A chilled Filly

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Another exercise

Talking of relaxation there was a second technique to keep in mind that I find very useful when playing online with a horse.

Bear with me on this one  

It starts with two folks holding your forearms with both hands. They hold tightly such that your upper arms are out horizontally from your shoulders and your elbows bent so your forearms are point vertically downwards. They can even lift up a little on the forearms to put you in a very awkward position. You'll find that you can barely move and indeed I have seen film of police marching someone off like this.

However the reason you can't move is that the grip on your arms makes you want to move your arms.
The trick is to forget about your arms and realise you can still move the rest of your body. So totally relax your shoulders and just leave your forearms where they are. Take a step back with one foot and gently kneel down. Then whilst kneeling slowly sit back on your heels, still keeping your arms loose. You'll find you have to be leaning forwards from your waist at this point. Then just slow raise your torso to the upright position, still kneeling and put "weight" in your arms so they drop to your sides.
You'll find that if you are still loose in your arms your opponents will be inexorably pulled off balance and if they don't let go will fall to the ground either side of you. At no point did you use your arm muscles or really use any strength at all, just position and your weight.
I weigh 86 kgs and I've had a 55kg girl pull me over doing this, so relative weight is of little importance.
Tony, my sensei, describes the feeling on the uki (guy holding the arm) as "whoa, ok I'll go over here then" rather than "your not pulling me over there". Done properly this should provide a feeling of wanting to follow the pressure rather than wanting to pull back against it.

So how does this relate to horsemanship?
I now try to avoid using muscles when I play online. I think more about body position and just having weight in my arms.
So if a horse pulls my arm out straight I don't use arm muscles to pull back. They are way to weak and when applying that much power cannot be subtle enough with the way the power is applied and released.
If the horse pulls I try to imagine my arms are very heavy and want to swing back to my side from whence they came before the pull occurred. If the horse still pulls I just think about sitting back away from the horse similar to what I just described. Not kneeling down of course, but the same intention.
The same idea of relaxed but powerful ki drawing the horse towards me. But the drawing is in a smooth way.

It is the way that the force is applied that matters rather than the amount used and to apply the force correctly I try to use relaxation and ki (intention).

After a little searching on youtube I came across Seishiro Endo Shihan demonstrating the ideas to a class in Japan. It's not the same exercise that I just described but has many of the same ideas. If you look at around 4 minutes 30 seconds into the video you'll see some ideas that more closely relate to online work. Hope this helps the understanding of my ramblings

  Seishiro Endo Shihan

Monday, 23 February 2015

Loosening exercise

I have a really stiff body. Not chronic pain stiffness nor is it stiffness due to a lack of flexibility. It's a stiffness of the mind. It doesn't allow the antagonistic muscles to relax enough to allow for beautiful flowing movement as any who have seen me dance will testify. I've been working on this for a while now using aikido to help but it is still very present. Particularly my shoulders which of course impedes my riding and my softness.

I was lucky enough to actually be able to train with Endo on two occasions during the camp. Each lasting less than a minute I suspect, but long enough for him to put me to the ground and then slap my back and shoulders whilst laughing and saying "too stiff, too stiff"  

Fortunately a large part of the camp was about getting us all looser and "following a feel". Sound familiar to horsemanship training ?

In aikido the person receiving the technique (the one who has typically supplied the attack for the aikido technique to be practised on) is called the Uki. The person who is countering the attack and performing the aikido technique is called the Tori.
Uki needs to know how to move when the technique is applied or it will hurt. Move well and the technique applied to him should just feel smooth, painless but powerful. So it is important uki knows how to move well.

The exercise I'm going to describe helps uki relax their whole body and allow it to move to follow a feel.

Tori stands in front of uki and presents his arms out in front with hands palm down. Uki holds the back of toris' wrists so that their little fingers are towards the hand and thumbs towards the elbow. This should feel a natural way to hold the presented arms. During the exercise it is uki's task to maintain that grip. It shouldn't be a strong grip as that causes tenseness in the arms, but firm enough that the palm of ukis' hand at the base of the thumb is always in contact with toris' forearm.

