09.06.01: The Bigger Picture

Kirsten's long clinic weekend started on Friday morning with rain. I was a bit frustrated about having to need to clean up Storm from being wet, and not very interested in riding him when he was so wet. After getting everyone settled in and organized, we started the morning off with Kirsten going over the framework of her concepts again.
We all set up in the hay barn with hay bales and a few chairs. Kirsten basically outlined her entire training program concepts, which helped to lay the road map for the bigger picture that we are all working to achieve. She reiterated her concept of the "learning frame of mind" that is, as she puts it, her beacon that guides her through all of the work that she does with horses. If the horse is not in the learning frame of mind, then you can not proceed forward. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.00. Once the learning frame of mind is established, then she begins to outline three levels of progress. The first is basic function for the horse, which is predominantly centered around the learning frame of mind, and only slightly involves the physical body. These tasks are the basic tasks that are required of a horse to exist in "peoplesville." This stems from her work with the rescue in Florida, and is first place they begin to work with a rescue horse, which often comes with a lot of trauma, and must learn to be handled safely with people including the vet, farrier, and other handlers. This work helps to move them through the emotional and mental (and sometimes physical) baggage that they bring with them, and become a safe functioning horse member of the human world. Every horse can benefit from this type of work, because one can not do too much preparation for the vet, farrier, and unforeseen emergencies.
Once the horse has that level of skills established to some degree, then she begins to progress forward into the initial steps of teaching the horse balance. This begins with self carriage for the horse. If a horse can not carry himself through basic movements and maneuvers, then the expectation to carry a rider in the same situations sets the horse up for failure. All too often there are great riders that literally hold a horse together through very high level competitions, without the rider the horse would literally fall flat on his face.
In this level of work, the learning frame of mind plays about a 50% role with the body work, so the training begins to balance the mind and body simultaneously. Kirsten elaborated that she has discovered that the majority of "behavior problems" disappear when a horse is able to be guided to balance and establish self carriage. Horses that have a tendency to run away constantly are often using the momentum to maintain their balance, and when they learn to find their own balance they slow down immediately. The opposite is also true - horses that simply refuse to move because they are unbalanced often find the ability to move forward.
Once the horse has found balance, then the next level moves more into even more skilled physical work, with the learning frame of mind playing a smaller role. At this point the work becomes cyclical - the learning frame of mind helps foster the balance, and the balance only reinforces the learning frame of mind for the horse.
In the midst of all of that, of course, is rider balance. What good is attempting to balance the horse if the rider is unbalanced in the first place. Without the rider being correctly balanced, the horse will not be able to find his own optimal balance. So it is important that the horse and rider not lean on each other. The rider should be balanced to gravity, not what the horse is doing, which prevents the leaning on each other problem. It also keeps the rider centered and able to stay with the movement of the horse, no matter what they do.
After a good almost 4 hours of lecture and discussion, we finally broke for lunch. My brain definitely needed a break! We intended to gather with horses following lunch, but a series of storms pinned us in the barn for the rest of the afternoon. That just presented us with a more extensive discussion on horse posture and gave us more opportunities to examine a number of horses.
Posture is so often confused with confirmation. confirmation is the arrangement, size and shape of the skeleton. Conformational qualities are unchangeable. However, posture, which is the formation of muscle and soft tissue which holds the bones together, is VERY fluid and adjustable. Muscle and soft tissue will habituate to whatever pattern the horse holds, whether that is a pattern of tension, or a pattern that is an adjustment to escape pain. Horses, being prey animals, are genetically designed to hide any abnormality that would signal a weakness to a predator. As a result, a horse can be 90% lame before there is any visible difference to the human eye. Knowing this fact, it is no surprise that horses are able to create patterns of compensation that allow them to continue to do incredible physical and athletic things, but yet have terrible posture. Sports medicine has done wonders for human athletes but there is not really any equivalent in the equine world. Kirsten's work is the beginning of change in that concept.
We evaluated a number of horses and learned to see patterns of tension in their bodies, noticed how they carried their weight, and the formation of muscle in different areas that indicated different things about their posture and how efficiently they travel. Most of the horses that we evaluated had too much muscle on the lower part of their neck and not enough across their top line which is an indication that they "pull" themselves along with their front legs, rather than use their hindquarters for pushing. The front legs are designed to support weight, but not impact, and when the weight is carried into motion and remains on the forehand of the horse the long term affect is lameness and injury. Weak muscling along the back and also the abdomen indicates a lack of use of the back and "abs" to help lift the center of the horse to allow the hindquarters to take the weight of the horse and absorb the impact in motion. A high tail set, and angular hindquarters indicates that the weight is, again, on the forehand, and the horse is under using the muscles there in favor of the "pull" of the front end.
