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Building your horse’s confidence should always be the priority

June 11, 2014

photo (7)Horses by nature are suspicious, claustrophobic, fleeing animals. This is how they evolved over thousands of years in order to survive. The horses we know today are semi-domesticated; they are not genetically the same as their ancestors, they have in part adapted physiologically and mentally to humans and their domesticated lifestyle.

So we are left with a creature that has two hooves in the natural world and two hooves in a human-mediated world. Unfortunately for horses, this often means that many would struggle if released into nature without human-care. For example, many would not be able to handle the elements, their feet would severely suffer, they would lose substantial weight. On the other hand, many horses that live in a human-mediated world are forced to do things their instincts tell them would lead them to certain death, for example walking over a tarp or jumping over a narrow fence. In other cases, horses are asked to perform activities under the instruction of a timid rider/handler – in other words, a leader they don’t have faith in. These conflicts and miscommunications often lead to trouble.

For centuries, it has been the norm to bend horses to our will, to force them to do our bidding, to make them respect us. Firstly, I don’t think horses can comprehend a concept such as respect; that is a human experience. Secondly, if there is such a vernacular in a horse, surely they would not respect someone who forces their will on them – they would likely fear them, which is not the same thing. Horses that are trained in fear never gain the confidence to act autonomously – they never learn to think for themselves. They constantly vibrate with an underlying anxiety, which humans experience as spooking and over-reaction in horses.

So how do we get horses to do what we want without evoking fear, and how do we persuade them to go against their primal instincts?

I believe the answer lies in building a horse’s confidence. This means that humans need to give up some control and let a horse learn organically; let the horse make mistakes themselves. Give them a clear aid and then let them respond. Be open to whatever response they bring forward and try and get them to figure it out rather than having the rider micro-manage everything. This results in the horse learning to think for themselves. If a horse has decided to do something, you won’t have to constantly go to battle every time. Examples of these repeat problem areas include troubles with loading into a trailer, jumping over a tarp, consistent head carriage, transitions, free jumping etc. Many riders don’t have time for a training style based on organic-learning, but I would like to suggest that allowing a horse to bloom and allowing them to be fully themselves is really the whole point of training and is a differentiating factor in the show ring.

I suggest that we approach training much the way we approach raising our kids. Teach our horses new skills and give them freedom to explore their new activity, make mistakes, and then learn from them. In order for your horse to reach his maximum potential and to be in a relaxed state, they need to perform – at least in part – autonomously.

Ask yourself: Is my schooling session giving my horse confidence or lowering their self-esteem? Building their confidence should ALWAYS take priority over accomplishment.  It is about playing the long game – not just for the sake of achievement, but primarily out of love and compassion for our horses.

We have so much power over these magical creatures. We must be very careful how we train them, and think critically about the spirit in which we do so.

Horse pals matter

March 22, 2012

Horses are stabled in a number of ways when they are turned out, if they are turned out at all. Some horses live alone in a small pen, others have one or two friends, and some live in a large herd. I’ve recently become aware of the impact that herd-mates have on horses. I have a young impressionable horse, so perhaps that is why I’ve noticed it so much. If you have a mature and strong alpha in the herd, it sets a behaviour precedent, and others in the herd become calm and peaceful. If you have an insecure alpha, who acts like a bully, the whole herd will be unbalanced and aggressive. Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer, talks a lot about calm-assertive energy in dog packs and I think this also applies to horses – for more on this topic go to http://www.cesarsway.com/.

Many boarders feel a bit helpless when they are at a stable, allowing their horse to go in whatever set up the barn owner suggests. I think that who your horse gets turned out with has a large impact on your horse’s well-being, their stress level, and can even lead to injury if they are not in a balanced herd. It is easy to feel social pressure just to go with the flow, but remember you are the one paying the bills and the consequences of improper turnout will fall on you and your horse, no one else. Trust your instincts.

If you have a young spirited horse, like I do, make sure they are turned out with a good teacher who can keep them in line without becoming aggressive. One who can give them boundaries and confidence at the same time. It will make them good horsey citizens, and will also make your job as your horse’s trainer that much easier.

Why do people ride horses when they are off?

