08.12.24: Working up a Storm

Kirsten Nelsen was here again for December, this time in a slightly different format. Instead of her usual Saturday at GEC and Sunday down with the group south of here, we all worked together for 3 days. The group from the south came up and borrowed stalls and Kirsten worked with the entire group for all three days.

As fate would have it, it rained for 48 hours prior to her arrival, including Thursday night before the clinic began on Friday. This meant that our horses would have stayed in, however, some stalls were filled with people that came up a night early to be ready for the clinic in the morning. So some of the horses were out despite the weather, and some were in. Feeding was utter chaos trying to move our 22 horses around in half the stalls with lots of extra people roaming around. Friday morning started early for us getting the horses fed and then cleaning up the stalls in a hurry so that Holly would not end up missing any part of the clinic.

Going into the clinic, I was a bit uncertain of how things would go since this would be something entirely new for Storm and I together. With all the extra unknown horses (close to 20 horses all together, in a 100' x 200' arena) we were venturing into the unknown.

Kirsten began the morning with lecture explaining the foundation for her training methods. Through her experience working closely with a rescue in Florida where she lives, Kirsten has had to re-evaluate her training methods to create a foundation that can be achieved with any horse and any human, no matter what the experience level is. Many of the horses that come to the rescue are emotionally, mentally, and possibly physically damaged from their prior lives. As likely, the humans that are volunteering their time often have little to no practical horse experience, let alone handling animals that come with baggage as heavy as rescued horses often carry. The result is a foundation that is as simple as it gets, but develops human skills and horse skills at the same time, from right where each one stands.

Kirsten begins with four requirements for a horse to begin learning a new skill: Calmness, Attentiveness, Willingness, and Adaptability. Horses must have these four requirements in order to begin to learn a new task. When all four of those requirements are met then they can begin to process the lessons in a manner that allows them to retain what is going on around them and develop positive patterns. Without all four of those, then a horse is only likely to retain less than 10% of a lesson. This is why many high level competitive horses are always anxious, because the only frame of mind that they are in when being taught a task is an anxious frame of mind, so that is what they learn is "acceptable" despite the fact that the opposite is really what is desired.

Kirsten also talks about horses in terms of a scale of 1 through 10. If Calm is a 1 on the scale, over excited would be the opposite. While Calm is the desired result, being too calm can cause problems of its own. If a horse is so calm that it has no motivation to perform tasks, then calm becomes a problem. So the ultimate goal is to work towards a 5 on the scale. Kirsten has discovered that if a horse is out on the extreme ends of the scale then in order to achieve 5, the horse must flip to the opposite end of the spectrum before working towards the middle. A horse that is over excited and can not be calm will suddenly become so calm that it becomes difficult to motivate them (Bonnie was a great example of this as she progressed!). Knowing this can help prepare for the change, and to give the human the adaptability to manage the horse in whatever state it appears.

To develop these four requirements, Kirsten has formulated a set of four exercises, each building on the other. These exercises are designed to develop focus in the horse. Her theory is that "natural horsemanship" is a very good effort, and is something that should be considered, however, when horses are brought from their natural herd environment into a human coexistence they must learn to coexist within a set of guidelines that will make life easier for everyone. Chief of these skills in Kirsten's opinion is focus.

The first exercise simply begins with the horse and human facing each other. The horse's job is to maintain all four of the above mentioned qualities with his feet still, and his focus on the human. The human's job is to maintain their focus with the horse in a relaxed manner. Each stands facing the other, approximately the length of a loose lead rope apart. When the horse's focus wanders, the human corrects the horse as firmly as necessary, but as gently as possible. A simple bump of the rope or tug back to the direction of focus should redirect the horse. If the horse is very distracted, then a firmer correction is necessary, though correction can be achieved by stepping sideways, leaning, flapping arms, jumping a little bit, anything that causes the horse's focus to return to the human.

For some horses this is too much in the beginning. There were two horses in the beginning of the clinic that could not maintain all four qualities and focus at the same time. In that situation, the requirements are lessened down. Simply keeping the feet still is often enough of a challenge. Once the feet can stay still, then focus is the next step.

The second exercise puts that level of focus into motion. The human begins to walk backwards with the horse following, maintaining the same distance from the first exercise. The horse's job is to maintain the four qualities, and to maintain the distance and focus now that motion is added to the equation.

Once this is achieved, then the next step is to ask the horse to go out on a circle. This is easily achieved from moving backwards, and gently directing the horse around you while arching backwards. The horse's job now becomes to maintain the direction, focus and speed around a central point.

