Chris Irwin Clinic
I am so excited! We are registered for Chris's horsemanship clinic next weekend. Has anyone here done one of these clinics? Any advice for getting the most out of it?
Last night I attended a Chris Irwin horsemanship demonstration where he explained his ideas about communicating with horses in "their language". All I can say is, WOW! I have been to, and watched many similar demonstrations, but none compared to Chris'. Not only is he a master horseman, but even more importantly, he is a master teacher. He presented his concepts in a way that was entertaining, easy to understand and easy to relate to.
He demonstrated how our own body language often sets our horses up to produce results we don't want. He also showed how being mindful of your body language all the way down to your feet and intentionally communicating in a language horses naturally understand can help a horse do amazing things.
Chris' doesn't ask what our horses can do for us, but rather what we can do for our horses. His ideas and methods focus on clear, intentional communication that makes the horse feel good and builds relationships. Everything he illustrated last night was clear, common sense and down to earth.
Today is my first of two days actively participating in his clinic with my horse. (My daughter and her horse are participating too). After last night, I am even more excited as I feel I have so much to learn that will make working with my horse even more pleasurable for both the horse and I.
If anyone is interested, there are some sort sample videos of Chris's methods and ideas available on his website. If you get a chance to see him in person, it's worth it!
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.
Day 2 - a week late
Day 2 was another eventful but great day. I don't know if familiarity with the surroundings or the relaxation achieved the previous day with Chris helped most, but both horses started out much more relaxed and responsive. They were like 2 completely different animals compared to the previous day. We started with a few in hand relaxation exercises that emphasized utilizing body position and subtle cues to help relax the horses. This resulted in my gelding finding an almost Zen-like meditative state of relaxation. When Chris instructed us to get up in the saddle, I wondered what would happen and if the change in events would dramatically change the state of my horses mind. It didn't.
In the saddle, my focus was on riding the bend, well actually the counterbend in this case. We are so often taught to ride the bend according to the direction we are going, regardless of the horses state or frame. Chris's approach is to ride the bend the horse gives you first to establish roundness and softness, and then ask for the alternate (in our case true) bend once that is achieved. We used an inside massaging leg to get roundness and applied outside leg for impulsion. I must say that I was truly amazed at how effective this technique was. I had always had difficulty keeping my horse round and moving forward at the walk but during this exercise he maintained a beautifully rounded frame and nice forward movement with very little effort. By the end of the lesson, it seemed I could change the bend without losing any softness just by thinking about it, and my horse stayed totally relaxed. This was a big deal!
In the past, I have always focussed more on what I want my horse to do for me, than what I can do for him. Getting roundness and relaxation was always something that I expected to make MY ride better without deeply considering the effect on my horse. After my experience working with Chris, I realize that rounding and relaxation are perhaps more important for the horse as it is for the rider. When the horse is relaxed, he is focussed, athletic and open to learning. When he is not, training is more difficult and more of a struggle for both the horse and the rider. I know this probably seems like common sense, but I didn't really get how important it is until I saw it in action.
It has been a week since the clinic and I am continually conscious of how I interact with all of my horses and what they are saying back to me. The minute I step into their paddock to feed or handle them in any way, I am immediately conscious of my boundaries and what my body is communicating. At this point, I am still pretty awkward but try to be mindful of where I direct my shoulders, hips and core, taking care to respect the horses' heads. I am always looking for their body language to interpret their reactions.
What I used to take for "affection", I now read as disrespect and deal with it accordingly. In another thread, someone said our horses do not love us, but rather look up to us (or they don't). I strive to be the "better horse" and to be a consistent leader. I have learned that I enjoy my horses much more when I know they are focussed on me, respectful and willing to respond and learn, than I did when they saw me as the animated cookie dispenser and scratching post. In this new relationship, I no longer anthropomorphize them by interpreting their actions using human emotions and language, but appreciate them for the beautiful creatures they are.
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