Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Also called the haunches-in, the travers has similar gymnasticizing and strengthening benefits to the shoulder-in though is a more advanced maneuver. In the shoulder-in, the horse is bent away from the direction (much like the leg yield) of travel whereas in the travers, the horse is bent toward the direction of travel. It is a step toward the half-pass, an advanced maneuver. In the travers, the horse moves on 4 tracks as opposed to 3, as in the shoulder-in.

Another excellent teaching video:

Same as with the shoulder-in, riding a schoolmaster and learning to feel for the movement prior to teaching the travers to your own horse can be greatly beneficial. Eyes on the ground can also be of great benefit!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The shoulder-in

I love the shoulder-in and believe it has great importance in the training of a horse. The benefits of the SI is that it asks for increased engagement and straightness from the horse, it builds strength in the horse, and it also supples the horse. For the horse with excessive tension in its back, this exercise is especially useful. In such cases, I try to get the horse to the point where I can use the SI to supple and relax them, as soon as possible. Recently, I have been using SI a lot on spooky horses - it 'forces' the horse to relax, to supple, and to focus as they come 'through'. It's a great tool for the spooky horse on the trail or in the arena.

What happens BEFORE the shoulder-in...

The initial primary goal with a young horse started under-saddle should be developing forward - the horse must learn to push forward and to think forward. While developing forward, I am also developing downward transitions at every opportunity, without actual emphasis or focus on transitions. This means that every time I transition the horse from say trot to walk, I take this as an opportunity to school the downward transition and to create a soft, light horse who is responsive to my seat. This does not mean drilling transitions. The reason for developing forward first is that you want a horse who flows forward freely and with confidence - who develops rhythm along with relaxation and suppleness. This may often include trotting over poles, over hills, and simply moving out forward. When I do ask for downward transitions, I ask with my seat first - I take a deep audible breath out and relax my seat. If the horse fails to respond, then I may close my hands (but never pulling back). I like to start my young and re-started horses on a loose rein where they learn responsibility for themselves, so in that case I cannot simply close my hands but I can lift the reins up (signalling the horse) before taking up the rest of the slack and closing my hands. A little outside rein might also suffice in slowing or transitioning the horse downward. Another option could be the one-rein stop or emergency stop whereby if the horse ignores my seat cue, I slide my hand halfway down the rein, pinch the rein between my pointer and thumb, and slowly add the rest of my fingers to the rein as I bring the rein to my thigh and relax into my seat; I ask the horse to relax and stop moving its feet, then to disengage its hindquarters. By using phases of ask, you allow and teach the horse to be light - you are as light as possible but as effective as necessary. Most horses pick this up within a session or two and are halting strictly by seat cues thereafter.

In addition to forward, I also introduce the turn on the forehand (TOF), turn on the haunches (TOH), and sidepass almost immediately to a horse started under-saddle.

Once I have developed all the aforementioned, it is time to introduce yielding off the leg while moving out; at this point you have the forward to channel into exercises whereby the horse yields off the leg and you have established the building blocks (TOF, TOH, sidepass) to ask for such exercises. This type of work whereby we are asking the horse to yield off our leg, will include:
1. Asking the horse to respond to my leg cues directionally - ie, turning right when I apply my left leg at the girth. If the horse fails to respond to my seat and leg cues, then I may pick up my rein and then 'tell' the horse to move in the direction I originally asked for, via rein cue.
2. Simultaneously I also start asking for more bend and develop balance on the corners. I use my legs on a horse a lot, even if I have no expectations of actually achieving bend initially. I always ask then as I progress the horse, it naturally starts coming. I ask the horse to do various circular patterns and exercises under-saddle to provide me opportunity to ask for bend, balance, and also engagement (by virtue of the pattern + by asking for bend and balance): 20m circles, circles that spiral in and out, 10m circles, serpentines, serpentines with 10m circles at each change of direction, figure-eights, etc. 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider is one great book chock full of great exercises, as is Progressive Schooling Exercises for Dressage & Jumping by Islay Auty. The smaller the circles and exercises the greater the degree of difficulty for the horse so at first I start with very large exercises and patterns, usually 20m+. I work on patterns and exercises that are sized appropriate to that horse and increase the degree of difficulty only as the horse progresses. At this point, my hands are wide apart and low (but never below my hip) and I am 'tunneling' the horse between my aids: my outside rein and leg are supportive (ie, prevent the horse from falling in) and my inside rein along with inside leg at the girth helps initiate bend. This will naturally require some degree of engagement and balance of the horse. I am asking for the horse to accept my outside supportive rein and to relax into it even if not yet actually picking up contact. Most horses will initially resist a little to being pushed into that outside rein via your inside leg as you introduce the outside supportive rein, however if you maintain the proper position and remain soft and quiet on the circle, they soften quickly. When doing your circles, be sure to maintain gait and also degree of bend along the entire length of the circle (ultimately). Ensure your horse's spine is bent evenly around your leg.
3. I can also ask for transitions at this point, as the horse feels ready - transitions between gaits (ie, walk to trot) and transitions within gaits (ie, using half-halts at the trot). These transitions will further develop pushing power, strength in the hind end. They also introduce to the horse and develop in the horse longitudinal collection. Of course, with the young green horse we are not actually expecting collection - our focus is on developing pushing power, strength in the haunches. This is right in line with our focus on forward.
4. Lastly, I can also work on developing actual leg yields at this point - this further teaches the horse about the outside rein and requires a greater degree of yield off the leg. Refer to the previous blog concerning leg yields.

Keep in mind that while most of these exercises are introduced at the walk, they should quickly progress to the trot - you will have much more forward to channel at the trot. Furthermore, if at any point I feel the young or re-started horse 'sucking back' and losing forward at any point, I re-open my hands and just allow for forward, even if I have to move off the circle we were working on and just ask the horse to move out in a straight line. If the problem persists, we go back to focusing on developing lots of forward (even if just within that session). The point-to-point exercise can be a great exercise to develop forward and it has the bonus of also developing brakes and transitions in general in a horse. Forward is one of your major major major building blocks so throughout the aforementioned exercises and tasks and goals, forward should always be at the back of your mind - how to further develop it and how to maintain it.

Also remember to keep in mind that much in training a horse is about feel. Much of the aforementioned exercises (#1-4) can be taught to and developed simultaneously in a horse, at least to an extent. What is necessary for that horse in that moment will depend on the feedback your horse is giving you but ultimately all the above is crucial to developing the basics and a solid foundation in your horse. Generally I am often picking at each of the above exercises, ie, picking at 'A', 'B', 'C', and 'D' (ie, where 'A' might be yielding off the leg directionally, 'B' might be bend, 'C' might be transitions, and 'D' might be actual leg yields), progressing the horse in baby steps in each direction with more emphasis on the 'A' exercises to build the 'BCD' part of the alphabet for my horse. Then with 'A' essentially established, I can focus on 'B' while occasionally returning to 'A' and continuing to pick at 'C' and 'D', and so on and so forth. Make sense? Although everything should be presented in a progressive step-by-step fashion to your horse, you may school baby steps in a variety of directions at once.

Once all the preceding is developed, it might be time to introduce the SI. Generally, the SI is not overly difficult to teach a horse when bend and yielding off the leg is firmly established. Depending on the horse, the SI might be an appropriate exercise to introduce even within 60 days of starting a talented horse. Or it might not be appropriate for several months. It all depends on the horse (and the rider of course!). Generally though, I like to introduce it sooner rather than later, even if I am not expecting the horse to really come 'through' for me - to fully engage and come onto the bit. At first I might primarily be looking for the horse to understand the basic concept. From there I can slowly refine to asking more and more from the horse, and in more and more steps to the point where eventually the horse has sufficient strength to carry itself down the length of the arena in a (more or less) correct shoulder-in - this might take months before the horse has sufficient strength. This schooling is done while simultaneously working - and focusing - on other strengthening and conditioning exercises that require less engagement, strength, and straightness of the horse. Remember this is an exercise that requires increased engagement from the horse - it requires more strength of the horse's hind. For this to be possible, sufficient 'pushing power' - hind leg strength and power from behind - must first be developed. So while the SI might be introduced, it should not only be fully schooled as the horse is physically capable. Little steps here and there - fantastic. However focus primarily on developing pushing power via other approaches before asking the horse to use and further develop that strength in the hind end.