The last exercise is what Kirsten calls 'hand walking' which is similar to the principle that Parelli has of driving from zone 3. The goal is to teach the horse to focus with the human beside instead of in front, and reinforce the relationship by traveling together. Herds naturally travel together, so this exercise works with the horse's nature to help build the relationship.

Everyone got their horses and the morning began. As I led Storm down to the arena, a horse behind us began to flip out and race around at the end of her line. I checked to make sure we were a safe distance away (which is no easy feat when your horse is the size of a billboard) and we continued down the hill. Many horses were already in the arena and were fretful and worried. I immediately began to work on the first exercise with Storm since we had already been working on these techniques from the time we bought him. He was very worried, and took some firm redirecting but quickly re-focused himself back to me. I was surprised at how quickly he settled in with the task. In fact, the entire arena of 20 horses went from noise and commotion to stillness and silence in only a matter of about 15 minutes. The transformation was incredible.

After the horses achieved focus at the stand still (minus the two horses that were still doing cartwheels outside the arena), Kirsten began to allow those horses that were doing well to begin to move into the second exercise while those that needed more time standing still could stay still. This was a good transition because it allowed the horses that needed more time to stay still to up the anti with motion going on around them and still maintain the focus on their human.

It was a big challenge to walk backwards among all the many people. I had to continually check over my shoulder on both sides to ensure that I did not run into anyone, and at the same time maintaining Storm's focus. Storm was really working hard, tiptoeing around behind me and maintain the spacing very well, which was good since I was very busy trying to make sure that I did not steer us into any other pairs. Watching a HUGE draft horse mouse around following you is an amusing thing.

During lunch, Kirsten had a friend of hers come in to show us some techniques for bodywork on horses. Her friend Jeffra worked on one of the horses that had been a challenge for a long time and was one of the horses that had been having such a challenge during the morning. It was amazing to see her calm down and become much quieter. After each stretch that Jeffra did, the horse would lick and chew. Her range of motion became smoother after Jeffra worked on her front legs and worked to free up her shoulders.

Following the demonstration, we resumed work again with the horses. The arena was sopping from the prior rain, but we all slogged through just fine. In the afternoon we branched out into the other two exercises. It started with a little bit of refocusing standing still, and then moving on into the motion, followed by the circles. Storm did very well again refocusing himself again back to me. We branched out working on the hand walking exercise. Everyone did so well on the first day, it was amazing to see the changes.

We finished up for the day, and began to take care of the horses for the evening. They were all thoroughly confused at the changes in stalls and feeding locations. Melvin paused half way into Sado's stall and cocked his head back to me checking in to make sure I really wanted him to go there. I encouraged him forward, and he headed on into the stall to eat. We all passed out that night.

Saturday morning Storm was not quite as keen on being caught, but he wasn't overly resistant either. He simply expressed his opinion by stepping between the other horses instead of coming to me as he normally does. I brought him in and put him into the stall anyway, and gave him some hay to munch on while we had our next lecture.

Saturday was for the most part a reiteration of Friday's work. Kirsten explained in depth about hand walking and how it benefited the horses, and worked to build the relationship so that when you finally got into the saddle all of those lessons were still there and transferred over.

We all headed down to the arena and began again with the first exercise. The horses calmed down even faster than the previous day, and we all began to repeat the second and third exercises before beginning to work on the fourth.

Storm and I had already begun doing steady work with the hand walking, and continued to work on the skill. Even among 20 other horses, he was willing and was following my cues well. I was working to try to help him continue to gain understanding doing counter turns (turns away from me), which is more of a challenge since there is only a lead rope on the near side. He was able to follow my body cues very well. Though we did end up cutting a few people off since I can't see anything on the other side when he is standing next to me.

We broke for lunch and Jeffra returned again to do some more work on horses. She worked with a very wild horse, and was able to make some changes on him, and then worked with an Arab from the barn here. It was amazing to see him adjust his body posture right there.

Following that we headed back down to the arena to watch some demonstrations on her concept of lunging. Kirsten is very careful to clarify that her version of lunging is much different than what most people attempt to call lunging. She has a very specific reason for the way that she does each part of the exercise.

Most people lunge a horse and simply make it go in mindless circles with no real goal in mind than to "exercise" the horse. In reality it only serves to "burn" steam temporarily, but over time the horse builds resistance to that and only gets stronger and more able to mentally resist the exercise.

