  We would trot past the other horse, then we leg yield back to the rail.  The first time she was a little worried about going by another horse, because Gwenyth is pretty low in the herd hierarchy.  In fact, she's low enough that I needed to put her back in her own paddock so she would have more access to the big round hay bale.  Garmin, my small blind pony, had been ordering her around and not letting her have a turn at the ponies' bale! 

Even though Gwenyth was nervous about passing another horse who was higher than her on the totem pole, she was able to think her way through the task and accomplish it anyway.  Another tricky thing has been when other horses are trotting at her head-on.  Generally in this situation horse and rider pairs will pass with left shoulders nearest each other, like driving a car.  If there is additional maneuvering going on, someone will verbally call "inside" or "outside" to indicate whether they are going to go towards the inside of the arena or the outside of it.  The first couple times this happened, Gwenyth came to an abrupt halt and STARED at the horse approaching her.  When she realized that the other horse was going to calmly go by her, she decided she could continue after all. 

Another arena traffic challenge was watching the other horses begin jumping.  The first time Rain went over the cross rails Gwenyth slammed on the brakes and absolutely GAWKED at Rain, like she was sure this couldn't be possible.  Rain has plenty of experience doing this and so she just continued along, hopping over other cross rails in the arena while Gwenyth stared.  Eventually Gwenth sort of declared, "Well, ok, they do all kinds of weird things here!  I guess this is just one more strange behavior to add to the list."

Once Gwenyth had seen Rain going over the poles I then asked Gwenyth to do it.  I started with a jump that had a ground pole between the standards, so Gwenyth could start with something very simple.  She walked right up to it and then stopped, casually tossing me a look over her shoulder asking what exactly we were supposed to do now?  I told her to walk on, and she took tiny little shuffly steps until her toes were right up against the pole.  Then she put her nose all the way down to ground to examine this obstacle.  She had already experienced going over the bridge in the arena, but of course this pole looked different to her than a bridge.

Gwenyth proceeded to sniff at the pole, then touch it with her lips.  Starting in the center of the pole she investigated it all the way to the left and then all the way to the right.  Once she had confirmed its benign character she carefully took a first step over it, paused, then walked all the way over.  I praised her and told her how smart she was.  Because she was allowed to slowly process the idea on her own terms, I ended up with a brave mare who was then able to boldly walk and trot over the pole from both directions with no hesitation. 

Gwenyth with her mane braided and thinking deep thoughts

The last challenge from last week was riding out all the way to the back of the property.  We did this with Alice on Beauty, to help give Gwenyth a little courage by doing it in a small herd.  Normally the dogs would take on this role, but Gwenyth is still getting used to riding with my dogs.  Once horses are accustomed to the dogs they like to go out with them, because the dogs protect the horses and flush out any horse monsters.  Gwenyth isn't quite there yet, she still asks me why Mahzi, clearly a predator, is following so closely behind her looking so relaxed.  But when Beauty didn't seem to care about the dogs Gwenyth decided they were ok.  We started out by walking along the fenceline at the bottom of  the hill where the horses can't see the cross country jumps.  This way the jumps appear as the horse is headed towards home.  The horse is more likely to go by them if home is in sight, rather than thinking they are horse monsters lurking on the horizon as the horse is leaving the safety of home.

The first cluster of logs were lying ominously still, all in a row, in the same way a group of coyotes would on the hunt.  Gwenyth thought this was a dangerous scenario, and got a little worried.  Fortunately her "big spook" so far has been to stop and stare, then jog in place a little if she's truly concerned.  The way we work through things like this is to use Beauty, her buddy horse for the ride.  We all turned and headed towards the scary logs, but Alice kept Beauty between Gwenyth and the logs.  This works for Gwenyth psychologically for three reasons.  First, Beauty sets the example by showing Gwenyth that she isn't concerned (Beauty has jumped everything out in the field).  Second, if the monsters do pounce, Beauty will be the target not Gwenyth (and we all know you don't have to be the fastest horse, you just have to be faster than the slowest horse!).  Third, if Gwenyth did panic and run away from the logs, she would be running away from Beauty, and it's safer to stay with your herd.

