Friday, April 27, 2012

Jane Savoie: Part 2

The second discussion was meant as a supplementation of Part 1, to answer a lot of queries Savoie had been unable to address in Part 1.

The +1/-1 poll suppling exercise (+#/-# referring to the degree of bend in the horse's poll and neck) is a 'valium' exercise that helps relax the horse (loosen/supple the body + the mind/body connection = relaxes the mind). The horse should lengthen and stretch down.

With a 'block'/stiffness - check your position first and foremost, then check your aids, that they are consistent and correct.
- With an increase in speed a block/stiffness may return therefore re-supple at that speed
- With increased collection a block/stiffness may return
1 - check suppleness in the poll
2 - do collection exercises (ie, shoulder-in) or transitions skipping a gait (ie, walk-canter-walk)
3 - re-check suppleness in the poll

Check out schlesse - 9 tips of saddle fit

When you take up contact, open your elbows like a hinge, lower your hands over the horse's withers - have elastic elbows.

How many times might you have to apply connecting aids?
- layer your connecting aids like coats of paint to maintain connection (maintenance)
- apply very light aids ie, maybe every 5 strides
- anticipate when the horse might leave the connection and remind - maintenance - as opposed to letting him make the mistake and correcting. Instead, layer connecting aids one on top of the other.

Horses with high head carriage (etc):
If he can eat grass, he can go long & low
1 - precede connecting aids with suppling (ie, +7 or +1 exercises)
2 - maintain elastic elbows - don't lock your elbows while giving the connecting aids

A rider's banging legs are usually a symptom of tight hips not absorbing the motion of the horse - the motion of the horse comes out via banging legs, a bobbing head/hands, bobbing ankles, etc. Instead, have a ready leg - always have contact with the horse's barrel, legs draped like a wet towel but never squeezing constantly.

Do not generally do much work on contact with a young horse - especially at the walk, the easiest gait to ruin.

Teaching a horse to be on the bit - exercise #1:
Gives the horse and rider the idea of roundness based on a breakdown of the components of the connecting aids (1 - driving aids, 2 - bending aids, 3 - rein of opposition). This exercise is not for the baby horse not yet on contact.
1 - walk on a 20m circle (eventually this may be progressed to trot/canter and by decreasing circle size ie, to 12m)
2 - pick a point on the circle where you lightly close both legs and think about accelerating onto a smaller circle inside that circle
3 - at the tangent point where you leave the 20m circle, press with both legs and turn onto a 6m circle
4 - blend back onto the 20m circle
How the exercise works -
The acceleration is the driving aid (add hind leg), by virtue of the small circle you get the bending aid (inside rein), and by virtue of the circle being small you get the rein of opposition (outside rein defines circle size).
Therefore close both legs as you turn onto the 6m circle, close your outer hand in a fist, and squeeze and release with the inside rein... soften as you blend back onto the 20m circle. These all constitute your connecting aids!
Teaching a horse to be on the bit - exercise #2:
For the horse confused by legs v. hand.
1 - Ask for lengthening +++ with legs
2 - Ask for lengthening and add outside hand - use the lengthening to push the horse through the closed hand - keep lengthening +++
the key - watch the outside of the horse's neck for even a 1/2'' of lengthening of the neck or even
a 1/2'' lowering of the neck. That is our signal your horse has stepped through your closed
outside hand = release and reward (keep your inside hand flexing the horse).
1 - exercise #1 - little circle with big circle
2 - exercise #2 - lengthening, lengthening through the outside hand
3 - finished product - connecting aids

As it pertains to a horse in L&L - there is 'good dirt-sucking'... and there is 'bad dirt sucking':
Bad - long low neck with hinds trailing out the back door
Good - the hinds are driving under the horse and the horse is L&L upfront
The horse has no option but to fall on the forehand if you have not closed your legs and ridden the hind legs underneath when going from L&L to a short frame.

Savoie's trigger words:
1 - Referring to the back end -
Surge from behind (you should almost get whiplash) - rear-wheel-drive. Every set of connecting aids has the feeling of 'medium' gait.
2 - Pertaining to the front end -
When the hind leg is driven forward it meets my closed outside hand (closed in a fist)
Send the hind legs forward and when the horse arrives at my hand I close it in a fist

The rider's hands can be light on the rein but their fingers must be (softly) closed else (1) you'll lose rein and (2) your wrist will be stiff.
- your reins will always get longer after lengthening/extension/2nd gear because the horse's neck lengthens with more forward
- curl your fingers softly around the rein

If the rider's heel is jammed down too low (ie, it should be only slightly lower than the toe to engage the calf), the ankle will be too stiff and cannot act as a shock absorber.