Lastly, one way of ensuring success in the shoulder-in is to ensure you can initiate bend in the horse using primarily your inside leg - and not your inside rein alone. This is also a good stretching and suppling exercise for your horse. Ask the horse to walk down the centerline and while maintaining a straight line from A to C through X, ask the horse to bend to alternate sides (again, without moving off the track). You should be able to apply your inside leg at the girth or a tad behind the girth and be able to push the horse's barrel into an arc so his spine is arced evenly around your leg. Be sure to also bend your own ribcage as you ask the horse to reflect your position. At first you might need to help initiate the bend with a little inside rein, but your ultimate goal should be to be able to do this with very little to no rein. Change the bend multiple times down the centerline - each time you achieve the bend and some 'release' or 'give' ie, softness in the horse, release and ask for bend in the other direction. If your horse tries to fall out on the track, correct with leg or rein as necessary, then immediately release - this should be done while simultaneously continuing to ask for the bend without release until the horse responds and soften. Be sure your leg and seat cue is not asking for the horse to actually change direction and walk off, but to simply arc around your leg briefly. The bend does not have to be extensive, just enough that you feel your horse soften and supple and respond with lightness to your leg. While performing this exercise, keep your eyes UP and focused on the letter at the end of the arena. If you do not focus on a specific object or letter at the far end of the arena, you will likely forget to look up and will end up looking down and your horse is likely to waver off his straight line.

So, on to the actual shoulder-in:

I love Anna Ross Davies' 'How-To' videos (below). Here is a little about her.

Anna is very apt at explaining the rider's cues and setting the exercise up in such a manner that makes this exercise an easy progression for the horse. The circle at the end is a great way to set the horse up for the correct bend down the long side - wait for softness and correct bend on your circle to ensure a more correct SI. Remember to ask for this in small steps - just one step of SI might be a success for your horse at first! Maintain the bend and ask for the horse to yield over - when you initially feel that release (ie, the horse yields off your leg in that bend), release right there and continue forward. Then build off that and increasingly ask for more correct SI and for more steps.

Inside leg - at the girth, initiates bend in the horse and helps prevent the horse from leaving the track by pushing him at an angle down the track
Inside rein - helps initiate bend and actually guides the horse's front end off the track and into the SI track later
Outside leg - behind the girth, supports the placement of the haunches if necessary (but mostly passive)
Outside rein - supports the bend, helps prevent the horse from leaving the track

Here Jane Savoie explains the SI - what to watch for on the ground:

Here is another good look at the SI from the ground - the trick is then to learn to feel for this on the horse's back....

Excellent trouble-shooting on the SI:

If possible, riding a schoolmaster versed in maneuvers such as the SI will greatly aid a rider in learning what to feel for in their own horse as they develop the SI. It will feel right when you obtain it and the more you practise achieving it the better you will get at feeling where your horse's feet are and how to obtain the shoulder-in.

Here is a great written explanation of the shoulder-in should you require further in-depth explanation.

Remember that though I have used solely dressage videos to describe this exercise, this exercise is beneficial to every horse and rider, both english and western. It is the product of much control over the shoulders and haunches, which can only be beneficial. It also helps develop strength in your horse for whatever you choose to do with him and it also can be a great tool for suppling and relaxing a tense and spooky horse. It is an exercise I use and recommend on horses regardless of their intended discipline and is one I use a lot on a great variety of horses, especially those with the tendency to hold a lot of tension in their backs and to be spooky or fearful.

Happy riding!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Leg yields

Leg yielding with Jane Savoie:

Remember to create a 'tunnel' with your aids - hands on either side of the neck (NEVER crossing over the neck), legs on each side of the horse. The leg yield should be equal sideways with equal forward movement.

When interpreting Savoie's aids, remember that the 'inside' is the side inside the bend, or concave side of the bend (always). The 'outside' of the horse and therefore the outside aids, is the side outside or bulging/convex side of the bend (always).

Personally, I do not vibrate or squeeze and release the inside rein. I like to offer that contact and feel the horse come through and onto the bit without releasing. However both methods work so figure out what works best for you and your horse!

In a nutshell: your inside rein tips the horse's nose just slightly to the inside. The inside leg is behind the girth, specifically instructing the haunches to move sideways - while the shoulders of the horse may lead slightly (as Savoie mentions), it is the inside haunch that drives under the horse to push him over sideways. The outside leg is at the girth and is supporting. The outside rein is also supportive. You are driving inside leg to outside rein - you are driving the haunch beneath the horse and are channeling that impulsion through the horse, over his back, and into your hands - to your outside hand. Contact should be even on both reins - if you find your rein length changes, apply appropriate leg aids to correct the horse, not rein (it is never about the rein, the reins are merely supportive and guiding, so corrections should always be made with the application of leg).

If you feel the horse lead too far with his shoulders (his shoulders 'fall out' - in this case he will also have excessive bend if your reins remain even), drive the inside haunch further beneath the horse by applying more leg behind the girth on the inside, or you can also gently apply a slight amount of pressure or a brief and gentle 'bump' with your outside leg just in front of the girth (just sort of a reminder to the horse: hey buddy, not so far with the shoulders - thanks!). Ultimately, correcting the haunches on the inside will likely be most effective. Do either while also closing your outside hand and essentially 'closing that door' to the horse so he cannot fall through that leg and hand. The preceding drives the haunches further underneath the horse and therefore as a direct result causes the shoulder to lift and corrects their falling out. The latter (applying outside leg) instructs the horse to stop falling out in that moment (then you resume your appropriate aids). If the horse leads with his haunches or is too straight, you are likely applying too much inside leg. Last reminder - do not correct with rein, correct with leg.

If the horse slows, simply open your hands and allow him to move a few steps forward, freely. Then re-ask for the leg yield. Your horse may slow and even resist if he does not understand what you are asking or if he lacks balance and strength to perform the maneuver - that's okay! Expect a lot, reward little. Reward what you do get, even if at first it is only a shift off the track or a few steps of leg yield. When first introducing this exercise to a young horse, ask for only a few steps at a time - few steps leg yield, forward a few steps, few steps leg yield, few steps forward... do not drill. Ask, reward, move on to the next exercise. If your horse resists initially, maintain the proper position (ie, aids) and wait - ask, ask, ask, (WITHOUT RELEASING) then reward (release!) as soon as there is some progress, even if it is only the slightest try. Reward with a release of pressure (allowing the horse to move forward or even walking on a loose rein and allowing him to stretch afterward). Most young horses are not going to perform the maneuver as nicely and correctly as Savoie's horse does in the above video, initially. Ask for the maneuver and refine it with a straighter, more correct and through and supple horse, as you develop the maneuver over several sessions.

To set the horse up initially, you may circle at one corner of the arena, achieve the appropriate bend, then drive the horse sideways from there. Initially I teach the leg yield at the walk but proceed to the trot rather soon - as soon as the horse 'gets it'. At the trot, you have more impulsion to channel and guide. Most exercises are easiest when performed at the trot.

To teach the horse the appropriate skills and aids for the leg yielding exercise, you can start on the ground with teaching the horse to release to pressure - turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches, specifically. Remember to apply pressure in phases - phase 1, 2, 3, 4... make your phases long initially as you teach the horse, then you can increase your expectations and move through your phases of ask quicker. A light rider makes a light horse. Though certain horses have certain tendencies, it is the RIDER who creates either a light or dull horse. Don't fool yourself in blaming the horse.

On the ground, for the turn on the haunches, place one hand and apply pressure (via your FINGERTIPS) either on the horse's nose, jaw, or neck - whatever works for that horse. Where the nose goes, the body follows, hence the pressure up front. Under-saddle, the nose is controlled by the rein. Place your other hand at the girth (where your leg would be under-saddle) and apply pressure simultaneously with your other hand, which is directing the horse's nose and neck. Release at the slightest try and build off that. See how light you can get your horse, and - eventually - how many steps can you get - can you achieve a full 360 degree pivot on the haunches? The horse should be crossing its front legs - ultimately and there should be absolutely no steps forward, no forward movement. You should be able to draw a circle in the sand around your horse's hind feet (say 2-2 1/2 feet in diameter), and though the feet will shift as the horse pivots on the circle, the horse's hind feet should not be actively stepping forward outside that circle. Understand this is your ultimate goal but may not be what your horse is capable of giving over the course of initial sessions. Having the horse cross his front legs and pivot in place on his hinds is your goal, your ultimate destination. Not your expectation on Day 1 or maybe even Days 2, 3 or 4.