March 20, 2012

This is a topic that has puzzled me for many years. When a horse is lame, has a significant injury, or is just plain body sore, why do people still ride them? Riding a horse in pain will never result in a quality training session and usually causes more damage to the injured area. In addition, the horse suffers and will start to compensate physically to offset using that limb or area of their body.

In reference to my post entitled, ‘Why do riders take things so seriously, lighten up, it’s supposed to be fun!‘, why are riders in such a hurry to ride? Most of us aren’t going to the Olympics, nor even preparing for an important competition. I think people choose to ride their sore horse because of ego and insecurity. They want to ignore the fact that their horse is injured, hoping things will just work out – after all they do pay board and their horse is there for a reason, right? Also, by riding, they can assure themselves that the injury is not as bad as it seems or their horse would object more. This is not always the case as many horses are very benevolent, at least in the short term.

Inflammation is a nasty thing and often the weight of a rider on a horse’s back makes inflammation worse. Give your horse some time! Hand walk! Do stretching exercises in hand. As the great trainer, Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner says, “the long way is the short way” – this not only applies to training but also to healing. When in doubt, don’t ride; I’ve never regretted giving my horse some time and physio when they are unsound. On the other hand I’ve seen owners continue to ride their horses despite injuries, which eventually turns them into chronic problems.

Exercise #6: red light, green light

March 15, 2012

This is a leg yield exercise, which can be executed at the walk or trot. It is designed to improve your horse’s lateral reach, their sharpness at the half-halt, their collection, and their adherence to the outside aids. It is also a great gymnastic exercise when practiced with energy and enthusiasm, although it can be used simply to help school the leg yield.

To begin:

  • walk or trot up center line, making sure you have several strides of straightness
  • half halt and once you’ve gotten a response add leg and ask for three strides of leg yield
  • half halt again and straighten your horse adding leg and letting him trot straight for several strides
  • half halt, add leg and yield to the wall
  • before hitting the track, half halt again, straighten and add leg to move him along the track without him falling, so to speak, into the wall with his shoulder.

Tips:

  • The straightening is just as important as the yielding, so if your horse will not straighten half way through the leg yield, carry on going straight on the quarter line and push them forward until you feel them become compliant to your aids. Sometimes, this means that you go around the whole ring on the quarter line until they give in and relax. Once they’ve done so you can half halt, add leg and try three strides of yield again.
  • If you are struggling at the trot, go to walk right away – there is no shame in this. Don’t fight at the trot until you can easily do this exercise at the walk.
  • If you feel that you always have too much bend in the leg yield, it is because your horse is bulging through your outside aids, not because you have too much bend to the inside per se. Half halts and moving the horse forward and straight will fix this problem.
  • Don’t forget to animate your seat. If your horse lacks impulsion, look to yourself as the dead weight first!
  • Don’t lean to the inside and don’t look down at your horse’s neck. It is critical when riding leg yield to look straight ahead of you and visually find the point where you will straighten and the point where you wish to enter the track.
  • Always mix lateral work with some gymnastic, don’t keep pounding the exercise. Add a loose rein walk or trot around the ring in a forward rising trot or canter. Keep the horse’s interest up and their stress level down. Perfectionist type people always struggle the most at the beginning with lateral work, as they forget to keep the big picture in mind, but ultimately are very good at lateral work once they’ve mastered the technique.

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The sitting-trot wizard: attaining the golden seat

March 13, 2012

Executing an effective and comfortable sitting trot is probably the most difficult challenge faced by amateur dressage riders. For most, it is hard to get your body in sync with the horse while still riding effectively. It is like the old hot and cold taps, where you can only have one or the other on at one time : )

The biggest mistake made by most amateurs is that they try to learn the sitting trot in one step. In other words, they try to go from not even being able to get in the rhythm  – all the way to being in perfect sync with the horse. Many riders try methods such as riding half a circle sitting and then back to rising, or another favourite, being lunged with no stirrups. Unfortunately, a lot of these traditional methods cause the rider to clamp up even more and give the horse a bruised back. Not ideal.

