Ironwood Maine Barn Update

What a busy spring season at the barns!  Ironwood residents participate in the Equine Program in multiple levels and dimensions, so I will try to give a seasonal glimpse of several.  Daily Care is every resident’s entry level responsibility. Frye residents have been learning basics of the horses’ equuslanguage in order to help the mini horses and donkeys feel safe and nurtured during their daily care and exercise. They learn their nutritional needs and getting the hay portions just right for adequate fuel and little waste is a frequent challenge. This time of year, problems in the paddock routinely “crop up” in the form of weeds or plants that can cause bellyaches or worse. Residents have been learning the signs of common ailments and their causes and are on the lookout for culprits, which are usually disguised as beautiful flowers-like delightful buttercups!

​Frye residents also take the minis for walks around campus a few times a week. They face the challenge of having to set limits with their strong charges, whose appetite for green grass and curiosities about things can get them hurt or sick. Meanwhile, these residents who are the newest arrivals at Ironwood are often struggling with their own environmental limitations:  accepting being under constant supervision, following directions willingly, working together in groups, trying new things. The skills they learn about horses-grooming, leading, proper feeding, safety checks of stalls and pastures, organizing chores to complete them in a timely way, showing them leadership and learning to communicate in their language-all develop transferrable skills for their own settling in and growth in the program.

​In horsemanship classes, residents ask the horses to perform tasks that require thinking and movement, such as obstacle courses. Last week, several students gave Miss Fancy her first bath of the season. They learned about horse hygiene products, but the main focus was on how to help Fancy enjoy her bath. She was quite feisty at first and didn’t love feeling wet even though we used warm water. It had not occurred to many of them that horses can’t “deep clean” themselves and are totally dependent on them to groom thoroughly to prevent skin problems and heal any scratches or bug bites.  Of course, they are told this when taught to groom, but helping bathe her required a level of patience, compassion and determination that caused them to “discover” that truth for themselves.  Many expressed gratitude for their chance for warm showers later. Sometimes it’s the simple things that shift mindsets.  Animals have a way of reaching the hearts of kids without raising a lot of defensiveness.

​At the Farmhouse, residents have been continuing to have afternoon riding lessons, with an increase in trail rides around campus.  They work hard to care for their equine friends, and riding lessons can be their chance to play together while also learning new skills.  When I first pause to write about this, I think, “What’s to say? The residents ride at least twice a month for an hour or more. They can choose English (hunt seat), western, or training level dressage.”  But when I think of individual residents and particular sessions or human/horse pairings, there is so much depth and diversity it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll start with a beginner lesson and continue with how others enter this venue in a later article.

​In the beginning…residents may come with no horse horseexperience at all or with several years of experience…even competing in shows. In StarRiders (the approach used here) all students are asked to come with a “beginner’s mind”-open and teachable.  Experienced riders are paired with horses whose talents and training best match their discipline or their goals for IW riding time. Those who never touched a horse until they came to IW are paired with the quietest, most predictable horses-again, with consideration for the riding style they want to try.

​In a recent lesson, there were two students who had never ridden before. A student who has progressed to “junior instructor” level, which means she can assist with one-on-one coaching under the direct supervision of the Barn Manager/Instructor (“eyes-on”, “ears on”), was present to assure safety and provide direct support as the instructor shifted focus between the two riders.  The session began with fitting of riding boots, helmets, chaps, and discussion of riding style options. To a casual observer, it would look like dawdling. What was really happening is that the student helper was busily locating equipment and practicing leadership skills in explaining how things work, while the instructor was observing for learning style indicators and levels of confidence in the two riders.

​It often works well to teach two different styles in the same session, especially with new riders, because it reduces pressure of unspoken competition or a learner’s internal tendency to compare themselves with others. Ultimately, they realize there is more in common across disciplines than is different, which is why it’s so easy for horses to cross train, but this time was just about individuals finding their seats and getting comfortable in the saddle.  The students groomed their horses in the usual way, which warmed and awakened the riders’ upper body and core muscles. It also reminded them that they already have skills for handling horses, which made the prospect of riding immediately more achievable. In the first session, the instructor “tacks up”, while narrating what they are doing, using the correct terms for the parts of the tack and making reference to correct placement and attachment. In the second lesson, the rider will begin to do so, with the instructor directing the steps as needed. By the third or fourth lesson, the rider is able to try tacking up on their own, and minor adjustments are made as needed. By the end of two months, riders routinely tack up on their own, but tack safety checks are always done by an instructor before mounting.

​Once in the arena, the riders warm up their horse with brisk walking, turns and maybe some silly patterns or movements that help them relax into their pairings and laugh a little. This also warms up the riders’ legs and increases awareness of their extremities (but don’t tell them that!).  They give a final tightening to the girth, “ask” their horse to the mounting block and mount up. By now, this description must sound painfully slow. “Get riding, already!” But mounting and dismounting are two of the highest risk times for riders. It matters what others are doing around them; the equipment preparations and horse behavior observations come together to allow the rider to “let go” of standing on their own two feet and let this new partner carry them, even though they haven’t yet learned the “language” for directing them once off the ground. It is about a -literally- heightened sense of trust.

​In the saddle, the rider’s reactions-comfort level, confidence, and style of communication-determines what comes next. With the two beginners referred to above, one was very quiet and technical in his approach-an internal processor who takes things in a step-by-step manner. The other was deeply sensing/feeling. He had an intuitive approach and wanted to “feel” the motion of riding before taking the reins and directing the process. The first rider was shown how to apply body language he uses on the ground to communicate with the horse while in the saddle-eyes and chest in the direction of desired movement, light leg pressure for a walk, and shifting of weight, use of legs to “send” the horse where he wants him to go. Then he was shown how to use the reins, and sent off to practice, with the junior instructor within arm’s reach of reins if he got confused or asked for help.  The second rider-who was more sensory-intuitive rode at first with the horse being led. Rather than hearing directions first, he experimented with how the horse reacted to changes in his posture and focus. After just sitting and feeling the movement of the horse under him and how it felt to maintain his balance and upright posture, he quickly learned he could “speed up” or slow down the walk with his seat and legs. Then he noticed he could move the horse sideways by shifting his weight, and could turn him by turning first his head, and then chest and legs. While still being led, he experienced a soft trot, and then took up the reins and carried on by himself. Sometimes he got confused and wound up in the middle of the arena. He asked questions of the instructors as needed, and then put his horse back on the rail.

​The first rider had by now learned several aids, layered them together, and was having enough success in managing the walk in each direction that he could do some simple patterns. Both riders were then instructed in how to reverse on the rail. By the end of an hour, both could walk, halt, back, reverse direction-all without anyone near them- and ride the trot comfortably.  Yet they each had experienced a very different lesson. As they dismounted, tacked down, and cooled out horses, there was a sense of accomplishment and great enjoyment, as well as deep appreciation for their horses. Conversation about how they learn and what worked for each of them ensued, and they were encouraged to advocate for themselves as learners in various settings as well as in future riding lessons.

​Once riders can ride walk/trot independently, halt, back, turn around, control the speed of the walk or trot, and apply two safety maneuvers, they may ride on the trails. Trail rides start with short forays to the schoolhouse or admin building at the end of a lesson and progress to up to an hour out in the fields and on the roads of IW campus.  More details on trail skills and lessons, as well as lessons for progressing beginners and intermediate and advanced riders will follow in a separate article.

​I hope your spring is melting into summer wonderfully and look forward to meeting many families next week and sharing some horse time!     Happy trails!       -Joy (Barn Manager)