I spent the past weekend in Colfax, NC at the Piedmont Saddle Club learning as much as I could from Joe Wolter.
I enrolled in this clinic in February and had hoped I might take Wyoming but I knew in my heart that she was not adequately prepared for all the pieces and parts that would need to be in place for the weekend, the first of which being able to travel on the trailer without it blowing out her mind and emotional system. So it seemed when Susan Hopkins sent a note that the colt starting was cancelled due to lack of interest it was confirmation that this clinic was going to be for K and me.
Joe said many things that were not new, but timeless, through the weekend. For this post I’ll go over a few of the concepts that stuck out to me at this time.
You’ve got to get the whole horse committed in their body to what is in the mind. There’s a difference between a horse that’s putting up with the human and one that’s committed, you can see it in the whole horse. It’s especially clear when the hind end is sticky. Many people get the front end working ok, but the hind end isn’t coming through. That’s a horse uncommitted.
The idea of riding and working with the “whole horse” seems obvious but it really isn’t. If the horse is truly committed to working with the human their whole body works together to try. It was really interesting to me to see the couple of horses that look pretty good much of the time, then would “blow up” in a canter transition, or not lead well, or fuss about being asked to do something- these horses often had a “sticky” hind end on closer observation. Once my attention was drawn to it I could see it, but so much goes on in the head, the eyes, the ears, the neck and the shoulders that the hind end wasn’t drawing my attention. Maybe because it was doing the least in the whole picture, but that was part of the problem, the part we are focused on can be moving around or even fussing (ears pinned or mouth tight) but the hind is heavy and stuck in the movements. The horse wasn’t moving smoothly and in balance. When a horse doesn’t feel good physically (and balance is key to a horse feeling good!) they often will become sticky mentally too.
I suppose it depends on the horse/human which of these comes first (mental or physical), but working on a horse finding balance and getting to move through all the way to the hind end can really help the horse begin to move through mentally as well. At one point Joe noted that the mare became more committed in her mind and you could see she “fixed it in her feet”. When Joe got the horse convinced that it was a good decision to commit to his request the whole horse moved more balanced through the change of direction or the leading or even a transition.
When things aren’t working and you start to get frustrated you have to ask: what do I have going for me? Capitalize on what you do have, and then put the fun back in it.
This idea of finding what you DO have going for you and building on it is really helpful. If we don’t feel good about what we’re doing it’s for sure the horse doesn’t either. And if the horse doesn’t feel good, what’s in it for them to be with us? And if the horse doesn’t want to be with us we have little chance of getting anywhere.
Joe has a way of taking anything the horse offers (even if it is something most of us would consider ) and figuring out what to do with it. He said at one point, “I had to change my mindset to think: I don’t really care what happens I just want to see what happens.” It’s tricky as a human to have a clear goal (because if you don’t know the direction you’re heading you have little chance of getting anywhere) and then when the horse seems to be taking us away from our clear goal, not to think “this isn’t working” but Joe continually says: if you are getting something unexpected, or something different from what you thought you were doing… we just change the subject and I have a chance to figure something else out now. You have got to stay flexible and creative. Take what the horse is willing to give and see what can you do with that?
I had a nagging question from working with Wyoming recently. I know the idea is to Get with the horse, so then the horse can get with you. Yet I found when trying this is real life I had concerns that when I focused on getting with Wyoming it ended up being zero leadership and no plan from me. I don’t think that feels particularly good to a horse either. My personality can see two distinct options: 1) my plan my way; 2) I have no plan– do whatever you want and I’ll tag along.
During the clinic I wondered if I’d have an opportunity to ask how does this work? The last time I rode Wyoming I tried to direct her and that went poorly… then I tried to just sit on her and see what she’d do at which point she took over in a way I don’t think was helpful for either of us. After three days of sitting on my question and never really seeing a door to asking it I feel like Joe answered it through many of his statements over the hours of class. It’s so simple I could felt an internal facepalm.
Take what the mare is offering to do, and MAKE IT YOUR IDEA.
The biggest frustration I can imagine people having with this horsemanship is everything depends. Each horse is unique but there are also patterns horses get into that fall into similar tracks. At one point Joe said:
Just present a puzzle to her. She’ll try hard to figure it out. (But) The horses that are cranky and ready for war they need you to go with them and change the pattern. The horses who are full of try can work out a puzzle so you set it up for them to find release.Joe Wolter
Some horses were already committed and interested to figure out what the human wanted to do, they were all in. For the most part this would be Khaleesi. She’s willing and she trusts me and most days she will give me all she’s got. Some horses were “cranky and ready for war” these horses for whatever reason expect to find a fight. Wyoming and I have had this dynamic in our relationship and looking back I can see evidence of what that does. I am pretty good at giving clear direction and leadership – always improving, but my personality lends itself well to these things. Early on with Wyoming I was working on clear direction and leadership and I created a war zone with Wyoming without understanding what I’d been doing.
