Thursday, June 28, 2012

Eric Smiley Clinic

Monday rolled around even quicker than Mondays usually do, given how exhausted I was from Sunday's trip to Groton House. I ran a bunch of errands in the morning, went and picked up a trailer I borrowed for the clinic, and arrived at the barn to load all of my gear (and the horse). I was expecting Lucy to hop right on like she had done for Groton House, but instead she chose to fight for 45 minutes. This would normally be annoying, but on that particular day I was very tired and it was pouring rain as lightening was striking all over the place, seemingly right on top of us, so I was especially unimpressed with her behaviour.

Maddy was there to help me and we finally got her on, and off we went to Carlisle, MA for the Eric Smiley clinic that my BO had gifted me when she couldn't attend. She unloaded really well and settled nicely in a stall while we waited for the group ahead of mine to finish. We had plenty of time to tack up before our lesson, and I was very happy with how well she stood to be tacked up, and how well she put her mind to work once we got into the ring. She stood still for me to clamber aboard and have a chat with Eric about what I wanted to work on but as soon as we started working, she became very strong.

On a side note, have you ever tried to talk about what EXACTLY you want to work on with your horse? I have been riding for 22 years and I feel like I have a good grasp of goals, techniques, and potential challenges, but when I was asked to verbalise all that, I am pretty sure I sounded like an idiot.

"I want to get her on the bit better," I said. In my head, I was already second-guessing my response.

Eric asked, "What does that mean to you?"

"It means lowering her poll, offering her back, being obedient and soft."

"So how do you ask her to do all of that?"

I spurted some nonsense about half halts, seat, leg, etc, but all in the wrong order and with too much emphasis on hands, which he quickly picked up on.

Anyway, this conversation went on for about five very awkward minutes during which Eric asked me question after question, listened to my answer, and gave me NO indication of his thoughts on the matter. Did I sound like I knew what I was talking about? Did I sound like an idiot? No idea. I just prayed I wasn't making a huge fool of myself. With a smile, he told me he knew he was asking difficult questions and it just gave him a good idea of what I knew, or thought I knew but was a bit mistaken regarding, etc.

Then we got to the lesson and along with the other two women in my session, we warmed up w/t/c in both directions, as he focused in on areas of weakness and strength for each rider. For me, it seems a lot of the problems I have with getting Lucy light in the bridle stem from very inconsistent contact through my hands, and not giving her enough leg. Eric walked over a few times as we were walking around, gently taking the reins from me as he walked alongside us, and instantly Lucy dropped her head, offered her back, and became lovely. As soon as he handed the reins back to me, her head went up, her topline stiffened, and she locked her jaw. This was a huge eyeopener for me and I really concentrated the rest of the lesson on making sure I had consistent contact. When we picked up the first canter, she got silly and tried to throw a few bronco moves but I quickly got her back together and we continued on. Lucy was *that* horse that the other riders steered clear of the whole lesson, giving us lots of space in case we had an explosion, but I didn't really mind.

I was happy with the flatwork we did, and she did improve a lot. Eric set up a small crossrail and had us each trot and then canter over it. Lucy started out super polite, waiting for me to ask her to jump, but then quickly got very strong and started blasting at the jump three strides out. Eric coached me through making her WAIT even if it wasn't pretty, and between fences my job was to create a regular canter rhythm. He explained that if the canter has a good rhythm, the horse doesn't have to keep guessing the distance to the fence; it can establish a good pace and not have to rush/chip to make space up before the jump. I knew this but it was good to hear how vital rhythm is, and that I'm not doing harm by really pulling her back if she tries to go Mach 4 at the base of a fence. I asked him if he thought she was doing that because she was unbalanced/nervous/unprepared (as SO many people have told me they thought it was), and he said he thought it was nothing more than a habit at this point, and it was my job to tell her that isn't what is expected of her.

We finished with a small four-jump course of a small vertical across the diagonal, around a 20 metre circle to another small vertical on the opposite diagonal, around the ring and down the quarter line to a crossrail, switching directions back to a little crossrail oxer. Pace, pace, pace, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Find your distance and STICK TO IT. Don't allow the horse to fling herself at a 2' simple vertical. Balance her between fences and get her mind on the task at hand. The goal was not height or complexity of the jumps; rather, a "course" with enough space where you could balance your horse between jumps but also with enough space the the horse could get a little spaced out and away from you if you weren't diligent about keeping it all together.