Kirsten's lunging teaches the horse to find relaxation in the walk, which is important to help the horse find the walk as the release, rather than the halt. Otherwise, the horse is constantly looking for the halt for the release to know that he's been "good." Kirsten asks the horse to go out on the circle at the walk. Once the horse is able to maintain the gait, speed and direction, often to the point where it ends up a little bit sluggish. The next step is to ask the horse to move up in gait to begin trotting. The horse is allowed to find his own way down to the walk again. As the horse spends more time moving around the circle, he begins to try to find the most efficient way of moving, and also the most efficient way of transitioning up and down in the gaits. In this way he is developing his own balance and self carriage which is important when the rider mounts.

Once the horse is moving well at the trot, and begins to come down to the walk faster, then the canter is introduced, which causes the horse to bring back the energy into the trot. The horse begins to learn to look to the human for calm and consistency, and also that requests don't need to be met with the explosion of energy, that it is much easier for everyone to simply follow the request.

Kirsten used several horses as examples, many of which had problems getting motivated enough to move out at a faster gait. With only a few minutes of this pattern, the horses showed improvements in all the gaits, as well as improvements with their consistency of motion within the gaits.

After she worked with several horses, she did a demonstration of how to use long lines to drive the horse. Nancy brought Julius out as an example of how to work with the horse once the concept is taught. He is fairly advanced with the long lines at this point, though Nancy hasn't worked on that in a while. Kirsten then set Storm up to demonstrate how to teach a horse to work in long lines.

She began by connecting both reins, but only really using the inside rein. She asked him to move forward in a circle and then slowly worked the outside rein down his back and then over his rump to rest above his hocks. Storm was processing what was going on, and had a little bit of trouble figuring out how to move forward, but eventually was able to do so. He got "stuck" a few times, but with gentle encouragement from Kirsten, was able to think his way through the challenge, and figured out the right answer to continue on. He did very well for his first experience with long lines.

The night was falling, and we prepared to pack it in as the temps were also dropping quickly. We wrapped up things in the barn, and got the horses fed and turned out again, and finally headed into the house and crashed. The NC Wine was mulled and tasted so good to warm up from the inside out.

Sunday began with the lecture on how to transfer these lessons up into the saddle. Kirsten talked for a very long time about balance, and how to be balanced on the horse. Maintaining your own balance level to gravity helps to give the horse the chance to develop his own balance so that each is not leaning on the other for support. So many riders aren't fully balanced, and as a result, it falls to the horse to compensate. As quadrupeds, they can do so fairly well, but in the long run it is taxing to them and reduces their athletic ability.

Kirsten's concepts of balance center around two principles, the rider's "ping pong ball" and the horse's ball. The rider's concept is that the pelvis forms a triangle between the stead bones and pubic bone. Within that triangle floats a ping pong ball. If the pelvis is level, then the ball stays centered within. If the pelvis tilts in any direction, that ball rolls down hill. This helps to develop core muscles and supports the correct posture for complete independent balance separate from the horse. This is what helps to prevent the rider from tumbling off if the horse loses balance.

The horse's ball is centered in their belly. Since their head and front end are so much heavier than their hind, they often have their weight and balance on the 'forehand' as it is often said. Their "ball" consequently rolls backwards when this happens. The goal is to have the ball come forward, and be balanced left to right under the horse. When the "ball" comes forward, in essence, the horse is bringing his hind end under him and carrying his weight underneath his body. This is how horses are designed to move naturally. Their front legs are for standing still and supporting their massive weight, but motion should be initiated from the hind, and the weight should be transferred back so that the front end becomes lighter and more mobile. The end result is two bodies that move harmoniously and maintain independent balance so that one is not supporting the other.

After she wrapped up the lecture, we tacked up and everyone headed down to the arena to begin working on the riding exercises. She demonstrated how to being the mounting process with a green horse, and then showed the next step with Storm. Even from a mounting block, she had to reach up the same amount as if from the ground with a normal height horse.

After she went over that, I got myself organized, and mounted. Storm stood like a rock for the whole process, and simply waited. I discovered that my stirrups were too short, so I had to dismount and start over again. Once I got the stirrups adjusted, I climbed back up and we stood still for a bit while the other riders were moving around. He quickly settled in, and we began to move forward, stopping frequently to make sure that his focus could be maintained and control was sustained.

I should add at this point that everyone else was riding in a bridle, but since I did not yet have the bit (6 1/2" had to be custom made... He's got a BIG mouth!) I was only riding in a hackmore. Storm's control was decent, though go did not equal whoa yet. He was not respecting the hackmore as much as I would have liked, but even so, I did not feel out of control, it simply took more power to get the stop. We practiced walking and halting with a rythm in the same way that we practiced hand walking with a rhythm that the horse should follow the human, rather than vice versa. Kirsten started mixing things up and tossing trot segments into the pattern instead of only walk and halt. Quickly the group had to adapt to the extra instructions, which caused everyone to have to simply stop over focusing on the techniques and simply begin to do the tasks. This helped everyone relax and improve and start smiling and enjoying themselves.

