Qi Gong

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Qi Gong folks in New York City

So I do yoga about 20 minutes a day 5 days a week because it makes me feel good.  I sleep better, my shoulders feel better yada yada.  Really it isn’t as big a thing as people make it.  I am always surprised when people say they are afraid to try yoga.  What?  Or that I must be really flexible because I do  yoga.  Um, I’m really not flexible, which is why I do yoga.  They say a woman must really love a thing if she practices it with no hope of mastery.  That is me and yoga.

Because I do yoga, I am on a few yoga email lists and I had a very interesting thing come across mid-week last week:  Qi Gong classes.  My acupuncturist (don’t get crazy about that either.  No big deal) said it would be really good for me.  I have no idea what that means, but I wasn’t there to argue the finer points of that comment.

‘Qi’ means ‘life force’ and ‘Gong’ translates to ‘work’ or ‘practice’.  It is a 5 week class and I signed up for it.  Starts tomorrow night.

So, of course I googled Qi Gong and found out lots of interesting stuff, but one thing really was super cool.  It said that Qi Gong is about ‘going with’ rather than ‘doing to’.  Interesting that they didn’t say ‘going with’ or ‘doing to’ your body.  They just said, ‘going with’ rather than ‘doing to’.  My guess is that it is a whole lifestyle thing.

Hmmmm…

So as I always do, I thought about that and horses.  Some of my best rides have been when I have had the feeling of ‘going with’ the horse rather than ‘doing to’ the horse.  Of course there are times when we have to ‘do to’, especially with green or unsure horses, who need to be shown the way.  But when I get on and provide direction to a horse and then ‘go with’ it rather than ‘making sure it gets done’ in a micromanagement manner, the result is always not only better, but more enjoyable for both of us.

I am reminded of my yoga teacher who says that ‘how you do something is more important than what you do’.  There’s a mind bender.

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Yeah, what she said

 

The stalling point

 

So the arena has been stalled at an unusable point for a month due to the construction crews moving to a cow/calf operation project that had to get done before calving. Um, arg.    This has effectively eliminated any chance of riding to days when the footing happens to be perfect in the pasture or on the gravel roads, which doesn’t happen with frequency in February in Iowa.  Of course, before the indoor arena project I had an outdoor arena which I could use with some regularity in winter, but the location of the indoor is where the outdoor was, so I am now effectively hamstrung for riding, until construction begins again in mid-March.

So I’ve been reading.  The latest book is “Dressage Masters, Techniques and Philosophies of Four Legendary Trainers”.  It is an interview book, simply written and it is really wonderful.  I bought it because it has my dressage hero, Klaus Balkenhol, as one of the four, but I’ve found also that the other trainers – Ernst Hoyos, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer and George Theodorescu are equally admirable.  It makes me feel good every time I realize that all good trainers sound fundamentally the same.  They all have first a love of the horse.  That seems obvious, until you meet a trainer who doesn’t love horses.   I bought this book for my Kindle for like $15 or something.

 

Ellen Schulten-Baumer

The quote from it that I want to share with you was spoken by Ellen Schulten-Baumer, whose father, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer, trained her.  She currently has 5 Grand Prix dressage horses in her barn that she and her dad trained from 3 year olds.  I’m just going to share this quote and get out, because I can add nothing to it.  Rock on, people.

 

“I learned something very important from my father.  When a horse doesn’t perform a lesson as expected, I first have to ask myself whether the horse is capable.  If the answer is yes, then I must think about how I apply my aids.  I must use them better so the horse understands exactly what I want.  This may involve riding more preparatory exercises.  If I can’t get it right fairly quickly, then I go to something else.  It is unfair and unproductive to drill a horse; this causes too much physical and mental stress.  I tell my students this also.  If they just can’t get it right, they can think about their aids overnight and try again tomorrow.  Then the horse and rider get a fresh star together.”

Perfect mirrors

The Newf, playing the role of recently awakened grizzly bear

Our Newf Peppa has to take a few pills per day.  I’ve been spooning out about a tablespoon of peanut butter, hiding the pills in it, rolling it up and giving the resulting peanut butter ball of goodness to the Newf, who eats them down like a champ.  This plan was all good until I started to get slightly annoyed with the reality of having peanut butter combined with dog goo on my fingers every day.  I love peanut butter, and without the dog goo, I would just like it off my fingers like anybody would.  But the dog goo makes it a no deal.  So I rinse it off with water, but, I’ve found I need to use very hot water, because peanut butter plus cold water simply equals stickier peanut butter.  Paper towels work too, but the process is still unsatisfying.