For the turn on the forehand, apply pressure on the big thigh muscle of the horse's haunches. Though your leg will not slide back this far (obviously) under-saddle, if you apply the correct aids under-saddle the horse will make the connection between this ground application of the TOF and the under-saddle cues. Same as with the TOH (turn on the haunches), the horse should ultimately be shifting and pivoting on the front end this time, with no forward movement. The hinds should - ultimately - be crossing over (again - this may not happen at first, but it is ultimately what you will look for).

Here is an overview of the 3-part maneuver I teach a horse when applying the TOF and TOH under-saddle. Reminder - the TOF and TOH allows you shoulder control, and control of the haunches... which is applicable to the leg yield and other exercises.

Next, I proceed to teaching the horse to sidepass. Again, I teach this on the ground. You can apply pressure with your fingertips or - what I do - I ask the horse to move sideways, out of my space using body language. It gets the horse thinking sideways, while your other exercises on the ground such as the TOF and TOH (and more) teach the horse to move away from pressure, which the horse will learn to apply to a variety of situations (including to sidepass under-saddle).

Both on the ground and under-saddle, I initially use the fence to block forward movement when introducing the sidepass - it sets the horse up in such a way where it will succeed easier. On the ground, you can send the horse out on a circle and allow his circle to intersect with the arena fence or wall. The reason for sending him out on a circle is to give you momentum to play with, to push sideways. As he comes to the arena wall, pick up your energy and drive him sideways. Focus on the front end of the horse - his nose - and the haunches simultaneously. Whatever end of the horse (nose or tail) lags behind and presents itself toward you as the horse moves sideways, drive that end to straighten the horse so he is again at a 90 degree angle to the wall. To start, use the end of your leadrope or a stick or whip to back up your energy and intent. Remember to continue to ask in phases - use your body language then wiggle your stick or swing your lead, and increase in intensity before finally applying 'touch'. The same exercise may be done but by applying physical pressure to the horse in lieu of using intent and body language. Apply pressure with your fingertips in the areas that cause your horse to move sideways ie, shoulder and hip.

Under-saddle, ride the horse up to the fence with impulsion. Upon reaching the fence, without pause, apply the appropriate aids:
1 - Outside hand - the outside being the direction of travel in this case (ie, left hand if you are asking the horse to sidepass left) - out from the side of the horse's neck, about level with the horn or withers. This is your 'opening' rein, inviting the horse to move in this direction.
2 - Inside rein supports and prevents the horse from actually turning toward the outside, the direction of travel (sideways). It should also be about horn or wither height and should be firm. The horse's nose may be tipped slightly toward the inside with this (inside) rein and - primarily - with the inside leg. Ie, the horse is bent around your leg.
** both hands are closed to inhibit forward steps, forward movement. This is in preparation for the fence to later be taken away. The legs initiate movement in the horse, the hands guide, in this case, by closing a door to the horse by closing.
3 - Inside leg slightly behind the girth, pushing the horse over. The inside leg initiates movement in the horse by adding energy and impulsion to the haunch.
4 - Outside leg relaxed at the girth.
Weight should be distributed evenly in the saddle and should be centered, though to initially introduce the exercise, you can weight your outside seatbone slightly. This encourages the horse to step back beneath you to center your weight, therefore leading him to move sideways in the direction of your weighted seatbone. As soon as the horse 'gets it', your seat should be centered and your even lightened slightly (imperceptibly) in the direction of travel, to free the horse on that side to move in that direction.

The sidepass should be all sideways and no forward. If the horse tries forward as an answer when you take away the fence, allow him to come up against your closed hands and apply leg to direct sideways movement - wait and release as soon as the horse gives. As soon as the horse steps sideways in lieu of forward, soften your hands. If the horse falls out in his outside shoulder, apply the same aids as you would in the leg yield. Ultimately, the key is the haunches (as always) - apply outside leg just behind the girth to direct the haunches to 'catch up'. When you have reached the stage where you are no longer using the fence, your leading or opening outside rein will be less so to where both hands are about even and equal distance from the horse's neck on either side. The horse should be bent only slightly - neither shoulders nor haunches should lead and the horse's body should ultimately be moving straight as the horse moves sideways. Ultimately, both front and hind legs cross simultaneously. Of course, same as in the leg yield, the movement will not be 100 percent correct at first. At first, reward sideways thinking and tries. Refine later.

While a horse moving off a rider's leg may be referred to the horse yielding to the leg or leg yielding, the actual leg yielding exercise is performed as above - in both western and english disciplines. With the leg yield, the horse's shoulders lead a little and the horse moves with equal forward and sideways. In the sidepass, the horse's body remains ultimately straight with only a slight bend and all movement is directed sideways with no forward.

This all starts on the ground and progresses to under-saddle. Under-saddle, start with real basic exercises such as the TOF and TOH then proceed to the sidepass and finally, proceed to the leg yield.

The leg yield is a great (rather) basic exercise for the young horse that introduces hind end engagement and their moving 'through'. It allows the rider a lot of control, including as it pertains to suppling and relaxing the horse, and is a stepping stone for a variety of other exercises. Your horse does not have to be a show horse for this exercise to be both beneficial and necessary. Whether a trail horse or a working horse or a show horse - control of the horse is vital. The sidepass and leg yield and TOH and TOF allow a rider to perform simple tasks on their horse such as opening a gate, directing the horse over or past a spooky object (a bridge or stream, for example), and much much more. If you have control of the horse's shoulders and haunches you can prevent the horse's shoulders and haunches from ending up somewhere you do not want them - off the edge of a cliff, into a crowd of people, etc. You might not understand the importance of teaching your horse to confidently and thoroughly yield off your leg until the day he spooks sideways while riding next to a road and you need him to stop before his sideways leap puts him in the middle of traffic - in such a case, applying leg on the side of the road and having your horse respond, might be a matter of life or death. Teaching the horse these exercises makes them more obedient to the rider and gives you tools. Tools that you can use to relax and supple the horse and tools you may use to maintain the horse's focus - all this can be very crucial even in a non-show environment. You can never have too many tools in your toolbox - you never know when one day you might need to grab for one tool. For the competitive horse or the horse who will continue training, this is an important elementary exercise from which to build off of for canter leads and more.

Monday, December 5, 2011

25 Buck Brannaman Truths & More

If you have not yet seen the Buck Brannaman movie, certainly do so! I highly recommend it and while it is not a how-to manual by any means (it is rather a documentary of Buck's life), it offers a lot of insight and great words of wisdom to always keep in mind - about life in general and about horses in particular.

If you would like to see the movie on-line before purchasing it, you can go here:

Buck documentary

Wait 5 seconds and click 'Continue as Free User' in the row titled 'Method of Access', then click the Play button (NOT the 'High' or 'Low' or 'Play Now' or 'Download' button, whichever appears for you - those buttons take you to a website where you have to sign up for an account (albeit for free) for access). It's simple, easy, and uncomplicated - no account necessary or anything.

Then buy it online! Amazon is where I purchased my copy.

A friend recently attended the Buck Brannaman clinic in November when he came to Canada, and was gracious enough to allow me to post her 'notes' or 'secrets' from the session, so I thought I would share (my own added notes in italics):

1. Spend more time doing less.

2. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
Of course this applies to people as well, but as it pertains to your horse, be precise, accurate, and assertive in what and how you ask.

It is your job to provide safety and comfort to the horse.
Fail to do so and your horse will take the responsibility into his own... hooves.

The horse is surrounded by exit doors that are all open. It is your job to close them. You and your horse will never live long enough to expose him to everything that might be scary so just close the doors.
This is about being a proper leader to your horse.
As my friend put it: "it is about developing trust so that he is only concerned about what you are going to ask him to do and not worry about anything else. To never force him to go directly what concerns him but to do it 6 inches at a time so that he trusts you to keep him safe. If you force it it teaches him that he is stronger than you if he has to escape. Buck keeps horses in a rectangle at all times controlled by his legs and hands. The rectangle is small just encasing the horse, a little bigger for green horses."

Always offer the horse a good deal. It is about give and take. When they start to take you up on the good deal you get an eagerness from the horse to give and figure it; otherwise they dread it and find a way to put up with people and just get by.

