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2022 New England Spring Symposium: Building a Partnership You Can Rely On Away from Home

Tik Maynard works on the ground. KTB Creative photo.

The 2022 New England Spring Symposium has come and gone, but the learning and lessons that took place are still at the forefront of our minds.

We were thrilled to have Tik Maynard and Sinead Maynard (née Halpin) join us, along with brand new baby Violet, here at Unexpected Farm in Maine for the second year in a row. This year, our theme was “Creating a Partnership That You Can Rely on Away From Home.” Isn’t this something that we’ve all faced challenges with?

This is a universal struggle. As trainers, we often hear from riders, “Everything goes well at home, but then I get to the show and it’s like I have a different horse.” This is a multifaceted issue that comes down to preparation; not just general preparation for the things you’ll see in your test at the show, but specifically preparing yourself and your horse for the environment of the show, which may blow both of your minds a bit.

“The show is not where you want to do the training,” explained Tik and Sinead. “When we teach clinics, we often hear riders say something along the lines of, ‘My horse did xyz at his last show, and this is how I handled it.’ A lot of the time, we can’t say that either of us would have handled it any differently in that moment, but the difference is the preparation that we do the days, weeks, and months before that show happened.

If we can be 30-40% more prepared than what might seem necessary for that show, then we’re probably going to have more success on the day.”

As Tik and Sinead explained during the clinic, we can’t just jump our horses a lot at home to prepare for our stadium rounds. We can’t just do a lot of flatwork and expect that our horses will be attentive in a totally new environment. We have to, as riders, have strategies in place that we can use easily and confidently to keep our horses with us, and recapture their minds when they face distraction.

Clinic auditors out in force! KTB Creative photo.

Ground Work

This is the one that most riders don’t automatically think of when they get to a show, but it can be one of the best ways to get your horse on the same page as you and focused on his connection with you instead of the thousands of things that are going on around him. However, it must be established strongly at home. Here are two basic strategies/exercises that are useful to train at home and then employ in a new environment that Tik and Sinead frequently use.

Staying behind the handler. Sometimes in a show environment where the energy is high, our horses will want to steamroll in front of us, even if we wouldn’t normally allow that at home. (Tik discusses how to do this in his Equestrian Masterclass courses if you’d like a visual).

Quiet work on a small circle. Not your traditional “lunging” to tire the horse out, but real, connected listening, even if just at a walk. In fact, many times, the slower the better.

Adapting Your Warmup

Usually when we arrive at a show, we plan to hop on and head into the warmup arena with all of the other horses, knowing we’ll be dodging horses and have to navigate the flow around the outside of the arena, popping off the rail a time or two to grab one of the three warmup fences in the middle. This works for some horses, but it might not work for yours.

Sinead reflected on a time when she was riding a horse that she knew would have a difficult time in the warmup arena. So, even though it was a bit unconventional, she went off on her own and found a quiet spot on the show grounds large enough for a 20m circle. This worked very well for her horse, even though it wasn’t quite the traditional warmup that we typically envision before we head into the ring. As Tik and Sinead explained, experimenting with a warmup that best suits your horse, not just what we commonly see, can entirely set the tone for how your round will go.

Maintaining Your Boundaries

Whether you’re leading your horse, tacking him up, warming him up, or actively competing, remember that it’s actually kinder to your horse to maintain the same boundaries that you set at home.

“Horses thrive on certainty and consistency,” says Tik. A lot of people feel that it’s mean to firmly set boundaries (for instance, taking time to reinforce the idea on the ground that your horse can’t drag you around, even though he’s at a show and a bit nervous), but it’s actually less kind to change your boundaries and expectations on your horse – it’s confusing for him, which can feed into his nerves and uncertainty in a new environment. He needs to know that he can count on you, and that stems from consistency.”

The 2022 New England Spring Symposium was an amazing success, and we’re so grateful for our sponsors, exhibitors, auditors, staff, and of course Tik and Sinead for making it possible.

“It’s really admirable that Chelsea is prioritizing education and learning with her business and bringing in great resources to Maine,” Tik added. “Sinead and I both felt that this was one of our favorite clinic teaching experiences that we had. Sometimes when you’re running your own business, chasing your own competition goals and helping your student do the same, it’s easy to forget to embrace everything you can learn from other people, but Chelsea really puts this at the forefront. We can’t wait to be back!”

