Following exercises and taking quizzes to develop feel and timing are all well and good. But once you have begun developing this skill, how do you know where to apply it, when to use it, and how it works best? Continue reading
Riding is fun. I think you’ll agree with me. All the same, we don’t often act like we are having fun when we ride. I see a lot of scowls and tense bodies, and I am guilty of scowling and being tense too.
Try this for me. Find a trampoline or other bouncy surface (a small, four foot one works best, but I imagine any kind will). Step on and straddle your imaginary horse. Begin trotting, shifting your weight rhythmically from one leg to the other. Hold your hands like you are holding reins. At this point it may be necessary to ignore the neighbours looking over the fence.
Now think about the hardest equine manoeuvre you know. Perhaps your horse bucks every time you ask him to canter—then think about cantering. If you just learned how to leg yield, think about asking for that.
Wait a minute! I didn’t ask you to stop trotting! What happened when you thought about those things? If the subject you thought of was scary enough, I can say with confidence that the end result was your legs stopped moving rhythmically and you may have received quite a jolt from the trampoline.
If that didn’t happen for you, congratulations. You are a more relaxed rider than most of us. Try this instead; I still want you to feel it: go back into your trot and tense up an arm, your wrist, an ankle, your neck… whatever you can think of and see what happens. It will be the same as above: your whole movement will become stiff and your rhythm will be lost.
What the trampoline did when you got tense shows you just what your horse feels. You get stiff and concerned, your body stops giving him the support and cues he needs to keep on going or move into a different gait, and so he starts making up the rules or totally falls apart or gets tense and concerned too. And what do you do when your horse starts ‘acting up’ (even though you see now that it was your fault from the first)? Probably you get more tense or pull on his mouth or punish him…. Does that make the situation better? Hardly.
If we think that riding is scary, our horse does too. If we get tense, our horse does too. If we freeze, our horse takes over or falls apart. It follows that if we have fun, relax, and feel what we want the horse to do before making him do it that he would have fun, relax, and feel us too.
Go for it! Do that scary thing like it’s a walk in the park. If you are unsure of your aid, apply it and see what the horse does. Feel him, then respond to him and he will respond back. That is guaranteed.
By now, those of you who are serious about horses and have been reading some of the books found on my Manes and Tales Booklist will have realized that every trainer has their own philosophy. On this website, I have taken everything I have learned, pared out the parts I disagree with or find are not optimal when compared with other methods, and conglomerated it all into one place. By looking at other trainers who have done this, I see that this is one of the best ways of truly becoming a good horse person.
I bring this up because I have a lot of new methods and thoughts in my arsenal right now. I recently attended a clinic put on by Josh Nichol, an Alberta trainer who has a very different philosophy than any trainer I have met before. A lot of what he said stuck with me, but with one caveat. As he said himself, his is a philosophy that you either take or leave. It either turns you on or turns you off; you want more, or you want nothing to do with it.
Here are some of the things he said (paraphrased, because I could not write fast enough to keep up!):
Every horse has needs, and when we meet those needs, we have a happy horse.
In other words, the problems we see in horses (bucking, shying, walking away during mounting) all indicate an underlying need that is not being met. Hint: the need is not to be corrected or ‘put in his place.’
Leadership and balance are the two main things in horsemanship. Once you have leadership, things can start getting balanced. With balance comes self-carriage, collection, and a horse that is physically able to do what is asked of him.
We take the leadership role in a horse/human relationship. But how often do we think of leadership as dictatorship? Josh drew a sharp distinction between the two. Dictatorship is one person telling everyone else what to do. Leadership is a conversation, and the one who has the strongest ideas is the one that will be followed. This is why some horses walk all over their handlers (figuratively, I hope). The horse is the one with the ideas, and the handler says, ‘oh, okay!’ and backs off. Leadership is saying, ‘no, I really want to do this!’ and the horse replies, ‘alright. I kinda wanted to just hang out here, but this sounds like fun too.’
As for the balance part, a horse naturally has balance. But when we go and jump on their backs, a lot of them lose it. They can’t seem to keep their feet in order underneath them. Only once we have their trust in our leadership can we help them to begin setting their feet straight, and once they can do that, they can hold their body straight, and then they can turn in circles without falling over, and then they can start making themselves look pretty like they do in the field, and the dominoes continue right down to collection.
Every horse has a monument and a donkey.