Do less than what it takes to get the job done and if that doesn't work do what it takes to get the job done.

7. Be particular, not picky.

Don't nag, horses that are dull to the leg will eventually blow and are more dangerous than the broncy ones. Some horses that are considered gentle have really just checked out.

Never grip a horse with your knees as you will squeeze yourself right off!

You are in a dance with your horse. Always be conscious as to when their feet leave the ground or you throw them off balance when moving the front or the rear.

Ride them like they are your feet.

Don't over-manage your horse.

Always make a winner out of your horse. Too often people want the horse to make a winner out them. Make a winner out of them and they will more than make a winner out of you.

You need to recognize when a horse is troubled and help him, don't start on a bad note. If you start to ride them when they are troubled they will think they should always be troubled at the start. Horses need to be soft and quiet.

If a horse is always troubled at the start, work him around with a lead rope to break up the pattern in his mind.

To change the equipment used on a horse because you think it failed is a regression not a progression as it should be... as in snaffle to spade bit. Buck goes from snaffle to hackamore to eventually a spade bit. He doesn't use draw reins, running martingales, tie downs, spurs or crops. He only uses his hands and his legs.

It is convenient for people to say that their horse is lazy but that is an anthropomorphism ... horses are a reflection of how they are ridden.
If I had a dime...

The soft feel, when developed, is called collection, the harmony between hands and leg.

Learn what your horse is capable of both mentally and physically by working on the mechanical. It doesn't become art until you have the mechanics sound along with the ability to put your soul into it.

Keep as many plates spinning at one time. Put as much variety in the training as possible, don't drill on the horse.

The way you ask is an art, be consistent and don't cheat him.

If a horse is quiet it doesn't mean he is dull. He doesn't need to be on edge to be active.

It is impossible for a horse to be light to the hand and dull to the leg. Equally impossible to be light to the hand if scared of the leg. He can be light to the hands if he is responsive and lively off the leg.

The legs are more than a gas pedal.

The horse operates first with the mind then the body. Reward a look, release the thought. Don't kill the try.

The following is part of an interview between Director Cindy Meehl and Buck Brannaman, by Sheila Roberts, about the movie Buck. I have copied and pasted the more pertinent horse-related parts of the interview below in case it ever disappears (click on the 'interview' link for the rest):

The Horse Whisperer may be the stuff of Hollywood legend but the charismatic horseman who inspired the novel and the film is very real. For Buck Brannaman – a true cowboy who is also part guru and part philosopher – horses are a mirror of the human soul.

Buck is a richly textured and visually stunning documentary that follows Brannaman from his abusive childhood to his unusual approach to horse-training. By teaching people to communicate with horses through instinct, not punishment, we see him dramatically transform horses – and people – with his understanding, compassion and respect. The film is a truly American story about an unsung hero: an ordinary man who has made an extraordinary life despite tremendous odds. Hit the jump to check out our interview with Brannaman and director Cindy Meehl.

We sat down this week at a roundtable interview with Buck Brannaman and first-time director Cindy Meehl to talk about their remarkable film which won a Sundance audience award this year. They told us what inspired their talented collaboration, how they managed to capture some very challenging scenes on film, and why Buck has been so successful at helping horses with people problems by inspiring trust in both the horse and rider. They also talked about their upcoming projects including a feature film Buck is in negotiations to make based on his novel, The Faraway Horses.

Interviewer: Buck, how did it feel to be the focal point of this film and see your life and what you do for a living on the big screen?

Buck Brannaman: Well I guess I really haven’t thought about it all that much other than the fact that it gives us the opportunity to put this out there to people that aren’t necessarily horse owners, and that was something we’d talked about early on, that if it was just going to be something that appealed to horse people, there wasn’t a lot of point in doing it. But had seen early on that there was an awful lot of people that will never come in contact with me because they don’t have a horse and they’re not from that world, but she thought they’d enjoy and get something out of seeing this and realize that there are a lot of things that you can learn about horses that really does cross over to relationships with each other, especially with kids.

Cindy, what was the compelling thing about Buck that made you want to make this documentary?

Cindy Meehl: For me, because I’m a horse owner and I had grown up riding English, which is very different from Western or so I thought, and then when I discovered him, I realized he was teaching you how to speak horse, to speak and communicate with them in a way I’d never been taught. So that, for me, first and foremost, was so compelling that I thought everyone should know this that owns a horse. But I knew immediately too from being around him and the people that are around him that all of his lessons about the horses are really about your life and that it was such a people film as well. It would be such a great message for the world we live in today. I really feel like you almost go back in time where people communicate and they do care about the sensitivity and looking you in the eye. It’s just very real. You can cut through a lot of things that aren’t that important and you realize real quick sometimes and especially around a horse. It’s such a simple and yet complex and profound way of living just because it’s hard to get back to simple in this day and age, don’t you think. I mean, we’re so wrapped up in our technological world and everything moves at such a fast pace and you really can’t move that fast around a horse. You have to stop and take a breath and have patience.

Brannaman: Well, you know, I think too that the people that I’ve met, I mean, you’ll meet some people that’ll bring a horse there and you see how they get along with the horse or don’t get along and they’re doing everything that’s really contrary to a horse’s nature where they really don’t fit in with the horse. And it’s pretty easy to identify some things in their everyday life that gives them a bit of a hard time as well. What I’m saying is, the things that they might learn through working with a horse to where they become something really desirable to the horse, to where he accepts you and he wants to be around you and he’s even compelled to be with you, that there are some things within you that change. And then, if you’ve made those kind of changes within yourself, that horse really can’t stand to be away from you. There are things that change all through your life the way you deal with people, the way you approach problems. There have been so many times over the years where people have said “Man, I thought I was just coming to this deal to get a little handier with my horse” and I’ll say “Well, in the beginning, I thought that’s all you were coming for too. But it turns out it’s about something else, isn’t it?”

Sometimes it’s hard for people to hear the truth. What’s the range of reactions you get when you speak very straightforwardly to people like you did with that woman who had the damaged horse?

Brannaman: You sort of measure someone when they’re a student as to how you might approach them, but that’s not so different. That’s the same way you might measure a horse, you see, because there are going to be some horses that, like some people, they might be a little inclined to tune you out, kind of shut you out. Of course, that’s going to be relative to how they’ve been handled before I met them, and for those kind of horses, you might need to have your presence change in a way that you appear to be ten times your size in order to be effective. And yet you might have another horse that you know is very timid and very fragile, and it just wouldn’t take much to get him really lost and really afraid and you might have to appear to be one tenth your size. Theoretically, the human is supposed to be the smart one. Well, if we are, then we need to be able to adjust to fit the situation rather than just think “Well this is how you work with horses. I’ve done this on 500 just like you.” No, as you get acquainted with a horse, you explore what it’s going to take to get the point across and for him to understand what you’d like him to do and you’re trying to have as little trouble as possible. You’re trying to avoid conflict. You’re not trying to create it. Forty, fifty years ago, sort of the conventional wisdom is that you create conflict and you win. You conquer them. And unfortunately, that’s how some people deal with each other still. They might be critical of how the old cowboys worked with livestock a hundred years ago. Yeah, well people still deal with each other that same way. They’re just not cowboys. You can’t make something happen with a horse, but you can fix things up and let it happen. You think of setting things up in a way that eventually your idea becomes his and that’s a hard thing for some people to get through their head at first because they seem to think that the harder they push and the more they try to impose their will that that’s going to pay off. Well it doesn’t. And when they learn that about horses, that it’s not going to pay off, well then pretty soon they start to rethink how they might approach situations with other human beings as well. So it’s been an interesting thing. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this deal but it sort of picked me and now it’s all I do.

Can you talk about the challenges of capturing those great moments? Did you think you’d be able to get that horse under control?

Meehl: When that happened, because it is so unusual at his clinics, it was so traumatic for everybody that was there to be there and witness it. It was gut wrenching and I wasn’t going to use the footage. I just thought I can’t use this because I’m worried people are going to be afraid of horses. I’m worried that they’re going to take away a different message, that they’re going to think they’re going to come to a Buck clinic and this is going to happen when they come like a car race and I just thought it wasn’t what normally happened. I had seen him take that kind of horse a million times over and turn it around and the owner was riding it and everybody’s happy. We thought that’s what would happen but there was so much more to the story and the brain damage with this horse and it was so tragic. And yet that woman, I think, really loved that horse and had done the best that she knew how. That was what was in her toolbox so to speak.