Peppa the Newf in delighted phase

Then one day, I took a spoon straight from the dishwasher, freshly cycled.  It was a little bit damp as I used it to scoop my peanut butter.  And voi la!  The peanut butter didn’t stick!  It was easy to make it into a little ball that the Newf ate right up and I was left with clean hands.  Amazing!  The Newf and I were delighted.  Little discoveries like this can make all the difference.

That is how it was last week.  A student was going to be a bit late for her lesson, so I decided to tack up her horse and warm him up for her.  I had about 35 minutes, so I was able to have a nice long walk warmup, and then did some brief trotting and cantering.  Charlie did very well, moving forward in a relaxed and polite manner.  I was just finishing up when my student arrived.

Charlie, Camie and The Newf observe the work on the indoor arena. Must have bought the cheap seats to be by the muck pile...

This was to be a lesson on riding out of the arena, so I mounted up on Elliot and she got on Charlie and out we went.  Now Elliot is a beautiful animal who, a little unfortunately, has about the most earthbound walk possible. He’s not about to set any land speed records.  I gave my student the mission of keeping Charlie’s ears even with Elliot’s, which I guessed would be an easy goal, with Charlie’s long tb legs and his good warmup.

But there was trouble in paradise.  She was having a devil of a time getting Charlie to swing along, as I know he is capable of doing, and as he had done just a few minutes before.  So I reminded her of all the things riding instructors say.  Make sure you are following the stretch of his neck in walk, with your hands in an elastic connection.  Keep your legs on in a rhythmic fashion to support the walk.  And she was doing these things, I could see.

Still he walked slowly along, a wobbly beast that belied the completely enjoyable horse I had just been riding.  Against my better judgement I told her to give him a good nudge, aka a kick.  We got one quick step from that, and then a return to the slogging blobfest he was doing before.  As I comparatively glided along on Elliot and watched her work so hard for the same walk on her horse, I wondered very quietly and very seriously why it was so hard to get Charlie to walk with intention.

Charlie and I hunting

I decided to intently observe what she was doing.  After a few minutes it was clear to me that it wasn’t what she was doing, it was what she wasn’t doing.  Though her hands followed, and her legs rhythmically supported, her hips and back were stiffly resisting the forward motion.  There was go in her calves and hands, and there was stop everywhere else.  I had a postulate that Charlie’s resistance wasn’t his own.  He was simply reflecting what his rider was telling him to do.

I explained this to my student and then showed her what I was doing in my hips and back and how she could do the same thing to harmonize her aids and give Charlie clear direction.  Less than a minute later, because she’s a very talented learner, Charlie was swinging along in a confident, sweeping walk.  Horses are perfect mirrors of the energy of their riders.  Riders only need to make their energy unified and clear.

It was pretty cool.  Hope it helps you.

 

 

Best. 52.8 penalties. Ever

Sammy and I at a check on a hunt in TMH's beautiful Grand River fixture

Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trial had a fairly tough training level xc course over the weekend.  I had entered my developing horse, Sammy, in his first horse trial there, and walking the course I felt like we probably were prepared, but that it would take some riding to get it done.  Sammy and I had done a lot of foxhunting together, which always makes me feel confident.  I really get to know horses when I foxhunt them for a season or two.  They say foxhunting is like war, but with only half the danger.  The experience of going through the excitement and the tedium of live foxhunting bonds us like men who spent time in foxholes together-we’d never ask the other to do anything we wouldn’t do for them and we’ve got each other’s backs.

We’d also taken care of the technical side of things, with dressage, xc and showjumping schooling of course.  We’d done a schooling horse trial at another park at training level and done very well.  So, I thought we were prepared and didn’t lose any sleep on Friday night.

Saturday morning’s dressage went fine and after a few hours’ break we were warming up for xc.  Sammy’s not much for show nerves, and galloping all over God’s creation on a hunt with 30 of his closest horse pals all winter makes the xc warmup chaos feel like old home week.  So, having warmed up, we trotted down to the start box.  Since this was only his second horse trial (the first being the schooling horse trial a few weeks before), he stood in the start box without much of a clue as to what was coming next.  So I enjoyed the quiet time, which I know won’t last.  When he has a few more horse trials under his belt, he will know exactly what a start box means and start revving up the engine there.  I enjoyed the peace while I had it.