Kirsten demonstrated with some pressure points how the horse should look by scratching along their sternum, and also their abdomen right behind their ribs, which causes the horse to lift their back. She also used a pressure point above the tail to show how the pelvis and hips should be carried more underneath the horse to effectively become shock absorbers and the "engine" from which the horse's power and motion comes from. The majority of the horses we evaluated were all under muscled in all the areas that indicated the "pulling" type of motion rather than the "push" motion from the hindquarters, though several of the horses had already showed improvements since the rider had been studying with Kirsten for quite a while.
The day was very intense and took a lot of brainpower. Finally by about 6:00 the storms had moved on, but we were fast running out of energy and daylight. Jim and I helped Nancy feed, and then headed up to the house to get dinner going for the crowd that we were having over. There ended up being 7 of us for tacos, and we had a great time before crashing into bed late in the evening.
Saturday morning brought beautiful weather, bordering on cool in the morning. Things began to slowly dry out, and we gathered horses and began our warm-up process. I took Storm into the barn and groomed him down good, being pleased that he was reasonably clean despite the rain from the previous day. That made getting him saddled that much easier. We headed down into the round pen to begin with and started with the exercise that we had been working on to check in and find out how much energy he had for the day. There was a rather large puddle that he was not very interested in romping through, and so I was not overly particular about his exact path so long as he maintained his direction, and worked towards relaxation. He maintained much of his calmness through the walk and trot, though his head was higher than I wanted to see at the trot. I knew the space was smaller in the round pen, so traveling in that area is a challenge for him. He was not upset, so I was able to allow him to continue to find his own balance. I asked for the canter a few times, and it did not set him off into a frenzy, which made me happy, he definitely wanted to expend more energy than he did, but did a good job of containing himself due to the poor footing. We worked until most everyone had arrived at the arena, and then headed back into the arena and walked around there for a while making sure that he was being attentive and adaptable.
Kirsten brought everyone together and started by going over our first challenge, which was to being to find our own balance. I brought Storm to the fence line and began our mounting process, being sure that he was offering me the saddle before I got on. Its too far down for me to assume that he's ok with me just hopping on. He allowed me to mount pretty quickly, and we began our ride introspectively examining the feel from the saddle. I worked on making sure that my legs were staying back, and that I was balanced evenly from front to back. With my left side being so much weaker it is a challenge for me to stay balanced left to right as well, so thinking about actively putting weight on that left side helped to keep me aware of my body.
We eventually paired up, and as luck would have it I was near Sarah who I paired with back in the December clinic. She and I work really well together because her horse is the next largest horse, and so we are able to stay together reasonably well. I turned to her and said "Hey Shorty." She quipped that I was the only one that could get away with calling her that.
We began to ride together and I made note of some pain in my right knee, and she recommended making sure that my thighs were rolled forward to allow my lower legs to hang evenly. That helped to relieve some of the pain immediately, so I began to try to be aware of that sensation. She rides very well, so there were not many recommendations that I could give her at that time.
We stopped to evaluate progress, and
Kirsten began to give us guidelines on working on the rising trot. The key is to start at the walk and get the position correct, and then take it into the trot, which actually makes it easier. It was a great help to practice the position with a partner watching so that we could understand where we were imbalanced even if it didn't feel incorrect. Sarah had to work with me a bit to help even me out from the struggle that I was having with my left side being weaker. Kirsten helped give me some pointers to think about to help transfer some of the balance to the left side even though it is weaker. The majority of it is getting the mind to process what needs to be done in a way that allows the mind to work around the patterns of weakness.
We eventually began to work on the position at the trot, and it took me a bit before I finally found the right position. Sarah had to sound some encouragements from the center of the arena where we would each take turns waiting while the other did a lap or two. She was a great help guiding me through some moments when I would begin to falter or get a bit out of rhythm with Storm.
She took her turns around the arena and then came back to me for feedback. I was struggling because while her position looked good, something just didn't look right. I couldn't put my finger on it, but expressed my bit of concern. It just didn't look like she and Jazz were in total harmony. She tried to make some adjustments, and I gave her feedback on where it looked better, and where it still looked a bit off. As she came around the far end of the arena at one point, Jazz suddenly threw her head down and stretched out really big. Sarah came walking back up to where I was standing, and asked me about it, and I commented that she looked better in the turn, but then asked what happened when Jazz stretched. Sarah laughed and said that she had taken a big breath. I said AHha!! So off she went again, this time much more aware of her own breathing, and the motion melded together beautifully.