Just not a very big toolbox, I guess?

Meehl: Yeah, we all have that. We all have the baggage. We all make bad choices. Who hasn’t? So I was very proud of her for letting us tell that story. Because then we realized as we were telling the story that placing it where we did people would then understand what they had learned earlier from Buck and how he was dealing with the horse. If we had put that at the beginning, you wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on with those flags.

Brannaman: The interesting thing too is, and it surprised me how few people have picked up on it, the most difficult horse you saw through the entire documentary is not that horse. It’s the sorrel horse that Bill Seaton rode for the girl named Paige. That was actually the most difficult horse of all the ones that you had the opportunity to see.

Meehl: But he wasn’t aggressive.

Brannaman: No, he wasn’t so lethal on the ground but he really wanted to buck somebody off. He thought there was absolutely no point in a human getting on his back and doing anything. And it worked out great. And, of course, Bill rode him around and just had a big time. But that was the most difficult horse. With this yellow horse, for me, the big picture was that I wanted everybody to learn through this was, whether you’re going to have horses or dogs or kids, with that comes responsibility. It’s not just a matter of putting a roof over their head and keeping them fed. You have a responsibility to be their caretaker and take care of them and teach them how to fit into the world and teach them what they need to do to survive, teach them right from wrong, and I’m happy about that, because of the fact that of the people that have seen this already, they really do get the bigger point to it. They get the big picture to that. And the other thing that was interesting to me that actually a person interviewing me the other day pointed out and I said “I’m real glad that you noticed that,” is he said “You know, I saw your foster mother in that documentary and I saw what she meant to you and what she did for you in your life.” And he said, “You know, that horse could have just as easily been you,” had I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I said “I’m real pleased that you saw that.” So, if through this, in telling this story, if that yellow horse makes people think about responsibility, how maybe they would raise their kids or how they would raise a young horse, that horse will probably get more done in his brief life than a hundred horses would that died of old age. So, for the greater good, it was a story that needed to be told. If you noticed when I was working with the horse that first day, we got quite a bit accomplished. We got him saddled and he got ridden around, but as long as I’m there to sort of run things, the margin of error on a horse like that is so paper thin, if I wasn’t there every day with that girl, it was a guarantee that she was going to get hurt or killed, or worse yet, an innocent person. Maybe someone’s child would be somewhere near the horse. As attentive as a mother can be, she could look away for a few seconds and have that kid right there with that horse. So you look at something like that and for her to make the choice to put the horse down was the best choice for her and there wasn’t anybody more sad about that than me, believe me. Because it didn’t have to happen had someone taken care with that horse early on in his life. But I think some good could really come of it.

Meehl: In the afternoon, we had people stationed around the round pen because Buck went off and did his afternoon clinic, and every person that walked by, that horse would try to come over. And if we had just all walked away and didn’t leave people posted there, some little kid could have come up to that and said “Oh Mommy, look at this pretty horse, this cute horse,” and I have no doubt he would have just taken a hand or something like that. He actually bit Dan’s hand at one point when he was trying to get him back off the fence and he came over and he got his whole hand. We didn’t have that on tape but I was standing there when it happened and I’m like “Oh my God, I almost thought he took his whole hand off.”

Brannaman: See, when you work with troubled horses, if you have any experience at all, what you accept with it is, if you noticed when he left the corral the first day, there had been a change in the horse and things were better. But when you’re working with one that first of all, mentally even, isn’t a normal horse, you have to accept that it could be hundreds of days in a row that each day when you started off with him, it would be as if you hadn’t done anything the day before, like you’re starting from zero. Maybe it would be 100 days, maybe it would be 500 days, one day if you kept doing the right thing, one day some of it would carry over from the day before where you weren’t starting from zero again each day. It’s hard telling with a horse like that how long that might be. So there could have been a way out for the horse, but the only thing is, the margin of error was so thin with that horse, I can guarantee you that she couldn’t have survived a hundred days in a row dealing with that kind of situation without making a mistake. Dan made a mistake and he has a lot of experience, not near what I do, but he has a lot of experience and that horse was so far over Dan’s head. And she’ll never be as experienced as what Dan is, so there’s a moral choice there that you just kind of go, you know what, you’re not going to survive. And it is sad, but you’d be surprised how many horses around the world really that people just don’t do the right thing by the horse and some kids too.

Was there one scene that was particularly difficult to film?

Brannaman: Well, not for me. (laughs) Really throughout this thing, and this is what’s been interesting to me, the way it started off with typically for someone who’s going to do any kind of a film, they’re already a filmmaker and then they try to find something interesting to film. And the way this worked was, she had already found something that was interesting to her that she wanted to share with everyone else, and because of her passion for this, it created a filmmaker, so it was sort of the opposite order. So it started off kind of unique and then early on I just said “Cindy, this is the deal. I’m not delusional about any of this. I remember the people that came to the dance with me when the music started to play, the people that have been loyal to me all these years and have studied and worked hard with this.” I said “I’m not going to compromise anything about my clinics and these people that have been with me all along. So I’m not gonna go stand on a mark and let you do your thing and do things over and over again and say the same thing over and over again like we’re shooting a feature film. You need to find a way to anticipate what I’m going to be doing and what you think is going to be happening, because with a horse, when something special happens, it only is going to happen once. And if you missed it, well that moment is over forever. You can’t redo it.” She had to be real clever at being able to anticipate what was going to take place in real life. There was nothing really made up and there’s no way you can script that.

Meehl: There’s 300 hours of footage.

Brannaman: Yeah, it’s a lot.

Were you always filming with one or two cameras?

Meehl: Sometimes three. Toward the end, I realized we needed two cameras on Buck because so many people wouldn’t catch what he was doing. They’d go “Oh, that horse over there is acting up.” Well, as soon as you do that, Buck would do something brilliant. I just thought “Man, I can’t keep missing these things.” It’s very difficult filming moving targets. They were always moving. With horses, you never know which way they’re going to move, especially when it gets active.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Developing the haunches

Still in the process of organizing and editing but thought I would get to a post in the mean time! Expect a brief Buck Brannaman post Monday and hopefully regular posting thereafter and especially January onward. Although I try to maintain a list of blog-able topics, any suggested topics are always appreciated!

So the topic at hand: helping a horse who was raised in a small (really small) flat pen for 5 years and does not know what to do with his rear end.

In my opinion the best thing a person can do when raising a horse is turnout turnout turnout - 24/7 preferably. Even in mud, icy footing, and in freezing rain - horses adapt. Most of the time I feel we stall our horses for our own comfort and benefit, rather than the horse's. Research shows that turnout not only benefits our horses mentally but also physically (which should be obvious). Regular physical exercise translates to stronger bones, ligaments, and muscles, which help ensure long-term soundness and health. Lack thereof produces the opposite. Keeping a horse stalled so many hours a day, or keeping a horse in a very small pen, will also contribute to a lack of physical strength and also development. Turning such a horse out after being cooped up regularly/daily and especially if the horse has spent an extended and long-term period of time cooped up without sufficient physical exercise, can lead to injury. Hence the benefit of 24/7 turnout. Should you acquire a horse who has spent an extensive amount of its life cooped up, the ideal would be gradual progressive exercise. Starting with progressive turnout time and space, hand-walking, then riding at the walk for a long period of time prior to including the trot and (much) later, the canter. When a person starts riding such a horse or even a young horse, their shoulders should be back but their seat light - they should not be sitting on the horse's back yet.

The focus of the horse's training should - generally - follow the training scale (regardless of discipline), which commences with relaxation, rhythm, suppleness. Next comes contact (which the horse initiates by reaching down into the bit as a result of a loose back and drive from behind), impulsion is developed, straightness may be developed, and finally, collection occurs. Each of the steps, or blocks, of the training scale pyramid, relate back to one another and as the foundation in particular is progressed and developed, the following step naturally and harmoniously begins to also occur as the horse's mental collection and their physical strength and balance develops. Elmar Pollmann-Schweckhorst presents a wonderful 'alternative' training scale that he refers to in his book 'Training the Modern Jumper'. His version of the training scale is presented as balance and responsiveness to the aids being at the center of a number of inter-related circles. The 6 inter-connected circles are collection, impulsion, contact, suppleness, rhythm, and alignment or straightness. This is because, for example, as impulsion is developed, contact is improved and as say collection is developed, so is rhythm, suppleness, and relaxation. Each step of the training scale relates back to other steps and vice versa.

