Friday, February 25, 2011

Someone out there "gets" it!

I found this video on Facebook. It belongs to Patrica Bensenbach.

The audio is in German, but I found you don't really need to words to understand the video.

When Peggy Cummings described the movement in the horses head and neck as a slight "oscillation" I immediately pictured a 3D computer image of a horse at the walk. I don't know if I have seen this video somewhere on the Internet before, or it's just a giant coincidence that it matches the image in my head, but I almost jumped out of my seat on the bus when I pulled it up on my cell phone.

I believe that blue line down that goes from the horses poll down to its tail is the Nuchal Ligament. The video seems to show the stresses placed upon the horses body when it is over flexed in the head and neck. I find the highlight of the poll to be particularly fascinating.

I love watching the movement of the horse skeleton in the trot starting at the 2:29 mark. The horses head and neck are in what I would call the "neutral" position. Not over flexed or above the bit. The movement is elastic and fluid. What really drew my eye was the slight oscillation of the horses head right at the poll. If you look at the cheek bones of the horse you can see them slightly rocking back and forth in pattern with the hind legs just as Peggy described it. That is almost identical to the image I have been carrying around in my brain for the past two weeks.

One morning last week on my way to the bus stop I couldn't let go of this image. So I tried it, just to see what it would feel like. As I walked, I slightly turned my head to the left every time I brought my left foot forward,I turned my head to the right in conjunction with the right foot. Within 5 steps I found the rhythm. My jaw started to soften, my neck was no longer stiff. I found I could not clench my teeth even if I wanted to. I crested the top of the hill on my way to the bus without even realizing it, the hill climb was effortless.

Pretty amazing stuff!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Putting it all to work

I bought one of Peggy’s halters last Sunday. I normally don’t purchase equipment sold by clinicians. You won’t see me with a 50 dollar “carrot stick” when I know I pick up a free stick off the ground that does the same job. I purchased the halter because I saw the value in it, how it was designed specifically for the Connect Groundwork. I actually had to ask if I could buy one, and had to wait for Susan, Peggy’s business partner to return to the barn to purchase it. They were clearly not pushing their equipment on anyone in attendance. I used one that Peggy had on hand during the lesson and could see the difference between it and the pieced together set up I was using at home. Peggy’s halter was specifically designed for the work she does.
It wasn’t long before my new purchase showed me its worth.
For the past few months Grace has become progressively worse coming out the pasture gate. What started out as somewhat silly behavior, pinning her ears back and going after the dog, has over time turned into an obnoxious habit. Lots of leaping and bucking and kicking out. There are days I feel like I have a fire breathing dragon at the end of my lead rope. The behavior carries over to when I tack her up. She doesn’t want to stand and has even tried to bite me. The first day I worked her after the lesson with Peggy, I took the halter up to the pasture with me. I closed the gate behind me and took my time figuring out the new contraption. Grace shoved her face into the halter keeping her eyes on the gate. I “combed the line” and “drew the bow”. Grace forgot about the gate and started to focus. We took our time waking out the gate; I continued to comb the line and draw the bow all the way to the trailer. I have continued this new routine every day since. 5 days later I have a well behaved mare who calmly walks out of her pasture gate and stands quietly while I brush her.

Wednesday – Friday I only worked Grace in hand. With each night Grace became more responsive to the work. The spooky phase went away; she started to anticipate the exercises. I found that she is more responsive on the right side. She loves the “combing” work, and doesn’t like it when I send her out on the line away from me. Even though we were only working on the ground, at the walk and trot I knew we were accomplishing more than if we had spent an hour under saddle. This became very clear to me when I got back on her this weekend. Both days I followed the same routine of pulling her out of the pasture in the Connected Groundwork halter. She walked out so nicely today you would have thought we were in a showmanship class. I lead her to the arena and did 20 minutes of ground work. I kept the halter on when I saddled her. Every time she pinned her ears, I combed the line. By this afternoon, years of “cinchy” behavior seemed to be fading away.

My rides over the last two days have been just lovely. I have focused on my seat and body position. We do a lot of walking and turning. I “swivel” my body to create a turn, my hands stay in front of my saddle as I “hug” myself. For the last two days I have worked Grace on a loose rein in a snaffle at the walk, jog and lope. Grace has chosen to telescope her neck low out in front of her. She has a jog that I could ride all day long. Her left lead lope is something I have only dreamed of and her right lead is the best it has ever been. I spend the entire ride aware of my seat, going through my checklist in my head. I am amazed by how easy it is. I don’t have to work to make it happen. If anything I seem to be “allowing” my horse to access her true movement.
I wonder if Peggy sells t-shirts with her catch phase “Oh Really!”