Education Alert! Developing a Partnership You Can Count On Away from Home

Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Hartford.

How often have you thought or said, “My horse never does this at home!” or “We practiced this at home last week and now it’s like he’s totally forgotten it!”

It can be so frustrating when you’ve done the preparation at home, only to leave the property and hardly recognize your horse or his behavior. Chances are, you’re also nervous (whether you realize it or not) and frustrated, which only complicates things further. But there’s absolutely nothing fun about your horse impersonating a kite on a windy day while you’re trying to tack him up, or acting terrified of other horses in the warm up ring, or… the list goes on…

That’s why, for this year’s 2022 New England Spring Symposium, Tik and Sinead Maynard will do a two-day intensive clinic on building a partnership with your horse that can be stronger than the variables of leaving home that cause you and your horse to fall apart. The important thing to understand is that it’s a two-way street and we often don’t realize the full extent of how we’re contributing to the problem. You can’t control the water truck driving by, but you can control how you prepare for it and react to it, and how you react to your horse’s reaction to it. This clinic will focus on giving you those tools.

Don’t know Tik and Sinead? Sinead has competed at the top levels of eventing internationally for over 20 years. She represented the United States at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy in 2014, Traveling to London for the 2012 Olympics as first reserve, and was reserve for 2016 Rio Olympics as well. Tik is an Olympic team reserve rider shortlisted Canadian eventing team rider, two time Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover Freestyle winner and author of In the Middle Are The Horsemen.

The clinic runs May 7-8, 2022 at Unexpected Farm in Wales, Maine. Get your auditing passes on Strider here.

Topics will include:

  • Getting a relaxed horse at the show
  • Cross country warm up for a smooth round
  • Horse and rider responsibilities to improve your show jumping
  • Flatwork to help your jumping
  • Raising the difficulty without raising the height
  • How your focus helps your horse focus
  • Cross country positions for every situation
  • How to create a winning partnership in dressage

Email [email protected] with any questions. See you there!

Being Aggressively Passive, Not Passive Aggressive

We’re pleased to collaborate with Chelsea Canedy as a guest contributor on Eventing Nation and Horse Nation. Chelsea Canedy is an event rider and trainer based in Wales, Maine, at her beautiful Unexpected Farm. Her training approach places a strong emphasis on understanding how horses learn, as well as rider mindfulness, and how that translates into better performance. Learn more about her at www.chelseacanedy.com.

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Canedy.

Recently, I was having a conversation with my lovely barn manager about an issue that arose at the barn while I was out of town. Everyone was okay, and it wasn’t a terribly dire issue, but there seemed to be some unrest about it and a lot of back-and-forth between her and a group of students. I could see that everyone actually had the same view, but everyone was worried about upsetting each other, and were, at the same time, upset by the situation. Consequently, there was an air of passive-aggressiveness wafting around.

It was, in the scheme of things, a very small deal. If you have a group of boarders and students dealing with the stresses of surviving a New England winter with their horses, you’re bound to have moments that are slightly tense, and everything was ultimately resolved with no hard feelings.

But in the aftermath of that, I felt the need to explain to my barn manager (who is new to the team) that I really, truthfully, do not get angry very often, and I was not angry in this case at all. However, I am intense in my desire to fix things and to communicate, and sometimes that can come across as upset. I address things head-on and talk them out until we can reach an understanding.

She was surprised by this. Basically everywhere else this barn manager has been, people were generally passive aggressive. I explained that I wanted to be the very opposite of that. I wanted to be aggressively passive.

This term came to my mind while I watched Shawna Karrasch in a clinic recently. She was working with a horse that had been incorrectly familiarized with r+ training and had become a pushy cookie monster, and she became the epitome of aggressively passive. The horse was pushing her arm, nudging her (not dangerously, just obnoxiously), and trying to search her for treats. Instead of shoving him out of her space, as many of us would be tempted to do, she just didn’t react; she was almost limp, simply showing him all the ways that his behavior wasn’t working. And then came a split second moment when he moved out of her space and paused – boom, there was the reward.

