Tuesday, May 14, 2019

PTSD with horses: a personal journey

When I was little I was fearless. I think you are born with a certain amount of flight and I was not as gifted by the common sense fairy as some.

That is right... I made some horrible Paint illustrations for this blog!

As you mature, you learn. Fire is hot, Florida is the lightning capital of the world, Florida has 7 venomous snakes, you are allergic to bees - don't pet them, caves are fun until you have to dig your dad out and you get skewered by an old mining ladder... Important things!

When you take up horses, you learn new skills. How to read when a horse is going to: stop, buck, rear, bolt, spook, or drop a shoulder at a jump. Most of all, you learn to read emotion and intent. When to push a boundary and when to sit and wait.

More amazing Paint illustrations. You're welcome.

You reach a stasis. How to be reserved and cautious, and also open and asking.This happened for me in my early 20s. Finally intelligent, experienced, and open enough to realize that working with horses was walking a balance among the emotions of humble/confident/surprise. You hear horses make you humble a lot and they definitely made me humble considering where I started.

And then, at least or me, life happened. I would get hurt, I would let that hurt fester into a gall, and my body would grow over it like it never happened. A broken bone, a concussion, a scary fall. All water under a flooded bridge. Then more life outside of horses happened --- graduate school pressure, and crazy jobs ( I was both bitten by a lemur and yelled at by an Air Force General in the last 5 years.... for work). Finally, what broke the dam was a #MeTooSTEM experience that left me suddenly jobless and scared.

After everything, I fell back on my only constant -- horses --- and found that my comfort level had shifted in flight. Suddenly, small things in and out of the saddle created panic. I could not understand why I felt so afraid and so angry all the time -- even at the smallest things. I went out seeking answers through doctors and therapists and found out I had PTSD. Which makes so much sense. At least one source of stress was immediately eradicated. I was not going crazy I was just different now.

With PTSD, I feel like I operate completely differently compared to how I used to. I used to have a comfort zone that I pushed through into a zone of uncertainty and that was growth. Passed that was my limit --- and probably something I should not be crossing anyway. Now, I feel suffocated by this film of anxiety and fear that I have to break through to get to my comfort zone even with normal tasks. If I manage that, then I can start to push through to growth. Recognizing this  definitive difference is a huge milestone for me. For years, I have been comparing pre-PTSD me to post-PTSD me when it is not the same critter at all.
Pushing out of this BS

Life happens to all of us. I think we all have a little PTSD -- whether that be from bad falls, car crashes, or some asshole. I think horsemanship in my 2nd act is all about figuring out how I need to adjust to who I am now. What about you? Are you meeting yourself where you are now? Have you accepted who you are today? it is still a process for me.

Friday, May 10, 2019

I do ride sometimes

Since getting back into things I have been trying to get in 4 or more short groundwork sessions with Grayson and 2 rides on Lacey every week. Lacey and I are back to basically where we were pre arm breaking. 
Her mouth stays very active even in a halter.

We are just riding in the fancy bareback pad and rope halter right now because that seems to be what she prefers. I am not planning on showing her so I don't really care what gear we use. 

Enjoy a boring video of me riding with hilarious commentary from my 2 year old and husband.

We are working on relaxation in all gates but especially canter. She gets a little worked up both within and after canter work. She is a bit or worrier and perfectionist, so she is the type of horse you are constantly working to counteract anticipation... But she loves routine too so it is a balancing act. We are also working on not getting behind the vertical. She really wants to curl up and I am trying to gently encourage her to raise her poll and stretch.

Do you have a cookie human?

I just love this horse. She is the perfect ride for me right now. She is sensitive and particular but also super sane and sensible. I think it's the weird Arab/Clydesdale cross? We have a ton to work on, but she is also a confidence builder for me. The best part about her is the more I relax the more she does. She is a perfect reflection of me for better or worse. I am so lucky that I get to borrow her. 
She has really cute pseudo-feathers 

My goals in the near future are to develop our canter, add n some ground polls and small jumps to keep things interesting, and to take more hacks in the big pasture. But mostly I will just focus on enjoying a lovely horse that is perfect just the way she is.

