Horsey Therapist

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The "S" horses

"S" means Slow.

"S" means Sofia

"S" means Soli

Someday "S" with Sofia will also stand for Steady which fits Soli already.

I'm figuring out how to set it up so Sofia takes me places. Her prior preferred speed according to my observations is "S" for Slow and sometimes "S" for Stuck-in-concrete-not-going-anyplace.

I've had some exchanges with Libby Lyman about this after she read my blog entry "Horse Time" from 1/10/2007.

Libby: Question for you. If you get on her and ask her to go, where does she take you? (noplace) What if you lead her away from the barn, buddies etc., get on and ask her to go, where does she take you? (someplace?)

Build from there -- let that 'go' feel really good to her. Then put a little heat on her when she's reaching her destination. When she starts to think somewhere else -- anywhere else let her go COMPLETELY. If it doesn't last, start again. If you can set it up so she feels like she has a choice that "whaaaaaaa???????" really goes away. The more I work with Joe [Wolter], the more I realize that some amount of whaaaaaaa???? is normal in my old vocabulary. What I'm learning is, that comfort of ours with a little whaaaa is how we get and leave our horses in trouble so much.


So, having read and re-read this a few times, I went out yesterday to see about discovering something new. Sofia volunteered to be caught (I say this when I go out with halter in hand and a horse comes to me) and I brought her in, groomed and tacked her. In the past I have brought another horse along for support. This time I figured I would deal with what came up without her having that nearby horse support. She's been in the barn and arena quite a few times, always with support, and often ridden by me. In general I'm working at weaning myself from expecting that my horses need support from other horses well past when they actually still need the support. Like my bad habit of riding a more finished horse as if it is the 3rd or 4th ride.

I did some ground work with Sofia before I mounted. I found her responsive and livelier than sometimes, which may be due to colder air or clearer intent or some build up from the last time we were in the arena together or being there without another horse, or some other reason unknown and perhaps even unknowable to me.

I mounted her easily and she was walking off with nothing more than me settling in the saddle. With another horse I might have been more clear about a 'wait for me' attitude at the mounting block but this gal Sofia -- well, I don't want to do anything to discourage her thoughts to carry me places, not at this point for sure. Maybe in a few decades.

So my plan was to see where she would take me. The mounting block was about midway down the arena, far enough from the gate we primarily use that she could come into a nice walk to return there. Which she did and as we got close, I livened up my legs just a little with the intent of having her think maybe there was something else to do other than stop here. As Libby suggested: "put a little heat on her when she's reaching her destination."

She understood and went walking off. She headed for the plastic barrel, one of four, that was lying on its side. I'm thinking 'should I let her stop here and check it out?' which I did, and during those interminable milliseconds of decision making before I made a decision in response to my wondering 'what now?', she started playing with the barrel, touching it with her nose then pushing it. I did not want to discourage her creative playfulness! But after a few longer moments of this, I livened up again asking her to find something else to do with her energy.

Which she did and off we went.

I was, by the way, riding in my secure feeling Genadek western saddle (www.aboutthehorse.com), with halter on her head and lead rope looped loosely over the horn. My hands stayed close to the horn and cantle to keep me prepared instead of worrying in case she might do something big. I know I don't want to risk getting tight in my body because that would discourage her!

She carried me around a lot, showing interest in stopping at some taller dried weeds, some poop spots, the barrel, both gates. She carried me (her choice) over the cavalettis, around some standing barrels, here and there. A few times she slowed to turn, almost getting "S" stuck and "S" stopped, but with a little livening of my legs, she made those turns quite handily and without worry.

After awhile -- maybe a half hour? -- I started thinking again: 'This has been successful. Sofia is carrying me places. I'm using minimal effort to get her going when she slows or stops. She's going at a medium slow walk, better than a fully slow walk, way better than a fully stopped stop, so ending our ride now would be OK, however I might come back tomorrow and repeat this process and in six months, still be working on her carrying me around at a walk having developed a clear understanding between us that when I mount, this is what I want...'

The debate in my mind: Am I greedy to want to try for more? More carrying me at more speed? Am I settling for too little if I stop after this much success? I know I can patiently (cautiously?) take years to make progress because many days I'm fine after 15 minutes of something good and be done with that ride. I know I can get pushy when I decide I want something more and then proceed to want it now. What to do? What to do? Darn, I should have asked Libby how long to work on something like this!

Well, as part of my general weaning process -- weaning from thinking I have to get answers from friends and teachers who I trust know more than I do -- I decided I would risk experimenting with finding the answers to my questions based on what I'd been offered already from Libby, what I have been offered over the years from numerous other excellent horsepersons, and staying present with what Sofia had to say.

I made a mistake but then righted myself.

The mistake was starting ask her to put more effort into taking me places, and specifically starting to ask her to trot. I 'settled' for the little changes, then wanted more changes. For example, I livened up while we were walking and relaxed/released when she put more effort into the walking. That went fine, but then I started asking for a trot in response to my livening up. Her response: swing head, toss head, slow down, stiffen body, speed up. Not all at once, but there I was, wondering whether the presentation of my 'ask' warranted this response, or whether she was going to object to any request for more effort because of her attachment to "S" for Slow.

I knew after a couple of livening up events what the problem was. I was giving her the answer not just giving her the question! I will rephrase and repeat this for emphasis: I created a problem with Sofia by giving her the answer not just asking her the question and letting her come up with the answer.

What does that mean? That means I was 'asking' her to trot. What's wrong with that?

I've been building a different way of thinking in myself, which especially seems appropriate with Sofia, which is to:

ask -- ask her to find something different, ask her to search for what feels right between us, ask her to try, and:

respond -- give her feedback that her tries are welcome, give feel-good feedback to encourage her to continue to try, give her variations in feedback to establish communication that in human words might be like the warmer/cooler game: warmer, warmer, cooler, warmer, warmer, hot, with every one of those messages having clear intent of 'yes' so there is going to be no chance of me criticizing her efforts.

PHEW! I think it's because of the recent input from folks, and because Sofia and I were alone in the arena, and because I was ready to stick to my commitment to learn something new right there in my relationship with this horse, and because I had the calm presence required for these pieces to come together, that it did all come together. For me, which let it come together for Sofia in her own time frame and learning curve.

All I did differently was liven up with the ask -- asking her to try something else -- and observe what she responded with, and remembering not to worry about her getting it all at once, or whether it felt right through and through the first time or two, or any of that stuff. Letting her find it. That phrase has a new meaning to me now.

So what did I do? I changed my thinking, and I had faith that she would find an answer, her answer to my question, sooner or later, and that we would both recognize that moment.

There was ongoing evidence of her learning but the most obvious I noticed (and acknowledged by dismounting and hanging out on the ground with her for a few moments) was one time after I asked her to try something new, she trotted a few steps, started to slow down then put more effort into her trot again without my asking. That told me that she had thought about what we were doing and she made a decision herself to offer more trotting. I can't tell you how wonderful that felt. Not only that she did it, but heck, it felt wonderful that I noticed!

I mounted her again, livened up again, felt her move out with calmness and effort. We did this for awhile more, me asking, her offering, her slowing, me asking, her offering, her slowing... A time or two I asked her to slow and stop mostly to break things up for us as well as to see if we still had some understanding about stopping! She still had a stop but clearly it had changed -- from falling into a stop to rolling down to a stop.

Later on I rode the other "S" horse, Soli. Like on other days, I thought I was going to ride Rusty but Soli volunteered, and he has such a strong presence when he comes up to me, it was easy to change my plans. I saddled him up and went off for the easiest trail ride I've been on in ages. What a gift from this horse!

He is not 100% point and go, but about 97.8%, which gave me a few opportunities to ask politely for him to try something different and for me to notice when he let go of his thought and tried something different. Yesterday's trail ride on Soli also gave me a clear reminder of how it can feel riding a horse who will carry you someplace. I consider it my new baseline of a good trail ride experience. And a feeling that will guide what I expect from our other horses.

Now, despite the snow, I'm heading out to see who volunteers for some time with me. I want to keep the momentum going with Sofia especially, but recognize that it is already such a huge improvement for me to ride her maybe once a week compared to once every couple of months as has been the case this past year.

"S" now has more meanings:

Successful

Sensible

Sure

Satisfied

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