For the horse who is spooky:
1 - supple the horse (ie, +1/+7 suppling exercises, where the habit of relaxation has already been established)
2 - do the +1/+7 exercises far from the spooky object, then not quite parallel to the spooky object bend the horse's neck to +10 so the horse cannot see the spooky object (neck bent to inside). Once adjacent to the spooky object, soften the inside rein (prevents claustrophobia). Do this gradually.
3 - Gradually get closer to the object and increase gait

Friday, April 20, 2012

Jane Savoie: Part 1

Recently - a few months ago - I listened to 2 1-hour talks featuring Jane Savoie. I took a lot of notes and wanted to share those notes (my own add-ins in purple) here for others so voila Part 1 today and next Friday, Part 2.

The topic of Part 1 is - 4 Mistakes Riders Make

#1 Resistance

When a horse resists one mistake a rider will often make is to back off, which rewards the behaviour, or the rider will get aggressive and bully the horse, which creates an unhappy horse.
In training, resistance is inevitable when we ask the horse to move out of its comfort zone - do not be afraid.
Keeping in mind the mantra "when the horse says no you either asked the question wrong or asked the wrong question", when you experience resistance as a rider:
1 - check yourself (your aids, position, etc)
2 - break the exercise down into baby steps
ie, leg yields - initially ask for the yield off the wall, teach all the components of the leg yield
(release to pressure, sidepass...), etc

#2 Quality
Exercises, maneuvers, etc are not an end unto themselves - focus on the big picture (what those maneuvers produce) and on quality
Suppleness - the ability of the horse to smoothly change balance front to back (ie, lengthenings) and side to side (ie, serpentine).
The primary goal is to create an athletic horse and to 'give back' to the horse's movement under the weight of a rider.

#3a Forward - Responsibility
It is your horse's job to maintain gait and the activity.
Take your legs away then correct if your horse slows - do not micro-manage or nag!

#3b Reactiveness to Aids
Give feather-light aids - do not adjust the aid to suit the horse. A horse can feel a fly land on its skin. I don't care what breed of horse you have or what temperament he is or even how small your legs are. He feels your aids.
Correct if you get a sluggish or nil response.
Do a retest after the correction (crucial!) - the response/reactivity must be black and white ie, 100 percent forward (not 99.9 percent).

#4 Connection - it's simple
You will experience trouble when you have not taught the horse the AID to put him on the bit.
Follow the training scale - the horse must be supple through the body and at the poll to connect.
The connecting aids - control the surge from behind (ie, lengthening)
1 - apply your calves (lengthening) - you should feel the surge
2 - catch that energy by closing your outside rein in a fist
The connecting aids should last only 3 seconds -
3 - soft squeezes on the inside rein to keep the neck straight - squeeze and release (like a
sponge or a baby bird in your hand)

There was quite an extensive Q&A session afterward so I will share that also:

Q: Horse bearing down on the bit?
A: A horse bearing down on the bit is being lazy and is not exhibiting self-carriage.
1 - get him quicker behind with quick transitions (this strengthens his engine, his hind)
2 - ease tension in the reins so he learns to carry himself (at first say 2 strides is okay

Q: What is the rubber band exercise?
A: The rubber band exercise is one Savoie uses whereby the horse goes forward and back - do this on a circle at first.
ie, close your legs - 6 strides of forward trot (driven off your leg aids)
tighten your abs - 6 strides of med trot (from your seat)
rinse, lather, repeat
This exercise is essentially transitioning within a gait - ie, the trot - to develop the horse's engine and to develop self-carriage. It develops longitudinal suppleness.

Q: Elastic elbows
A: Part of having an inviting, elastic contact - have elbows that allow for movement (ie, an elastic elbow)... THEN the horse may connect.
How to have open elbows - when posting at the trot, imagine pushing the horse's mane down, or pushing clothes down a washboard.
ie, with the western horse on a looped rein, the same degree of loop is kept the same

Q: Draw reins
A: Draw reins are a quick fix - they are a substitute for good riding. Riders use gadgets when they run out of tools. In draw reins the horse will break at the 3rd and 4th vertebrae as the horse learns to 'save' himself. As a result, he rolls under the bit. The solution to a horse rolling under the bit (evading contact, breaking at the 3rd and 4th, being BTV) is to put the bit in front of the horse. You can do this by lifting the hands up and forward to the same degree, maintaining contact (ie, lift your hands 2'' up and 2'' forward). The horse can therefore step up into the bridle rather than be rolled over the bit. Maintain contact with the horse's mouth during this exercise - think of it as 'lifting the bed sheets up then allowing them to float down' - lift your hands up and forward then allow them to 'float' down.