What a cute dork. She is so shiny!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Reverse Round Pen

Gray has some issues with forward. Number one is he is naturally an energy conserver. He does not do a lot of recreational gallivanting in the pasture despite being a young dude. The exception is chasing. He loves to chase a ball, or a dog, whatever. I have been told it’s an Iberian horse thing. Frolicking with him in the pasture has always been pretty harrowing. Now add lack of confidence in moving freely due too multiple injuries to a weird predatory sloth and that pretty much sums Gray up..

I have worked on getting him moving in a variety of ways including using pressure and release and using a target and a clicker. He does best out of a round pen and when you help him by walking with him on a big circle though he still feels sucked back and sluggish most of the time. With the target, anything over a walk and he has a tendency to get over-excited and go into chase mode which is not very fun.

Enter the idea of reverse round pen. It is a reverse because the person stands inside a ring and the horse is on the outside. This technique is great for green horses that might get too excited when you add some speed to your liberty work. Here is more information for anyone interested.

I made my reverse round pen out of rope and temporary electric fence poles. Mine was small — around 20 feet white. I plan to make it larger once he gets the hang of it. They don’t need to be super sturdy, they are more of a visual reminder than anything else.

I did 2 sessions with Gray this weekend. First one he was very nervous of the ring itself. I think he assumed it was hot! So our first session doubled as a targeting and approaching scary objects with confidence session. The second session we worked on walking forward and relaxed, changing directions, and a little trot. We started out with his familiar target, but I quickly started to phase out the target for hand signals. The idea is to start near the outside of the circle guiding the horse around and as he starts to understand what is asked you can more be to the center and reduce your signals.

Here are a couple videos I got from the second session.

This first one shows us with our target switching directions and walking. Right now I am reinforcing him when he matches my steps and when he is relaxed and stretching.

In this video you can see I dropped the target and I am using my hand and energy to prompt him.

This last video I just like how happy and forward he looks and how he is matching my walk.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Methods to The Madness Part II: Climbing out of the valley of dispair

Oak and Grayson first meeting
After Bodhi died I had to do the lonely horse shuffle (when you start down the twisting  path of getting animals because your current horses need friends) which meant I had to start from scratch again building relationships with my new horses. I started to seek out resources again on horse training methods and philosophies and was astounded by how much the positive reinforcement horse world had exploded. I had sort of lost touch because I had been busy with graduate school and then new jobs. Also, I had kinda forgotten how hard starting horses was since it had been 8 years since I had first started Bodhi, so I guess I was a bit complacent.  Back in 2007 there were a couple of books by Alexandra Kurland ,Shawna Karrasch and Sharon Foley and a few websites were starting to pop up. When I plugged back in in 2016 there were tons of blogs, Facebook groups, Instagram influencers, and best of all local trainers and clinics! I was beyond excited and started just binging content.

Here are some samples of concepts that I have recently been chewing on:

 In general I have been learning more about the negative impacts of punishment, stress, and adversives on the learning and general well-being in horses. I have also been learning a lot of new concepts and considerations (I am just listing some examples here, and I am trying to include resources if you want to read more).
I was really loving learning all these complexities and considerations, but if I am being honest I am feeling a little overwhelmed too. Will I ever be able to be able to know enough to be the effective, ethical, and kind trainer I want to be? Innocence is truly bliss and all of a sudden I was seeing all these signs of stress in my horses that I did not know were there before whether I was training with the clicker or with pressure and release. I was often reminded of this chart of learning --- I am definitely in the valley of despair right now!

Look at that cute face!

Which brings me to now. How do I climb the slope of enlightenment and get to the plateau of sustainability (this sounds like a terrible video game)? I still have this baby horse (Mr Grayson) that needs training and now I have more knowledge than ever (for me) but absolutely no idea what my way forward should be. To add further complexity (yay) Gray is a more complicated horse than Bodhi was. He is both more confident and playful than Bodhi but also more sensitive and reactive. He also has the added layer of being very hesitant to move forward, both in part because of his personality and the long list of injuries that he has acquired in his short life that either cause pain and stiffness, or memories or pain and stiffness.

