I’m talking about my five-year-old OTTB named Ellen’s Shadow. I’ve had Lell since she was 3 ½ years old. She had one race at the track and placed 8/8 and then was listed on the CANTER PA website, where I purchased her sight unseen. Need I say more? If I could share her CANTER photos I would. She was a little downhill, but she looked stunning at the time. She was young and I thought she would grow a little more. I thought very wrong. OOPS!
A few weeks ago I was going to write a blog post about her and the difficulties we have together. I feel like I’ve been stuck a plateau with her training. We can do itty bits of lateral work in the trot, but sometimes she gets excited and her brain flies out the window. Or, I try to do counterbending turns to set her up nicely for a canter depart, and she loses her cool and races off down the long side of the arena.
I should probably put a disclaimer here. I love thoroughbreds and I have several sane, calm, and quiet thoroughbreds in my barn. Lell is just one of those thoroughbreds with the not so sane and calm brain. Just google her lineage and look up some COTH threads!
I blamed our problems on her conformation. What else could it be? I was going to title the blog post “The downhill variety” and explain how her downhill physique and short neck have created numerous training challenges. This is how I interpreted her problems until I worked with Stephanie Durand, an approved instructor of Philippe Karl’s School of Legerete, in a clinic last week. In addition to being a approved instructor of the school, Stephanie is brilliant at combining natural horsemanship with the groundwork necessary for classical dressage.
In August I rode Lell with Stephanie and at one point she did her little spook and go two feet in the air and spin 180 degrees thing. She’s small, only 15.2, and very catty. She’s the type of thoroughbred that can easily maneuver in lateral work. Sometimes when I ride her she’s really calm and quiet, other days I feel like she’s highly unpredictable. Take it for what you want, but I did have an animal communicator speak with Lell once. She described her as a whimsical naughty pony. She hit the nail on the head because that’s Lell’s persona in a nutshell.
They say you don’t know what you don’t know. I thought I “knew” what was going on with Lell until I worked with Stephanie. I had no intentions of riding Lell in the clinic because I thought she just needed more of the same. Things take longer with Lell because of her conformation, so I thought more work and more repetitions were the solution. Stephanie thought otherwise. After I spent the first three days with my mare Gracie, Stephanie recommended that I ride Lell on the fourth day. This is when my understanding of horses completely changed, and I realized how little I knew about natural horsemanship.
Back to the plateau. I spoke with Stephanie about my training issues with Lell and she said, “You need to earn more of her respect on the ground before you get the relaxation under saddle.” She continued to say, “I’m going to show you the things you need to do, but really you need to figure this stuff out on your own.”
Let me tell you a little more about Lell. She loves people and people love her. She is the barn magnet that everyone gravitates towards when they first come to the barn. She is extremely curious and brave. If something spooks her she will startle, then she will spin around and go investigate whatever spooked her. She always has a quiet kind of nervous tension to her. If you rattle her too much she will get scared and shake. She’s also the type of thoroughbred that can get so excited her brain just seems to float away and doesn’t return for a few minutes. She’s also a bit spoiled, very pushy about space, and doesn’t like to be told what to do. In the pasture, she’s the second to the last horse in.
I’ve always thought traits like dominance and submission were reserved mainly for the pasture. The most dominant horse out there would be the most dominant horse to work with, correct? The answer is no. I foolishly assumed that because Lell was low on the pecking order, that she was a submissive horse; which was a huge error on my part.
On the last day of the clinic I watched Stephanie work with Lell for over two hours. I watched my very spoiled horse have a temper tantrum meltdown on several occasions. It was like a little kid screaming on the floor of a grocery story because mom said no you can’t have any cookies. She reared (many times), pawed, snorted, backed up, and tried to run – over and over again and all clearly showing how angry she was that she couldn’t have her way.
I learned that my horse is very dominant and pushy. Stephanie reminded me that this was clearly evident because Lell had several bite marks on her from horses in the herd. The bite marks represented how strong the other horses have to be with her when she is pushy and won’t get out of their way. Lell is also very reactive. If she doesn’t get her way, and you tell her clearly no, she is likely to blow up into a little tantrum. This is her behavioral pattern. Lell thinks that if she doesn’t get her way and she blows up that usually the human gives in, so it’s very important to be persistent.
Stephanie says it takes five to nine days to change a behavioral pattern in a horse like this. She instructed me to not ride her for at least two weeks and go back to the groundwork and the basics. In the past groundwork always meant classical dressage work in-hand. Now I am learning that groundwork can have a whole new dimension.
Truth: I have absolutely zero knowledge or understanding of natural horsemanship. Like Stephanie, most of my mentors started down this path when they had a difficult horse that doesn’t fit into modern conventions of training. I guess I’ve been fortunate, but now I am traveling down this path. I also realized that being able to competently lunge on different figures – circles, squares, half voltes, reverse, etc, is an expectation of Philippe Karl and the School of Legerete. It’s really hard to change something when you’ve done it one way for years. I was taught the Pony Club way of lunging, but I see the value you being able to lunge my horse anywhere – straight line, circle, square, volte. It makes lunging much more interesting and you know immediately if you have the horse’s attention and respect. And WOW, you really know if you have your horses respect.
Before starting horsemanship if I asked Lell to walk in a straight line down the wall with a rope about 15 feet away it was like she flipped the bird and said goodbye! Off she ran down the long side while her brain floated out the window. If you can’t calmly and quietly walk down the long side with your horse like this without them taking off, i’m learning, maybe it’s time for a little horsemanship before you get into the saddle.
Our work on the ground has paid off. After only a few days Lell has drastically improved. She’s quiet on the lunge at the walk, respects my space more coming in and out of the barn, and has toned down her general attitude a bit. It’s also helped me in my teaching. I recently had a student bring a challenging horse in for a lesson. The mare rears, bucks, and turns home from the trail if she doesn’t get her way. She was very dominant and very pushy about her space. I saw two things working with this horse. First, doing a little horsemanship on the ground really made her think and begin to respect my space. Second, we did the flexions and the nervous tension in the mare completely dissipated. She was like “Wow, maybe these humans might be teaching me something interesting.” Lastly, I could see all the under saddle issues completely mirrored from the ground. If you don’t have their respect on the ground (really in a finite way) why should they respect you under saddle? In other words, if Lell can so easily blow me off and race down the long wall on the line, why shouldn’t I be surprised if she takes off after doing a counterbending half volte under saddle?
So now begins my journey into understanding horsemanship. I’m trying to let go of some major assumptions and judgments (eek) I’ve had about horsemanship in the past and to see the methods and techniques in a new light. My first trainer always said that you have to take the good and leave the bad from every school of training.
I think when you start to understand horsemanship you begin to see horses differently in terms of space, respect, and under saddle work. I’ll leave this post with the most heartening words I heard from Stephanie. She said to not focus on following the methods from any particular school of horsemanship in an exacting manner. She encouraged me to find the techniques and language that work particularly for my horses and me. In other words, find my language on my own. She said, “I can show you the way I do it, but you must figure this out on your own.”