Eric complimented me on sticking with my mare, and said Lucy was a lot of horse, but she was very nice and would be worth the trouble, which made me smile :)

The hardest part of the day was getting Lucy back on the trailer to go home. At that point, Maddy, the horse, and I were all EXHAUSTED. I was praying that she'd just get on and be good about it, but she chose to fight for two hours. We tried every method of trailer loading in the book: being patient and working with pressure to get her to move forward onto it. Lunging in front of it and then giving her a chance to get on; if she refused, then going right back to lunging. Keeping her feet moving so she couldn't plant herself in front of the trailer. Putting a random horse in the trailer to try and entice her with a "friend". She was SO naughty through all of this, flying backward, rearing up, trying to pull the lead/lunge line out of our hands, etc. She would stand all day at the back of the trailer, sniffing whatever treat the person trying to load her had, but she refused to put her front feet up there.

Finally we ran a lunge line from her halter, through the trailer, out the escape door, and around the back of the trailer. Maddy was on one side and I was on the other so that she couldn't wedge herself on the side of the trailer. Both of us had lunge lines and we used them to encourage her to go forward. We didn't hit her with them unless she swung her butt at us, but we made the outside space of the trailer "scary" and the inside space "not scary". I hated doing that but I was so desperate after two hours of trying to get this horse on the trailer that I was out of ideas. This actually worked fairly well but obviously this will not work long-term. The trailer she jumped right on for Groton House was a ramp load and this one was a step-up. Historically I have had more issues getting her to go on a step-up but she is not 100% reliable loading on either kind.

I was so burned out by the whole experience that I haven't spent any time with her since. I went and did chores each morning but didn't do anything with her other than making sure she looked ok. There is no rhyme or reason for her behaviour and once she gets on, she immediately starts happily munching hay. She travels great once on the trailer and unloads fine. I don't think it's a fear issue; she is just really freaking stubborn and when she wants to get on, she gets on, but when she doesn't want to get on there is nothing that's going to change her mind! The fact that we spent two hours trying to get her to load is so preposterous to me that I can't even think about it for more than a few minutes before feeling overwhelmed.

So I guess I will tackle that another day when I have the energy and positivity to burn. I started my new job this week and that is taking everything I've got at the moment. I am thrilled to be working and doing what I want to do with my education, but starting a new job is very scary and overwhelming at times! I am doing my best to organize all of the new information and learn as much as I can.

Thanks to Maddy, we have some photos!

Eric demonstrates the kind of contact I need to have

within just a few seconds, Lucy's whole attitude changes

once I got the reins back, though, it was difficult for me to maintain the
soft but consistent contact Eric had

at the trot, she was a bit la-la at first...

but eventually settled down nicely

getting a little tune-up

this guy has magic hands, I'm telling you!

some nice, non-airborne canter work

moving onto jumping exercises, making her think with an extra canter pole
out front.

she really wanted to rush this one each time, but I had to be diligent about
making her wait for me.

Eric placed a canter pole out on the other side to help get her attention
when she landed.

the little crossrail oxer


  1. I am glad that you had a good experience with the clinic. I can totally relate to the trailering issues. I recently battled with Houston for 2 hours to get him on a step up slant load trailer. For the ride home he was on in under 60 seconds. We are going on a "field trip" tomorrow so I decided to practice with him today on my trainers 4 horse ramp and he walked right on not once but 4 times... Horses... I don't believe Houston is afraid either just a mule.

    I previously have resorted to the lungeline behind the butt tactic. We had 4 people at it though. Horses...

  2. I had a horse years ago that EARLY (4am) one morning refused to get on the trailer. I missed a show. He was a good loader normally. I feel your frustration.

    I love Eric's clinics and I hope you did.

  3. Sometimes I have the feeling horses do these things to us just to keep us on our toes. I knew a horse that was absolutely terrified of step-ups, and we figured it was the shadows that were underneath the trailer that he was afraid of. Never understood it! Hopefully she'll be better for you next time.

  4. There is a reason that I often introduce myself to clinicians with, "I'm Hannah, this is Tucker, we need help with _everything!_"

    Sounds like a really productive clinic!

