Year Wrap-up Orion

Orion sees the end of his sixth year of life as a fully mature horse. It is has been a long time coming and he has distinguished himself while still a growing boy but finally I can start really pushing him physically.

This year I have learned a great deal more about training a horse than I did when I began with him and have just started working to fill in the gaps I now know I left in his training so far. I worried that I might have to spend a long time retraining him to correct the things I didn’t get quite right the first time, but true to what I have come to expect of him, he has easily adapted to the new things I have asked of him.

I know I have said it before many times, but I am going to say again how impressed I am by my boy. While there are many fine horses in my life and I regularly surprised by one or another of them as they improve under training, Orion is still MY horse. Our partnership is different from the relationship I have with any of the other horses I have trained.

In the upcoming year I will push him harder than I have to date. I am going to be asking him to collect more and become more responsive to the aids, as well as more sensitive to the rider’s seat. He has always had a tendency to hesitate if he is not sure the rider really means something they are asking and that has made him a great horse for letting less experience riders get lessons on, but starting this next year, I am going to have to limit who gets to ride him and how. If I am successful in making him lighter to the touch and more responsive, he is going to intimidate many riders.

So I am raising the bar a bit next year. I have no doubt Orion will rise to the occasion.

Hands-On Horse Training
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Orion – Raising The Bar

Of late, I have starting to think that perhaps I have set my sights too low when it comes to Orion. By this I mean I have always maintained that all I needed or wanted from him was a horse I could ride into mock combat and be competitive in the medieval games we take part in. In this Orion has more than excelled and we have had great success together. But as time has gone by, I have come to realize that these games, as they are usually set up, really don’t challenge Orion’s potential nor do then push me to be a better rider.

You see the mounted gaming activities I have taken part in so far are usually set up without any sort of “classes”, meaning they are for any horse or rider of any level of training. Because of this, they don’t require any particular set of skills beyond the basic ability of riding a horse close enough to a target to hit it. Adding the speed component does make this more interesting, but just riding the simple courses faster is not really what I am looking for.

In the last year or so I have started looking into a sport called Working Equitation. This sport combines working dressage, obstacles, speed and cow working as it is done in some European countries.  I was impressed by the combination of skills required of the horse and rider. This is a truly challenging sport and came to realize that while Orion has excelled at the medieval games I have taken part in, he would barely qualify to participate in Working Equitation competitions as they are held in Europe.

Now my personal interest is still in training Orion as a warhorse and I am don’t intend to travel as far as I would have to if I wanted take up this new sport. That being said, I am interested in taking inspiration from it and trying to implement a greater level of challenge in the medieval games I do.

What I have in mind might be called “Medieval Martial Equitation” (Thank you David for coining the name).  Combining many of the martial elements of the gaming we do now, rings, quintain, heads, reeds, etc., with elements that challenge the maneuverability of the horse and the connection of horse and rider. I can even see a “Civilian Equitation” course that takes the current “Palfrey Courses” and raises the level of the challenges and adds a speed component. Perhaps a “Hunting Equitation” course as well.

Essentially what I am saying here is that I want to raise the bar a bit. Lift expectations and goals to get people thinking of riding their horses at a higher level.

For Orion and I this is to be our direction.  To this end I have refined my training methods towards these goals. So far he has gamely accepted the new challenges, but for perhaps the first time since I began his training, we have to work to achieve what we wish to achieve. Proof I think that I have been underestimating him all along.

Time will tell.

Orion November Update

Orion is maturing more all the time. Just when I think he must be reaching his full size, he puts on more muscle. ;> Along with this muscle and strength, also comes more balance.

He is second only to Fona in collection, but since I work with him more often, I expect him to overtake her in this by the end of winter.

I really can’t ask for much more from him when it comes to medieval gaming. Jousting is just about the only thing I need to work with him further on, so passes on the tilt from time to time are also in his future this winter.

This is not to say he is perfect at all the other games, but what room for improvement he does have, is related directly to strength, balance, and collection. There is little I can do involving the gaming elements that will improve things as much as simply working on his physical abilities in general.

So less play time and more steady work this winter, but that is the price we pay when we seek perfection. ;>

Trying a New Bit for Orion

I announced on Facebook earlier today that I was trying out a new bit on Orion; one that had more leverage and a slightly higher port, which required a well trained horse and a rider with light hands.

I was asked by several people why I was doing this. Most seemed to think I was doing something wrong. ;>

Since some many lovely ladies are asking I will explain my reasons here for trying this bit with Orion.

“Doesn’t he go fine in the bit he has now?” I am not sure we mean the same thing when we say “go fine” in the bit he has now.