Q: Counter Canter
A: When riding the counter canter, pretend the opposite canter is correct/true canter and pretend the wall is not there. Riders often overbend the horse's neck to the inside in CC: the opposite shoulder then pops out and the horse is crooked and on the forehand. Think about riding CC while in counter flexion - flex at the poll away from the lead the horse is on. This slides the shoulders over so the shoulders are between the reins. Then ask for true flexion (toward the lead the horse is on) and expect the shoulders to remain straight and between the reins.

Q: Flying Changes
A: Prerequisites:
1 - balanced counter canter
2 - collection - at 2nd level (SI, HI, simple changes), where you have modest collection, about
50/50 weight balanced on the forehand vs. the hind
3 - clean, clear simple changes - walk-canter-walk (no dribbly walk steps in between)
Then you can think about flying changes

At training level about 60/40 weight is balanced on the forehand v. hind
At 1st it is about 55/45
At 2nd it is about 50/50

Q: Canter aids - depart
A: Inside rein - 'turn of key' (thumb up and forward) motion at wrist for poll flexion to the inside
Outside rein - closes in a fist - 2nd level dressage
Inside leg - pushes at the girth for forward
Outside leg - behind the girth to drive outside hind
Weight slightly on inside seatbone - push that hip toward the horse's ear

Q: Basic aid to slow
A: Brief squeeze and release on outside rein. If the horse ignores your cue, exaggerate the correction ie, bring the horse to a halt, then pick up the w/t/c again and retest - accept only 100 percent.

Q: Suppling the poll
A: A dead giveaway of tension in the poll is the horse tilting its head, which indicates a 'lock' in the poll - the horse's ears need to be level.
To supple the poll:
1 - 'turn the key' (twist your wrist so your thumb is on top and forward), support with the
opposite rein
so the horse is not bending through the neck and is instead flexed at the poll
2 - test - see if the horse holds the flexion when you put some loop in the rein
This is +1 only - the horse should barely turn his head at the poll and the crest should flip. Go back and forth with flexions right-left-right-left-right-left
(Check previous blogs on suppleness exercises and YouTube Jane Savoie poll flexion for more)
When the horse's body does not track straight in this exercise, suppling is not going through his body 100 percent - the use of the rein is ricocheting through his body negatively. Correct with leg.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Understanding the horse emotionally

As of this weekend my schedule will change and I will be restricted to writing at the most once a week - I will try to keep up with once a week though (Fridays).

I have been reading Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and am feeling enlightened at just about every turn of the page. Something specific jumped out at me though as it pertains to interacting with prey animals and specifically horses the way another prey animal or horse would. A common criticism of Parelli Natural Horsemanship that I hear is that horses do not think we are horses so it is not necessary (and is even silly, ineffective, and dangerous) to interact with them in such a manner. Well of course they do not regard us as horses - they judge what we are and our behaviour based on our smell, the body language we exhibit, and many other signals and factors (many of which we often are not even aware of or do not consider). However this does not negate the importance of speaking to the horse in a manner it genetically understands. The following is an excerpt from the book (bolded parts mine):

Working with the Animal's Nature: Farm Animals
(p. 169)

A human owner has the responsibility to understand and respect his pet's nature. Dogs and cats are predator animals. Dogs are hyper-social animals who live in dominance hierarchies. If you interfere with the hierarchy you can get the low-ranking do or dogs killed by their own pack mates. You have to work with an animal's emotional makeup, not against it.
Domestic animals such as pigs, cattle, and horses are less controlled by purely social stimuli than dogs, so with these animals it's especially important to exert dominance the way another animal would do it. I learned this lesson when I was raising piglets as part of my Ph.D. work in animal behaviour. My piglets lived in a Disneyland of straw with lots of different objects to root and tear up. I would sit with my piglets for hours and watch their behaviour.
The one I named Mellow Pig would instantly roll over when her belly was scratched and would actively solicit people to rub her belly. But the largest pig in the pen did not like being petted at all, and she was the dominant boss hog. She thought she owned the place. Her coloration was what an Illinois farmer calls blue butt; she had white forequarters and a grayish blue-gray rear. I named her Big Gilt.
When Big Gilt reached a hundred pounds, she started biting me whenever I entered the pen. The other pigs sought petting and stroking but Big Gilt disdained it. She just wanted to be boss. The bigger she got the worse the biting got and I had to stop it.
I tried waving my arms at her and shouting, but it didn't help. In desperation once I even tried slapping her big blue butt. That did no good, either. Finally I figured out that I had to act like a pig. I needed to assert my superior dominance by biting and pushing against the side of her neck the same way another, bigger pig would.
So, to simulate another pig biting and shoving against Big Gilt's neck I used a short piece of one-by-four-inch board, about eighteen inches long, to poke and shove her against the fence. That's what the winner pig does: the winner pushes the loser away, or up against a wall. I shoved the end of the board repeatedly against her thick neck and made it very clear that I was stronger, which I was. A full-grown human can still push around a hundred-pound hog. I didn't hurt her, but I did dominate her.
It worked like magic. Big Gilt stopped biting me and I was now Boss Hog. Using the hardwired instinctual behaviour pattern was much more effective than slapping her. The only problem with this method is that it has to be done when the animal is young enough so you can still easily push the pig away. Again, I want to emphasize that I did not beat her up. She was overpowered by a stronger being who applied pressure to the right spot. Pushing the board against her neck turned on a hardwired instinctual submissive behaviour.
After that Big Gilt was now polite when I entered the pen and she never bit me again, but she still did not like petting. One day while I was stroking Mellow Pig on the belly I started to rub Big Gilt on the belly, too. Since I was not the boss she didn't run away, but she clearly didn't like it. The strangest thing happened. Hardwired instinct collided with clear conscious will. Rubbing her belly triggered the instinctual rolling over behaviour, but only the rear end of Big Gilt rolled over. Her front end remained standing when her hind end collapsed. The whole time I was stroking her a horrid growling sound came out of her throat. I had turned on the pleasure response to a belly rub, but the other end of Big Gilt did not want to give in. She did not dare bit me and she did not try to run away, but she surely did not like it.