3, 2, 1 go!  Have a good ride!   And off we went.  Sammy picked up a very nice hand gallop, taking in the scenery, and I got the feeling he was thinking there might be hounds to follow nearby.  When I mentioned to him that there was a nice log jump ahead, he switched his focus to it and, though we were 10 strides out, he threw all his legs forward for exactly one stride, (it would have gotten a nice reining score I think) then immediately continued cantering.  I heard a rapid conversation from his head, “What?  There’s no fenceline, what’s with the jump?  Oh, yep, I can do that.”  He went down and popped over the log pile.

On to fence two, a shiny maximum height pheasant feeder.  He cantered hesitantly down to it, felt extra wobbly at the second to last instant and exercised his right to wobble decisively left.  I could have stuffed him over it, I think, but I didn’t want him to have an awkward jump and scare himself.  I exercised my right to tap him on the butt once with the crop, gave him a second to reset his mind, re-presented to the fence and hopped right over the pheasant feeder on try 2.  Next, through the small creek (an easy deal for a foxhunter) and on to the barn jump.  He cantered on down to that and sailed it.  He’d seen this fence’s identical twin on the course 2 weeks ago, so he was good with that.  Canter up the hill and up the bank.  This was more like it for him.  Terrain issues are a foxhunter’s forte’.  He took that bank like a professional and now he was getting in a bit of a rhythm.

skinny chevron

Canter down the hill and up the next and on to the skinny chevron.  I had wondered how this one was going to go when I walked the course because some horses don’t think they will fit between trees like this.  I had one horse who actually jumped a 5′ showjumping standard in a clinic when the clinician set a skinny showjump.  The horse was sure he would not fit between them, but didn’t like to stop or runout, so, very logically, he jumped the standard.  His rider managed to stay in the tack by sheer benevolence of the Universe and the horse staying straight upon landing.  Had he done any minor squiggle in the first two strides after the fence, I’d have been a lawn dart.  Good man.  So I cantered down to the skinny chevron with a leg on, but wondering how this might go.  Sammy jumped it straight and true, no muss no fuss.  Yay Sammy, because the next fence was a bending line two stride log combination in the woods.    There was a lot of talk about the combination on course walks.  There was walking and rewalking the center distance, the inside distance, the outside distance.  As for me, I loved the combination, nice round logs, good footing, nice distance right down the middle, nice size.  And voi la!  Sammy agreed.  Smoked on over that combination.  Good man.

Trakehner. "Did you know there's a ditch under that?"

Next a let-up coop that rode easily and then down to the trakehner.  He’s done trakehners before, but still he was a little rattled early in the course and, though he was doing really well, trakehners are still funny things to horses.  He cantered down to it and at the last minute turned left exclaiming, “Camie, did you know there is a ditch under there?  I’ve got a solution for us.  Let’s go this way instead!  Look, no ditch!”  I think I actually giggled a little.  I know he can jump the height and I know he learns quickly, so I took a breath, gave him a pet, walked a few steps away, picked up a canter and asked him to have a try again.  He jumped it perfectly.

That was a turning point.  I think I heard an audible “click”.  He figured out that the easiest and most fun thing is to go over whatever is in front of him.  “Ohhhhhh.  I get the game.”  It was really cool.  In that instant, I knew the rest of the course was going to be pure fun.  He dropped into the water like a star.  Did the barrels in perfect stride, the combination felt like a gymnastic and we went down the down steps, both grinning like crazies. 

The steeplechase fence rode just like a real steeplechase fence, forward and confident.  The corner was easy and then on to the coffin complex.

Ok, this picture is from last year's prelim. Replace the coop with a table and put the c element to the left a bit and you have the training coffin 2010. There's a creek between the two jumps.

On the course walk, I was a little concerned about the coffin.  I jump judged it last year and I’d seen some inexperienced horses come up to the first element, start to jump, see the water on the other side, stop jumping and slither on their front legs back down the jump. Faced with that, a few riders stayed on and a few ejected.  No lasting harm to anyone.

So now I was cantering down to the same complex.  But I was not on the same horse I’d started the course with.  I was on One Who Got the Game.  Even cantering down to it, I knew it would go well.  He sailed over that table, took the creek in stride and actually locked on to the prelim C element.  I had to pull him off and send him to the training C, which he sailed easily.