“The lightest bit needed, is what I say.” The lightest bit needed to do what?

“Other ways to do collecting…” Yes, there are many number of ways to achieve collection, and as many opinions as to the best way to get there. ;>

I may be wrong, but what I am detecting here is a shared opinion that I am moving to this new bit because I am trying to correct something and feel I need more force for this. It is commonly believed that is why bits with longer shanks or cub chains or ports are use… to gain more power over the horse, to combat an unwanted behavior or to get a result the rider is unable to achieve with a “lighter” bit.

I view the choice of bits differently from many in that I think one does not move away from the simple snaffle until the horse is “going fine” with it. You do not move to a “harsher” bit to fix a problem.

The Bit
Myler Ported Barrel Bit

When I say this is a level 3 bit, (actually it is a level 2-3) bit, I mean it is designed for a horse well on its way to being finished, if not completely finished. It is in fact not a harsh bit at all, but not intended for a green horse or any horse not already completely comfortable with the use of a level 1 or training bit.  The horse must have basic training established, relaxed at the poll; holds position when rein is released and possesses more complex skills such as bending, collection, side passes and lead changes, etc.

This bit has a “comfort snaffle” barrel, this provides tongue relief, that double as a port effectively and it is made so as to allow each side of the bit to move independently when the shank is moved, allowing the rider to pick up each shoulder of the horse independently. Yes, the curved shank design does provide more leverage IF I use the bit that way, but it also provides a very clear input on the barrel with very little movement of my hand. The combination of the barrel design, the shank design and the curb chain allow me to ask Orion to set his head very clearly, without a lot of force being applied and to do it with a loose rein, in one hand.

Riding with one hand, while wielding a weapon in the other, maintaining a head set, flex and collection, with a minimum of force is the goal here.

Some say “Given enough time and “proper” training you can get a horse to bend and the poll, flex laterally, stop, back and wheel, all with just the lightest touch on the reins in a side pull, so why use such a harsh bit?”

barrel
Barrel Front and Top Views

I reply first, again this is not a harsh bit if used at the right point in the training of the horse by someone with sufficiently light hands and secondly, this is part of the training process, not the end goal.  This bit is just another tool to help Orion to develop the physical abilities I want him to have and to understand what I am asking him to do with the least amount of input. I have no intention of using the bit exclusively during his continued training nor is it it likely to be the bit we finish with. I just believe it might be the right bit for this point in Orion’s training. Judging by today’s ride, I think I am right. He responded quickly and easily to every request, held his head set and flexation, turned with a thought and stopped with next to no use of the reins. Only time will how long I continue to use this particular bit, but now it seems a good choice.

Thanks everyone for your concern for Orion’s well being. As many of my friend know well, you are unlikely to go broke betting Troy is making the wrong decision.  Way to keep an eye on me. 😉

Orion’s Police Horse Training

The Troop
The Troop

We spent the last weekend at a two day workshop where the instructor, Jim Barrett of Police Horse Pros employed the training techniques used to desensitize horse for mounted police work to despook civilian mount. These techniques include ground work, formation drills,  and sensory training where scary objects, sounds and actions are gradually introduced to the horses and riders as they practiced formation work. There were 9 horses and riders in the clinic with experience, riding skills and training varying quite a bit.

I took Orion there to test his training to see how it stood up to the challenges presented to the participants. What I was interested in seeing was how the training they use would compare or contrast with what I do to prepare horses for mounted gaming and combat.  I very much liked what I saw.

More experienced horse and rider helping the less.
More experienced horse and rider helping the less.

The key to the success of this clinic was in large part due to the way they us herd instinct to overcome individual horse’s fears. By riding in formation each horse could take comfort and derive confidence from the the horse next to, in front of or behind them. This principle I use when I train horses in pairs with someone else riding a trained mount. They ride a horse with more experience and confidence, while I ride the less experienced horse in the same arena.  When the horse I am riding doesn’t want to face and obstacle like a bridge crossing or ground tarb, we ride him behind the experienced horse to show it is not something to worry about. We keep returning to the problem again and again, so the younger horse also learns to trust it’s rider by successfully navigating the obstacle when asked while gaining confidence the other horse.

Scary Huh?

I particularly liked the way they slowly added the challenges while the riding was going on, as opposed to just setting everything up and once from the beginning. This way all the horses and the riders are able to form a herd as time goes on, everyone gaining security and confidence from each other and are better able to face the scary things as they appear. Each success makes the next challenge that much easier.