This may be applied to horses in that it is most effective - almost crucial - to work with the horse in such a way that he understands, in his language so to speak. In a manner that reflects his emotional genetic makeup. When you watch horses in the herd, they exert dominance by moving the submissive horse's feet. They also use increasing pressure, escalating phases of pressure or "ask". This is why techniques that play into this makeup - roundpenning, driving a horse's front and hind ends, directing a horse's feet - are effective. When you consistently establish yourself as the dominant leader, you invite respect and a horse who will follow your leadership without question. Otherwise, the horse will exert dominance over you - someone has to be leader. This should not involve force - it is easy to move a horse's feet using body language. This body language can be clarified to the horse via extensions such as whips or what that extend a person's arm and make their intentions clear. If a person starts with very light, minor phases and escalates to increasing phases of pressure, the horse is permitted to be light, soft, and responsive, but the person is effective as is necessary to solicit a response. Same as in a herd. When laid back ears and a swishing tail are ignored, someone is being chased and possibly bit or kicked. Rhythm to one's pressure is also very important too as rhythm is soothing to the prey animal.

Slapping a horse for "misbehaving" or using positive reinforcement (ie, clicker training) only as primary techniques are not nearly as effective and often ignore the horse's genetic makeup. In my experience, methods that include a variety of types of reinforcement (such as PNH does) and that very thoroughly and directly address the horse's natural tendencies and makeup is much more effective in training. Furthermore, such creates a healthy, balanced and happy horse who understands its role and what is expected of him. Negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, counter-conditioning, etc all have their benefits when combined to address the horse's root nature. If you use techniques that are based primarily on pushing the horse when he is "bad" and rewarding when he is "good" (both arbitrary terms) and that neglect the horse's natural instincts, perhaps it is time to consider other methods that might be more effective when applied correctly. One cannot find true success in ignoring an animal's nature; just as different people communicate best in different manners, so do animals and even horses (which is where it is also very beneficial and even important to understand a horse's 'horsenality').

Monday, April 2, 2012

The importance of rest breaks

All too often in my opinion as riders we get so task-oriented that we can forget something so simple as including sufficient periods of relaxation in our work with our horses. Such can be crucial however - a good rest break will allow working muscles a chance to relax and breathe, your horse to catch his breathe, adrenaline to subside, and for a horse to realize it is tired (and to think). If your routine is go-go-go adrenaline continues to course through your horse's body and he does not have the chance to really relax and think as he possibly could with a well-placed rest break. Rest breaks are important to include in your schooling routine - in addition to the aforementioned benefits rest breaks can constitute a reward for your horse, and thus motivation and incentive to try and work harder for you. This is especially effective in the horse often labelled 'lazy'. The following article is one I wanted to share:

Let Your Nervous Horse Realize It’s Tired

Calming a Nervous Horse

By: Anna Jane White-Mullin

If a horse is excitable when it comes out to work, riders tend to work the animal for long periods of time in an effort to wear it out to achieve compliance. The initial excitability of the animal causes an adrenaline rush, just as though the horse were fearing for its life and needed adrenaline to enable it to run fast for a long period of time to escape a predator. If the rider (or even someone longeing a horse) doesn’t give the animal frequent breaks, the horse’s emotional state remains frenzied, which keeps the adrenaline flowing.