Tori now starts to move there arms around in a rythmic flowing way. Up and down, side to side and also twisting the forearm. Start with small movements and build as the feel gets better.
Uki has the job of maintaining that grip whilst just flowing with the movement. That may mean bending at the waist, knees, moving the feet around, whatever it takes to maintain that contact and follow the feel of that motion. Whilst doing it uki should examine their body in their mind for any signs of tightness and let it go. After a while it should just feel like a smooth flowing dance with loose arms, shoulders, neck, back, hips, knees and feet. Most of all a loose flowing mind that is in the moment and following the feel with no conscious control of the body.

I have tried this before riding and, boy, did it make a difference. Even Bonitao seemed to notice it. I suddenly found I could move my body "through" my shoulders so my hands could softly remain much quieter than in the past. Particularly at canter. If I felt tightness threatening to take over I just put myself in the moment of that exercise and it loosened up again. Ritchie says she noticed an immediate improvement in my riding. Not perfect but definitely going in the right direction.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Aikido camp

My interest in aikido and its relationship to horsemanship continues to grow. Inspired by the Mark Rashid book "Nature in Horsemanshp" and personally meeting and chatting to him about the idea I have been pursuing aikido for around 2 1/2 years now. I'm at a very lowly level having just passed my 4th kyu grade, but finding the benefits are enormous.
My sensei, Tony, thought I was ready to attend an aikido camp in Stockholm and after a little persuasion I agreed. This was not just any aikido camp.
Seishiro Endo himself was going to be there. If you read his wikipedia entry you'll see that he is fascinated by the concept of ki energy and feel to make aikido as soft and powerful as possible. It is fair to say that he is the head of the version of aikido that I follow, so to train with him would be a real treat.

On Friday 13th of February I got on a plane to Stockholm with more than a little trepidation as to what I had let myself in for.
The good news was that there was a total of 6 of my friends from the Dinton Dojo going so I was in good company. All the others had been there before so that really helped in me finding my way around the city and the training.
The camp took place over three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The format was 1 1/2 hours training for each session with one session on Friday and Sunday, but two on the Saturday. The only downside was that it took around 1 1/2 hours to get from where we were staying to the training in the city. The upside is that we all travelled as a group so it gave time to chat.

The first session was on Friday evening. After the journey out to the training center we all got changed into our gis.
I had heard rumours as to how high the average grade was going to be of the participants. Mere kyu grades (below black belt) were in the tiny minority. There was a significant number in the higher black belt grade of 5th, 6th and 7th Dan. Fortunately Tony seemed to know all the high grade participants which made me feel more at ease in their company.

For the Friday session Tony said I should just stay near the back, train with whoever I wished to and just soak up the atmosphere. There was a lot of atmosphere to soak up. Around 90 people training with Endo out in front demonstrating what he wished us to practise. No, or minimal talking, on the mat whilst training, but high levels of concentration.

Endo speaks enough english to get his ideas across, but not a huge amount. Strangely this was an advantage. I had to concentrate on what he was doing, not what he was saying. And what he was doing was fascinating.

Endo is very much concentrated on being in the moment with your training partner and using ki energy in your encounters with your partner.
In English ki probably best translates as "intention" but it is more than that. I'm reading a book on the concept at the moment and it says that westerners have a problem with ki as they think too much in words. You have to try and think without words to really understand ki.

We did lots of exercises that involved feeling and moving with your training partner without resistance. Then we moved onto how to move them with minimum muscular effort. These techniques largely revolve around being very loose in the shoulders and mind. Feeling for the partner. Feeling for their balance point and then moving to disturb that balance.
Trying to disturb the balance too much is counter productive as it will lead to resistance and a battle. Disturb the balance just enough then you can move the opponent with the minimum of effort.

One thing that was noticeable was Endo's choice of language. Like I said his English is limited. But he used the words "confirm for yourself" a lot. I think he is trying to really make us concentrate on the feel and understand that feel. It is not something he can give us directly. He can set up exercises to help us feel, but we must do the feeling ourselves.
After that first session I came away with my head spinning with information, but felt I had made progress.