One of the things about the way the horse has evolved that is both great and awful at the same time, is the they have good memories. As long as new stimuli is introduced gradually and is never allowed to overwhelm the horses, they we able to hold on to the experience of the last element introduced to give them confidence when facing the next. Now if you allow the process to become over stressful, frightening or even truly threatening to the horse, then that is what the remember. So the next element becomes scarier than it would have been, which makes the next worse and soon you have spiraled out of control. What you end up doing is actually the opposite of what you intended.

There are better and worse ways to try to get a horse to overcome its concern about a given obstacle, be it something on the trail or one of the medieval gaming elements I work with as part of the Mounted Combat training. For example, let’s say you are riding around the arena and come up on a blue barrel left in the arena by the last person riding there. Your horse has never seen anything like a blue barrel before so as you come up to it the horse steps way out around, staring at is wide eyed and snorting. How do we best deal with this?

Clown was no match for us.

One school in thought teaching that you should push your horse right up to the barrel, forcing him to “just deal with”. You kick and yell, the horse backs up, moves sideways, maybe even goes up to avoid getting closer to the scary thing. “Just make him more concerned about you than the obstacle.” Have we detected the flaw in this method yet? No amount of force can make a frightened horse less scared, it is just that simple. You are really only making it worse by making the thing that was slightly scary into something to be dreaded.

Another school of thought teaches, remove the barrel for now and when you finish your ride put the barrel where your horse eats and he will have to learn to deal with it if he wants to eat. A better option than the first one? Sure, but can you use this method to get your horse to calmly walk past the refrigerator abandoned on your favorite trail? What about things the move when you interact with them? Leaving it in his stall won’t help the fear he will feel next you ride him and encounter it moving.

Keep circling as a troop and it gets easier.

The way I approach this problem is to ride the horse by the object and if then shy away to the left, instead of turning their head to face it and trying to force them to move closer, I simply look away from it, turning him away from the scary thing in a small circle to the left and what do you know there you are approaching it again. The horse moves away to the left, I again ignore the scary thing, and instead look to my left, turn him in a circle again and again we are approaching the thing. Rinse, repeat as many times as it takes for the horse to get feed up with this circle to the left and to eventually accept that the scary thing is actually nothing of the sort. As long as you disregard the scary thing and keep circling back to it, and remain calm and quite, the horse will end up disregarding it as well. Now all you need to do is reverse direction and repeat the process.

It is also said the not every method work with every horse, but this one has never failed me.

The police workshop used a very similar method only on a larger scale. With a troop of horses it is not possible to keep making small circles that bring you right back into contact with the same scary thing repeatedly, but since the whole troop is circling the arena and returning to face said scary thing, the effect is similar, but with the added emotional support of the whole troop. So what we were doing was a grander version of the same method. It was very effective.

Dancing Man
It is a lot scarier when you see it move.

As I had hoped, Orion was afraid of nothing they had at the clinic. They took to partnering him with horses having problems with one element or another so he could help steady them. So Orion didn’t get as much out of the clinic as some of the other horses, but for some of those other horses the change was night and day.  By the end there was a troop of 9 horses and riders able to face some pretty seriously scary things, including a mechanical clown that should scare anyone, and one of those “dancing men” things with fan blowing up throwing it so it jerks and whips around.

We even got to face down an unruly crowd, by riding as a line toward several people yelling and waiving their arms, even blowing whistles. We were told by Jim to put our most steady horse in the middle to give the rest of the troop an anchor point. Orion was chosen and Jim himself stood in place opposite him. As we approached he began blowing the whistle and getting pretty close to my boy with some strong body language. Orion never stopped moving forward and while he didn’t want to walk over Jim, it as pretty apparent to me he would have if I had kept asking him to move forward.

Ball
The Big Red Ball... Orion wants itl

For the last activity of the day, they broke out a huge red ball, that had to be over 5 feet across. The instructor lined up the troop and bounced the ball down the line inches from the noses of the horses, not one step backward. We then pushed the ball as small squads up and down the arena, followed by a horse soccer game. There were two goals made… Orion  made both of them. 🙂

I will try to get some of the video we shot processed in the near future and will update this entry with link to them.

Taken as a whole, the weekend was very worthwhile. I did learn another important thing. I could offer a similar workshop based off warhorse training instead of police mount training and I think anyone who took it would consider it money and time well spent. I am giving it serious thought.

Orion’s Training Plan

When I first began Orion’s training, at about 8 months of age, I came up with a rough plan as to how that training would progress as he grew.

First Year:

Earn his trust and respect with regular round pen work. Goal was to have him easy to handle and respectful, willing to stand for the vet or the farrier, to be groomed and handled as well as willing to load into a trailer. The only snag in my plan was that from the very beginning Orion was essentially fearless, at least when it came to things like lunge whips or lead ropes, so the round pen method I had used previously would not work at all with him. I was forced to rethink my training methods completely and so I did. In those first few month working with him I changed more in the way I approached training than I had in the several year previous.