If a horse is very nervous at the start of work, it’s fine to give it short spurts of canter with the rider’s seat off the saddle in two-point position — no more than three times around the arena — followed by a break of about five minutes so that the horse’s level of both adrenaline and oxygen can decline in intensity. As you know, adrenaline and oxygen can cause humans to accomplish what seem to be super-human feats of physicality, and the same is true of an animal; so it is important to get the horse back to a more normal physical and emotional state before you start to work again, or else you’ll find yourself fighting a battle you cannot possibly win.

The oxygen and adrenaline levels are very important, but the horse’s mental state and its ability to realize it is tired are equally important. A walk on a long rein (or at least as long as you can have and still control the nervous horse) provides the animal an opportunity to relax; once it has relaxed a little, it will realize it is tired. Just as you come to a point in a hard day that you think, “I’m worn out,” and start finding ways to take it a little easier, the horse will do the same. Instead of looking for things to spook at, it will just mind its business and cooperate.

This principle is true in all training of the horse. You don’t want to exhaust the animal, for this can be dangerous if your horse doesn’t have what it needs physically and mentally to do what you’re asking of it — for example, jumping a course of fences. What you’re really looking for is a relaxed horse that is willingly submissive. You’ll get this when you offer frequent breaks in your work routine.

If you’re longeing the horse, change directions about every five minutes, and take plenty of time while you’re switching the equipment to the other side, so the horse has a little time to settle. Also, don’t longe more than 20 minutes. After this time, when you get on the horse, walk it for at least five minutes on a long rein and let it relax. If you have time, you can even take the horse back to the barn, cool it out, then tack it up later for your ride. You’ll be amazed at how much more successful your work session will be if you’ll give your horse time to calm down, relax, and feel that it is a little tired.

If you’ve taken the route of short periods of canter in two-point, go three times around the ring, take a five-minute break, then do the same thing one more time. If this doesn’t sufficiently calm the horse, you can do the same thing twice more; but again, concentrate as much on a lengthy break time as you do on the cantering, so that the horse can become more calm, relaxed and aware of the fact that its body is tired.

The people who constantly resort to lengthy gallops or an hour of longeing end up with a horse so fit that the initial problem of the horse being at a physical advantage is greatly increased. Also, overwork can cause lameness and other physical problems, so it’s not a wise thing to do. The next time your horse is keyed up, use short periods of work, interspersed with frequent breaks, to make the horse’s mind and body more manageable, rather than taking the lengthy and less-successful route of working your horse nearly to death or attempting to muscle it into submission.

Using circular patterns and exercises to calm a horse and channel his energy can be effective. This is because patterns and circling in particular are naturally calming to prey animals. Channeling a horse's energy via patterns is also effective because it engages his mind and with his mind engaged he becomes less reactive and calmer. A rider can balance this by interspersing schooling with well-timed rest breaks that have the effect mentioned in the article above. Horse won't slow? Pick at it. Ask for little bits of slow and relaxation at a time. Really engage the horse's mind and body, then allow him the opportunity to relax. Continuously present the opportunity and your horse will start to take it. The more he takes it, the more it becomes a habit.

One point the article made was to limit forward ie, lengthy gallops. In my experience it can be helpful to allow a horse to stretch out and 'get the kinks out' ie, release a little energy, but it is also very possible to do too much of this and only contribute to the horse's excited state of mind. I agree with the author's take to restrict canters to say three times around the ring. Longeing, in my opinion, can be limited to even less than 5min bouts and less than 20min sessions. The latter mostly because that much repetitive circling is stressful to a horse's body. In my experience when you allow an anxious, tense, nervous, excited horse to be forward too much, you allow him to build up more adrenaline and to increasingly amp himself up. This is also related to the horse's nature as a flight animal. In flight, a horse does not have to think - in fact he won't. This is the reason you might see or hear stories of deer frantically running down the road when they could simply swerve out of the path of your vehicle - they are not thinking. They are in pure flight mode and flight mode does not allow for thought or rationalization. So it is important to not allow the horse who is excited and moving its feet as a result to continue moving its feet and to engage in full flight mode (visually, the horse will pick up speed and start to increasingly tune out your cues). The increased oxygen and adrenaline coursing through his body will only feed into a cycle whereby the horse becomes increasingly forward and excited, releasing and circulating more oxygen and adrenaline, causing him to become more forward, and so on and so forth. Instead, allow a little forward, then ask your horse to relax. This might mean allowing him to stand or simply walking him out or transitioning down to a gait in which he is more relaxed. If you see or feel your horse becoming increasingly excited and increasingly forward, transition down before he really gets rolling. Then when he is ready, ask him for forward again, and transition down again as he really amps up - or better yet, before. Do short bouts of forward so you can finish with relaxation (at least a little). Remember that if you can finish with relaxation you can develop that relaxation to the point where it is to a greater degree and to the point where eventually you are also starting with relaxation.