This mare still needs me to get with her, take what she offers and begin to build on it as my idea. Now the whole application of that does not seem clear to me, it’s not my strong suit. I’m better naturally at pushing through, this takes much more finesse. Circling around a thing until she’s doing what I would like, in her own way, thinking it’s her idea.
Let the horse do your thing in her wayJoe Wolter from Ray Hunt
I understand what I need to do, but how to do it will probably be messy and full of learning opportunities for me. The trailer loading process is coming along really well now and is stress free. I’d like to see her begin to feel comfortable enough to choose to stay on there but I’ll need to find some incentive because who wants to sit in a car for a long time without purpose? Why would she hang out on the trailer without a purpose when she could be not in confinement. I might have to find some alfalfa… I hear horses love that and if she could get that only on the trailer it might be worth it…
What I still see cranky and ready for war is in riding. This is the place I haven’t changed her mind to see I am willing to be with her. I can saddle her pretty easily and she’ll stand for me to mount, and when I sit in the saddle she stands just fine. It’s the moment I begin to direct her things go sideways. So that will be my next steps. Experimenting with riding this winter and finding ways to take what she is willing to give and MAKE IT MY PLAN.
A horse must be balanced to work well. You’ve got to get all four feet underneath the horse. What happens when you pick up your reins? Is your horse preparing to position to do something or is your horse bracing and getting ready to pull against you? How sensitive are they? When do they notice you’ve picked up the reins? What is their pattern? What is your pattern? Before your horse takes a step do they get balanced so they can move in straightness? If you aren’t starting in balance you will struggle to find it, and the worst thing I can ask my horse to do is a transition when they are out of balance! Don’t ask a horse to speed up when it’s crooked. Get the horse ready to walk, ready to trot, ready to stop so they can do it in balance.
For Khaleesi and I as a pair this was the biggest take away, and it built beautifully on the work Emily Kemp has been doing with us in her clinics this year. When Joe took a little time to work with us individually he noticed that every time I picked up my reins K turned her head to the right (I have also noticed this and wondered what to do about it). He observed my reaction was I used my left rein to suggest she get straight. He offered me an idea: don’t give her the answer, don’t use that left rein but instead hold tension on both reins equally and see if she will search for it. She did. She tried a few things and eventually she got her head and neck lined up and I released. Then he asked me to try again and when she was straight to walk her off. I did. He noticed that I’m having to ask her to walk off… this time he offered, “Let it be her idea, allow her to walk off when she’s ready” Like magic I picked up my reins the way Emily showed me, gently with smoothness, I held them both equally and she searched around for the release, when she was straight I released her into a really nice walk, and she went straight ahead like an arrow.
I spent the following two days building on this one simple thing. I have been seeking straightness and balance for at least two solid years. Pieces have been coming together, but this clinic something really clicked for me.
I felt it.
Finally it seemed I could feel when her body was crooked, when weight was shifted here or there. I could pick up my reins and wait and wait (not at first, of course I had to release her for each try toward more straightness) but by the third day I’d hold there steady and she would get her neck straight but I knew her body wasn’t balanced and if I released her she would go “straight” forward but like a snake not like an arrow!
I began to feel when I released her she would feel like an arrow heading straight forward.
Then I began to work on walking a straight line to different points of the arena. The first day I did a little walk and trot for Joe to watch and I knew we were all over the place. By day three I began to find a few moment where she felt really balanced and straight in the walk and then ask for a trot transition and she could pick it up so smooth. At this point sometimes I could find a straight line and other times I’d have to do a lot of adjusting- but like Joe said: That’s ok! It’s an opportunity to work on getting back in line.
K loves to be in school. She likes to solve puzzles and to learn, and I am pretty sure she really loves it when I learn because then we are better together, and we begin to move increasingly in harmony.
I’ll close for now on these ideas with the first quote I took down on Friday morning. Something that is a great start, and a great end.
Any living thing wants to be somewhere. What do horses want? They want enough to eat and room to move and someone to be with. I just catch the horse and then try to get him to want to be somewhere other than where they’re at then I’ll work on that. And when we get somewhere else I’ll see if I can get them to want to be somewhere other than that. If I can change their mind on one little thing- what can’t I change their mind on?Joe Wolter
I leave you with that fantastic idea…
If I can change their mind on one little thing- what can’t I change their mind on?