Grace before I started the ground work today

Close up of the line, it is textured making it easy to "comb"

Grace midway through our ground work session today

Grace at the end of our ground work session today.
I would MUCH rather ride this horse!


continued from here

So how do we keep it past those three steps? The physical therapist helped me with the horrible twist in my body. She treated my shoulder by addressing a hip issue I had been dealing with since birth. Turns out I had the same onion layers that I have seen in Grace. After the physical therapy sessions, I was finally able to access my core strength in the saddle. My walk is much improved, but still not as perfect as those three steps I took during one of our sessions.

I attended a clinic of Peggy’s 8 years or so ago when I was boarding Grace at the barn the clinic was held at. The clinic was done under saddle at the time. I still remember the little “check ins” she gave us to see if we were in the correct position. I was able to hold onto the muscle memory for a few days after that clinic before I got in a hurry with my agenda and went back into my old holding pattern. At my lesson last week the same series of check ins were once again presented. 8 years later, I am able to hold onto the balanced body position and remember what it feels like. I found it last Fall when I finally let go of the arched lower back I have been holding onto since birth. Add to that years of “equitating” and I was one stiff rider. Once I developed enough core strength to allow my lower back to soften, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere with my horse. She was not able to come through and over her back until I got out of her way. I was finally allowing her access to her hind end and the use of her full skeleton when I was on her. Once I had a “feel” of my new position and my horse’s improved movement underneath me, I developed a memory of it. I was no longer willing to accept the old pattern of poor quality movement. It just didn’t feel good, even though it was all we had known for many years. I had “awakened” to what my body was capable of.

At one point during the lesson with Peggy last week, Grace saw something at the end of the arena that spooked her. Peggy was holding Grace, showing me a groundwork exercise. Grace’s head shot up and she started to dance, she was fixated at the end of the arena. Peggy kept “combing” the line that was attached to the work halter Grace was wearing until Grace came back to earth. Grace’s reaction gave me the chance to ask one of the many questions I had about “neurological reprogramming”. I had noticed at home that when I reintroduced Peggy’s Connected Groundwork program, Grace became “spooky”. She started to notice things outside of the arena that normally wouldn’t bother her. Grace has always been a “quiet” horse. Even as a 3 year old, most things that upset other horses never bothered her. It surprised me when she started to react to everything around her when I would start the Connected Groundwork after not doing it for a few months. It was almost as if I had woken her up and tapped into the part of her brain that remembered that she was a prey animal and could be eaten at any time. The behavior only lasted a few minutes before she would settle down, which was almost always followed by a breakthrough of some sort. I had started to see the spooky behavior as an indicator that I am doing something right, that I had tapped into that part of her brain I hadn’t been able to previously access. I remember that the first time my feet touched the ground differently in my physical therapy appointment, for 10 seconds I was absolutely convinced that something was wrong with the ground. I believe that Grace must be experiencing that moment where her brain says “hey, this feels different” right before her body says “this feels really good”. I could on to something here.......

Thursday, February 17, 2011


“We must neurologically reprogram the horse without pain or fear”

That quote has been bouncing around in my brain since Peggy Cummings said it on Sunday. She didn’t say “train” she said reprogram – neurologically.
Training almost always involves pressure and reward. You don’t let go, give in or stop adding pressure until the horse has given you the chosen response. Even the “quietest” training methods involve a level of fear or pain. If the horse does not respond to the initial amount of pressure added, we add more pressure, we ramp the level of our request until we are heard. When the horse answers with the right response, we reward them by turning off the pressure like a light switch, almost leaving the horse suspended in the ethos for a moment, until we decide to ask another question and the pressure is added again. Why they don’t swat at us like the annoying little gnats that we are I will never know!

Reprogram – Neurologically. There was a moment in my lesson with Peggy where she had me take a step back from Grace after I had asked her to lower her head. Grace hadn’t given me the answer I wanted yet, her head was still in the air. Seconds after I took my hands off her head and took a step back, Grace started to close her eyes and lower her head. It was as if there was a slight delay between my application of energy and Grace’s ability to respond to it.