This was my favourite part. I see a lot of donkeys in the circles I ride in. A rider is praised if she strongly corrects a horse, even if no offence was committed. She’s ‘showing him who’s boss.’ If another rider gets on that horse and he rides it so poetically that he totally disappears from the equation and onlookers notice only how beautiful the horse looks, he receives no congratulations. The horse does.
That, in essence, is why Josh’s philosophy is taken up by so few. Our motives for riding, training, and any other horse activity is glory. My friends, this ought not be so. It is our job to find that monument and bring it out, to bring glory to God for the wonderful creatures He has made, and to forego whatever glory might have come to us.
How many of us have been taught from the first day we handled a horse how to correct it—usually by strong-arming it back to where it should have been, dragging it by the head? I was taught that. This ‘normal’ philosophy comes out when I am riding, too. When the horse refuses to stop, for instance. What were we all taught to do? Pull its head to its side so it has to circle tightly. It can’t run like that, right? Well, just this weekend I heard about a horse who did manage to run at full gallop with its head tilted to the side by its rider, and I cannot imagine anything more dangerous.
Josh Nichol believes that behind these behaviours we feel we need to correct, there is an underlying problem. He does not attack the particular behaviour, but seeks to find out what is really going on. He addresses the horse where it is at, not where it appears to be.
This is a philosophy not many will submit to taking. I, for one, am taking it.
I learned a really important lesson the last time I was working with a horse.
She is a new mare. I had only worked her once before, and this was the second time I had ridden her. She is a petite Quarab with a very willing personality. Her only really issue (and it’s a big one) is that she really has no idea what ground manners are. She is nice enough. But no one has ever explained to her that it is impolite to keep on walking when her handler stops right in front of her.
Noella is only 5. She has had maybe two years under saddle, and a bit of preparation before that (though not as much as I would have liked her to have). She is level headed and calm, but zippy and still has a good deal of ‘try,’ though some of it has been lost through the sometimes harsh corrections she has received for not respecting her handler’s space when she had never been taught how to.
Based on that, what she needed help with was recognizing a command and carrying it out. She has no problem carrying out what she is told to do; recognizing when something is a request or an order is more difficult for her. So to practice, I was doing simple transitions. Halt to walk. Walk to halt, back up. Halt to trot. Trot to walk to halt smoothly, back up.
We were doing all right.
She didn’t want to stop, and started bracing her nose into the pressure on the bit, and when we finally did get stopped she had great difficulty backing up, though I knew she could do it with decent skill when I was not riding her.
I couldn’t just keep on pulling on her nose, telling her to stop. I had first made sure that I was following the correct protocol for asking for a halt: lowing my energy, sitting down, heels down, head up, and then and only then using my hands.
Still no response.
Then I tried something my riding instructor had suggested. Instead of pulling straight back, after I had asked correctly I pulled her nose around and had her circle until she stopped.
That helped a little, but it didn’t work so well.
I modified it a little, so that I had her circle once and then I would ask her to stop again. Progress was made—she would stop after three circles, then two, then one. But after stopping for one second, she would forge ahead again, faster than before. And she would start going faster and faster within the gait, too, which she had not done before. She was getting frustrated.
I took her into the middle of the arena and stopped. I had not yet figured out why, but I knew I needed to start again with small movements, go back to square one and actively help her out. I had essentially forgotten that this was a young horse that needed help with manners and understanding commands and had instead been focusing on the transitions.
The problem was that I had been eternally correcting her. No, you aren’t allowed to speed up. No, you didn’t stop. No, I didn’t ask you to canter, I asked you to move over into the corner. No, no no!
Noella had started to believe she couldn’t do anything right. All I had said to her since I got on was no. What she needed was yes! She has been told no so many times in her life before I started working with her, often when she didn’t even understand why. She didn’t need me to tell her the same things over and over again. She needed me to help her see why.
So in the middle there together, I managed to get her to stop. That was the last time I said no with my hands. I began by asking her to side pass, because on the rail I couldn’t get her to move over without speeding up. She tried to go forward, but I tried not to hold the reins tight. Instead I shifted my weight more dramatically and kept asking. She took one step. I dropped all aids and praised her.
Turn on the forehand. An easy one for her—one step, praise. Another step. What a good girl! At this point she stopped trying to go forwards.