Kirsten continued to raise the bar by dividing us into two groups, and having each group move in an opposite direction while weaving in and out of each other. She then began to repeat the instructions of walking, stopping, and throwing a trot into the mix. There were 18 horses all moving in and out of each other in opposite directions at the same time, walking, halting, and trotting.

The group was struggling a bit to keep up with the fast pace, so she backed off a bit, and had one group halt, while the other group did the steps. Then the roles were reversed, and the second group stopped, and the first group did the task. When everyone resumed moving again, the whole group was better coordinated and more focused without being worried about the tasks.

We were all working hard, and lunch was a welcome break. Jeffra returned to work on another horse, a big mare (the next largest horse after Storm) and she improved a lot in her walking as Jeffra worked on her body. It was very interesting to hear the sound of her foot falls change as Jeffra worked on her body to help her find the most efficient natural way of moving again.

We resumed riding again, picking up right where we left off in the morning walking, halting and adding some trot into the mix. Kirsten went over how to post to the trot correctly in a way that maintains balance and doesn't get in the horse's way of movement. In the earlier session I was only sitting to his trot, which was huge and reaching, but not uncomfortable to sit. I am sure that I was not as smooth as I could have been, but it felt alright. When I began to experiment with posting I quickly discovered that Storm responded by quickening hit gait and reaching out more. There was a lot of power in his stride.

Kirsten instructed us to pair up so that we could evaluate each other's balance and position. We rode together in pairs checking each other to be sure that our alignment was correct (ear, shoulder, hip, ankle), and that our pelvis was in the correct position in order to achieve the alignment. We frequently changes partners to get a different perspective, and Kirsten had us begin working on the correct posting position while at a walk, which is harder to achieve than when the motion of the trot helps to establish the rhythm and position.
It was getting late in the day, and Kirsten had us change partners one more time. Sarah and I hooked up, her big mare was the one that had the body work done earlier in the afternoon. She and Storm were well matched, and it was much easier to evaluate each others position when the horses were closer in height.

As one last task, Kirsten had us ride at a trot in pairs, and match each other's pace and distance. Sarah and I changed places so that Storm could be on the outside of the curves as we went around the arena. The task was to work on the partnership and working together, similar to the hand walking exercise. Sarah's mare was well suited to work next to Storm on the inside of the curves. I found that Storm was exceptionally light to increase speed on the turns so that he could maintain spacing next to her.

The pair of us was eating ground around the arena faster than any other group. At one point we were coming down the back side of the arena, and there was a large cluster of pairs down the side, and into that end of the arena. Sarah made a quick decision to cut across the arena in the middle instead so that we could avoid getting slowed down and possibly having to break gait. She let me know her thoughts and I prepared Storm to make the turn, and we swung a sharp right to move across the middle. Both horses stayed right next to each other, and it was not until after we stopped that Sarah told me that it was the mare that had adjusted her speed to maintain the position with Storm on the sharp turn. She slowed her own gait in order to allow him more time to make the longer turn at a tighter angle. It was amazing to be flying around the arena with her, and know that Storm still had more speed that he could have drawn upon and still maintained only the trot gait.

We wrapped things up after that so that people could drive home in some daylight. It took a whole day for me to decompress from the whole experience. I was so exhausted at work on Monday, and in general didn't feel well. Thankfully it never morphed into anything else, and I was beginning to feel better on Tuesday.

Last weekend we rode again, though Storm was no where near as focused as he had been in the weekend before. I think that since all the extra horses were down there with him, and everybody was busy being focused, there was nothing to worry about. Without the other horses in the arena, there was more going on up around the pastures, and Storm found it much more interesting to worry about those things than stay focused on our work.

We practiced on the ground to begin with to attempt to establish more of a respect for stopping. Using the fence in much the same way that Kirsten used patterns with the group we walked and halted, and he began to follow the pattern. After we worked through this for a while, I felt like I could mount and continue working.

Jim helped me to work on my alignment and gave me suggestions working to achieve a better balance between go and whoa. Storm was fussy now and then, though not ever to a point that I felt that I needed to get down in order to regain control.

It was a good ride, though not as nice as the weekend prior. However, I think that it probably did more to help improve our skills than the first ride. I have realized that I need to go back and work more on refining our porcupine game and developing the feel of steady pressure. On the ground he is fairly responsive though more lightness could be achieved. So the goal currently is to improve the porcupine game, and begin working on the prep skills for trailer loading.