In order to climb up the slope, I have decided to go back to something simple to regain a sense of stasis again and to give me something solid and actionable to move forward with. SO I bought a membership to the Tristan Tucker training modules. Which is very much unlike me, because I normally just glean the info I can from books and free content I find and I don't normally "buy in" to training programs marketed as systems. But right now I have just too much floating around in my head, and I needed something to focus on.

So  I chose TRT because the training philosophy kinda spoke to me for addressing Gray's specific challenges -- mainly a lack of self control/impulse control and awareness and also a lack of ease/relaxation in the body. I also like that he does not spend a lot of time talking about dominance theory (pet peeve) and that he has a dressage background.  I know he really is just another pressure and release/negative reinforcement clinician, but I do like the packaging of shaping the horse to have self control over his reactions and body. Gray needs help with controlling his own emotions and feet more than any other horse I have worked with. Also, I feel like I have a firm technical grasp of the applications of negative reinforcement, but I have focused on clicker training for so long I really need help getting better in my application of pressure release, and TRT is as good as any to teach me that I think.
We are at least getting better pictures now with TRT #closetalker

I feel like I also need to add a caveat -- I am definitely not saying that I could not address Gray's problems with 100% positive reinforcement. Actually I know of a ton of amazing clicker trainers that are doing just that with horses that have similar issues.

I am not sure what has made me choose TRT over clicker this time. It just feels like the right thing to do I guess.  Maybe I making this all sound like some sort of logical progression, but I actually feel like this has been a very intuitive journey --- just following what feels right to me. I felt like Bodhi led me to learning about clicker training and postive reinforcement, Oak led me to learning about acceptance vs. tolerance, and Gray is now leading me towards learning about how to help a horse with body awareness and emotional control. I know it is a cliché but, my horses are the real teachers. I am not sure where this journey is taking me, but I am trying really hard to relax and enjoy the process.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Methods to the Madness Part I: Decoding

When I started riding at 8 at a hunter jumper barn, my awareness about how horses learn and communicate was non existent. I got the typical gruff kick-to-go education that most kids probably got 30 years ago.

At 13, I switched to a dressage barn and started to learn about rider bio-mechanics or how our bodies impact our horses movement and balance. This started me off down the road I am still on today.

At 15, I started as a working student at a hunter jumper consignment barn that had recently adopted Parelli Natural Horsemanship. This was the first time I learned about applying pressure in a deliberate way to shape behavior. PNH also helped me grasp some of the underlying problems causing "bad behavior" in my first horse, a feisty playful thoroughbred.  It was also, in hindsight, where I first started to develop an aversion and distrust for this particular brand of horsemanship. What turned me off was a combination of the language used in PNH ( I felt like it was anthropomorphic and vague, but for other people I know this system really works which is great),  and some instances I personally witnessed people being abusive to their horses. I feel like PNH opened my eyes in so many ways --- both in good ways like that we could be so much better to our horses if we considered their biology, and how they learned, and in not so good ways-- that when you try to market the complexities of the horse-human relationship into a nice little monetized package the nuance is lost, and a lot of horses are still misunderstood and mistreated. It was at this point I pretty much vowed never to follow another of these "big name clinicians" again.

Taking it easy with my old retired guy
After my mixed experiences with PNH I was even more hungry for knowledge about horse training, and so I stopped going to clinics and taking lessons and started reading. I read books by or about Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Xenophon, and Mark Rashid,  I enjoyed seeing the similarities across all of these horse philosophers -- the importance of good timing, compassion and patience, but I still felt like I had a hard time applying the theory into practice. I ended up selling my first horse, the young, feisty Thoroughbred, during this time because of my busy life as a full time college student, and also because of all the mixed feelings and changes I was feeling around horsemanship in general.