I think as riders and horse trainers, we struggle with this. I know I have. It’s a challenge to be so committed to seeing something through to the other side that you have to do perhaps the most challenging thing of all: wait. To tell yourself that you’re okay just being there, as long as it takes.

This is why meditation can be so difficult. It’s the epitome of just being.

With hot horses, there’s so much waiting required. Your job as the rider is to set the boundaries and wait. Let them try. You’re choosing to be passive in every moment, to not go there with your emotions, to not let things escalate. Every step, you’re choosing that neutral energy. When you’re letting the horse work it out — you have to be really passive and stay out of their way.

I’m stationed in Florida for the winter and lucky to have the help of Tik Maynard and Sinead Maynard (formerly Halpin) while I’m here. I found myself, unconsciously, arriving in Florida with a bit of a competitive mindset that Albert and I had something to prove – that we’d come all this way, so we really had to put our best foot forward. My sensitive horse must have caught wind of that energy in my first lesson with Sinead – he was tense to the jumps, and I was subconsciously feeding into it, trying to “fix” it.

Sinead offered to hop on to see if she could feel what was going on, and it became a lesson in and of itself for me to watch her. When his tension would come up, she wouldn’t bat an eye. He’d get weird and wiggly in his body, she wouldn’t engage. She would just sit there and wait until he decided to join the party. It was the best reminder for me that we are tempted to do so much fixing, but sometimes, we just need to be aggressively passive. Since I am a visual learner, watching this process was the reminder I needed to turn towards that place in myself when I got back on. That place exists in all of us … we just need practice recognizing it.

Two Ways to use Positive Reinforcement Training for the Competitive Event Horse

Chelsea Canedy and Little Einstein. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Missed part one of Chelsea’s blog? Catch up here!

In my last blog, I wrote about how much more my eyes have been opened to positive reinforcement training and all of the ways that we can use the horse’s “happy hormones” in training instead of leveraging his fight or flight instinct alone.

While I think every person who trains horses should know that this exists, there’s a big caveat to r+ training: You CAN mess it up.

In fact, I think this is why r+ gets a bad rap sometimes – because we’ve all probably met a horse who was morphed into a total walk-all-over-you, crazed cookie monster after his owner started using “positive reinforcement” (or thought that’s what they were using, at least!).

Let’s talk about two important ground rules before we proceed: First, you must create significance to the clicker. Yes, food is a big part of the process too, but the clicker is the most precise tool in terms of timing. The clicker allows you to pinpoint the exact moment that the horse is behaving how you want, in a way that you simply cannot while fumbling around your pocket for treats.

Next, your first foray into r+ is setting polite boundaries. Your horse should learn to walk with space between you and him, next you, not in front of you, and to not reach into your space for treats. How do you achieve this? You reward him when he’s doing that precise combination of things all at the same time, and never when he’s pushing into your “invisible box”. You have to be very present and observant to catch that moment.

Now, let’s get to the real heart of this blog. How do I practically use this type of training in my competitive event horse? I think it’s important to hear about the practical applications of r+ training to understand how it can fit into your daily life with horses.