Second Year:

Continue working in the round pen, but also add short line work, with the goal of starting his collection and flexibility training in preparation for carrying a rider under saddle. Here too I would begin desensitizing  him to weapons and targets as well as general trail elements. In this, his fearless nature served him well and he was casually doing in-hand trail courses like they were nothing.  Obviously we continued to reinforce his foundation training from year one while we watched him grow in size, strength and mental ability.

Third Year:

Introduction to the saddle and rider, advance his training as a proper mount. I had actually put the saddle on him late in his second year and even stepped up on to his back for a few minutes and he handled it like he had been expecting it from day one, but obviously he was not physically mature enough to start riding just yet. So it was a early in his third year that I began light riding on him, after the vet had given his okay that Orion’s joints were ready. From the very beginning he never so much as bucked and by May of that year we took him to his first SCA equestrian event. There I authorized on him in all the standard elements of medieval gaming used in that group, even though Orion had never seen most of the before. We spent the remainder of that year practicing those elements for short periods being careful to not ask too much of him physically as he was still growing.

Fourth Year:

Orion begins competition in earnest but we still don’t push him to hard. During this year he shows a real aptitude and even an enthusiasm for the work.

It was really becoming apparent they his breeding had produced the exact warhorse we were looking for.

He excels at everything asked of him but is not yet as responsive as we need him to be nor as energetic, but this is as it should be.

Fifth Year:

Take him to as many competitions as possible and begin building his strength and muscle him up. During this year we compete at four events in challenge courses.  He distinguishes himself with three first place finishes and one second and his name becomes known widely in the Medieval Horse community when other riders get a chance at using him for the games as well.  His Facebook page fills with fans, observers and riders both.

Sixth Year:

Continue in competition and physical conditioning, but now we start working on speed and responsiveness. Unfortunately our financial situation is such that we can’t afford to haul to most of the events we wanted to compete in. So we have to be happy with the one local event in April, then putting on shows for the Rogue Renaissance Fantasy Faire and a county fair so far. We hope to make at least one more competition before the season is over. On the plus side, Orion is far more responsive and MUCH faster than last year, so should we manage to actually make it to an event I am guess he will do amazing things.

So all in all, the training plan we originally came up with has run its course just about as planned. If anything, we have been able to move faster than expected. I look forward to seeing how the rest of this year turns out.

Ready to Compete

For the several days I have put the other horses on hold to tune Orion and Curly up for a competition in Newberg, OR this upcoming weekend. It will be the first and last time I get to compete in Medieval Gaming this season.

While I did get to ride at my own even in April, I was not able to compete and aside from that, the only riding I have done outside of training was the demos we put on at the Rogue Renaissance Fantasy Faire and the County Fair in Grants Pass. While practices and Demos are fun, I really wanted to get a chance to show riders who do the same sort of stuff, but live outside my area, just how far Orion has come.

Nancy, Raina and I are going to take Curly and Orion up, saving room in the trailer to bring back Jupiter, a Lipizzan  gelding being sent down for some training.

For the last few days we have reminded the boys what it is like to take part in “Pig Sticking” and “Heads” as these are elements sure to be part of this weekend’s activities and something neither of them have practiced in some time. Curly has calmed down a great deal and is making the runs in a more controlled manner. At least he does as long as Raina can stay relaxed herself. It will be interesting to see how they do when actually in competition.

Orion was just amazing. He has always been great at “Pig Sticking”, but now he is also cantering the “Heads” runs, fully collected and relaxed, just as pretty as you could want. Again, this is in his home arena with only Curly there for competition, but I am really expecting great things from him this weekend.

I will give a full report when we get back.

Wish us all luck.

Last day of August

Today I rode Zephyr, Raffona, Bellatrix and Orion. I will now post the status of each in regards to what I am currently working on with them.

Zephyr

Z has come a long way in a short time. His weight and physical conditioning are much improved. He is also much more flexible and collected.

He does appears to enjoy having something to do and was really into working today. He quietly took any gait I asked for, on the correct lead every time. We are still working getting him to get his butt under himself and lift his front end, but that will come.

He crossed all the trail obstacles we have laid out right now, with just a little bit of hesitation, due most likely to being alone in the arena. But after a bit he relaxed and took them all in stride.

To sum up, he is a very enjoyable ride, with soft, easy to sit gaits and I am sure he will just get better in time.

Raffona

Raffona has been and still is, one of my very favorite horses. She is so soft and light to the touch it seems sometimes you can guide her with your thoughts.