All these factors worked in our favor and by the end of the ride Gwenyth was marching around the logs like an old pro.  Occasionally she gave them a second hard look, but really she was very brave.  I'm pleased with her progress, and I attribute a lot of her learning accomplishments to her age.  Gwenyth is eleven, which generally is late to start a horse under saddle.  However, personally I prefer starting adult horses to youngsters.  I find that they have the psychological maturity and the mental capacity to think their way through things, versus a typical three year old who has the attention span of a flea.  Adults are less reactive, more calculating, and when they understand I'm a reasonable human they generally are willing and able to do what I ask much with much less repetition than a youngster needs.  I really am enjoying Gwenyth!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Jumping at Triple Creek

 Thank goodness for Jasi at the show this weekend.  Without her stellar rides and steady progress through her division, I would have come home from the show absolutely irate about Highboy's truly MONSTROUS behavior. 

I swear you can see Highboy plotting the day's mischief
 Beauty was a bit wound up in a new place, and she jumped some of the warmup fences like they were 4' tall!  We are still wondering how Jasi managed to stay on some of those.  Jasi was able to take her from running out at nearly every fence to jumping quietly and straight by their last time through the course.  We practiced some sports psychology by breathing deeply to flush out any negative thoughts, then replacing those negatives with positive statements like, "I have soft arms, I have strong legs" to better the jumping technique.

Each jumping round was progressively better than the previous one.  With excellent performance in their division's flat classes, Jasi and Beauty went home with a fistful of ribbons including a reserve champion for the division!

I was so incredibly proud of Jasi for having the grit to stick with a difficult ride, bettering each round, and going home with a better horse than we arrived with. It was really something to hear the people watching her rides talk about her.  I was standing just outside the arena so I could coach Jasi, and there were quite a few comments from the other trainers such as, "wow, what a good seat", "such a balanced rider", "way to stick with it!"  We love to go to these shows because Triple Creek is such a friendly and encouraging place to compete.  Other riders in Jasi's division came up to her after her initial difficult round, and told her what a great job she had done.  Members of the crowd watching also came up to tell her how well she handled her horse, and compliment her horsemanship.  Lynn, who owns the facility and runs the shows, was supportive and generously let me coach Jasi in the show arena when Beauty was giving her a hard time.  This is a fantastic venue to begin show jumping, and the Bit of Honey Crew always enjoys our time there!

I wish I had such glowing reviews about Highboy's performance.  I know the saying generally goes, "you win some, you lose some", but this show felt more like, "you lose some, you get disqualified from some!"  The horseshow this weekend was an absolute fiasco for Highboy.  We were going to be showing the cross-country derby (jumping in an arena, then jumping out of the arena, then jumping a few cross country fences all in one course), as well as some jumper classes.  Highboy had it in his head that the jumps in the arena were boring at only 2'9", and so he felt the need to do some special maneuvering to entertain himself.  The result was bucking like I have not dealt with in a long time.  My only solace is that we got hilarious pictures of Highboy's antics.  He was really more of a muppet than a horse, doing his best giraffe, llama, jumping like a deer, and "can you see my tonsils?"

I debated about sharing these abysmal results, but I think it's important to tell the story that things seldom go smoothly with horses, as I've been experiencing with Highboy.  I was in an accident in 2008 that left me with brain damage (not related to Highboy), and one of the lingering deficits I have is trouble with short term memory.  Because of this difficulty I have a very hard time memorizing a jump course on the fly.  Add to that Highboy's repetitive flying as he bucked after each jump, and there was just no way a course committed only to short term memory was going to stay in my head.  I went off course in my XC derby, and I had to excuse myself after the third fence in my jumper class because I had no idea which jump came next.  It's incredibly frustrating to me when I can't remember simple things like that, especially when I'm fatigued.

Kicking down the fences as we bucked our way over them

The "one foot" series indicating he thought these were not big enough

Pretending he's never seen a jump before - what is that??
Can't take his eyes off it even when going over

best giraffe impression

best llama impression
It did help me feel better to remind myself I am an eventer.  It's a great sport for me because I can get around the short term memory problems.  I have months to learn my dressage tests, I can walk the XC course as many times as necessary to commit it to long term memory, and I have plenty of time to walk and memorize my one show jumping course before I have to ride it at an event.  Everyone has their favorite sport, and eventing is mine. 

The whole situation brought to mind this diagram:

I also comforted myself with the quote:
“Optimist: Someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it's a cha-cha.” ― Robert Brault

From the horse's perspective, Highboy had a terrific time.  Between kicking at the gate person, launching around the warmup arena while trying to engage the other horses in WWF horse wrestling, and attempting to jump OUT of the warmup arena over the 3' fence he thought it was quite a party.  At the end of the day there was absolutely no remorse on his face, he had genuinely enjoyed himself.  I console myself with photographs, courtesy of Kimberly Hale Photography, and leave my frustrations with a good chuckle over Highboy's silly pictures.  Thank goodness the folks at Triple Creek are supportive and let me school my nonsensical mount there, because I do have to start somewhere.