Above all, do not resort to wearing your horse out physically, whether on the longe or under-saddle. Doing so will only create a fitter horse and will not directly address relaxation. Remember to include an abundance of rest breaks in your routine with your horse - doing so can have a number of positive benefits and can greatly impact your session with your horse.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bitless riding

The proof is in the pudding - it is not about the equipment (original article):

The Tunne Hevonen Dressage Challenge with bitless dressage competition exhibition held on Saturday 3 March 2012 at the second ever Helsinki Horse Fair in Finland was a huge success. The fair was attended by around 42,000 visitors and the exhibition was Saturday's main attracttion. The idea was to show that good riding is not based on equipment, but on good horse riding skills and good horsemanship.

Close to three thousand spectators attended the bitless competition class which was judged by Tiina Karkkolainen and Inkeri Kostiainen. International and national level riders took part in the show competition.

The winner was Julia Alfthan-Kilpeläinen and her 17-year old Swedish warmblood gelding Chirocco (by Chirlon x Castello). Maria-Kristina Virta and her 20-year old Finnish warmblood gelding Conquistador S (by Matador) were second.

Janne Bergh and her halfblood mare Show Me Colour N and Taina Rajala with her Finnish bred stallion Kiahan Renard tied for third place. Katariina Albrecht and her black Finnish mare Silkki Musta were fourth and Heidi Sinda with her Finnish bred gelding Hessin Jeviiri slotted in fifth.

To Bit or Not to Bit

All riders shared the same view on bitless riding. If a horse is tense, it will be tense with a bit too. Many of them commented that if they had had more time to practice, they would have reached the same results with the bitless bridle as with a bit.

Julia Alfthan-Kilpelainen on Chirocco

Julia Alfthan-Kilpeläinen rode twice with the LG-bridle before the competition and she thought that with practice, collecting would come faster and easier. “I wanted to challenge myself and my old familiar horse to the new situation and it went exactly as I wanted it to. Bits in themselves are not the main aid between the horse and the rider, all the other aids are. I had so much fun,” said Dressage Challenge winner Julia Alfthan-Kilpeläinen, adding that, "I would do it again, of course."

Maria-Kristiina Virta who came in second place told us that she had so much fun and enjoyed the fact that her experienced horse wanted to perform. Third placed Janne Bergh had a young, inexperienced horse, which as she said, would have been just as tense with a bit in her mouth. "However, I had fun," she stated.

Taina Rajala also said she enjoyed the competition and praised the atmosphere. "It was really fun to perfom for such a big audience. My horse was really happy and wasn’t tense at all. With more training I think I could get a better feel and I would ride at the same level as with a bit. A good competition with a good atmosphere!

Janna Bergh on Show Me Colour

Finnhorse riders Katariina Albrecht and Heidi Sinda also said that it was great to ride in front of a big audience. Katariina stated that riding with a bitless bridle is a question of training and she feels that you can achieve the same results without a bit as with one. She is ready to do it again, anytime. Heidi Sinda had a young horse too and she said that she was surprised that her horse moved with better back movement and used his hindquarters much better with the LG-bridle. “Great event, big audience and good arrangements, Heidi Sinda concluded.

This is not to negate the positive effects of certain pieces of equipment over others of course - when we do use equipment what we use matters, but it lends credit to the theory that horses may be ridden bitless - and in my opinion even bridleless - with the same results. The correct use of and the type of equipment we use matters however it can also be done without equipment.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New AQHA rules addressing gadgets

Recently, Horse Nation posted the following article:

Proposed changes mean only arena-legal equipment can be used on AQHA showgrounds

The recently formed Animal Welfare Commission (AWC) in the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) has proposed a new rule that will allow only arena-legal equipment to be used on the show grounds. This means that training aids like martingales, draw reins, certain bits, etcetera cannot be used in warm-up, practice, or lunging. This controversial proposal has trainers, owners and competitors stirred up on both sides of the fence.

In recent years, AQHA has been passing new regulations to ensure the safety of show horses, like the Steward Program. This program places stewards at shows who address abuse and illegal use of equipment on a case by case basis. However, the new proposed equipment rule has some trainers thinking the regulations have gone too far and could lead to a snowball effect of banning all types of equipment.

This topic is so controversial because it significantly impacts how these horses are prepared for the show pen. When trainers bring young horses to shows, they often use certain training aids in order to navigate the crowded and scary warm-up pens. If this law was passed, it could mean unsafe conditions for riders who are exposed to or riding these young horses. In addition, novice riders use these types of equipment to build up their confidence before entering the show pen.