Next a coop.  I giggled to myself coming down to it since a foxhunting friend of ours had remarked to herself about a coop on her course at a different horse trial.  “It’s just a coop.  We jump them all the time.  No problem.”  And promptly got eliminated at it on xc day.  So I rode the coop properly and with respect and it went well.

Birdhouse rolltop. Built by husband Jay and sponsored by Julie Kuhle as a memorial to her bird-watcher mother. Lovely.

The new bench was a lark and it was great fun to jump the birdhouse, which had spent a few weeks being born in our garage a few winters ago and was delivered to the park in our horse trailer.  And GREAT fun to jump.  Then a nice big table, and pet and praise the horse through the finish flags.

The 10th place ribbon is a very pretty cornflower blue.  And it was the Best.  52.8 penalty-ride.  Ever.

How to make your horselife more relaxing and safer

Being a horse is confusing sometimes.  You get on a trailer, spend a couple of hours with your balance constantly changing, back off the trailer when it stops and you’re somewhere new.  Maybe you are going to a new owner.  The trailer drives off and you are in a place where every variable in your life has changed.  New surroundings, new person to interact with, new horses to meet, new pecking order to establish, maybe new food and maybe water that smells funny to you.  Quite possibly, new rules from the new handler.  It can be a scary time for a horse.  Here are some tips I find useful in helping horses to relax and perform when they arrive at a new or temporary home.

Quality of Energy In = Quality of Energy Out

A relaxed horse, trusting his rider, and the rider allowing a slack rein, in trust to her horse. Sarah Hannapel photo

Horses, you may have noticed, don’t talk much generally.  There is the occasional outburst and some friendly nickering or “meet the new guy” posturing sounds, but generally, they’re quieter than humans.  They are into physical cues.  They read energy for the most part.  When you approach a horse with the attitude of Benevolent Dictator (BD), that person who will assume the position of making decisions for both parties, but who will put the horse’s needs to the forefront, you will be given right of way as leader by the horse and the experience of being the follower will relax the horse.

The two parts of Benevolent Dictator nest into each other.  For instance, sometimes when a horse is in a new situation, he will exhibit resistance to being led, either figuratively or literally.  Maybe he literally will not move, or maybe he is whinnying himself silly and skittering about.  At this point, the BD is wise to employ the Miz  Scarlet Effect a brief, but moderately strong suggestion, repeatable as needed, that the horse’s best interest is served by having his attention on the handler and following directions.  This correction is both a Benevolent and Dictatorship act because horses and handlers are safest when their attention is focused in the same direction.  Benevolence is also manifested when the horse is praised when he keeps his attention on you.  The Benevolent Dictator makes being with her more fun and relaxing than “being”, physically or mentally, somewhere else.

More on Benevolence: No Fingers, No Face Scratch

My horses' favorite scrubbie

Horses, you may have noticed, do not have fingers.  Hooves are handy for crossing rough terrain, but they’re inconvenient in many ways.  Imagine going through life not being able to scratch your face or ears, and often having flies on your face, to boot.  This might be why most horses lurve face rubs.  Rubbing a horse’s face in long, easy-to-predict strokes with a rubber scrubbie both with and against the hair while the handler puts her hand under the horse’s chin or jaw for support is perceived by many horses to be a very benevolent act.  Their respiration slows, they close their eyes and they think good thoughts about you.  (Ok, my fantasy, but a nice one to visit every day.)

No fingers also means no Q-tips.  Horses’ ears get waxy or itchy just like ours do, but again, the no finger thing. That’s where you step in and help and make an instant friend or at the very least find out more about your horse.  Put a kleenex on your finger and gently put it in his ear and see if you can gently rub some of the dirt/wax out.  Some horses love this, some horses wonder what in the heck you are doing and please maybe not so much of that.  If not, let it be.  Just offer and see what happens.  The ones that love it do this funny thing with both their upper and lower eyelids that I have only seen them do when their ears are cleaned, and all horses who like it make the same face.  Must be the universal ear delight face.  It is hysterical and you’ll know it when you see it.

Many horses also have a swirl of hair in the middle of the bottom of their bellies where the flies love to bite.  Scratch this.  Then put swat on it.  More good thoughts to you from horsie.