We stopped for a break after that, and we laughed and told
Kirsten she forgot to tell us to breathe! We continued to work on the exercises for the rest of the day, with Kirsten bringing us back together periodically to evaluate any changes or shifts that we were experiencing and to talk them over to gain further insights. The day finally wrapped up about 6:00, and we all drug ourselves up to put the horses away and take care of things for the evening. The crowd gathered, and with the beautiful weather we were able to eat outside on the deck and made burgers and hot dogs that were a great hit. Following dinner was a nice chilled pitcher of sangria with local wine and fresh fruit. It hit the spot and we all crashed again after another long but satisfying day.
Sunday morning brought more of the same, up early, and I began to work with Storm in the round pen to check in with him to see what kind of frame of mind he was in. It had rained again early in the morning (totally unexpectedly, I might add...) and so the resident mini lake was back in the low end of the round pen. I was not too particular about how he traveled in that area so long as he kept going. He often dodged it close to the rails, and sometimes swung inward to avoid it. He kept his gaits reasonably well, though I had to remind him on occasion. He seemed like he wanted to really let loose and run, but knew that the footing was not the safest, and so he restrained himself. I worked in both directions and was able to achieve a reasonably calm canter and allowed him to drop back down through the gaits on his own.
Everyone began gathering in the arena, and so Storm and I headed to where I had put all the rest of our gear on the fence post and I put the bridle and reins on him and then got ready to mount. He was much less interested in having me mount than he had been on Saturday, so I stayed patient and allowed him to give me permission before climbing aboard.
We began with the warm-up from Saturday, and I was better able to find my balance (despite being pretty sore already!).
Kirsten gave us some new things to think about in the progression towards asking our horse for straightness. Straightness from left to right down the spine is the first step, once that is achieved then it is possible to being to ask the horse to bring his hindquarters forward. If you attempt to ask the hindquarters to come forward before the horse is straight from left to right, then it is not as easy for the horse, and they do not find as much comfort in the motion.
KN guided us through the the first steps to ask the horse to push his ribs over to straighten the bend that he carries in his body. Most horses tend to carry the "ball" way out behind them, and also off to one side. So the first step is to find that left right balance.
Kirsten explained the signals that the horse gives so that you know which side the "ball" (aka ribs) is pushed out to. If the ball is pushed out on the left side, the horse will often carry their head to the right to keep themselves balanced. In the rider's seat, they will feel the ball pushing up on the left, and their right seat bone will feel lower. Looking down at the riders thighs, the left thigh will be lifted, and if you were to look at the pair from the front, their left stirrup might appear to be higher than the right, despite the leathers being set on the same holes. The rein pressure will also feel uneven to the rider as the horse's head will be constantly pulling to the right, so the left rein will feel heavier than the right rein.
Kirsten had two riders demonstrate the techniques that help guide the horse to find their left right balance, which was very helpful to watch to understand better what the goal was of the exercise.
Armed with this knowledge, she sent us off to begin to experiment with the concepts. Storm and I began to try to work with the idea of applying pressure to the "high" side of the ball, and then if the horse did not shift the ball towards center, the next step is to ask the horse to bend his neck into that "heavy" side. When the neck is bent it makes it very difficult to keep the ribs pushed out to the same side.
Kirsten explained that the degree of bend required would vary from horse to horse, and that most of the horses would need a slight reminder from the other side to keep them going straight and not simply turn.
I was having trouble getting much of any result from Storm, and I suspected that it was partially due to the fact that neither of us were really sure what was going on. I wasn't totally sure that I was giving the correct cues, and he was just not sure what I was asking for. I checked in with
Kirsten a couple of times, and she gave me a few pointers, but I was still having some trouble figuring out what we were doing. KN suggested to the group that we pair up with another person, and work together to watch each other and give pointers. I found Sarah again, and expressed my frustration that I was just unsure of what I was doing, and it seemed to be confusing Storm at the same time.
She helped me to figure out which side he was bent to, which happened to be the left (which is also the same side he was apparently bent to when we went to ride him the very first time). It really wasn't much of a surprise since the left side is my weaker side, which leaves the door open for Storm to push against that side with little resistance. Once I figured that out, I was able to start trying to ask for him to bend his neck to the left. I wasn't having much success, still, and Storm was objecting, mostly because he couldn't figure out what the right answer was. Sarah and I made a few laps together with her encouraging me but without much result before she finally asked if I wanted to ride her horse to get a feel for what I was trying to do, and what it felt like when I got the right result.