AQHA and the AWC are working to be more proactive in the protection against inhumane treatment of quarter horses as the association often receives pressure from outside organizations about the treatment of show horses. It should be noted that any recommendations by the AWC go straight to vote by the Executive Committee rather than the normal procedure of receiving committee recommendation first. The AWC submitted two rule changes to the Show and Professional Horsemen Committee that will be voted on at the AQHA Convention in March. The proposed changes can be seen below:

Agenda item #4 – Add new rule – A horse may not be ridden, driven, or led, nor exercised anywhere on the show grounds with prohibited equipment. The use of prohibited equipment shall disqualify the horse from that show and may result in disciplinary action taken against the rider, handler, agent or owner.

1.) For lungeing a horse a lunge-line and a long whip is allowed.

2.) Senior horses can be exercised with equipment allowed for junior horses

Agenda item #8–Add to Western Equipment rule 443–Ban the use of draw reins used with a curb bit while on the grounds at any AQHA event.

First, take a look at the comments section for some perspective and some very valid points.

This rule change could certainly adversely affect trainers and riders who travel from show to show and have no other opportunity to school their horses except on show grounds. Not to mention the shows that can last up to several weeks, from what I understand (I have never shown AQHA). In such a case, the rider or trainer is then forced to school their horse in arena-legal equipment only with absolutely no opportunity for a tune-up using schooling equipment. This might be a good thing in that it forces trainers and riders to school their horses in a more correct manner and the rule itself limits the extent of abuse a rider may inflict on a horse, however is it crossing the line to restrict riders and trainers to working with their horse in such a manner? How do these riders and trainers cope without knowledge of any other manner of training, having relied upon gadgets to school their horses? Should riders be forced to only school their horses in one particular manner?

What this rule change does is not only weed out the riders using gadgets in an abusive manner, but it also greatly limits the riders using gadgets in a non-abusive manner, which is a bit of a grey area.

This rule change may force riders to find training alternatives that do not rely on the use of gadgets. Let's face it - maybe some of these riders are using draw reins and martingales in a traditionally acceptable manner ie, as a training tool used in moderation, but most are not. Most if not all are using such devices to create a 'frame' - ie, to bring the horse's head down. Correct use of a martingale or draw reins would be, for example, to encourage the horse to relax and drop his poll a little and keep him from inverting - in extreme cases whereby the horse is severely inverted and trying to evade the bit (and has the improper muscling to support this inverted frame as opposed to an alternative and more correct manner of moving). This would be done while simultaneously developing the horse from other angles ie, teaching him to relax in general, developing strength and balance in the horse, and teaching the horse to increasingly engage from behind. It is interesting to note that most if not all the 'masters' of classical horsemanship advocate against the use of gadgets such as draw reins and martingales (and even side reins, etc - anything fixed).

It is important to strengthen the horse and to teach him to balance and use himself correctly under the weight of a rider. Using himself correctly means he is lifting at the base of his neck (important!!!) and opening his throatlatch so he is in front of the vertical and his poll naturally hanging. The horse loads the haunches to land on a bent hock, the back is loose, swinging, and rounded, and the front end is lightened - the horse actually looks to be moving uphill. As a result of the biomechanics of the horse, all this means his head naturally drops. This differs from a horse in the frame demanded of western pleasure (etc) classes. The preceding creates a stronger, more athletic horse with pure gaits. The latter creates a horse subject to breaking down and unsoundness due to the stress placed on his ligaments, tendons and muscles to maintain a false and difficult to maintain frame. The latter also creates impure gaits. Like the 4-beat canter.

A typical western pleasure jog

A typical western pleasure... lope?

Note in the above photo the horse actually appears to be moving downward - this is because his weight is shifted onto the forehand as opposed to his haunches engaging, taking the weight, and lifting the forehand up. His haunches are actually strung out behind him and he is croup-high because his pelvis is not tilted so his hind legs can reach further beneath him. A horse moving in this position has to tense his back to hold the weight of his rider and this tension in the back, which of course is reflected throughout the horse's entire body, is what leads to unsoundness and break-down.

In short, gadgets such as martingales and draw reins should be used only in the most extreme of situations, in moderation - if at all. They are not go-to teaching tools for establishing a correct way of moving because they are fixed and they neglect the ultimate and correct manner of asking the horse to move which focuses on the haunches and results (among other things) in the poll dropping. Gadgets may aid in teaching the horse to lower the head (only), however they do not teach the horse to lift at the base of the neck and in fact they can aid the horse in building incorrect (and bracing) muscles that are actually counter-productive to his moving correctly.

So why do these trainers and riders NEED draw reins and martingales (etc) to 'tune-up' their horses prior to and at shows? A horse asked to carry himself in a correct manner should easily sustain this correct manner of moving and only further progress with schooling. This is because moving in such a manner - strengthened and in balance, is natural for the horse. A horse however asked to sustain a false frame will always have to be reminded to sustain such a frame because it is both difficult and unnatural to the horse. Is this right? Should these riders be permitted to use such gadgets when they are so obviously being used in an incorrect manner? Is this an area the AQHA should regulate?