Turn on the haunches. This was a little harder, and she had to move around to figure it out. But one step and a lot of praise, rubs, and encouraging words, and she had it.
As she got each thing by itself, I combined it into a manoeuvre, asking her to complete a box of four turns on the haunches and four straight lines. I had her make a nice balanced circle and make it smaller or bigger with a leg yield. I could feel her changing beneath me.
About twenty minutes later, I took her back out to the rail. I asked for a trot and I got one. Good girl. I asked for a halt. On a dime. Good girl. Back up? Yes ma’am! Sidepass into the ring, and back out. Well done! She didn’t even try to speed up.
Enough was enough on the rail. She had been trying her hardest to do what I wanted, and all I told her was that she was doing it wrong. When I shifted my focus to making her look good, not making me and what I could make her do look good, she started floating through what I asked.
I had a different horse.
I wonder now how many times I have missed the more subtle messages of a more experience horse saying, ‘I don’t get it.’ It took this young mare screaming at me for me to understand that she didn’t and to get creative about how to meet her needs.
Your horse has needs, too. What is he telling you?
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!
There is nothing more amazing (in my opinion, at least) than watching a horse and human communicate without any physical connection between them. The person points, the horse goes. A slight movement, and the horse responds. It’s a dance.
Training a horse to work with you at liberty isn’t difficult. It’s mostly basic ground training. Even if you don’t take it all the way and actually take your horse off line and work truly at liberty with him, teaching your horse the basics of liberty will vastly improve how you communicate on the ground, and, as I’ve said before, groundwork translates directly into work in the saddle.
In this post I will describe the theory behind beginning to teach the basics of liberty, and in the next few, I’ll describe just how to go about it.
Horses communicate with each other via body language. It’s not something every human is great at, so there will be just about as much learning for you in this post as for your horse. Liberty isn’t just you telling your horse what to do with various previously-taught signals. Both of you are talking to each other, back and forth.
For example. You ask the horse to do something. He doesn’t do it. Now what? He’s telling you something. Maybe your use of his language wasn’t sufficient for him to understand. You’ll have to look at him and read the signs and adjust what you are asking accordingly. In the beginning stages especially, you’ll have to ‘translate’ a lot of what you’re saying.
The cue I use to ‘walk on’ in body language is shifting my weight forward and moving my right arm in the direction I wish to travel. This cues the horse to get ready, we’re going. Jamileh didn’t automatically know what that meant the first time I did it. So, I gave her the cue, then when she did nothing I gave her a cue for the same thing that she already knows; pressure on her halter rope. She stepped forward. What a good girl!
The same concept of translation works in the saddle too. I was teaching Jamileh how to neck rein, so I started with the cue I wanted her to learn (pulling the right rein over her neck to turn left). She didn’t know what to do with it and started fishing for an answer. After maybe three seconds, I gave her a clue, the translation, by using a direct rein to nose her in the right direction. After a few weeks of consistency, her neck reining is vastly improved, and I hardly ever have to ‘translate’ for her.
Try something like that. Practice translating. You’ll have to be good at it!
All of our horses are going to be ridden at some point, unless my readers have started joining the Alexander Nevzorov movement. Not that I don’t like the Nevzorov ideas, in fact, I hold Alexander in quite a high position on my list of amazing horse trainers, and I suggest that you look him up. But, we generally ride our horses, and it is necessary to do so in a responsible way.
Some horses are much more sensitive than others, and so should not be ridden bareback. Riding a very sensitive horse bareback, while it is fun, could potentially injure the horse’s back and make him no longer enjoy his rides with you.
But assuming your horse is like most horses and is not one of the super-sensitive-high-strung-Arabian types, there are a few things you can do to make your ride more enjoyable for your four-legged companion. The first is to learn about Centered Riding. This amazing riding technique is just about the best way to ride a horse. It is complex enough that I simply cannot describe it here, but this also I suggest looking up and researching. Once Centered Riding is mastered, a slight cue that no one but you and your horse know about will control him and you can enjoy the best relationship you have had with your horse.
Learning how to ride well is a great asset to anyone training their own horse. No, I should not say asset – necessity! Your horse is as good as you are. The better you ride, the better your horse will be. Less is more. Such are the maxims of Centered Riding, and they are well worth knowing.
I think this post will become a string of posts related to how we ride – stay tuned for tips on turning, stopping, and starting your horse in a way that bystanders won’t notice!
Until next time,