#1: Eliminating the Cross Tie Dance

My horse Albert can get a little edgy in the cross-ties when we’re somewhere new. He doesn’t do anything dramatic, but he does a lot more stepping forward, fidgeting, and learning ahead into the cross-ties than he does at home, simply because he’s not as relaxed. So, I want to not only teach him to stand still for my own sanity, but also that the cross-ties are a place to relax. That’s the beauty of r+ training.
In the past, when he moved, I’d stop his movement and put him back where I wanted him to stand, over and over, to get him to plant his feet. That’s great, but it doesn’t necessarily cue his body to relax, and it could be quite monotonous and laborious.
So, I tried it with r+. It took, kid you not, about 5 minutes, maybe less, before he was standing quite still, lowering his head, and looking soft and relaxed in his eye and jaw.
How’d I do it? Whenever he would take a step back from his leaning forward position in the cross ties, I’d click and give him a treat (note that he was already very familiar with the clicker and what it meant from some liberty leading sessions in a round pen). When he stood relaxed for one second, click and treat. Another couple of seconds, click and treat. And so on, until I could see him thinking of stepping forward, and then watch him choose to rock gently back and settle instead.
#2: Establishing a Relaxed Way of Going in Any Gait
Our connection with the horse’s mouth can still be a major part of our ridden work with them, but we can reinforce what we want with r+ training. This is where I love Shawna’s approach to r+: it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Yes, you can still put your leg on. Yes, you can still take a feel of the reins. It doesn’t work against you because you’re still able to reward the horse with the clicker in the moments that feel just right in the ridden work.
With my horse Albert, as we progress in flatwork, I’ll use the example of reinforcing a nice, relaxed frame in the trot. Forward, soft in the mouth, up in the withers, pushing from behind – a nice working trot that would be appropriate for a dressage test. I can certainly get him there with my usual leg, hand, and seat aids, and then when he feels like a rockstar, I can click and treat.
This makes him want to find that way of going. It simply changes the tone of training – it feels more like a happy game than a serious, consequence-laden session. This gets the feel-good hormones going and I am combatting much less of his natural anxiety in his training – anxiety that would surely catch up to us at some point in his progress.
If you’d like to learn more about this method of training, Shawna Karrasch has lots of blogs and podcasts on the topic. Find her work here. She also appeared on the Equestrian Voices podcast (which I’ve also been a guest on!) to break down this approach.
Also, I’m hosting a clinic on the basics of R+ training at my farm in Wales, Maine on April 9. Sign up here!

What I’ve Learned About Positive Reinforcement Impacted the Way I View Training

Chelsea Canedy and Little Einstein. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Positive reinforcement training (R+) is gaining some recognition in the competitive horse sport world, especially as more riders begin to see the benefit of groundwork and how it can bridge the gap to the ridden work. I recently took a clinic with Shawna Karrasch, widely regarded as a pioneer in R+ training for horses, and I left that experience feeling invigorated and excited about the possibilities that R+ training has for me, my horses, and my students.

I’ll start by saying that I’m not new to positive reinforcement training. While much of my ridden work has been more rooted in the traditional, pressure on/pressure off way of training horses (negative reinforcement, meaning the removal of pressure), R+ training has also been part of my approach to training horses, especially when breaking unwanted habits or helping horses cope with anxiety. However, it wasn’t until I spent time with Shawna that I truly realized the lengths that R+ training can go.

I realized that basically everything I’ve been doing with horses, I could also achieve through positive reinforcement training.

And why would I want to use R+ methods regularly? What I learned from Shawna is how this type of training elicits a totally different kind of chemical reaction in the horse’s brain and body. I gained a deeper understanding of how positive and negative reinforcement affect the neurological systems within a horse.

Horses have 4 main motivators: air, food, water, and sleep or rest. The desire for rest is what negative reinforcement relies on, as whenever pressure is removed and the horse gets a break. Food rewards have an equally useful effect on the horse’s understanding of what is being asked of them, but are often higher on the scale of motivation, so can be an even more powerful tool in the training process.

Explained simply, negative reinforcement (traditional training) utilizes the fight or flight instinct. Now, I’m not saying that’s wrong or bad, but it does rely on stress hormones to be effective, because it has to. That’s the whole gig – we add pressure that a horse wants to have removed as soon as possible, and then release that pressure when the horse exhibits the behavior we want. Positive reinforcement does the opposite – it triggers ‘happy hormones’ and the ‘problem solving’ part of the brain. Everything is a puzzle to solve with a reward at the end.

Now, I would like to add the caveat that any type of training can be done poorly, including R+ training. Just because it feels warm and fuzzy to give your horse treats doesn’t mean you’re contributing positively to his training journey. But when done properly, R+ training allows you to methodically choose to activate ‘happy hormones’ in your horse, which becomes a very rewarding choice for horse and handler. And at the same time, I totally believe that there is a respectful, proper and humane way to use pressure and release in training horses. I believe that the two methods can enhance one another.

Every person who trains horses should know that R+ exists, the science behind it, and how to correctly implement the basics of the work. The degree to which you use it is your prerogative, and is specific to the horse and the issues at hand.

In my next blog, I’m going to outline some practical ways that I incorporate R+ training. Stay tuned!

