Day 1 Recap
The first day of the clinic was both eventful and very educational for the horses, my daughter and I. Since it is winter here, we haven't really hauled the horses since about August, so trailering was a lesson in itself and all went well. When we arrived at the stable where the clinic was held, the horses were settled into cross tie stalls. I don't know if mine had ever been in cross ties before and they have never been to this stable before, so lots of firsts. The arena was also new to both horses as was a nice soft dirt substrate. The horses have been living on snow and ice for about 6 months, so the soft dirt was nearly irresistible. So many new environmental factors certainly elevated the horses (and our) anxiety level. This was probably a good thing for a Chris Irwin clinic as Chris' focus is on communicating with your horse in a way that he understands and a way that helps the horse relax and pay attention.
I have always assumed I did an adequate job managing my horse on the ground as he is generally a pretty good boy. Little did I realize how many mixed body language signals I was giving him and how little respect he actually has for me. My horse doesn't kick, bite, buck, rear, act out or anything like that, but he is a space invader extraordinaire. What we often take for being affectionate is pushy and disrespectful, which can ultimately be dangerous. When conditions are 'normal' and quiet, these behaviours don't manifest as clearly or as obviously as they do when the horse is stressed or in a new environment. I also didn't realize how much our body language influences how a horse reacts. Mixed signals between feet, shoulders and core body can tell a horse "move away" and "come here" all at once. This confusion makes a horse anxious, inverted and difficult to manage.
So, first lesson was how to communicate with your horse using body language. Subtle changes in the rotation and angle of the hips quickly adjusts where your core is directed and how your horse responds. I was amazed at how effectively this works! A "busy body" creates information overload for the horse. Horses need and respond to fluid, clear, intentional movements, very much like in a dance. The horse will mimic your movement. I am a "busy body" with a fidgety horse that needs me to become his dance partner instead, in a dance that I confidently lead.
I learned I have to get much better at setting boundaries and sticking to them. For example, when leading a horse, you want them in your right hind quadrant with their girth line behind your shoulder and their body straight. Any movement in front of that line is crossing a boundary and must be dealt with appropriately. Chris says to never pull on a horse, but we can push, draw and block. Preventing horse from invading your space is a block to the body, not a tug, or push on the head or lead shank. Alternatively, you can send a horse around you and then draw him into the appropriate space. I (and I will guess many others) had incorrectly learned that if you control a horses head or feet, you control their body. Not so. If the aim is to control the body, then you control the body and the head and feet will follow. (I hope I got this right, and please correct me if I didn't). If I learned anything about my horse on this first day, I learned that his head is sacred and I must respect it. This applies to the ground and in the saddle with the only difference in the saddle being that we create boundaries with our "aids", seat (core), legs and hands to help direct the horses body to move in the way we want it to.
I selfishly wanted to share the highlights of my day at the clinic as much for myself as for anyone else interested in reading. I am not a beginner horsewoman and have ridden and had horses for years. Even though the things I learned in Chris' clinic seem simple and fundamental, they are things I have never really had any other trainer draw my attention to with as much detail. For that I am grateful. I also really like Chris' philosophy that says 'we don't ask what what the horse can do for us, but what we can do for our horse'.
I hope that as I go into day 2 of the clinic, I will become even a little bit better at communicating clearly with my horse in a way that helps us dance.