Tuesday, March 8, 2016

PNER Convention Notes – “Beyond Conditioning” – by Robin Ryner

Another day, another long-overdue post of my PNER Convention notes! Fair warning, the following post is LONG (with my personal thoughts in italics for the most part).

Robin Ryner operates Compass Equine, a training center in Arizona. She rides, trains, and teaches.
At the beginning of her panel, Robin Ryner told the audience that her presentation was not a recipe for training horses. Instead, Robin Ryner wanted to give us some of her “ingredients” that we could then use in our own recipes. My general feeling about this talk was that she was giving us a kind of reality-check. It’s one thing to learn all you can about conditioning, feeding, and shoeing the endurance horse – but what about the rest of it? The planning and doing part of endurance riding?

Robin started in endurance in 1998. Though she does not have a lot of competition miles herself, she really enjoys getting a good base on young horses so that those same horses can go down the trail successfully with their owners.

She was right when she stated, “Endurance riders are good at dreams and goals…” I feel like my time as an endurance greenie has been dreaming and making goals for over eight years! With only one LD under my belt, both my goals and my dreams seem hardly achievable. BUT last week I had my first proper conditioning ride of the season, so right now my dreams are hope.

Robin continued by defining exactly what “dreams” and “goals” mean. This is the beginning of that “reality check.” Essentially: dreams are what inspire us, while goals are what get us to those dreams!
  • It does not matter what your dream goal is, but it does have to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic (time, commitment, and setup?), and time-bound (we have to put some sort of time-limit on them or else it isn’t truly a goal).
  • Make many little goals to get you to your big goal. I like the sentiment that I should make little goals to work up to the big goals, because with an accident prone pony like Deli it feels like those big goals will always be swept out from under us. But I can plan small (even if my dreams remain big).
  • Your chances of succeeding at goals are much higher if you meet smaller steps.
  • Expectations vs. reality: Expectations – a strong belief that something will happen in the future. Expectations get in the way of dreams and goals because they may not mesh with reality. So true. And so cruel, sometimes.
  • Figure out your ultimate objectives (and in-between objectives). If we, as riders and horse owners and endurance riders, don’t know where we are going, how do we know when we’ve arrived? Break things down as concretely as possible so you know when you have met any of your objectives. This may be the signal to move on to the next goal!
  • Be flexible within your goals. And make sure each step is not too big of a jump

Inside your horse's mind..?

Horses are different from us, right? My own learning curve with Deli was helped along immensely when I understood her way of seeing the world better.

Hello, Ponyface.

Robin Ryner went into depth on this topic. In contrast to our human way of obsessing and planning… Horses don’t have goals in the same way. They just want to be comfortable. Consider how we have to break what we are doing with our horses into steps to train them.

Horses live in the moment, of course. And it’s all about them – they are not thinking about you. All they really want is safety, comfort, food, and play (which I qualify as social bonding and social interaction with other horses). Why is this important? Robin Ryder reminds us that the stuff horses do isn’t personal, and we have to frame the times when they are being naughty or pig-headed from that perspective.

As it relates to how horses work with us: be willing to say “no” when you are training. Positive reinforcement is great and should be utilized, but don’t get afraid to say “NO” when they do something wrong, because it gives the horse a clearer picture of what you want. Letting them know when an action is incorrect creates structure and boundaries within which they can learn. And saying “NO” can be done in a polite way.

Robin Ryner does like to use cookies when she trains. (That’s great – so do I. Deli is also a horse who will try and stand on her head for a cookie.) She did qualify this statement by saying that she is not a human vending machine when it comes to treats. Instead, using treats or any kind of reward system is about what finding that horse’s currency is. (For Deli? Cookies.) Leave that horse every day with good feelings towards you, towards work, toward whatever skills or behaviors they need to make that step towards the next goal.

What other considerations should you bring to your dreams and goals when working with and training horses?