I climbed up on her big mare and we headed around the arena with Sarah following us while leading Storm. Sarah had to encourage me to hold her mare in the correct position and wait for the mare to finally make a change. When she did it was very obvious, and she stretched downward quickly, and I allowed the reins to slide, gathering them back up again when she brought her head back up. It felt good to experiment and be able to feel what it felt like to accomplish the task. On another pass around past where Sarah was watching us, she asked if she could hop up on Storm and work with him a bit. I told her that was just fine.
She took Storm over to the mounting block and climbed up on him and started off around the arena. She began to ask him to push his ribs over to the other side, and bent his neck slightly at the same time. He pushed back against her and she had to ask using the dressage whip to really move his ribs off of the pressure of his leg. He fought her at first, but when she didn't release him he began to search for another answer. Finally he made an effort to straighten out and release his neck muscles and she let him stretch. After she made a lap or so,
Kirsten called us back in for our recap before getting ready to break for lunch. I was glad that Sarah and I had the chance to swap horses so that she could help Storm and Jazz could help me find the correct things to do. It worked out well, though I did not realize the magnitude of it until later on.
I headed up to untack and discovered that there was a bit of a dry spot along Storm's spine front the front of the saddle down to about half way back. I made note of it, but wasn't overly concerned because I knew there was no way the saddle was sitting down on his spine. My only concern was that the pads were possibly getting pulled down so tight that they were creating the dry spot instead.
We broke for a long lazy lunch, and a crowd gathered up on the deck huddled under the umbrella's shade enjoying the breezes and company. We all needed the break, and relaxed even after we finished eating for a while.
Getting Storm tacked up after lunch didn't take long at all, and we headed back down into the arena and I hopped up on the fence and began the ritual of asking Storm to mount. It took a while, but finally he allowed me to get on, and we started our ride. I checked in with
Kirsten before beginning my rounds, and she agreed that the dry spots along his spine at the front of the saddle were not something to be concerned about because with a wider saddle it actually allows more air flow under the saddle than the average saddle.
I began to immediately try to experiment with the things we worked on in the morning. I was still having a bit of trouble, so I checked in with
Kirsten, and found that I was almost waiting too long for him to attempt to drop his head. He was making an effort, but it was a little unclear to me if he was "cheating" by not fully dropping his head, or if that was all the effort that he could give. I began to take what he was offering, and slowly he began to work to drop his head further and further each time.
Kirsten brought us back together and gave us some pointers on taking the exercise into the trot, and what things to think about in order to accomplish that at the faster gait. She encouraged us to experiment because some horses actually do better in the trot, and for other horses it simply helps improve the walk that much more.
I continued to ask Storm to walk for a while, and he was doing very well stretching and lengthening his neck. I finally got up enough courage to try to trot, and it took us a little while to get organized before I was really able to ask a whole lot of him. I was still having trouble posting at the trot and focusing on moving his ribs over with my seat. I ended up using the rein a lot for support, but he was responding really well to that. I don't know how it looked from the ground, but I was really getting some stretches that looked beautiful from the saddle. I lost a bit of steering while working at the trot, but thankfully we were able to stay out of too much trouble.
We finally broke for the day, and it was good to chill out. My butt and legs were hurting from the intense riding. We wrapped everything up, and I headed back up to the barn and pulled Storm's tack off, and discovered that his spine was dry all the way down the length of the saddle. I carefully cleaned up everything, and I rinsed Storm down a bit to get the sweat stuck off of him, and then turned him out. Nancy and I turned out the horses together, and they were so worn out that they barely moved when they joined the herd in the pasture. Storm started nibbling the grass from under the edge of the fence boards. Eventually they ambled down into the pasture.
Kirsten was still here over the night, her flight left early in the morning, and so we spent a relaxing evening recouping. I mentioned to her at one point that Storm's whole spine under the saddle was dry, asked if it was because he was actually using his back properly, and she agreed, and explained that if he is using his back the way he is supposed to then the muscles actually support the saddle, and lift up above the spine. We spent most of the evening on the deck relaxing and enjoying the fantastic breeze and sweet night air before crashing into bed to begin another week.
I was thrilled with how well Storm did, and am looking forward to doing more riding and practicing the techniques that
Kirsten went over.
Next Page:
09.06.03: Ride On