How We Can Aim to Meet Our Horses the Same Each Day

We’re pleased to collaborate with Chelsea Canedy as a guest contributor on Eventing Nation and Horse Nation. Chelsea Canedy is an event rider and trainer based in Wales, Maine, at her beautiful Unexpected Farm. Her training approach places a strong emphasis on understanding how horses learn, as well as rider mindfulness, and how that translates into better performance. Learn more about her at www.chelseacanedy.com.

Photo courtesy of KTB Creative.

In riding, and especially competing, we talk a lot about why consistency in the saddle matters. However, I most often hear riders discussing the physical aspect of consistency – consistency of seat, aids, ability to see a distance, etc.

I want to talk about mental consistency, and why your horse craves it so much.

Humans and horses like routine – we’re biologically wired to thrive in predictable conditions. Horses even more so than humans, since they are prey animals who are always on the lookout for things that are out of the ordinary, in case they pose a threat. For riders, one of the biggest ways to offer a predictable environment (even when the ring you’re riding in may be different, etc.) is to bring the same mood and energy to each ride.

Since horses are so sensitive and live fully in the present moment, they can truly feel your energy and mood. If you’re hopping on your horse every day with a totally different energy, and they never quite know what to expect, they won’t be able to learn as easily.

Imagine if you’re a student, and every day, your teacher acted and taught differently. Some days, they taught slowly and methodically, and spoke with a gentle voice. Other days, they seemed totally distracted and mumbled your math lesson to you while looking out the window. And then other days, they seemed agitated or even angry and shouted your lesson at you, or spoke too fast for you to absorb any of the information.

Those would be tough conditions to learn in, right? You’d probably spend the first half of the lesson trying to figure out what was going on with your teacher, instead of absorbing the information they were giving you.

One of my favorite ways to cultivate a consistent mindset for myself is to have a pre-ride routine or ritual that is the same every time. This gives me a mental cue to shake off whatever burdens the day may have placed on me, and really re-center myself before approaching the horse.

In my next post, I’ll detail my own pre-ride routine as well as offer some tips for building your own! Stay tuned.

A Game-Changing Tip for Riding the Sensitive Horse

We’re pleased to welcome Chelsea Canedy as a guest contributor on Eventing Nation and Horse Nation. Chelsea Canedy is an event rider and trainer based in Wales, Maine, at her beautiful Unexpected Farm. Her training approach places a strong emphasis on understanding how horses learn, as well as rider mindfulness, and how that translates into better performance. Learn more about her at www.chelseacanedy.com.

Photo courtesy of KTB Creative.

Here at Unexpected Farm, I have a number of horses in training that I would consider to be on the more “sensitive” end of the spectrum. The pros of having a sensitive horse are many, if you can channel their sensitivity to work with you and not against you. When you’re able to channel that sensitivity, you can produce a horse that is light, responsive to the aids, and one of those dreamy mounts that seems to read your mind and become an extension of your mind and body.

Channeling a horse’s natural sensitivity comes down to your self-awareness as a rider and handler. It means holding yourself accountable for your energy and aids around that horse, and not just some of the time, but ALL the time, because sensitive horses need serious consistency. Sensitive horses ask you to truly examine how you’re communicating with them – and they’ll call you out when you’re being too loud or harsh or abrupt with your aids, or even just with your energy and body language. In this way, they are wonderful teachers.

So, in my years of training, teaching, and riding sensitive horses, here’s my biggest tip to other riders:

Use as little aid as possible, but as much as necessary to create a change, and ALWAYS return to neutral when you get a response.

Let’s break this down!

When working with a sensitive horse, it’s easy to think, “Well, she should be able to tolerate this much leg/hand, because that’s what will make her more rideable!” And yes, we need our horses to be rideable (accepting of the aids), but acceptance doesn’t mean that the horse has to accept aids that are simply too big/firm/loud for what he needs. I’m sure that if you got on a horse like Laura Graves’ (now retired) Verdades, or Ben Maher’s Olympic show jumper Explosion, you wouldn’t need a 10 pound leg or hand aid. The horse’s ability to respond to a small aid is what we want long-term, but what that means for you as a rider is that if you have a habit of using bigger and heavier aids, you’ll need to become more aware of how this pressure affects your horse’s ability to learn.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean you should be afraid to use your aids. What sensitive horses have taught me is that as long as you return to neutral- or a relaxed energy state – whenever they try to get the right answer, most of them are actually far more willing than you think. They can tolerate a fair bit of pressure….as long as they feel the release of pressure when they try to get the answer right.