Be present. Ride the spine of that horse instead of constantly riding in the far future. When we can feel what is happening in that moment then we can actually abate the problems of the moment much more quickly. To me this means: deal with issues when they arise. I have often heard “ride the horse you have” and I think that applies not just to the individual horse you own but also the horse you have that particular day. Perhaps as a mare guardian I understand this all too well.

What are you starting with? Make sure you know this baseline and use it to plan the goals, both large and small. Figure out the age and level of your horse and how that relates to these goals. What are the horse’s innate characteristics and ingrained behaviors? Are they analytical, calculating, or the anxious type? Or are they unable to control themselves because they are just super exuberant? Or are they a right-brained introvert who is so scared – they want to do everything they can for you but they get scared and the brain turns OFF? Answering some of these questions seems to me like it would make some goals form right then and there. I know a long-term goal of mine has always been to build Deli’s confidence in herself and trust in me. We have come a long way in that respect, but I think it’s going to be a lifetime goal in general.

A horse can have a lot of issues or training holes. No horse in perfect in all circumstances. You say the horse is bomb proof? It probably depends on how big the bomb is!

Time is limited – make it count. We use time pressure problems to disregard training holes our horse(s) may have. Instead of using this as an excuse, deal with issues as they come and soon your list won’t be so big. Train along the way and whittle down all those rough edges, essentially. Always expect that certain things will happen (like your horse behaving as expected) and train them with that expectation. It does not mean they will always behave, but the expectation should always be there. Mounting is a good example. Horses don’t know when it counts (i.e. at a busy ride startup line) so if they haven’t been asked to stand for mounting all the time they don’t know that it’s a rule that should be followed strictly. It’s important to make the most of every opportunity!

This was a very-real tenet to me last week when I spent nearly three hours getting Deli on an unfamiliar trailer. Luckily the owner of the trailer was chill and fine with letting us have the time. Deli was legitimately scared so I'm glad we worked through it.

How can you set yourself up for success? What we do today prepares us for tomorrow. Address your horse’s tendencies on a consistent basis. For example: what happens when you take their buddy away? Better to set them up for success and work them away from their buddies more gradually. But it’s not what we do – it’s what we do when we quit what we were doing. Don’t reward them at the wrong moment; for example, don’t put them back out with the buddy when they are going nuts. If they are very frantic, only remove the buddy by a few feet. It will take time, but you are giving them a better chance of exhibiting the correct behavior.

Make standing quietly a habit. Don’t instantly take them out of the trailer when they start pawing, for example, because essentially they are training YOU to hurry. Prepare the horse to eat and drink better – use different buckets at home, for example.

Create positive experiences. Sign up for clinics, group trail rides, lessons you have to haul to. Use your imagination and make leaving the property fun for the horse!

What kind of relationship do you want? Partnership or a slave? Again, a horse isn’t being naughty because he wants to piss you off. Essentially, be patient and tolerant, and when the horse is being naughty or not doing what you want, try and put yourself in the horse’s shoes.

Desensitizing and sensitizing. The keys are balance and timing – it’s not what we do but when we quit what we are doing. Yes, we can teach the horse to spook. Sometimes all we think about is desensitizing, but sometimes things are not so cut and dry. Be conscious of safety zones and approach and retreat strategies. If a horse is scared or something is going wrong, and you push them and start whacking on them when they react to something with fear, the horse is probably thinking, “See, I knew this was going to be bad.” On the other hand, if you always stay in your safe zones, you will never get anything done – so you have to push that envelope. Knowing this comes from a lot of experience (and knowing your horse!). 

The above is so very very true from my experience. One of my big breakthroughs with Deli was realizing when her “naughty” behavior was from fear or anxiety, and when it was just from her being obstinate. When I could feel the difference, we made huge strides, because I could correct her when she was being naughty, and take more of a calm-leader role when she was scared. I am hardly perfect there, but a lot of the trust we have now is built on me not punishing her when she reacted from anxiety or fear.

You can’t tell things that may be scaring your horse to STOP (like garbage trucks or bikes) but you can teach a horse to face their own fear. From my experience, a large part of this is your horse trusting you when things get dirty.