I propose a phased approach:

Phase one: sit heavy

Before you can have the perfect sitting trot, you as a rider need to learn how to put weight in the saddle. I know many instructors say not to sit heavy like a sack of potatoes as it will not help your horse’s animation. Although this is true, I believe that UNTIL you can learn to sit like a sack of potatoes you will never learn to properly sit the trot. Many riders hover in the saddle and kind of do a fake sitting trot, which looks stilted and awkward. Technically, they are sitting on their seat bones and pinch with the knees. In order to keep the balance with this configuration their seat has to be tense and their pelvic floor raised. It is actually quite an unstable way of riding and it astonishes me that so many riders opt to stick with this method of riding. Clearly, it does take more time and strength to ride a proper sitting trot, but I believe the extra bit of effort is well worth it.

But back to sitting heavy… If you’ve gotten to the point in your riding that you either want to finally learn a proper sitting trot or would like to try sitting trot for the first time than you need to start at phase one. The basic instructions are as follows: 1. go into a slow trot from a walk 2. don’t TRY to sit the trot, instead focus on feeling your pubic bone and seat bones as the three point contact in your saddle 2. once you feel your points of contact, make sure you are sitting up tall and let your full weight rest on these three points.

It is important to keep your horse slow during phase one. Again, the advice many of us get is to keep “riding the horse”. But you must be realistic. At this stage, no matter how much better it would be for you to school your horse while trying to learn the sitting trot, it isn’t going to happen. Your best bet is to let your horse go nice and slow and if possible let them have a soft long contact where they are stretching for the bit. This stretch will help lift their back, which will make it easier for you to sit. Many will feel that they look ridiculous mincing around, sitting like a sack on their horse. You must ignore this for now. You must get used to the idea of allowing your full weight to sit on your three points and by doing so your pelvic floor will relax and lower, which is essential before moving to phase two. Practice your sitting trot near the end of your ride when you and your horse are warmed up. Don’t move on to the next phase until you feel like you’ve had success here first.

Phase two: animate your seat

Once you feel like it is second nature that you are sitting on your seat bones and your pubic bone rather than putting your weight on your seat bones and knees, you are ready for phase two.

The instructions are as follows: 1. from a walk ask your horse to go into a slow trot 2. sit heavy as you did before with your three point contact 3. this time you are going to tilt your pelvis (think of a speed boat as it takes off, or if you do yoga think of warrior pose) 4. now shut your eyes for a moment and feel the rhythm of the horse, count in your mind the trot steps 1-2-1-2-1-2 5. with your tilted pelvis I want you to animate your seat, not back to front but in little pelvic pushes 6. as you do so you will notice you don’t feel as heavy in the saddle, but the weight that is still there should still be resting on your three points 7. this is the critical piece of phase two – STAY IN FRONT OF THE MOTION. If you try to keep the rhythm of your seat with the horse’s gait you will always be a bit behind the motion. In your mind, you must attempt to stay in front of the motion, what you will accomplish instead is that you will just be in sync. A good example to demonstrate what happens when you are behind the motion can be found when using a trampoline. Have you ever heard the term, stealing someone’s bounce? This happens when you are bouncing on a trampoline with a friend at the same time and one of you slightly bounces just after the other, the first bouncer gets a dead tramp and instead of bouncing high doesn’t go anywhere. This is what happens to your horse when you are behind the motion. You steal his bounce and you as the rider get bounced even higher.

Phase three: lift

Most riders don’t get past phase two, but if you want to help your horse reach collection you will need to move beyond it. If you keep practicing, you can have a pretty decent position riding in phase two and feel reasonably comfortable at the sitting trot. Phase three is all about helping your horse out, where phase two is about trying not to interfere with your horses motion. In phase three, the idea is to use your seat and body to help animate your horse. Every time your horse lifts his back (and if you were posting you would be rising), you, the rider also actively lift your seat to help the horse get the maximum animation possible for that stride.