On the Saturday Tony said I should come towards the front of the mat more and play with the big guns at the front. I did not want to interfere with their training whilst the master was around. However I quickly understood that not only could I learn enormous amounts from the 6th and 7th Dan folks, but they could learn from me !! Because my aikido is so poor they have to work out how to move my stiff uncooperative body in the manner they want it to move. This is a challenge for them as well as me.
So I got to train with some of the best practitioners of aikido in the world ! And boy did that help me make progress fast. As always my problem is being too stiff in my body. They could use their skill to help me find more softness. Just the odd move here or there to bypass my blockages and I suddenly found I could move in ways I had not experienced before. And it felt good.
It's not that folks at my Dojo hadn't been helping me with this, but we are a mixed ability group and on a training evening I might get to train for a short time with the top folks. Here I was getting concentrated 6th and 7th Dan help. For most of the 1 1/2 hours !

After that first session on the Saturday with the "big boys" I had the confidence to seek them out in the subsequent sessions so I got lots of training with very good practitioners of the art. Lots of what they did I didn't fully understand but at least I got to feel it and see where this art form could take me.

This gives an overview of the course. I'll speak more in future about specific techniques.
At the end of the course my feet were trashed. We train bare foot and the mat surface was just a little textured. Over the 6 hours that texture wore through bits of my skin making my feet very tender. In the intensity on the mat I tended to forget the pain, but putting shoes on afterwards was "interesting".

I've trained back in Dinton since. The folks there report that my shoulders seem softer and more relaxed. I feel a new intensity to my training and thirst to get it right.

I know you'll all want to know what this has achieved for my horsemanship. I'll leave that for a later posting ;) , but it's been very very positive.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Good news !!

On Sunday Filly had a visit from Mel Isaac who works closely with Nic Barker and so knows the method Nic uses to rehabilitate horses with navicular. Unfortunately I could not be there as I was at an aikido training camp in Sweden, so my wife, Ritchie, was there instead of me.

I had been a bit nervous about this visit as it really was an assessment to see if all our hard work was bearing fruit. I've been walking her every day I have off for many weeks now to ensure her feet got enough natural wear and stimulation to help them heal themselves. I was a very nervous "daddy" on Sunday dreading to hear the result.

I needn't have been :) . Mel did not even feel it necessary to trim Fillys' feet. So that is around 3 months now with nothing but a very light rasping when I have not been able to walk her enough due to work.
Mel thought that her big issue now was to build up muscle on her right side so the emphasis should switch from walking her out to more work in the menage. In particular we need to work on her straightness on a circle on the right rein. We can do this by using lots of three track / four track work and also by varying the tightness of the circle she maintains. In effect I can now go back to more playing online and less walking out on the roads. She'll still get her walks of course to ensure she encounters a variety of surfaces to "massage" her feet.

So in general I can now see a light at the end of the tunnel and can actually realistically hope that one day in the not too distant future we can ride again.

When I get time I'll post about the aikido camp. We trained with a Japanese master could Endo. There was so much that relates to horsemanship in there I'm still assimilating it all. Here is a link to his wikipedia page which should give you a flavour of what I mean Endo wiki entry

Monday, 9 February 2015

Walking with a purpose

I've been continuing to walk Filly every day I have off. We usually do around 4km according to Endomondo on mixed terrain of road and a track made of road planings. The track is particularly good as it is abrasive.
Walking is not just about the walking. We are still working on our horsemanship as we do it. As horsemanship is defined as the "habits and skills a horse and human need to act as partners" it is not just me working on horsemanship, it is Filly as well.
So the walks have two purposes.
1) to help her rehab progress
2) to build our horsemanship in an environment that is off the yard and so less predictable.

As principle number 8 of Parelli is "principles, purpose and time are the tools of teaching" this fits in nicely with the parelli program.

So what have we been working on.