While you are distributing all this Benevolence (and feeling the love back), the Dictator is also there, making sure basic rules are followed.  If horsie looses focus and starts whinnying or skittering about, invoke your right to a swift Miz Scarlet Effect, growl for a maximum of two seconds and then let it go and proceed back to Benevolence mode.  If you made that quick energy change in an interaction with a person they’d call you Sybil.  When you do that to a horse, they are happy to have gotten clear direction.  And they usually step happily right back in line.

Moving backwards down the horse’s body, if you have a mare, run your hand along her belly until you reach her teats.  If she will allow it, check between her teats for icky crusty stuff.  It builds up there and I bet it itches like heck, because most mares are delighted to have you gently remove it once they figure out what you are doing.  Meanwhile, they are also figuring out that your intentions are good.  This goes a long way to improving their confidence in their environment and you.  A confident horse is a safer horse.

If you have a gelding, it gets a little more complicated as they can telescope their thingies into the netherworld and most people aren’t going to go spelunking after it.  Some geldings, though will welcome you removing some of the dead skin off of their winkies if you are gentle, and don’t tell me that doesn’t feel good to the fingerless-types.  This is all entirely trust building through hygiene.

When it is time to do the soft-brush-on-the body routine, get a seriously soft brush.  If you can run it down your cheek and be happy, you are there.  Start with the top of the horse’s head.  Move the forelock to the right and groom the area between it and the ears.  Then do the same on the left.  Then groom the outside or even upper inside of the ears if the horse will allow it.  Then, use long strokes that go from the middle of the face, following the hair, smoothly over the eyes, which the horse will close as the brush goes over, and then down the cheek.  Spend a full minute or two on the face alone.  Some horses like to have it run down the channel of their cheekbones, underneath their head.  As you do this, look at the horse’s reaction of relaxation, slow your breathing and just allow the connection.  Many horses will draw a long sigh of relaxation while you do this.  The Dictator program is always running in the background, correcting the horse if he starts to rub on you or fidget around or otherwise be distracted.  He is supposed to passively allow you to kindly groom his face.

When you groom the rest of the horse, if you are not removing mud or having to otherwise scrub, use long strokes and breathe long breaths.  Let your free hand rest on the horse, having placed it there palm first.  I haven’t quite figured out why, but if you watch really good horsepeople, they rest their whole palm on the horse and feel, rather than let their free arm hang or spider their fingers over the horse, with their palm held away.  Regardless of the reason, horses relax when touched with the whole palm in long strokes in the direction of the hair.

Feed Cookies

At will.  And the people who say not are silly meanies.

Pick Up Hooves

Yes, you should do it for all the reasons you know you should, but you should also do it because a horse who will calmly shift his weight to his other legs and allow you to futz with the remaining one is a horse who is confident in you.  Spend time getting this right.  Not just holding it in the air for the 8 seconds it takes you to pick it, but spend time helping them learn that yielding their body to you is not scary.  This isn’t just a “yes” or “no” will-he-pick-up-his-feet-for-cleaning thing.  This is a connection thing.  When a horse does this efficiently and confidently, the ride goes well.  If I have a horse who isn’t calm and relaxed in yielding his body to me in this manner for whatever reason and we don’t resolve it, it tells me I have more work to do on the ground, and I’m not getting in the tack today.  No biggie, glad to know it before I am in the tack.  Time spent getting this right and getting better connected is always well spent.

Extra Credit

Lots of horses like to have their heads held.  What? Seriously.  Lots of horses, when they are relaxed and in a calm environment, like to have their heads held by their people.  Several, ok all, of my horses will walk up to me and place their whole head right in front of me so that I can put one elbow over their nose and one elbow over their upper neck, which puts my face in the perfect position to kiss them right behind their ears.  They love this. They make big happy sighs and will stay there as long as I do.  They relax their necks and curl around me.  You don’t want to rush into this or even have it as a goal because some horses are more into it than others and horses’ heads are heavy and solid and can move very quickly and hurt you.  You wouldn’t rush in and kiss a person you don’t thoroughly know wants you to kiss them.  Same or even moreso with horses.

Connection = Relaxation = Greater Chance of Safetly

When we put ourselves in the position of Benevolent Dictators, taking both aspects of that title to heart, we open a channel to greater connection to our horses.  This relationship is one of caring and empathy with a lack of fear in both parties.  When we have greater connection we have more trust and relaxation from both handler and horse.  When we have trust and relaxation, horses are more likely to react predictably and calmly.  Even when things don’t go perfectly, a horse who has been handled with consistent Benevolence and Leadership is likely to look to its leader for relief rather than improvising his own.