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.


Equus said...

OldMorgans - I went way more in depth than I am sure was necessary for you yourself however hopefully you still found some helpful exercises in this post. I want to cover all my bases for those who might read this and who might not be where you are at riding-wise. Sorry it took me so long to get to this post! Thanks for the subject and please feel free to offer feedback. I highly recommend the book by Islay Auty that I mentioned in my post - it is chock full of great exercises!

OldMorgans said...

Thank you. I've been doing what your wrote about. But your piece gives me some needed detail on some of it. My little horse is coming along well but just this morning I watched him standing with his hind legs in a ballerina position--one pointed somewhat foreward & one nearly 90 degrees to it. I have to say I have never seen any of my home bred & raised horses doing that. He really does not know what his rear end is doing. It is getting better when he is in hand or under saddle, but on the loose, not so much. Ground poles & hills have been a big deal for him, mentally & for physical improvement. I am so lucky that I have 2 acres for him to roam with his 2 buddies & that it is mostly hills.
Thanks, again.

Equus said...

It sounds like you have the ideal set-up for him! I think it can take some horses a loooong time to start demonstrating improvement when loose; I'm sure your boy will come around with the progression you're getting u/s and in hand. Good luck!

equestrian clearance said...

I am a bit new to this game and have only just started riding, are there any other books beside 'Training the Modern Jumper' you would recommend? something maybe for a novice?


Anonymous said...
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Equus said...

ec, were you looking for something general, or discipline-specific? As it pertains to riding, specifically? The most recent edition of the Pony Club Manual would be a great start! It contains an absolute wealth of information that covers a variety of topics. I will try to think of more.

~Allison said...

Hello! I just found your blog while looking for some exercises to do to help loosen and strengthen my Halfinger's rear end. I can do trot poles. but what to do when there are no hills in the area?

~Allison said...

Oh, and any in hand suggestions?