With the above in mind, the first goal after relaxation, rhythm, and suppleness (or even as these steps are developed), should be to develop 'pushing power' - this is the horse's hind end. Only AFTER sufficient pushing power is developed, can a rider develop 'carrying power'. Pushing power represents the horse's ability to push forward off his hind end. Carrying power relates to the horse's ability to carry itself (using its neck, back, and abdominal systems) as a result of sufficient pushing power.

Three important exercises a person can do to build hind end power in a horse - 'pushing power' - is to use ground poles, cavalletti, and hills. The reason these three exercises work to develop the horse's hind end is because they encourage the horse - naturally - to push forward and drive from behind. With ground poles and cavalletti and also hills, it is very important to allow the horse to reach over his back and downward into the bit. The rider should be quiet, soft, and independent. Their role should be to guide the horse but not to specifically tell the horse what to do. By guiding the horse only and using exercises such as the aforementioned to encourage the horse to move a certain way, the horse is the one to initiate the movement, which develops a more natural, pure, true movement borne of harmony.

When I first get on a horse's back, the first three exercises I teach that horse is to 1 - bend its neck nose to my foot and to relax, 2 - turn on the haunches from the bend, and 3 - turn on the forehand from the turn on the haunches. The TOH's and TOF's are specifically taught first on the ground, where the horse learns to move away from pressure, among other things. Developing the TOF and TOH allows me control of the horse's shoulders and hind end. Control of these allows me to progressively develop the components of the training scale and, specifically as it relates to the topic at hand, to teach a horse to move off its hind end.

1- From the halt, I run my hand halfway down the rein and gently (but firmly) grip the rein between pointer finger and thumb. I gently apply the rest of my fingers as I bring my hand to my thigh, resting my fist on my thigh, thumb upward. Your elbow should be elastic - this means that if the horse tries to yank its head back, you follow its movement, then re-ask for the bend immediately without ever losing contact. Like an elastic - stretch as the horse resists, recoil as the horse gives. Ask the horse to 'give' to the pressure progressively to the point where the horse is relaxed and giving (not leaning) to the pressure of the rein, with its nose about by your foot. This may take several sessions. If the horse leans when it brings its nose around, apply a little more pressure at that point and release - teach the horse that you want it to release rather than lean.

2 - From the bend, as the horse is halted and relaxed, bring your fist from your thigh to your belly button, thumb facing outward. As you do this, slide your inside leg (the leg inside the bend) back a little to direct the horse's haunches over, while looking at the horse's haunches. Both hand placement (which tips the horse's nose up and encourages them to shift their haunches) and eye placement (which shifts your body into the correct position in the saddle) are vital.

3 - From the turn on the forehand (or from a few steps of back-up), take your fist from your belly button to straight out from your side. Your arm should be raised to the same height as your shoulder and be aligned horizontally straight outward, thumb facing forward in your fist. Your outside leg (ie, for a turn on the haunches to the right, right arm out, your left leg would be your outside leg) should slide forward a couple inches to be at the girth - apply it. The arm placement is important as it lifts the horse's nose up in such a way that it encourages the horse to lift its shoulder. The leg is what instructs the horse to move over. The horse should roll back onto its haunches and you should feel his shoulder lift as he pivots on his hind feet (which remain still except to pivot - they should remain within a small circle drawn in the sand say a couple feet in diameter), instead of shuffling around his front with his shoulder dropped. The ideal might be to ride a horse already versed in this before trying it on your own horse if your horse does not yet know how to do a correct turn on the haunches, so you can learn the difference in feel between a raised and a dropped shoulder. Be sure, when asking for this maneuver, not to tense your thighs and hips and to block your horse with your inside leg. When applying the outside leg, we might tend to tense our leg to hold the pressure, which will travel to our hips and cause us to almost weight the inside thigh. This 'closes the door' so to speak, for the horse to lift and move its shoulder to the inside for the turn on the haunches because of the counter pressure applied. Make sure your seat remains light, balanced, and centered. If you hold pressure with your outside leg at the girth for more than a moment or two, pulsate your pressure rather than holding. Holding will create tension, whereas pulsating your leg and heel against the horse a little a) increases the pressure to the horse and b) allows your leg and hips to stay better relaxed.

With the horse well versed in moving off pressure, we can take this into motion. As with anything, start at the walk to introduce the exercise, but then move onto the trot as soon as both you and the horse 'get it'. Working an exercise too much at the walk, especially if not done carefully and with a lot of interspersed forward, can only serve to destroy the natural forward walk of a horse.

In general, a horse learns how to use its butt as it learns to balance, bend, and progressively engage appropriately. It is part of an entire progressive process. This can be initially taught on circles, serpentines, and corners and later progress to asking for engagement on a straight line. Circles and corners where the horse is bent naturally teach the horse to balance and engage because he must engage to maintain proper balance. The key is to maintain a soft following feel on the reins (again - elastic elbow) and an independent seat with shoulders back.

Keep your hands at an appropriate height (up to a few inches above the base of the neck) and wide apart. Wide apart, the rider creates a sort of 'tunnel' where the horse can remain 'between the aids'. Whenever the horse moves outside these aids, the rider corrects with leg and hand. When the horse remains 'inside the aids' (ie, along the wall or what), the rider allows - the rider remains quiet. Your outside rein in particular should be a couple more inches away from the horse's neck, horizontally, than your inside rein. Your inside rein may lift occasionally to ask the horse to lift its inside shoulder. Your outside rein is your supporting rein - you create energy and drive with your inside leg, which is captured in the outside rein as the horse almost 'pushes' into it. The result is a lot of channeled energy, recycled inside leg to outside rein.

NEVER ever ever cross your reins over your horse's neck (unless riding one-handed western, in which case collection and lateral flexion should already be developed to a high level) - this is where most riders get into trouble. Your hands remain on each side of your horse's neck. End of story. By crossing your hands over your horse's neck when riding two-handed, you miscommunicate to your horse, lose precision and control, and you allow energy to be lost. An outside supporting rein and an inside rein that aids in initiating bend and softness is key - a key that is lost when you cross your hands over your horse's neck.

On corners, your outside rein out from the horse's neck and your inside leg driving into that outside rein is especially important. As the horse relaxes over its back and drives forward, the head will naturally drop as the base of the horse's neck raises, as the back is raised (pulling the vertebrae at the base of the neck toward the horse's pelvis) and the pelvis tipped as the haunches are engaged. Start with corners and circles. Progressive Schooling Exercises for Dressage & Jumping by Islay Auty is a wonderful book - even for the western rider - full of progressive exercises from which to build off of to teach a horse to engage his behind and progressively develop collection. In such a way, we can progressively teach our horse to use its haunches more.

When the horse is ready, the rider can also start asking for shoulder-in, which benefits in that it creates greater relaxation and suppleness and also straightness. It also asks the horse for more engagement from behind. The shoulder-in however should not be asked for until the horse has developed sufficient strength. A couple future blogs will cover the topics of shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in, travers, renvers, and half-pass, as well as the correct leg yield. Leg yields are a great 'introductory' exercise to also engage a horse from behind. The horse's shoulders should just barely lead and his body (or spine!) should be almost parallel to the track we are leg yielding toward (ie, the long side of the arena if leg yielding from the centerline). Most horses want to fall out at the shoulder (close the door - close the outside rein in that case and even briefly apply a little outside leg at the girth to stop the falling out) and leave the hind end trailing (ask for more engagement - inside leg back behind the girth to ask the haunches to keep up with the shoulder). This is normal - just pick at it and do not ask for too much from your horse at once: this might mean only asking for a few steps before moving on to the next exercise. Often when introducing this exercise I will ask for one or two steps, then lots of forward. I open my hands and push the horse forward if necessary. When I feel the horse is fully forward and he has mentally moved on from the exercise, I ask for another one or two steps. Each time, each session, those one or two steps become better (maybe included with 3 or 4 'bad' steps but important tries), and we start asking for more steps. It takes time to build. More on this in future blogs, including how to obtain a proper leg yield and how to start teaching it.