  5. It sounds like you got a lot out of the clinic.
    Pretty Lucy sure can be a challenge. It must be frustrating when she's so good one day, and not so good another day.
    My trailering problem with Paj is that he loads great except when he doesn't feel good. When you really need to get him to the vet, he is horrid, horrid, horrid. I don't know if it's because he doesn't feel good and that makes him crabby, or if he knows he's going to the clinic, or if he picks up on my distress even though I act calm. I don't know how to fix it since every other time he loads himself.

  6. ya clinic! the pictures look awesome!

  7. Ugh - a horse that doesn't load consistently or at all is so embarrassing - my mare will go through boughts of refusing to go on, her favorite trick is rearing with pushin through the pressure or rushing put once on. I use a dressage whip, and tap tap tap to cue her to come forward (while no where near the float) then when she is consistently coming forward from that cue, I bring her up to the ramp. Tap tap tap until she is thinking forward, and build up from there. Her energy levels dictate how hard the tap is, and there is NO EMOTION behind it at all, no matter how long it takes. If she rushes out, I whack whack whack with the whip to get her thinking forward again.
    Works every time, and every time she loads better and better.

    Try to borrow a trailer for a week and school it every day. That might cement it in her mind?

    I think I have a video of my sister loading her mare this way (who can be quite stubborn). Let me see if I can find it...

  8. Here it is - very boring and the horse has been schooled to the cue but it just shows what I am trying to describe...

    My sister and I have very little trailer loading experience but a friend of mine showed us this technique and while it took a long time (as we didn't have our own float to practice) our mares now load consistently and calmly every time. It is all about the timing though.

    *rushing out once on, not rushing put once on. -.-

  9. Now THAT is out of the way, Lu looks awesome at the clinic! Glad you were able to take a lot away from it. :)

  10. "This was a huge eyeopener for me and I really concentrated the rest of the lesson on making sure I had consistent contact."

    This is one of my main problems, too, and it was SO apparent during my rides on Dani, a horse that really liked to be put together and supported. I feel like I spent so long trying to be soft and giving in my hands that it's resulted in passive, sloppy hands.

    Sorry for the trailer loading woes - I have so little experience with trailering and therefore it still kind of freaks me out. My BM has been instrumental in getting Coro to load when we've had to take him to the vet twice, but he has a big open stock trailer and it's been a non-issue. When I moved the two horses out here I used a shipping company with the huge commercial van and Coro refused to get off.

  11. You have been through a lot with Lucy, and while it's obvious that it has been a very uphill battle at times, you have always overcome and found success. She does seem like a strong, bold, and opinionated horse horse, but as you seem to know, they can make the best partners. It just takes time. I know weeks like this are hard, but there are so many good times ahead of you! I have a very strong OTTB that I battled with for the first few years I had him; while each year we made progress, it has not been until recently that I feel like I am really figuring out how to ride him the way he needs to be ridden. I can recommend the work of Mary Wanless. Her philosophy for riding on the flat has been a life-saver for me. I know you have a lot on your plate, but I would check out some of her books--For The Good of the Rider is a great one to start with and then the Ride With Your Mind Clinic. She really breaks down the biomechanics of the horse and the rider and her instructions make sense and can help break you of your overuse/inconsistency with your hands (which has been my big problem too). I recommend this not to be didactic but because it has made such a huge change in my riding, and I wish someone would have recommended it to me long ago! Good luck!

  12. I am so jealous of all of the fun things you've been doing with Lucy! Difficult week or not, you should be SO proud of all of the cool things you two have been up to:)

    I read (or heard) a Buck Brannaman story about him teaching a 'difficult' horse to load. If I remember correctly, the gist of the story was that a lady paid him to teach the horse to load. He got the horse loading...but he did it by getting the horse to BACK into the trailer. The owner was annoyed and missed the point of the exercise. The point, I think, is that its about leading the horse- getting the horse to the point where you can control its feet, you can practice loading by gaining control over her on the ground. I also like the idea of changing up, if the horse is used to throwing a fit when they walk in, then back 'em in!

    Good luck!

  13. No advice from me, I'm sorry. Just know that you show enormous courage in telling us how things really are, and I love that you keep doing different and challenging things with Lucy. I am positive you make a great partnership and you are lucky to have each other. I so enjoy your blog and learn something everytime I read it and well done with the clinic.


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