I’ve been thinking of that moment and Peggy’s quote all week. I as a rider have been trained for the past 30 years to ask a horse to do something by applying pressure. When a horse doesn’t give me my required response I have equipment that I will tell you is just an “extension” of myself. Bits can be stepped up in severity, spurs come in various lengths and rowel options. Then there is always that moment of letting go as soon as the horse gets it “right” all pressure that was previously applied is removed, thrown away, no connection is left. The horse inevitably stops doing what I asked and the process starts all over again.

“Neurologically reprogram” those words remind me of an physical therapist I once went to see. I was seeing her for a shoulder injury. She took one look at me and told me I was “crooked” and that I had a wicked twist in my body. I had to laugh, because I had heard the exact same words from Sarah every time she saw me ride a horse. The physical therapist went on to explain that she could fix it, by using proprioceptor work; it would retrain my brain neurologically to control my body. It immediately made sense to me because it was the same description that Sarah used when explaining her rehab program with horses. One of Sarah’s exercises is to take a horse that is new to her program and walk them over a raised set of poles. In order to navigate the poles the horses have to reconnect with their limbs. The 10 steps through the poles may be the first straight steps a horse has taken in years. The magic happens in the 3 steps they take after the poles, where they hold those correct steps before falling back into their old patterns.

The physical therapist had me do a series of exercises that seemed elementary when she introduced them to me, but when I first attempted them I felt completely lost. Then after about 3 or 4 repetitions something started to change, I could actually feel my brain shift over as it connected to my muscles. I will always remember feeling the floor under my feet for the first time after one of the exercises. I looked down at the floor thinking something was wrong with it, it felt funny. The floor hadn’t changed, but the way my feet were landing on it did. I was utilizing my entire body in my step and not just my foot. My hip was now a part of my step, my knees were elastic and engaged, both ankles were soft, my foot landed on the floor heel first, followed by my arch and the ball of my foot. It was one fluid motion and for a fraction of a second I was connected to the floor beneath me. It only lasted for 3 steps before my body locked down and I went back into my old holding pattern. I will never forget those 3 steps; they felt so foreign, yet so familiar at the same time.
To be continued…….

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Peggy Cummings 2.13.2011

Today was the day for my lesson with Peggy Cummings. For the first time, I felt like I was ready to absorb the wisdom she had to offer. I attended a clinic of hers several years ago; at the time I was not ready to get out of my own way in order to learn. For me it has taken being in a place where I have no agenda, my horse does not have a job. My only goal is to give my mare the best life experience that I am capable of. Horse shows, cow events and other things I used to train towards are all just the icing on the cake now. I supposed if I did have an agenda it would be to continually improve the relationship I have with my horse. A lesson with Peggy Cummings is certainly a step in that direction.

When I lead Grace into the arena, Peggy noticed right away Grace’s tendency to posture herself with her head in the air. Grace has become accustomed to holding her head and neck in a very locked position. Peggy explained that horses naturally move their head in conjunction with their hind feet. It is a slight oscillation, not something that you would necessarily notice. Left hind steps up – left eye turns to the left, right hind steps forward, right eye turns to the right. All the while the head and neck is telescoped forward and down. The end result is a fluid movement. You may not notice the movement in the head, but you will see the fluidity throughout the entire body. More often than not when humans get involved the horse ends up locking down their head and neck. The telescoping is replaced by an upright ridged position, even horses that have been taught to carry their heads and necks low can still be locked down in the poll, turning off the connection to their spine and ultimately their legs. This can be a result of poor saddle fit, heavy hands, an injury or even just an imbalanced rider.

Peggy went over a list of symptoms that could be seen in a horse that had a tendency to carry itself in the frame that Grace has adopted. All of which I was too familiar with – a shorter stride on one hind leg, bunny hopping behind, and falling in on turns. Peggy then said something that Sarah and I had previously discussed; it is a subject that fascinates me. She said “We are unable to change a horse’s skeleton, but we can change a horse’s conformation.” When Peggy began to work with Grace in hand you could see the mare relax her poll and start to drop her head. In a matter of seconds Grace’s posture changed. Peggy said we could now see the potential in Grace’s body.