On the way out Filly would really rather be in a nice warm stable with some hay so she is reluctant to follow on. As a result she is not acting as a partner as she is pulling back just a little. Often this just means she is walking a pace or two behind me not on my shoulder. So how to overcome this ? I use two methods typically.
The first is that if she ever leans on the halter I just bring up my energy and start gently jogging. To get relief from the pressure on the halter she has to trot up alongside me. As soon as she is alongside we walk again. I make sure that I don't attach any emotion to this. The jogging is not a punishment for her being behind me just a consequence. So she slowly learns that for a quiet life it's easier to just walk alongside like a partner.
The second method is an add on to the first. As she comes alongside she gets a click and a treat. So she learns that there are some positive advantages to walking alongside me.

Playing with this we now go for extended periods as partners. Probably up to 10 minutes with a quiet calm Filly plodding alongside me.

The other purpose we have been working on is just getting her used to the unexpected. For example, yesterday was a lovely day. There were some kids out for a walk and they got very excited when they saw Filly with lots of jumping up and down and shouting. Filly was not that keen on this but I maintained my emotions as flat and friendly, a sort of "ho hum" feeling and we continued to walk towards the kids. After a very few minutes she was being petted and generally loved by the children and, being Filly, liked the attention.
Likewise for cars. When we started walking she would get upset by cars coming past. The road is pretty narrow. By studiously ignoring the cars myself (other than to thank them for slowing down) whatever she did she is now pretty confident with them. Even those who don't bother to slow down she hardly reacts to.

It would have been easy to forget my horsemanship during this period, but that would have been a huge mistake. As it is I've managed to turn our daily walks into a horsemanship session and we have both learned from the experience.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Filly breaks a nail again

A couple of days ago I went to the yard in the afternoon to take Filly for her usual walk. As we started to leave the yard I glanced around to make sure she was sound and something on her right hind hoof caught my attention. A bit of mud stuck to the hoof wall seemed to be moving strangely.
I decided to tie her up and investigate. As I probed around I found I could dig away at the mud and eventually arrived at the following

This was alarming to say the least. I could guess what had happened.
When Filly first came out of shoes at Rockley farm the increased mobility of the hoof caused several abscesses to come out of her hooves around the coronet band. One of these was on the back right and two on the front left (though the front left was probably the same one twice).

The general feeling was that, given she had been very lame on her front left to the point of barely being able to walk prior to the shoes coming off, these were old injuries that the increased circulation due to the foot being able to expand and contract on each footfall had finally caused to come out. When they came out of the coronet band they created a hole in the hoof wall which then healed over internally. However the hole remained and slowly grew down the hoof.
The hole on the right hind was getting close to the ground when a small crack appeared to one side of it. She then had a burst of running around the field and must have landed her foot on a rock. The pressure that caused made the lump of hoof wall below the abscess come away, it also caused the bruising you can see to the left of the missing lump.

As you can imagine I was very concerned about this, never having seen anything like it before. However she was walking normally so it did not appear to be causing much pain. I took the photo above and sent it to Nic Barker at Rockley farm asking her what I should do. Unfortunately it was not until the following day I got a reply. I also consulted Mel Isaac who is a barefoot trimmer who knows Nic well. Again she was not available. So I asked the yard owner who did not seem too concerned either.
I abandoned the idea of the walk and spent time cleaning up the wound site and putting some hoof putty in. More to make me feel better than thinking it would help. I also bevelled the underside of the toe just a little to take pressure of the edges of the damage.

It was a somewhat sleepless night.

I woke in the morning to find a message from Nic saying she felt that the edges of the damage would have sealed when the abscess healed itself and the bit that had come out was probably dead anyway and not to worry too much about it. A conversation with Mel later gave much the same advice and so I relaxed a little.

The yard staff said she had been lame in the morning as she was turned out but came in fine. I took her for a walk and again found she was fine. Since then we have been on some longish walks on a variety of terrain with no apparent soreness so I'm just monitoring the area for any further damage and applying some antiseptic to it daily just to make me feel better.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Walking Filly

Filly continues to make good progress. I've found a route we can walk that includes a quiet road with only a little traffic. This is important as the woods are currently very muddy and slippery. An additional worry about the woods is that there are some flints in the mud and I don't want to risk her cutting her feet stepping on one buried in the slime. Additionally, road work is better for grinding the hooves down naturally so that they become the best shape to support her upper limbs.
This idea that the hoof can adjust to help with problems further up the leg is an important one. I feel that in the past hooves have been shaped by man to best conform to what they think the hoof should look like relative to the lower leg. That may not be the best shape for the rest of the horse. The hooves are the platform that support the rest of the horse and they need to be the shape the whole horse requires, not just the lower limb.