Where do we start once we have all these ingredients?

We catch, lead, saddle up, ride them, and then put them away. If you consider it, we do most of these things on the ground.

So start on the ground! The moment our horse sees us is when groundwork starts. 
  • Does your horse lead? It’s a more complicated question than you would think. Robin Ryner expects leading to be that the horse will follow you at whatever speed you ask with a mostly slack lead. Remember that everything seems to buckle on the left so your horse may only be responsive on the left! Build a connection with the feet in mind.
  • Grooming and tacking. Hard tying is important, so work on that. Ground tying is super useful in endurance – for instance when you are pulling tack at a vet check. Give a daily once over as well and know what normal for you horse feels like (you can use this to mimic a vet check). (As an aside, when the vet is on the front of your horse checking things out, be on the opposite side so you aren’t in the way. When the vet is on the hind end checking things out, stay on the same side so you can pull their head toward you and get their hind end to move away from the vet.)
  • Mounting. When a horse leaves without you when you are mounting (i.e. does not stands) it’s the same thing as not being to rate them on the trail. The small things build up. Once you get on hurry up and wait. Just slow down and stand there for a few minutes.
  • Warming up (more than just the muscles). One you first get on always do a little warm-up. Check your breaks, check your cues, etc. 

What to do when specific issues arise?

You can condition WHILE training the brain! For example, while doing circles in the arena. You can actually do quite a few miles doing arena work. But yes, it’s boring and mind numbing.

Pacing is a big issue people have. Pacing problems can result from not practicing at home enough! Extend and collect within the gaits, and transition to the different gaits as well. Work on transitioning between the gaits before you work on extending and collecting them within the gait. Essentially good transitions are the key to rating. Work to get a minimum of 3 speeds without tension in each gait. If you don’t release and relax you are coiling a spring then the horse’s body is going to slingshot ahead. Essentially: don’t go into death-grip-mode on them to "control" them!

What about other issues? Spooking, aggression, herd bound, head tossing, bucking, and bolting? There is no recipe for every problem or “grab bag” for every problem. What you want to do is break down each problem into its components (isolate, separate and recombine). Fixing these problems may not happen fast but put it into pieces and work with consistency. For example, desensitize while they are MOVING not just when they are standing still because they will have different reactions.

Coming home or back into camp and having a barn-bound or trailer-bound or horse-bound horse is a common problem. Sometimes you have to be creative in how you come home. Maybe do a couple circles around the trailer and then head back out. Go past the driveway, switch up your loops, don’t always gallop in the exact same place, etc.

And my favorite part: recognize when the horse is trying and reward them for try! 

Modeling our new GHOST saddle.

Race day. How does today differ than any other? 

Figure out where the tolerances are well before the ride day. For example, check their heart rate halfway through. If you want to go fast you don’t have to be going fast – just figure out where you can save time and condition to trot and canter everywhere you can. Average speed is the biggest thing to pay attention to for new riders or riders wanting to bump up their game. If you are riding at a 5mph average pace you are at the back of the pack. You have to train faster at home then on race day because things might go wrong. Go slow to go fast. Steady pacing wins the day (and horse metabolics do play a part as well). 

The everyday things we do don’t really change on race day (regarding the care of the horse), so be mindful of what that everyday care entails.

Protect the horse. Don’t let other riders tailgate! And do not tailgate! Most people are not thinking and are just trying to survive the ride.

Focus your energy. If you want your horse to be relaxed, then you can’t be braced. If your back is hollow the horse’s back is going to be hollow. Essentially: emulate your horse! Loosen everything up – ride the way you want the horses to be. If you need to wiggle in the saddle occasionally and get things moving fluidly, do it.

And above all: Practice your horsemanship every moment of every day.

Be present. Be thoughtful. Be willing to adjust.

Our first conditioning ride of 2016!
Thank you Robin Ryner for your amazing and thought-provoking talk!

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