Peggy stressed the importance of the first few steps of the ground work. She really took her time with Grace, and she was able to show me when Grace had responded. Peggy was wonderful at making sure I “got” it. She would hold my hands in the correct position on Grace’s head, while doing the movements with her own hands. At one point she “combed” my hair with her fingers the way it is to be done on the line. I was continually amazed by how gentle the movements are and how much they accomplish with the smallest amounts of pressure. I started to finally get the feel of using the entire body and not just the hands.

At one point she had me step back and allow Grace to really absorb what we were asking of her. Over the next 60 seconds, Grace’s eye half closed and became soft. She took a deep breath and lowered her head, with no one was touching her, Grace chose the position on her own. Peggy explained that it can take some time for the horses to process. She went on to explain that these 5 minutes I would spend before getting on my horse would be the most valuable 5 minutes of my ride.

It was then that I realized I had been in a hurry without even knowing it. I thought I was doing the exercises by the book, but I was leaving out that critical space in time where Grace could absorb the request. While I have seen some success with the Connected Groundwork that I’ve been doing at home, I have found that when I didn’t get an immediate response to an exercise, I either pushed harder or just moved on to the next exercise. Today’s lesson gave me a very clear picture of when I was getting a response from Grace and when I wasn’t. Grace had a habit of snatching her head down and away from me. I had developed a habit of snatching her head back from her. Grace provided me with a perfect example to show Peggy so I could ask what to do in that situation. Peggy told me not to engage in it, she went on to say that for Grace the number one thing right now is to reprogram her tendency to lift her head before she moves any other part of her body. The pulling her head down and away is part of Grace’s process and was already started to fade during the lesson.

For the riding portion of the lesson I used a snaffle. Not my favorite bit as Grace tends to not be very responsive in it. I already knew before I put my foot in the stirrup that the under saddle portion would not be about Grace as much as it would be about me. Sure enough it only took a matter of seconds before I was pulling out with my left rein for a left turn. I am very aware of the habit, but have yet to be able to train my body out of it. Peggy gave me just the words to find the feel in my body I was looking for. With my seat in “neutral pelvis” she had me “swivel” my body to ask for the turn. My elbows stayed at my side, I had to only think of my hands turning toward the direction I wanted to turn. Before I knew it I was walking Grace though a series of effortless turns. Grace’s head started to telescope down and out in front of her, I could feel her hind end engaging underneath me as her steps became larger and cleaner. For the first time ever, Grace did not drop her ribcage in a turn; she seemed to use her entire spine to complete the turn. I continued to practice my turns at the end of the arena when Peggy started the next lesson. Right before I dismounted I caught a glance of Grace and I in the mirror. I saw a very relaxed, connected fluid horse with a ton of potential. Her balance rider didn’t look half bad either.

Peggy putting her hand over mine to make sure I "get" the feeling

Grace responding to Peggy

Peggy showing me the correct hand position

Peggy puts Jerry to work for a demo

My left hand having a mind of its own

Happy Grace

Peggy working with Kelsiana

"Lunging" Kelsiana so she gets the feel

Peggy helping Kelsiana with her position under saddle

One Cute Mare!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What a difference an hour makes!

At 4:55pm tonight I was greeted by my favorite sound in the entire world. Grace gave me her “your home” nicker for the first time since I started the new job. Today was the first day of my new work schedule. I emailed my manager yesterday and asked if he had any objections to me working from 7:00am – 4:00pm. He fully supported the idea. I initially put the bug in his ear my second day on the job. I am most definitely a “morning person” I’ve been getting up at 5:00am to be at work at 8:00. I don’t think I have it in me to sleep until 6:00am on a weekday. I love the new job! It has that fast paced, intense environment that I thrive in. I have some of the greatest co-workers and my customers are all “special” in each of their own way. I am finally getting paid to talk to people – for 8 hours a day!

For the last month Grace and I have been working 2-3 nights a week in the dark. It was a good experience, but I am glad it’s over for this year. I really enjoy being able to see more than 5 feet in front of me. This Sunday I have a lesson with Peggy Cummings. I am more excited about this lesson than any horse show or cow event I have ever been to. I feel like I am at a point in my journey with Grace where I will be able to actually absorb what I will be exposed to this weekend. I have seen a huge improvement in Grace’s body since incorporating the Connected Groundwork into the work I was already doing with Sarah. Sarah has been working closely with Peggy; she set up the lessons with her this weekend. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to have the two of the in the same place at the same time. I’ll be sure to fill you in will all the details.