Creating an Even Keel

In last week’s post, I looked at why some horses have trouble moving in a certain direction or picking up a certain lead. If you haven’t read that post yet, please do. The exercise that I describe below builds off of the two exercises I presented there.

This exercise is meant to be done at a lope. You should be getting the correct lead at least some of the time now, after doing last week’s exercises. If your horse is still really falling apart at the lope, don’t start with that. Instead, introduce them to the exercise at a long trot. There is really no benefit in walking it.

You are going to turn your arena into an hourglass. Normally, you just ride around it in a rectangle shape, following the long and short walls all the way around. For this, you will be following the short walls, but ducking in on the long walls.

Pick up your gait (trot or lope) and begin. If you have arena letters, start at A (if you don’t, it’s a good idea—go get some). Lope to F, and from there use your outside leg to push and bend the horse into the middle. At this point, they are in what is known as a counter canter, or bending to the right while loping to the left. It is hard, and your horse may have trouble balancing. Help them as much as you can. If you find you cannot ride the lope nicely, bring them down to a trot until you have both found your balance again.

Some symptoms of losing balance are speeding up, breaking gait or switching leads, or bucking. You can help the horse on these counter bends by picking up the rein closest to the wall and shifting some more weight onto your inside seat bone.

When you come to M, having given B a wide berth, you should be at the wall again. Continue along beside C, and at H start ducking to the middle again. Be insistent about getting an outside bend; that is the point of the exercise.

Keep going for a bit until your horse begins to feel like putty between your legs. The ideal is to have a horse that moves and bends away from a small amount of leg pressure. Keep the ideal in mind and go experiment!

The Horsegentler

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Picking the Right Lead

Horses have hands. ‘Yeah,’ you are saying, ‘you measure them in hands.’

True.

But those are not the hands I am talking about.

Just like humans, horses can be right handed or left handed (or right or left hoofed!) Horses find it easier to do what we ask of them on their good side, and more difficult on their bad side, just like you can probably write really well with your right hand and worse than a two year old with your left.

Spider, a horse I recently rode for a friend, could not pick up his left lead at the lope. It was really hard for him because he had trained his muscles  to go to the right. That was his natural tendency because it was easy for him, and left to himself, he wouldn’t even think about using the left lead.

The cause of this is pretty simple. Because this horse found it easier to bend to the right, he hardly uses the muscles on his left side to bend to the left, even when he was turning left. Because he tries to only use his right side muscles, and his left side muscles are weaker.

This is perfectly natural for lower-level horses, or horses just learning how to move nicely under saddle, but for a barrel horse like Spider, his stiffness and wrong leads could mean the difference between winning or not.

What I did with this horse was gently ask him to start using his left side more. It was very difficult for him, and at first he didn’t understand what I wanted him to do. I was careful not to push him too far so that the next day when I worked on it again he wasn’t too sore from using those underused muscles.

The first exercise I used was a turn on the forehand exercise. I rode into the middle of the arena at a 45 degree angle for a few steps, then stopped and asked him to swing his haunches around so we could go back to the wall. In this way I zig-zagged up and down the arena. The goal was to be able to ask him to move his haunches in either direction without stopping.

This exercise was helpful because it got him bending and using both sides evenly. But more importantly, because my goal was to help him pick up a left lead, shifting his haunches in while moving was key.

The next exercise was a haunches-in while moving straight down the wall. I only asked for this at a trot; Spider is a bit on the slow side, so trotting him helped him pick up his feet and be alert to what I was asking. At first he interpreted my outside leg aid as a cue to speed up, but with some practice, he finally began to understand.

I moved back and forth between these exercises until he could do them fairly smoothly.  Then I decided to call the question.

To really help him get the correct lead, I pushed his haunches in as we turned left and simultaneously asked him for a lope.

He got it.

I expect that these simple exercises will help with your horse, too. If you try all of that and find no progress, there is a more advanced and difficult exercise that builds off of those two that will strengthen both sides of your horse, but especially the weak side, so you can start off with the correct hoof. If this is the case with your horse, wait for the next post! I will go over this exercise then.

The Horsegentler

The Unwilling Mount of Faithful and True

The new horse whirled around her pen, tail held high like a flag. She was more than a little upset and confused. She had been forced, quite against her will, into a trailer that morning, and had been driven for hours before finally arriving here. When her owners had stopped for a rest along the way, she had not been let out to stretch her cramped, energetic legs. They had said that it wasn’t worth the trouble of getting her back in.

Unwilling was a pretty thing, or so she herself thought. Her head was really the only pretty part, beautifully formed, with deep, dark eyes. The rest of her worked just fine, but wasn’t what any real horseman would look for. All the same, as she danced and wheeled she was aware of two men standing calmly by, leaning on the fence and looking at her. She trotted half to show off and half to find a way out of there. She did not like how the one fellow looked, the one addressed as King. He looked like he would be work.