I have been working on slow canter and trot, bringing her down closer and closer to doing them in place.  She is making very nice lead changes now, looking for the new lead when I turn my head.

Oddly, it is getting her to extend that is proving to be the challenge. If she walked any slower she would be going backward and she opts to try to change gaits rather than extend her walk, trot or canter. I have to admit though, I have been enjoying her slow canter and trot so much I really haven’t worked on her extended movement as much as I should. 🙂

To sum up, if she continues to improve as she has recently, I am probably going to use her as my Palfrey in next year’s Hocktide Emprise.

Bellatrix

I hadn’t actually planned to ride Bella today, but while Raina was riding her, our little princess started acting the part and Raina did not want to correct her too forcefully for fear of doing something wrong. So we switched mares and up I climbed.

I instantly noticed how much bigger Bella felt from the saddle than she seems when you stand next to her. This did not feel like some little filly. She felt very much like Orion, but just a little closer to the ground.

For the next 40 minutes or so we walked, trotted and cantered. Her walk is forward and quick, with good flexing. Her trot, soft, with some good speed and extension when you ask for it. Good bend at the pole, but a little bit stiff in her lateral bend. Her canter was a different thing. She really didn’t want to bend or flex at first and would take any opportunity to try to head back to Fona. So we had some words and I put her in some tight circles at the walk and trot before I manage to get her to become a little more supple at the canter.  The great thing was, no matter how forcefully I insisted she behave, she never got upset. Her eye was always soft, ears quiet and she would stop and stand anytime I ask her to.

To sum up, Bella is a doll. She has her dad’s steady mind and willingness to try new things and her mom’s drive to compete. When we start her training for the games, I am positive this little tank will be a force to be reckoned with.

Orion

What can I say about Orion I haven’t said a hundred times?

In the case of today’s ride, it could be mentioned that he had not been ridden in days and he was not happy about it. Every time this week that I went to the pasture to get someone to work, he stared at me disapprovingly as I took someone else out.  So I expected him to demonstrate his displeasure by giving me a hard time. Did he? Nope, not for a second.

From the very beginning he was on his game, giving me exactly what I asked for. Stepping into his collected canter from the standstill, both leads, with his forehead exactly perpendicular to the ground. He went from this canter, to fast hand gallop, to a full charge and back down to a calm standstill with almost no prompting. Keep in mind getting his speed up without making him “Gamey” is what I have been working on lately.

He even cantered beside, behind and in front of Curly without issue, even doing close passes as he changed from one position to the next. Then just to remind both of us how it is done, I rode him with no hands for about 15 minutes, all over the arena, crossing the trail challenges, canter with Curly, turning, stopping and wheeling back into the charge. I eventually rode him to the arena gate, unlatched and opened it, then up to the gate to the barn, unchained and opened it, then herded the goat that had gotten out of the pasture back to where he belonged. Once all this was done, we trotted down to the tie off post. During all of this I never touched the reins once.

To sum up, I love this horse.

Orion’s History To Date

orion
Orion at 8months

Orion came to us at the age of 7 months.

The first thing we noticed, after the fact that he looked for all the world like a llama, what with all the curly hair and silly long neck, was a near total lack of fear in the little guy.  Not just no fear of the usual things like strangers, the trailer, the new home, etc. but also the  lead line, lunge whip, me jumping up and down in a vain attempt at making him move away. In short, the colt was just about fearless.

This posed a interesting problem when it came to beginning his training. For many “Natural” trainers, round pen is often the first step in training a young horse, but is pretty much dependent on driving the horse away until the animal begins to show signs of deference to the trainer, who then allows the young horse to “join up”. In Orion’s case, this was not possible. Not only was it very hard to make him move away and drive him around the pen, but once I did manage to get him to move off, he showed no real sign of having any real desire to come back.

Orion
Just before his 6th birthday

Independent and self-possessed, he was just unlike any animal I had worked with before. I was therefore obliged to develop a completely new training form and so the Hands-On Method was born.

It was working with this horse that gave me the opportunity, nay, the necessity of trying training method I had never had reason to try before. I soon discovered that while my previous training methods worked well for most horses, there are some that it just wasn’t quite right for.  I was very pleased to discover that the methods that were successful with Orion worked much better with all horses than what I had been doing.

Orion began competing at three years of age and at six is the best horse I have ever had the pleasure of riding. He was born to be a jousting horse but is equally adept at mounted combat and mounted archery as he is as a trail and lesson horse.

As I continue his training, I will try to keep a running record here on this blog.

If you are a Facebook user, you can find Orion’s page here.