After college, I got my first real job and my retired show horse from childhood that I had adopted and cared for had passed away (the gray in the pictures), so I was left horseless. I was ready to try anew and to put some theory into practice. Enter Bodhi and un-started 2 year old Haflinger.
One of his first shaped behaviors: soccer!
Our first ride.
I was boarding Bodhi at a small private farm with no other riders. It was just Bodhi and three retired pasture puffs, so I had to do it on my own. I went back to the literature and found 2 books that I really based Bodhi's entire early education on: John Lyon's Perfectly Practical Advice on Horsemanship series and  Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. The books by John Lyon's are surprisingly filled with applied behavioral theory that immediately made sense to my scientifically trained brain. Don't Shoot the Dog is the perfect primer to learning theory that perfectly complimented the negative reinforcement-heavy Lyons' Horsemanship books.  Learning about the difference between reinforcers and punishers was a serious game changer and led me to learn about using positive reinforcement in horse training--- which blew my mind wide open at the time. I fully admit that it had never occurred to me that there were two types of reinforcers (negative and positive) and that we normally only use one in horse training (negative). It was huge shift in my conciousness to learn about the power of R+ and how to mark and shape behavior. It was like all of a sudden I noticed one hand had been tied behind my back and I finally got it free. Bodhi also transformed before my eyes. He went from a slightly stubborn, naughty pony to an engaged student and partner.

Bodhi and I went on to have a wonderful 8 years together (which you can learn about in my first blog here). A large part of his training and development was using positive reinforcement but I still used pressure and release (negative reinforcement) too. Bodhi and I continued our education with this foundation of understanding that I would always reinforce the behaviors that I wanted with positive reinforcement (pats, cookies) or negative reinforcement (remove the pressure I was using and let him rest), and we got to learn so much by going to dressage, reining, extreme cowboy and obstacle clinics, and learning from trainers across the reinforcement spectrum. I also felt like I had this secrete weapon of behavioral shaping with a marker (clicker) up my sleeve that gave us an edge. I would always just smile knowingly when clinicians would scratch their heads at how quickly Bodhi picked up on things.

Also, I felt like once I had a basic understanding of behavioral theory I was able to finally decode the flowery language that left me confused with some of the big names. It still annoys me, but now I can at least understand what  all these used-car-salesman clinicians are trying to say! ;) I felt like I  was just building my tool box with all these great tips and tricks and I have the confidence to just leave the stuff that I find too anthropomorphic or forceful in the sawdust.

That brings us up to the tragic death of Bodhi, and the new cast of characters you all know now.... and what I am learning now -- and what I will write about next so stay tuned :) 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Just keep swimming

I feel like I am slowly crawling back to where I was in January which of course is a long way away from where I was pre baby. Probably best not to think of it that way. It seems so overwhelming when I look at how far I have to go to get back to what I think of as normal, so I prefer to just take what's in front of me.

 Just keep swimming...

Isn't it glorious?

My wonderful husband made me a hopefully me-proof mounting block. If I flip this puppy then i probably should not be riding.

I was able to try it out today with my first ride since breaking my arm today. Lacey was wonderful. She was ready to work, soft and relaxed. Considering it took us months to get to that point in the first place, I am over the moon she carried that over to our first ride since January. I am so lucky to have her.

I have also started Gray's training again. I think I am going to try out the Tristan Tucker training modules. I plan to do another post to outline why I decided to try these out (because I have been agonizing over it) but for now have any of you heard of or tried the TRT Method, and if so what do you think?

I visited Oak last weekend and he is doing really well. Going on trail rides and starting to be used for lessons already. Sadie the mustang is getting more comfortable and is becoming easier to catch and handle. The fly mask was quite the adventure!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Ch Ch Ch Changes!

I couldn't help myself with the Bowie reference, but we have made a couple of changes around the farm lately...
walking on a lunge

First is my cast is off! Yay! I am working hard on my PT and they said I may be back in the saddle in 6-8 weeks. Way too long, but at least I can see the end of the tunnel!

Second is Oak going to stay with my trainer for the time being. She really likes him (she calls him her hobbit pony), and he seems to get along really well at her place. His gnat allergies are not as bad and we think he may feel less stressed by NOT being the top dog in the herd. He prefers middle management. She thinks that she will be able to use him in her lesson program with a little more work. It is a win/win because I can focus on training Gray, but I don't have to sell Oak, and Oak is getting miles and an amazing education with my instructor.

Third is we took on a third horse in Oak's place so we are now back up to three out here. We agreed to help our trainer out and take one of her pasture puffs on as a free boarder so she could have room to take Oak indefinitely. Sadie is a mustang mare in her 20s that my trainer rescued a couple of years ago. She is shy but sweet and we are having fun getting to know her.

Gray approves of his new friend