Another exercise that can be of great benefit is to spiral your circles in and out - this also introduces the half pass. Start at the walk with a 20m circle, then later progress to the trot (or jog, if western). Ask the horse to maintain correct bend on your circle - nose should be slightly tipped to the inside with a little inside rein and inside leg (at the girth to prevent the horse falling in on the circle), spine should be bent evenly. Outside rein is supportive and firm and prevents the horse from falling out. Outside leg should be applied behind the girth to direct the haunches. Apply increased outside leg and push the horse - gradually - into the center of the circle. Spiral your circle down over several laps of the circle (I especially love to do this in fresh snow or freshly-harrowed sand so I can see even spirals). When you get to the center of the circle, spiral your horse back out - again, in the same gradual fashion, this time using your inside leg to push your horse out. Maintain your aids in the proper position and do not use rein to pull your horse in to the spiral or to pull him out. Leg and seat! This maneuver develops greater engagement and suppleness from the horse.

Another exercise is to do transitions - between and within gaits. Start on a 20m circle (the larger the circle, the easier for the horse - if your horse struggles at 20m, make the circle bigger so he can perform the task successfully) at the trot. Place 4 cones spaced evenly along the parameter of the circle so you create a square or diamond within your circle. Pick up the trot at cone #1, halt at cone #3 (you should have completed half the circle). Be precise and get exactly what you want - this means your horse should neither be trampling cones nor halting beyond a cone. He should be halting precisely next to the cone and should remain put at the halt (if he keeps moving his feet, be persistent in gently correcting him and putting him exactly back on the spot you wanted him to halt on - then ask him to move out before it becomes his idea). Precision is important because if it is not important to you, it won't be important to your horse. Precision to your aids not being important to your horse will come back to haunt you on every front because precision is required everywhere for everything. Halt for a moment, then ask your horse to pick up the trot (from the halt) to cone #1. Halt. Trot to cone #3. Halt. Trot to cone #1. Halt. Rinse, lather, repeat. When your horse is responsive and successful, ask him to pause at cones #3 and #1 rather than fully halting. More on half-halts in a future blog, but the key ingredients to the pause are: close your hands (with a western horse, close your hands and lift the weight of your reins slightly), take a deep breath in and hold in that 'pause', slightly roll your pelvis and shoulders back in that same 'pause', then release. During this pause, you should feel a slowing in your horse's motion as his front lightens slightly and he steps further beneath himself. Closing your hands should be done as if there were a little bird in your hand - just a very gentle hold or squeeze. When you release, you should simply be able to open your hands and allow the horse to again move out. Some seat and leg may be required initially or occasionally. Do this at every second cone, exactly at the cone. If you are late to a cone and know your ask lack precision, forget that cone and ask at the next cone. The pause should last no longer than half a second. This exercise may later be progressed to asking at every single cone (first for the halt, then the pause) and later by decreasing the circle size to 10m. Transitions between gaits (halt to canter, halt to trot, canter to walk... etc) and within gaits (ie, the 'pause' in a trot or canter) are important to developing pushing power and teaching a horse to use its hind end properly. In the pause or the halt or the downward transition, the horse should engage a little more, driving his hind end beneath him. Then with the forward or upward transition, the horse uses his hind to push off - the increased engagement gives him more drive. This not only physically develops pushing power but it also teaches the horse to engage from behind more.

A last variation of the transition exercises I might do with a horse (one I have been using recently in particular) is to ask the horse to trot, halt and do a rein-back. More about the rein-back, specifically, in future blogs. The rein-back should be a smooth continuance of the forward motion the horse previously had, in a backward motion. The horse should step back in diagonal pairs. The horse should also release and relax his jaw where he engages from behind, lightens his front, and drops his poll - wait for that relaxation and acceptance before releasing if possible however only ask for a few steps at a time. So... trot. Halt. Rein-back. And push the horse back into the trot from the rein-back. Expect a prompt response. Something else I can do to also incorporate control of the shoulder in this exercise (and to change things up) is to do a halt upon reaching the corner of the arena, rein-back, 90 degree turn on the haunches at the corner of the arena to complete the turn, then trot off. Rinse, lather, repeat for the other four corners. Coming out of the turn on the haunches, you already have the horse on his haunches so use that to immediately push him into the trot, thereby making efficient use of his being on his haunches at that time.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

RIP Hickstead

My heart truly goes out to Eric Lamaze and his team today for their loss of Hickstead. Hickstead was an absolutely amazing horse and I can't imagine having been in Lamaze's shoes.

For those who wish to see what happened in first-person and in full detail, as it aired live on tv:
(Caution: it IS graphic - this is not video of Hickstead's round but rather of his going down)

I've never seen a horse go down like that, but many with such experience are saying it looks like the equine version of a heart attack.

I still can't believe it happened; I saw him last in September at Spruce Meadows, competing, alive and healthy.

I am REALLY anxious to see how his foals go; Eric bought a foal by Hickstead recently:

Edited to add:

Here is the full 34min CBC press conference with Eric Lamaze present. COD was determined upon necropsy to be acute aortic rupture.Link
Spruce Meadows has made a video tribute to Hickstead.

A wonderful article, Hickstead: The Little Stallion who Became Canada's Champion.

CTV broadcast, including Hickstead and Eric's last round at Verona, Italy, before the stallion collapsed (does not show the collapse).

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Your horse was not designed to carry the weight of a rider, so it is absolutely crucial to therefore teach your horse to move in an efficient fashion to ensure long-term soundness and health, even if you never take that collection to its highest levels or have intentions of competing at the FEI level. So, how is it developed at its foundation, in the beginning stages??

This question is asked over and over again - people asking as they bring a new or old or re-habbed or young horse (back) into work, so I felt a post further addressing and elaborating this oft seemingly intangible subject, was in order. I myself am still learning and evolving so I will address what I can and continue to add as my knowledge increases.

So where do you start?

Keeping in mind the training scale, your first goal with a horse commencing dressage work or flatwork is - relaxation. This starts with developing the horse in an emotional sense - developing him to be calmer (ie, relaxed), braver (ie, more confident), and smarter (ie, less reactive). When the horse is developed in an emotional sense, it reflects in his body. With a mentally relaxed horse, you have a physically relaxed horse (barring physical pain of course!). With this, rhythm in gait is established and developed, as is suppleness. At this point, the horse starts reaching for contact, impulsion is developed, and with that straightness occurs. The last step is refining what the horse is offering - refining and further developing that collection. Asking the horse to engage and lift its shoulders, to load the hind end and increasingly work from behind.

In respect to relaxation - the foundation of the training scale, take a look at the following article:

Let Your Nervous Horse Realize It's Tired

Expanding upon this, it is important to incorporate relaxation into your session with any horse, whether naturally prone to nervousness or not. Don't underestimate the importance of rest breaks and neck rubs! All too often (and I am probably the worst offender!), we riders get into 'work mode' and forget the importance of the simplest of things. Incorporate as many rest breaks into your session with your horse, as possible - it is just another tool, another (crucial) task. The more encouragement toward relaxation you incorporate, the further relaxed your horse can become throughout the session. Each session will feed into the next and with time, you create a habit of relaxation.

Keep in mind throughout this it may be necessary to balance trust vs. respect, draw vs. drive, and go vs. woah, to name a few qualities. Each horse will have certain tendencies toward these qualities, based on their innate personality (or, horsenality). The laid back, confident, 'lazy' horse will require a person to earn more respect (which will transfer to respect toward your aids), more draw (ie, desire of the horse to want to be with you), and more forward. The spooky, fearful horse will require the rider to earn more trust (in them and also in their ability to lead that horse), to ensure an appropriate balance of draw and drive (ie, neither an insecure horse who bolts over top of you for security nor a horse unwilling to follow your lead and have sufficient draw), and to ensure sufficient 'woah'. All these qualities can easily and simply be balanced out via exercises and patterns that engage and teach the horse. Each horse will have certain tendencies based on certain traits and characteristics, so it is vital to understand your horse and thus how to tailor your program to your horse, so as to have the ability to progress the horse through the training scale (you need a 'balanced' horse ready for work, to start!).