Lynn did get some video of Highboy on the XC course.  It was his best behavior of the day, probably because it requires some thinking and therefore he found it interesting. It can be seen here:

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Gwenyth Cantering and the Clean Socks

Gwenyth the Clydesdale is coming along well!  We've had several rides both in the round pen and in the arena, as well as hacking out in the front pasture around the barn and house.  She is a truly kind soul who desperately wants to do the right thing.  If she doesn't understand what I'm asking, her first reaction is to carefully come to a stop.  Then she looks at me as if to say, "I'm sorry, Kim, I didn't catch that.  Could you clarify for me what I'm supposed to be doing?"

As an 11 year old who has had extensive ground work she has wonderful ground manners and a very solid foundation in ground driving.  At this point in her training with me she is mostly figuring out balance while carrying a rider.  Because of her size and weight, it's tricky for her to shift her balance around, and my weight on top of her is just enough to make it challenging for her to canter under saddle.  She can do it loose in the round pen, but when I have been on her and asked for a canter she trots faster, loses her balance, and spirals into the center of the ring.  Then she stops, looks at me over her shoulder and explains that there's not enough room to canter in there.

So next we went to the big arena.  It's 100'x200', with half of it covered.  Gwenyth has been remarkably brave with riding from light into dark, the pigeons periodically dive bombing us, and the dogs cavorting around barking instructions while we ride.  Cantering is still sticky for her, though.  She really wants to do what I'm asking, but she genuinely believes there's not enough room to canter in there before she has to make a turn and then she'll lose her balance. 

Today I had a friend riding with me who offered to hold the noisiest dog (who was barking instructions at Gwenyth and confusing her).  I put Gwenyth on the lunge line since she seems to be able to canter in a circle without a rider, and I'm dealing with the Draft Horse Brain.  This is very normal for cold-blooded horses like Clydesdales to need extra time to process new things.  They tend to be one-at-a-time thinkers, and anything new needs to be introduced gradually, with only one new thing introduced at a time.  Too many new things will really stress out a draft brain, and once a draft horse is stressed it's nearly impossible to teach them anything that they will retain.  If they are calm and thinking, once they get the idea you almost never need to repeat the lesson.  I need to simplify what I'm asking of Gwenyth so she can think all the way through what I want without getting nervous.  This also means we take frequent breaks for her to ponder each thing we do accomplish.

Gwenyth was worried because I'd introduced too many things at once:  the arena, riding with another horse, trotting and steering at the same time, barking dogs, and she still is getting used to carrying me as a rider.  I pared down the list of new stimuli by having the dog restrained, the other horse halted, I got off, and I asked Gwenyth to canter on the lunge line.  She was able to do it, though did lose her balance a few times causing her to lean out on the circle and lose her lead in her hind end.  The great thing about the draft brain and Gwenyth in particular, is when she gets nervous or doesn't understand something her default is to stop and ask me for help.  When she lost her balance on the lunge line she simply stopped and turned to look at me.  When I reassured her by telling her she was doing it right and to just try again, she would take a deep breath and go out on the circle once more for a fresh attempt. 

Bless her heart, she finally figured out what I was after and when we went the other direction she got a nice canter on the first try.  Because she did it so well I immediately ended the lesson for the day and we just stood in the center of the arena snuggling for a few minutes.  She likes her shoulder rubbed and her ears stroked, and she likes to stand with her forehead close to me.  This posture is really comforting to her so we spent some time that way while my friend finished her ride on her horse.  Gwenyth watched carefully, especially when the horse was cantering.  I swear Gwenyth was studying how it was done.

After we untacked I took some time to do a little beauty treatment on Gwenyth, or the bearded lady as her owner had affectionately called her.  Gwenyth now has her billy goat's gruff trimmed so that the bridle straps don't snag her beard, she has a nice bridlepath behind her ears, her tail has been washed and detangled, and her feathers are sparkly white.  It was a big day for the big girl.

Walsh was a little jealous of the photo session, so he stood in front of the camera encouraging me to document his four matching socks as well.  A shorter horse, and a little less hair, though.