At Rockley farm Nic owns one horse that has been barefoot for many years. The state of the feet were to me shocking when I first saw them. They looked flared and had cracks running up the hoof wall. Nic said that she had hoped I would only see him after I understood more, but having seen him gave me a detailed explanation about his history.
He has a deformity of the upper limb that made him very lame. In desperation they left him barefoot with no trimming, but lots of hard work on varied surfaces. Of course he also lives in the track surfaces at Rockley that are designed to reshape horses hooves naturally with their abrasive surfaces. So he had the best chance to create a hoof that best suited his needs. And this misshapen hoof is what he came up with. As a result he can now hunt over Exmoor and has done 66 miles hunting this year ! Nic said she had tried trimming his hooves to a more "normal" looking shape and he instantly went lame so she learnt to leave him alone.

I think maybe humans interfere with their horses too much on occasion. Maybe rather than impose our idea of the what the horse needs on them we should let nature sort it out for us. This does not mean we can just leave our horses alone and hope they fix themselves. We have to create the conditions for the horse to be able to help itself. In many ways this is harder work than just relying on the trimmer / farrier doing the work for us.
In the case of Filly, as we don't have a track surface for her to live on, it means lots of walking out to find the surfaces her feet need. If I miss the walks for a while the hoof walls do tend to grow a bit longer than I would like. When that happens I very reluctantly take out the rasp and take a tiny amount off around the whole hoof. I don't try to shape the hoof at all, just take the same amount off all the way around. And no more that 1mm. I've only had to do this a few times when I've been away for an extended period and been unable to walk her to let it happen naturally.

The upside is that I actually really enjoy the walks. Filly seems to like them as well and finds the countryside very interesting. Yesterday she insisted on spending a few minutes staring at the local golf course while I explained the strange rituals that take place on that glorious stretch of grass. I think Filly thought that was just a waste of good grass ;)

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Bridleless on Bonitao

Lovely session playing with horse last night. We both went down and I played with Filly whilst Ritchie did a prepare to ride with Bonitao.
The session with Filly was mostly about the circling game again. She is improving quickly. We are mainly working on her "maintain direction" responsibility. But at an advanced level.
It's not about her keeping going at trot in a clockwise direction but about it being a nice smooth circle. She has a tendency to do ovals rather than circles keeping to close when away from the gate and pulling when close to the gate. Her idea is to get into a nice warm stable full of hay and I can't blame her. However she has responsibilities to uphold when she is circling and it is my job to gently coach her into upholding them.
If she pulls away on the halter that means she is pulling into pressure which is not a good thing for a horse that is ridden in a bosal. There are several ways to correct this behaviour. Meet the pull with an ounce more pressure to move her head back onto the circle is one but might mean she pulls harder. Driving the hind quarters out onto the circle is another and this also creates a better arc in her body that conforms to the circumference of the circle. Sometimes it is the shoulder that is pushed in with the neck out, then she is in counter arc which is really bad. So correcting this tendency to pull out on the circle is a fine balancing act of applying pressure to the zone that is causing the problem. It is not just about pulling on the head.
Where she come in too close the job is much easier. I just wave the stick and string around in a friendly game attitude. If she stays on the circle it can't touch her, if she comes in it can. It's her choice.
Once we had established some nice circles is was time to give into her desire for a warm stable and lots of hay.

