In the whirlwind of the past three weeks, I have been scrambling from one thing to the next, starting with a clinic in CO, followed by a shoot in OR for Horse Master, then July 4th weekend with my dad and finally home. I spent a few days scrambling to get caught up after 10 days on the road and get ready for our family reunion, which was four days of eating, drinking and celebrating. I have to say that my five-pound challenge is not going well, but I’m happy that I’ve managed to keep the first five pounds off that I had lost.
The Horse Master shoot was outside Portland, Oregon, at an extraordinary dressage barn called Tanz-Pherde (means dancing horses) http://www.tanz-pferde.com/ . We filmed in or near their new outdoor arena and were surrounded by incredible trees and forest—beautiful back drops in 360 degrees—perfect for a shoot. Plus we had use of the luxurious air-conditioned lounge hanging over the indoor arena to rest and wolf down meals at as we watched gorgeous dressage horses go through their paces. Best of all, the people at Tanz-Pherde were so helpful and generous and we thank them from the bottom of our hearts.
We filmed six episodes (and several commercials) in three days, our normal shoot schedule. These six episodes will be the last shows to run this year; our next shoot will be in September for the first shows of 2010. Incredibly, all six episodes were great, with the horses showing dramatic behavior changes and the riders understanding what they needed to do to in order to carry on. With six really good episodes “in the can” I think all of the crew would agree that one episode that really stood out was Lux and Clare and the dramatic change made in this horse.
Clare has become an outstanding rider, due to the crazy bucking temper tantrums Lux would throw when he didn’t want to work. Lux is a huge warmblood who hates to move forward and doesn’t mind fighting about it. But, as I’ve said before, the great thing about big lazy horses is that they can only buck so hard before they get lazy and quit. The key to riding horses that buck in a refusal to move forward is to ride them forward through the bucks and only let them stop when they are relaxed in the back and moving freely forward (without any pedaling from the rider). Once they figure out that bucking buys them more work and relaxing gets them less work, they’ll never buck again; at least not with you. Clare was doing an exceptional job of riding Lux through his temper tantrums and it looked as if she knew his every move. She rode well through his bucking and rearing antics, calmly and confidently, keeping her cool and not provoking Lux at all. But, in spite of all this, riding was not really what this horse’s problem was—it was far more fundamental than that.
Lux’s sordid history includes winning championships in the hunter ring as a five year old, when Clare was only ten; although he was already displaying some naughty behavior then, it wasn’t until he broke his hind leg that his behavior spiraled down. With a long recovery period, Lux went totally sound within a year, but he had become very spooky, fractious and aggressive behavior—no resemblance of the former rock star that he was. Thousands of dollars were spent on vets exams, acupuncture, chiropractic, calming supplements, new saddles, therapeutic pads, bits, shoeing and three years later, the trainers were still stumped at what they could do to resolve Lux’s fractiousness. Now a mature 16 year old, Clare sees that her beloved horse is not getting better so she pulls him out of training, thinking it’s time for a break and she turns him out to pasture in a large herd, which Lux immediately takes over as Alpha. Now, a year and a half later, six years after Lux’s injury, Clare is ready to try again to resolve his behavior and she has studied natural horsemanship and is certain that’s the answer. And she was right.
It only took a fifteen minute session in the round pen before Lux was hooked on and following me around the pen like a puppy. Of course, that was after he had jumped out once, bucked, kicked, snorted and tossed his head in defiant gestures. He was very determined to not acknowledge my presence—head up and looking outside the pen, but being fat and out of shape got the better of him and his head started dropping. Soon he was giving me great head bobs in a deliberate gesture of submission. Again, once lazy horses figure out the path of least resistance, they take it.
I showed Clare how to correct his ground manners and develop a larger perimeter of space around her so that the big Lug, uh, Lux isn’t walking all over her. Clare turned out to be an exceptional student and absorbed what happened as I round-penned the horse and made the necessary changes in her handling of Lux. My assistant trainer, T Cody, did a little more ground work with Lux and watched carefully as Clare work him to make sure Lux maintained his subordinate demeanor and respected his boundaries.
The next day Lux was still a changed horse– respecting Clare’s authority, keeping his focus on her at all times and keeping his head down and relaxed. With a great sense of accomplishment, we wrapped-up Clare’s episode and as I was leaving the round pen to go change into clothes for the next show, I told Clare she should take advantage of the work we’d done in that round pen over last 24 hours and saddle him up and see how he rides. When I came out 10 minutes later, Clare was cantering figure 8s in the round pen, doing beautiful flying lead changes with each turn as her mother shouted with glee into her cell phone, sharing the success with Clare’s dad.
I’ve had one update from Clare, in the past three weeks and she asked an astute question and immediately put the answer to work on Lux with great success. I think Clare will do great things with this horse and I hope she’ll keep my posted on their success. It takes two to maintain this kind of change in a horse—both the horse and the handler/rider need to change their ways. With horses, it always boils down to the human stepping up to the plate and showing some leadership—either you are the boss of them, or they are the boss of you—that’s the way it works in a horse herd. Horses are much happier when there is a competent leader in charge, so that they can relax and not have to think. Have you seen this kind of change in a horse?
Sometimes you just have to break the cycle that you are in and make fundamental changes. Lux’s problem was not one that could be resolved through more training under saddle and changing his tack. It was far more fundamental than that and the answer was authoritative groundwork and establishing rules, boundaries and expectations. Remember these words Clare, “This is your Captain speaking!”
I promise to write more tomorrow.