“What are you going to do with her, King?” This was the younger fellow. The mare in the pen was not worried about him, for he did not look as experienced as his companion.

“I shall train her, Faithful and True.” King’s voice held nothing but kindness, but he sounded determined. His tone told Unwilling that he knew everything about her already, and she thought, puzzled, that they had only just met. This idea scared her. She fled to the other side of the pen and stood there, trembling, tail to the men, shaking her sides with whinnies for help.

The next day passed as a nightmare for Unwilling. Everything was new, and that was bad enough, but King then entered her pen and stood in the middle. There was no way for her to distance herself from him. Wherever she went, he was still close – too close, she thought. She determined never to let him touch her; he might muss her soft, white coat. Twice, frightened and exasperated by his being so close, she struck out at him, the first time with her teeth, the second time with her hooves. Both times she received the same answer – a swift, memorable correction, and then the offer of peace and King’s outstretched hand. Unwilling turned her head away, aloof, refusing to acknowledge him, and continued to pace the perimeter of her pen.

The second day when King entered, Unwilling did not move from her place at the far end of the pen. Her position was sullen and uninviting, but she had really just been thinking how nice it would be to have someone who understood her. King went to the middle of her pen again. She could feel his all-knowing gaze fixed upon her, and she felt the uncomfortableness of her thoughts becoming his, and then, strangely, his becoming hers. She did not move when he approached her shoulder, only turned her head slightly away when he put out his hand, so as to suggest he should not touch her, but he did anyway, and it was not at all unpleasant.

After this, Unwilling would greet King, though reservedly, and even look forward to his daily coming. She began to complacently enjoy her circumstances, and as soon as she did, she found the penetrating eyes of King on her once more, and things changed. That day he came with a halter and rope in his hand and when Unwilling greeted him as usual, he petted her as usual in all the right places, and then put the halter on. She did not object. But when he took her to the gate of the pen, opened it, and asked her to go out, she refused. She did not know what was out there. There were plenty of new horses she did not care to meet, plenty of unknown dangers. Why, only yesterday there had been a frightful noise in the very direction King wished her to go! She said no. He told her again to go. She shouted no. But when King’s position did not change, and he stood there, pulling solidly on her halter rope for ten minutes, she began to run out of plausible excuses and lifted her front feet off of the ground in plain defiance. Whap! King’s end of the lead rope found its mark, and Unwilling plunged through the gate, suddenly willing to follow.

Everything new distracted Unwilling, though. She craned her neck this way and that with deep brown eyes full of tense wonder, showing their white outer rim. She forget entirely about King and looked instead at all the sights, sights King did not yet wish her to see, for she jumped at some and trembled at others. Each time she wove across the path into his side, bumping him rudely, he would stop calmly and correct her, pushing her away the proper distance, and then they would walk on again. He did this over and over again for several days until Unwilling learned how to walk close by his side, head lowered, calm no matter what they passed.

Unwilling soon became contented in this too, for she enjoyed her daily walks with King and indeed wished that they should never end. But as soon as this thought entered her mind, there was King, reading her thoughts again. When King took her out for her next walk, he turned left instead of going straight, leading Unwilling up the path all the other horses he trained went daily, and he took her into the arena. She objected only slightly, but by now she had learned to read her trainer, and when she saw that he was not at all worried, she relaxed and followed.

That day’s lesson was hard for Unwilling, and when she found herself back in her pen, she was sweaty, though King had brushed her nicely and had even sponged her off. The lesson had involved placing an odd leather thing on her back. She hadn’t wanted it there, and had tossed it off. King had been obviously displeased, and their difference of opinion resulted in a battle that Unwilling did not wish to think about, though it had not been violent. Unwilling lay down in the shade, ready to fall asleep. But just before she did, she noticed King standing again at her fence with the younger man beside him, just as they had stood the day she had arrived.

“What are you going to do with her?” the younger man asked again.

“I am well pleased with her so far,” King answered with a proud smile in his voice. “She still has much to learn, of course. But she is becoming more beautiful by the day, and when I am finished with her, there shall be no creature more beautiful than her in all the Kingdom. Then her name shall no longer be Unwilling, but instead she shall be known as the Mount of Faithful and True, for I give her to you. She is the one you will ride on the Last Day.”

Continually, we are treated by God in the same manner as an animal in training is treated by its trainer. God is patient and kind, but just and jealous. He knows what we feel, and when we are ready, He moves us on towards the heights, gradually making us into the perfect creation we were meant to be.