I returned to the ménage to find Ritchie riding Bonitao. He's going really well at the moment. The bosal is helping us communicate the idea of collection to him very well. Ritchie was working on shoulder in when I got there. He tends to travel around the school with his haunches in so that he is not travelling very straight. To help correct that we are over correcting him at the moment.
Once Ritchie had finished riding it was my turn, just for a few minutes. I started by making sure that all my leg signals for turning were working well and also that he would stop on my body position. I felt so happy with this that I decided to take the bosal off and just ride with a string tied around the base of his neck. The string is only there so that if he looses mental connection with me I can get it back easily.
It was the first time I had ridden Bonitao bridleless, though I had done it often on Filly. But he was a complete star. We even managed sideways over a jump wing and sideways over a pole on the ground. His direct and indirect "rein" were great proving they really come of the legs and body position not the reins.
It was great feeling of freedom to be riding without reins again. I look forward to doing it often in the future

Monday, 22 December 2014

Appreciation of beauty

Filly and I went for a nice walk yesterday. I decided time off from the school was a good idea and also she needs to walk on a variety of surfaces for the sake of her hooves.
It was a chilly but dry day and the track was reasonably dry. The odd muddy section but mostly firm and easy walking. It was noticeable that Filly seemed much much more comfortable walking on the varied terrain than in the past.

As we go up the track out of the yard we climb a short hill. At the top of the hill there is a path which goes off to the left. Filly had made it known in the past that she wanted to explore this track. Yesterday I let her. After just 20 yards or so we got to a gate to a field we could not go beyond. The views from there were lovely though. Now I don't know what horses know or feel about landscape beauty, to be honest I would have thought they couldn't care less. But Filly stood at that gate for a fair while just staring at the view. Not a frightened stare, she seemed very relaxed. When she was ready we continued with our walk. But everytime we came across what I consider to be a pretty view she insisted on stopping and looking for a while and resisted being asked to come along. Then after a minute or so she would look at me and we would carry on along our way with no fuss at all.

I would love to know what is going on in her mind at these moments. After all human experience of beauty in the landscape was only really acquired fairly recently. The Welsh mountains, which to my eyes are beautiful, were until recently considered by most as a wasteful landscape with no value whatsoever. So what, if any, is an animals experience of beauty ?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Strength to strength

Filly is now doing really well. Over just the last two weeks her feet have noticeably changed in shape, particularly the sole. All the feet are becoming much more concave (which is what we want) and the frogs are looking stronger and stronger. I wonder if this is because the hoof wall growth that started when she was at Rockley farm has nearly reached the ground. Hoof growth starts at the coronet band of course. Once started it then moves down the hoof as new hoof growth occurs. Exactly like a finger nail on humans. So although the changes in angle and density were started at Rockley we have had to be patient for them to get to the ground. They changes are not at the ground yet, there are several months growth still needed for that, but I think that as they are getting close to the sole they are influencing the way the sole is forming.

So we are back to playing properly with less concern for her lameness. I make sure no movements make her lame of course, but the range of things we can do are growing rapidly.
Yesterday we worked on her responsibilities on a circle. She was maintaining gait ok but her direction was not good. She was making ovals rather than circles. The classic circling game of standing still in the middle only happens when she is keeping her responsibilities. My standing still is actually her reward for doing the circle well. If she doesn't keep her responsibilities up then I will do whatever is needed as lightly as I can to correct her. Yesterday that meant spending a fair amount of time where I had to turn with her and correct her movement. But I was always looking for the slightest opportunity to go back into neutral and stand still in the middle thus rewarding her for her good performance.
The balance of when to correct and how firmly is of course the key to this and only comes with experience. It takes practice for both you and the horse. The "game" you are playing with the horse is getting the horse to work out what to do in order for the human to remain in neutral at the center of the circle.

I was watching a video of Pat Parelli the other day and he noted that the big mistake many make is not doing enough circling with their horses. He expects his to do forty (yes 40 !) laps at walk, trot or canter whilst maintaining gait, maintaining direction and looking where they are going. That's quite a standard to set us students to emulate.

As Filly needs lots of work on a circle at the moment to build muscle and also stimulate the hoof to promote its growth this is a perfect opportunity for us to get this really good. We also have a purpose for doing it. Not only to get her responsibilities stronger but to get her physically stronger.

Performing any game with the horse without a purpose is actually counter productive. The horse knows from are body language that we are doing it just to have something to do and without a real purpose and like a human would they resent being pushed around without reason. And when they resent you they loose respect for you and your leadership and either become dull and unresponsive or intractable depending on their particular horsenality.