The instructions are as follows:  At this point, you are very comfortable in phase two and are in perfect sync with your horses movement. You are not interfering with their gait and you are able to stay in the sitting trot for an extended period of time. As you begin to enter phase three you will make the following changes to your approach and position. 1. instead of simply doing the pelvic pushes to stay in sync you will now sit even taller in the saddle and actually lift your body straight up during the rise stage of the gait as though someone is pulling you upwards by your helmut. 2. As you work through this change you will notice that you feel like you are almost bouncing in the saddle, don’t be alarmed this is normal 3. you will also notice after a while that you almost feel like you are – in a sense – standing in your tack and getting more stability from your upper inner thighs than your seat, this is also normal. 4. Ultimately, you will be able to aid your horse, providing them with more balance and lift than they would offer without a rider – when this happens you know you’ve attained phase three.

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The importance of warm-up and cool-down

March 8, 2012

A 10-15 minute warm up and cool down are critical to a proper training schedule for your horse. The warm-up phase of your ride allows both horse and rider to establish rhythm and slowly stretch out their muscles and tendons. For the rider, the warm-up is also an opportunity to let go the mental noise of the day and focus on the joy of riding, while stretching out their hips and allowing the leg muscles to lengthen. I like to do at least a 10 minute loose rein walk in my warm-up followed by a marching leg yield across the diagonal at the walk or trot. In some cases, I’ll also go into a slight forward seat and canter my horse. This can be beneficial for older horses or horses that tend to be stiff. The important thing with any warm-up is that you progressively ask for more rather than pushing them into a very forward gait immediately. The idea is to bring blood into the muscles, lengthen the tendons and flex and weight load the joints progressively. This method will allow your horse to perform at its optimum level during the main part of your ride and will put the least amount of wear and tear on your horse’s bodies. Riding the horse in a connected but stretching frame is a great way to relax your horse and engage their back, just be vigilant that the horse doesn’t come behind the bit. You should always have a soft connection where the horse seeks the bit rather than sucking behind it.

Once you’ve finished the heart of your ride, where you work on certain sequences/patterns or dressage elements, you should end with a cool down. The cool down is important for your horse in many ways. Firstly, it is a reward for them mentally. By letting your horse go longer in your cool down, stretching and moving forward athletically, they receive a mental and physical release. It is also important that those muscles, which were tightened during collection are allowed to lengthen again. If you don’t allow these muscles to extend during a cool down you decrease your horses flexibility, which in some cases can even lead to cramping. Many people don’t offer a cool down period for their horse and after compressing the muscles put them directly into their box stall for the next 15 hours until they get turned out the next day.

I’ve come to enjoy the warm-up and cool-down periods of my ride as much as the more technical periods. It is a time to bond with your horse and enjoy their natural beauty and freedom.

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If your horse throws his head you are likely pissing him off

March 6, 2012

I know this is a strong title, which may even offend some – but I wanted to make an impact. When your horse is tossing his head, bucking, rearing, bolting, biting etc. He is telling you something, in fact he is screaming it. Most people see these habits as vices, but I see them as communication. Horses are subtle creatures, they typically don’t communicate loudly, they whisper. If they do communicate loudly, it is because you have left them no other choice – these vices are their last resort.

If you are experiencing these kinds of behaviors consider re-evaluating how you are riding, the amount of exercise/food/turnout your horse is getting. Consider the kind of training your horse is getting, what kind of coaching are you receiving. Could your horse have some kind of physical problem? Is your tack negatively impacting your horse?

I find the most common reason that horses “scream” is because of riders’ bad hands. Many riders either pull back, clamp, hold, tug etc. They tell the horse to go forward and then they pull back the reins. They ask their horse to canter, while leaning forward with their upper body and pulling the reins towards their chest (this is sadly common in jumping as well). Horses tolerate a lot, frankly, but each of them has their own snapping point.

The ideal hand, is what I call a following hand. Probably similar to an automatic release in jumping. The metaphor I always use is: hold the reins as through you are holding a child’s hand. Even if the child tries to pull away, a parent wouldn’t increase their grip and crush the child’s hand…it is a good metaphor to keep in mind. With a following hand your contact is soft and consistent and your hand moves with the rhythm of the horse. If you have a still hand, it limits your horse’s natural movement. If you have an on and off contact on the outside rein, it is quite unnerving for the horse and they don’t know if you are there for them and when they will get bumped in the mouth as you re-establish contact.

As a caveat to my title. I don’t think horses really get pissed off, but they do get unnerved and anxious if they are not heard.

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