This is the pattern to follow: ride in a neutral state where you’re consciously breathing, following the contact, muscles relaxed, and allowing the horse to feel free from pressure. This is where the horse can think, ‘I’m doing a great job!’ Then, ask for what you want in the smallest way possible. If you don’t get a response, add pressure in a slowly increasing manner by firming up your contact, or by giving a light correction for lack of response to your leg. As soon as you get a response to your firmer contact, or immediately after giving a correction, zap the intensity out of your body and return to neutral. Take a moment to breathe and relax. Then, try again following the same process of aid, increasing pressure or correction, then return to neutral.

Do this again and again until you get a response from the lightest aid you can apply. Be patient, be consistent, be discerning about the use of your own aids and your horse’s try.

This took me a long time to learn myself, and I think it’s the piece that many riders are missing. Sensitive horses can escalate into anxious horses that cannot learn or process information, and that can feel intimidating to ride. This most often happens when riders don’t return to neutral after they have gotten an answer right. In these cases, to the horse it feels like there is always an aid on, because the pressure never lets up. Imagine the frustration of that – of correctly answer the question you are being asked over and over again, but your answer never being acknowledged.

Usually this is totally unintentional, and is simply the rider’s own energy or anxiety creeping in and keeping them from relaxing enough to return to their neutral state. To better help your sensitive horse, you’ll need to get more comfortable there. If it’s a challenge to find your neutral state while mounted, for any reason, start with finding it on the ground in some basic groundwork exercises. Take your time. Once that proves beneficial to you and your horse, try it from on board. Do less. As you begin your ride, feel the sensation of your breath and your muscles and your seat just existing softly with no energy or intention. Let your horse be, just as he is.

Over time, you’ll be able to return to this state more quickly and easily at the right moments, and that’s where you’ll start to see your horse’s sensitivity as a gift instead of an obstacle.

Let’s Talk About ‘Bad Rides’

We’re pleased to welcome Chelsea Canedy as a guest contributor on Eventing Nation and Horse Nation. Chelsea Canedy is an event rider and trainer based in Wales, Maine, at her beautiful Unexpected Farm. Her training approach places a strong emphasis on understanding how horses learn, as well as rider mindfulness, and how that translates into better performance. Learn more about her at www.chelseacanedy.com.

Photo by KTB Creative.

We all have ’em. So let’s talk about them.

First, let’s define the term. What does a ‘bad ride’ mean to you? Is it one where you fell off? Left feeling disappointed, inadequate, or like you failed your horse in some way? Is it one where your horse just wouldn’t DO what you wanted him to do?

When we think we’ve had a bad ride, it is usually because the expectation of that ride was not met. Whether that unmet expectation stems from you as the rider, or whether it stems from your horse, the reaction typically is to deem it a “bad ride” and feel defeated and down on ourselves and/or our horse. This is where we can talk about the reality of the situation versus our narrative of the situation.

Asking yourself a few questions can usually help to reframe this:

– What is the emotion I’m currently experiencing around this ride. Name it. “I feel frustrated, angry, sad, overwhelmed.”
– Is that why you’ve decided it was a bad ride? Notice the back story and history that is behind the feeling. No need to retell it to anyone who will listen, just notice it.
– Come back to today. What was my expectation going into this ride, and was that a realistic one?
– If I had expected a smaller margin of improvement, would I have still called this a ‘bad ride’?
– What were the moments in this ride that I felt were an improvement, or that I felt positive/confident about? Can I place a bigger emphasis on those?
– What can I learn from the ‘bad’ moments, and what resources can I bring on board to improve on those in future rides? Can I come to the ride differently? Do I have specific tools/exercises I can use with my horse to work on one small thing next time? Can I break this down into smaller pieces?

As you work through these questions, you’ll likely find that your bad ride wasn’t actually that bad, and that shifting your expectations around yourself and your horse can be more reflective of the reality of training: that we’re looking for moments of genuine try from the horse, and celebrating 1% improvement. Progress doesn’t happen in leaps and bounds most of the time, and finding those moments of 1% improvement can make all the difference in how you view your training journey.