The very first step in developing collection in the horse, as it pertains to the physical aspect, is to develop 'pushing power'. Pushing power eludes to the development of the hindquarters. Without correct development of the hind leg, it cannot be expected of the horse to later load its haunches. Sufficient strength must first be developed in the hind leg so as to generate sufficient power - the horse's engine. As strength is developed, power may be generated - this power, this energy, is then permitted to flow over a loose back, and into the hand of the rider, where it may be recycled via a 'circle of aids'. This circle of aids is comprised of the hand and seat and leg, which merely guide throughout. Pushing power can be developed via hills, groundpoles, lateral work, spiraling circles, small jumps, transitions, changes in pace within gaits, etc. Start with very large, loopy circular exercises - 20m circles at most (smallest) to start. This can all be done on very little to no contact (ie, on a loose rein); the exercises themselves prevent the horse from plowing around on the forehand - they naturally require some level of engagement when the horse is ridden correctly, yet they do not ask of the horse a higher level of collection and engagement than the horse is capable. Developing pushing power can take months to up to a year or more.

It is important to note that all levels of the training scale are initiated by the horse and not the rider. The rider - and the rider's aids - are merely (softly) guiding. The rider can no more force contact than they can relaxation or rhythm. This means the rider sets the horse up - with certain parameters - via patterns and exercises, to naturally progress through the training scale on their own. My two favourite exercise books to recommend are: Progressive Schooling Exercises for Dressage & Jumping by Islay Auty, and 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider. The rider may then use their aids to guide, then refine, what their horse offers.

The next step is to develop 'carrying power'. This requires the horse to further develop its topline (including its neck, which is very crucial to self-carriage!) and abdominal muscles, among others. Carrying power and self-carriage is further developed with natural progression of the above such exercises and ultimately involves encouraging the horse to gradually and progressively lift its shoulders and load its haunches. This is where the well-timed half-halt (soft closing of the hands - ie, squeezing of a sponge) may be used! The shoulders lift and become freer, the poll lifts with the progression of balance and strength, and the haunches increasingly load as weight is shifted from the forehand to the hind.

If your goal is (re)conditioning your horse and developing at least a moderate level of collection, start with developing your horse's pushing power. From there - and even during this process - it is important to seek the correct instruction so as to continuously guide and encourage your horse into offering energy and correct movement you can then refine and further develop. Everything should be a natural, harmonious progression and if you are experiencing resistance in your horse, you should consider you might be asking the wrong question(s) or asking the question(s) wrong.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The 9 Ethical Principles of the True Horseman

From Tug Of War: Classical Versus "Modern" Dressage by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann

I found the below at the conclusion of the book above and thought they were pretty important principles to consider and always keep in mind as we work with our horses. So, here, the 9 ethical principles of the true horseman:

1. Anyone involved with a horse takes over responsibility for this living creature entrusted to him.

2. The horse must be kept in a way that is in keeping with its natural living requirements.

3. Highest priority must be accorded to the physical as well as the psychological health of the horse, irrespective of the purpose for which it is used.

4. Man must respect every horse alike, regardless of its breed, age and sex and its use for breeding, for recreation or in sporting competition.

5. Knowledge of the history of the horse, its needs, and how to handle it are part of our historical-cultural heritage. This information must be cherished and safeguarded in order to be passed on to the next generations.

6. Contact and dealings with horses are character-building experiences and of valuable significance to the development of the human being - in particular, the young person. This aspect must always be respected and promoted.

7. The human who participates in equestrian sport with his horse must subject himself, as well his horse to training. The goal of any training is to bring about the best possible harmony between rider and horse.

8. The use of the horse in competition as well as in general riding, driving and vaulting must be geared toward the horse's ability, temperament and willingness to perform. Manipulating a horse's capacity to work by means of medication or other "horse-unfriendly" influences should be rejected by all and people engaged in such practices should be prosecuted.

9. The responsibility a human has for the horse entrusted to him includes the end of the horse's life. The human must always assume this responsibility and implement any decision in the best interest of the horse.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Competitive Trail

I wanted to share the video below of what constitutes to me a REAL trail class! Enjoy:

In my opinion, THIS is a true test. The horse is asked to do all the things it would find in the real world - boulders, logs, steep hills, water... isn't that what Trail is all about? These are ALL the things I have always expected of my horses out in the real world. The rails-on-the-ground competitive trail the AQHA has out there just is not an accurate test IMO, as it does not relate to reality whatsoever. I mean, how many times have I had to ask my horse to go over various rails (granted, laying in various directions and at differing heights...) and little flat wooden bridges, or open a ROPE gate? Never. Yet we have had to jump massive logs at a moment's notice, gallop through brush, swerving trees, or gallop down rutty roads where the footing was terrible and iffy (and invisible, thanks to long grass), bolt or slide down steep hills, clamber up impossible-looking cliffs, and tromp our way through rivers, streams, and thick sinking bogs. We've had to walk over wooden and concrete bridges that actually had WATER beneath them, and open gates that were NOT, I can assure you, made of rope. I suppose "to each their own" and maybe the modern version of Trail is okay by some people. I just find it absurd. On the other hand, I do recognise it to be a challenge to perform in itself and so give credit where it's due in that regard - I suppose it is sort of like agility for dogs (and even that is different , much more respectable IMO, and has more variance!). At least the horse has a job to do, just since we often rely upon our horses for practical purposes, I feel like we should maybe be competing in a more practical sense too, like our competitions should reflect what we REALLY do with our horses. HOWEVER, who am I to impose MY beliefs on others ;)

Enjoy the below, if you enjoy the AQHA version of Trail:

Let me say I DO respect and admire the fine nuances and intimate/subtle communication between horse and rider. That takes a LOT of work and refinement! BUT, it is almost (ALMOST) over-ridden by my severe dislike of the lame-looking jog and lope and the nose-to-the-ground fad upheld even at the World levels (and every level below). These horses are not using themselves correctly. Of course a horse has to have its head lowered so as to see the obstacles set in front of him, but what is demonstrated in the above video is to an extreme. Yes, I know what a horse should look like doing Trail and going over obstacles in real life, because I've ridden such horses in real life. My Quarab drops his nose literally to the ground when he is watching his feet in the bush, especially at high speeds. But that head comes up sometimes too!! It varies according to how he is using himself, the footing at hand, etc. It doesn't STAY on the ground, irregardless. The horse in the video has his nose dropped as soon as he enters the course, even BEFORE he has to go over obstacles, so the excuse "well, he has to be able to see the obstacles in front of him!" doesn't fly with me. That nose dropped so low is much too extreme for my taste. BUT, then again, to each their own. The only place I draw the line is if/when such a position becomes detrimental to the horse because the horse is not using its body efficiently, etc. *sigh*

Monday, January 31, 2011

Laying Horses Down

Recently I spotted the below video, which initiated between an acquaintance and I a conversation about the benefits versus the possible detriments of laying a horse down. Said acquaintance felt that laying a horse down would trigger a dissociative response in said horse, that it would cause a horse to "shut down". While the below video showed actually very little of the actual process, I like the man's thinking and overall way of working with horses, which leads me to believe the way in which he laid down the horse in the video to be beneficial and not harmful to the horse in question. I particularly like the following statement by the man in the video: ‎"...and what I'm doing with a horse is just to change what he thinks, to listen to me, what I get control, in a nice way. And in the horse's language too." Personally I do not feel the horse would be apt to shut down if handled appropriately - overall, whether that include laying the horse down or any other work one might do with the horse. Laying a horse down I feel might be equated to an extent to laying a dog down - something I have done, with success, and without the dog shutting down. It is not the action itself that causes the animal to shut down, but how the action is performed. That said, laying a horse down on the ground places the horse in a very submissive and vulnerable position. While it requires trust of the horse, it will also initiate a lot of trust in the horse, when done correctly. It places the horse in situation where he is gently "forced" to trust his handler and as such, the horse is able to relax and build further trust in his handler as he learns and the handler earns said trust. Personally, I think laying down a horse could be a very valuable tool, though I have yet to use it myself (though I definitely have intentions of doing so!). I think the proof is in the pudding: doing so (correctly) with many horses seems to greatly benefit training and development of the horse in question, and I have yet to meet a horse who "shut down" or who did not respond positively overall, when it was done (again, correctly). A trainer has to be careful in their approach however, as laying a horse down incorrectly - ie, roughly and in a manner where the horse is scared and distrustful, will only undo a horse's training and development as opposed to further it.

Check out the video below and research the method further, then draw your own conclusions: