Friday, July 15, 2011

Guest Blogger: "It's About Henry" by Edie Tschorn

Every once in a while, you run into one of those pieces of writing that makes you stop in your tracks and think, something that speaks to you in more ways than the writer probably intended, something that's so pithy and germane that you have to share with everyone you know. 

That happened to me today. 

Being the TMT Grammar Nazi, it falls to me to edit most of the articles that go on our web site and into our monthly newsletter (which you can sign up for here if you're interested; the little sign-up box is toward the bottom of the page on the left).  When Edie's article popped up in my "In" box, I scanned it quickly, had a great laugh, and then set to editing.  It was tough to do, because I kept getting caught up in the message, thinking of ways it relates to my relationship with Lyric ... and my kids and husband ... and my dogs ... and my work ... and my martial arts .. and ...

Well, you get the idea.

When I was finally through with the technical stuff, I asked if I could reprint it here.  Edie kindly gave me permission.  Hope you all enjoy it.

It's About Henry

Since last summer, I have been inspired by listening to Jay and Nancy talk about their horse projects - well, to be honest, I was envious. I was having a wonderful time offering training advice from the depths of my desk chair, but I was getting the itch to have a new horse. Perhaps it was a midlife crisis of some sort that made me think that I needed a project, so I uttered that thought to my very good friend and colleague Joan Carlisle. Joan and I go back many years to the era when I would climb on anything that had a tail, so it wasn’t a week later that Joan called and offered me a horse that she had in her barn.

“Guess what?” I said to my friends. “I have a new horse!!! And he was FREE!“

“What kind of a horse is he?” they asked.

“A RED horse”, I replied. “A RED horse with the most tremendous personality and athleticism that I haven’t seen in years.”

Henry is a totally friendly and cordial horse.  In the first week at the farm, he earned the nickname “The Supervisor.”  He was right there when I was fixing the fence, helping carry tools. He carefully studied the farrier’s anvil and his hat. With every shoe, Henry had his head turned all the way around like he was practicing his “carrot stretches” so he could watch every nail being hammered. What a perfect personality for a trail horse! After Henry had a couple of days to settle in to his new home, I figured I’d just hop on for a short trail ride with a friend. Henry had come to Joan through a horse dealer who said that he had been owned by a minister who trail rode him on the weekends, so I figured that I’d be all set. About half a mile into the ride, I considered that perhaps the minister had some connections to the higher power that I did not have, since my ride was starting to get exciting. We had started with some horses galloping in the paddock by the road. At this point I said to my riding partner Betty, that I thought Henry might be part Saddlebred, as he flipped his tail over his back and rolled his neck into the shape of a snail and let out a snort that sounded somewhat prehistoric. At the end of first mile, I apologized to Betty for anything that I might have ever done to her, and told her if she wanted to get even with me for the time that I got her dumped in the swamp, that all she needed to do was to trot her horse past me. At this point, I decided that Henry must have some Arab in him, since he was offering me that rather stiff legged, foot flipping trot that seemed to cover ground at a rate of about 25 miles an hour. When my riding partner attempted a quiet canter up the hill, I decided that for sure, Henry was a thoroughbred and had certainly been on the racetrack and I made a mental note to check him for a lip tattoo if we both reached the barn alive.  Henry felt a bit like an eel … he was able to twist his head around in circles while lurching from one side of the road to the other. Pressure from my legs did not affect any predictable result, and I realized that I was definitely not in charge of the show. After surviving passing a grey rock and a slow moving Toyota, I thought it would be a great idea to dismount and lead Henry back to the barn.
I recalled the words of a clinician who said “All horses are nice 95% of the time. These are kind and forgiving animals by nature. Emergencies happen in the other 5% of the time, and my job is to give the horse and riders tools to deal with that 5%.” I realize that Henry was not trying to be bad, he was just being a horse, and a horse who was being over-faced with too many things that we didn’t have the tools to deal with. We were both new to each other and had no foundation of trust or structure. His behavior was the result of anxiety:  too much stimulus and input into his brain, and no safety valve to be able to release and direct the energy in a useful and safe direction. So on the return trip, as I walked back to the barn,  I started to plan what I needed to do to give this horse some of the foundation work that he needed so our rides were a bit more appropriate for a 54 year old trainer has-been.
I spent several years as a flight instructor, and during that time I learned as much about training horses as I did about training pilots. One of the most valuable concepts that was drilled into me is that having a lesson plan is essential. It makes the teacher have a structured, well though- out strategy that identifies goals for each lesson and the tools needed to complete the task, as well as a breakdown of the steps along the way. Learning is based on building blocks of knowledge, so a good teacher has to have a very clear idea of what skills are necessary in order to move on to the next step.

My definition of a well-trained horse is one who can and will respond the same way regardless of the circumstances around him. A “nice” horse can function very well as long as the deck doesn’t get stacked against him - i.e. the horse that rides great when he has a friend to baby-sit him, or a horse that behaves beautifully at home, but comes unglued at a show. What happened to me on our first ride was that I mis-identified Henry’s charming personality for education. (And haven’t we all done that at a cocktail party sometime in our lives???) I didn’t realize the difference until I had unwittingly taken Henry into a spot where he was in over his head. One of the primary rules in teaching a student to fly is that they must feel safe. A student who is terrified will remember the fear and discomfort and will be completely unable to process the other events that took place during the flight. This same rule applies to horses. One of my rules for training is that my horse needs to finish the session quieter and more relaxed than he started. If that doesn’t happen, I need to re-look at my lesson plan and add some more building blocks. I’m quite sure that Henry didn’t feel very safe with me on that first outing.

I decided that the place to start with Henry was in kindergarten. I figured that it was important for me to figure out what skills Henry possessed, and where there were the holes. Learning is defined as “a change in behavior” and I realized that for both Henry’s and my sake, learning needed to take place on both of our parts. My job was to be much more aware of the things that created anxiety in Henry and to present these challenges to him in a non-threatening and systematic manner so they became “no big deal”. I would only gain his respect and confidence if I put him in situations where he was not ove-faced and concerned. Henry’s job was to pay attention and focus on me so he had the opportunity to absorb these new lessons.

I had the opportunity to work with a trainer who said “Nothing comes from nowhere”. How often have we heard riders say; “I never saw that coming” when a horse has spooked, bucked or reared? Well, there was one little glitch that I should have paid attention to before I mounted. Henry likes to do the leading. His nose is always in front of me, and more significantly, his head is turned to the right and he is well positioned to propel the handler along with his shoulder. If something startles him, he doesn’t have much of a qualm about spinning me like a top and crowding me, where I assume he feels more secure.
Every problem that I encountered on the road was apparent on the ground in a slightly different form, and in my enthusiasm to ride, I had failed to do a good “preflight inspection”.
The first page of my lesson plan went right back to basic ground work and leading. The goal was that Henry should be able to politely and respectfully follow me at an appropriate distance where ever I needed to go. That included an excursion into the back yard, putting his front feet into the tool shed and being able to wait for me while I removed a shovel from the wall. He needed to be able to back up quietly and straight, and also needed to be able to stand still. I am a big believer in a horse tying well. I do not like to tie horses with leather halters and baler twine with the theory that they will break if the horse pulls. I think a horse that believes that he can leave the area when something startles or displeases him can be a real train wreck. I remember helping someone extract a horse from the gooseneck of a trailer, when the horse decided that being tied in the trailer was not OK and thought she should leave through the front window. Miraculously, no one was badly hurt, but this episode would not have happened if this horse had learned to tie.  I spend the time teaching a horse not to pull back on a rope and respond to pressure on his head by giving rather than pulling!  I start by using a “high tie” which is a safe place to teach a horse to just hang out and practice being in one place without scary confinement. It can be a sturdy tree limb or it can be a stout rope stretched between two tall poles that are anchored deep in the ground. The objective is to have the tie spot to be over the horse’s head so he can’t get his foot over the rope and there is no rigid pulling point for the horse to sit back and fight. I have seen horses move around pretty enthusiastically for a while, but in short order they usually figure out the standing still is a lot easier as any of their antics merely bring them back to the same center point.
After we spent a bit of time practicing tying, off we went for walks down the driveway, around the barn, in and out of the arena, the trailer, and anywhere I could think of that was safe and different. First rule: Do not step on Edie … Ever … I don’t care WHAT giant bird flew into the lilac bush … do not jump on me. I spent many years showing halter horses where horses cavorted around on the end of a lead looking “showy” with their heads bent around to the side and the handler in tow, trying to keep the horse off of him by poking enthusiastically with an elbow. It took me years to realize that this sets the stage for how the entire rest of the relationship will go. My rule now is that I am the one to do the leading. I want my horse to follow me the way a dog would “heel”. If Henry is in front of me, it is pretty hard for me to communicate clearly about where I want him to go. We each have our own space and my job is to never put him in a spot that he can’t cope with, and in turn he may not share my shoes with me.

There are many systems for leading.. I was taught to use a lead with a chain end, and frankly, in spite of the cries that this is “inhumane”, I will still stick to the opinion that the severity of any training tool has to do with the hands and attitude that is attached to that device. The natural horsemanship approach using the rope halter and 12’ lead is another way and it works very well. One of the “TTEAM” or Linda-Tellington Jones methods uses two handlers, one on each side to guide the horse and keep him centered and in his own space. There are many, many other systems, and as a rider/ trainer/ horse owner, you need to figure out the system that works the best for you and then practice using it effectively.

I’ll close this article realizing that I have focused a lot more on the concept of identifying the problem rather than instructions on fixing the problem. I have come to realize that we are sometimes too quick to act, and too slow to spend a reasonable amount of time in assessing the situation and coming up with a well thought out plan. The time that I have spent with Henry on the ground has paid off tenfold, and the rides that I have been having are getting better and better. We are building a strong partnership, and our time together is starting to be like two old friends going to do a job together, rather than feeling like passenger in the back seat of a car that is being driven by a stranger. Stay tuned for our next progress report!


Val said...

Loved it!

Susan said...

Chock-full of valuable (and funny) insights. Loved it!