Furthermore, what actually defines abuse? Is it the riders brutally yanking and jabbing at their horses in an obviously abusive manner? Or is it the ones who are using draw reins and restrictive martingales to tie the horse's head down, then using a curb bit not for refinement but to force the horse to lower his head, then quietly spurring the horse forward in this frame? I've seen these horses locally and though the riders' techniques are typical and accepted, does it not still constitute abuse when the horse is so distressed? Where is the line?

Lastly, I take issue with the following:
When trainers bring young horses to shows, they often use certain training aids in order to navigate the crowded and scary warm-up pens. If this law was passed, it could mean unsafe conditions for riders who are exposed to or riding these young horses. In addition, novice riders use these types of equipment to build up their confidence before entering the show pen.

Please tell me you are joking. Unsafe conditions for riders who are exposed to or riding these young horses?? SINCE WHEN ARE DRAW REINS AND MARTINGALES (etc) MEANT FOR CONTROL?? I HOPE the above comment comes from someone not familiar with AQHA showing and that the comment does not reflect typical thinking in the AQHA arena. Novice riders should NEVER be using these types of equipment to build their confidence (or for ANYTHING) and neither should these types of equipment be used on young horses to CONTROL them. IF these pieces of equipment are used at all, they should be used at home, to prepare (cringe) the horse. The horse should come to the show arena-ready, not out of control and requiring such extensive schooling that he requires such aids.

*phew. end rant*

Photo credit to Braymere.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Centering Your Horse

The following is an article from Buck Brannaman 'Centering Your Horse':

Article here

It is a very good article that articulately explains what I mean when I have said the rider needs to "tunnel the horse" with their aids. For your reading pleasure, I have also copied and pasted below:

What I am looking for when I am riding a horse of any level, a green colt or an experienced bridle horse, is for him to stay centered underneath me. When I'm riding, I draw an imaginary rectangle around my horse; there is a line in front of his nose, one on each side of him, and one behind his tail.

On a green horse the sides of this rectangle might be five feet out from his sides and on both ends. On a bridle horse the lines might be right at the tip of his nose, inches off my stirrups and right behind his hindquarters. One of the things I am trying to accomplish during my ride is to have my horse in the exact center of the rectangle.

Being able to operate all four quarters of my horse, picking up a soft feel, leg yielding; all these things give me the ability to make adjustments when my horse leans on any side of the rectangle so that I can bring him back to center again.

Centering the Young Horse
On a colt, especially, he will be centered for only moments at a time. I might be really busy fixing things up and getting things lined out on a colt, but I make sure that when he does find that spot, I become as peaceful as I possibly can. My horse can feel that, and at first it might not have much meaning, but since my being peaceful feels very good to him he will start to add up what he needs to do for me to be quiet and he will start hunting for the center of the rectangle.

Your horse really wants to be at peace with you on his back, but if you don't ever show him where he needs to be, you will just be bouncing all over the place. He won't ever find how to be between your legs and reins.

I got to track a few head of cattle on one of my colts last week, and even when I am galloping around tracking a cow, I am aware of where my horse is within my rectangle. If he's pushing through my hand, he's advancing toward that line in front of him, so I might slow him down and get him to rate. If I'm working my feet on a loose rein and he doesn't respond to my leg, that means he's getting close to that line behind him and I need to do more to get him to move up. If he falls left or right with both ends, I will use a leg yield to bring him back to being straight. If he moves diagonally toward a corner of his body or if his front or hindquarters drift, I can use my reins and legs with my ability to move all four quarters to bring him back to the center.

When my horse gets to the center, I will ease off for as long as he is there. It might not be long before I'm fixing again, but I try to do it in a way that I'm not picking at him. I'm just aware of where he is and I try to direct him to where he needs to be. Your rectangle always goes with you, so it doesn't matter if you are going in a circle, there is still a center.

Bringing in Your Lines
As my horse starts to become more advanced, I start bringing my imaginary lines closer and closer to his body. I will expect him to drift away from the center less and less, but the key to getting him more dependable is good timing. If you have sorry timing, and your horse drifts over your imaginary lines and you don't even notice until you are on the other side of the arena, then it's too late. You've lost the opportunity.

You need to keep this idea of where the center is on your horse the whole time you are riding. Be aware of his whole body. This is what I'm thinking about while I'm riding, and I am never not thinking about it.

You also need to be careful in how you approach bringing him back to center. If you correct too much, or don't release soon enough, you'll blow right past the center and go right over the line on the other side. There is a certain amount of drift associated with that timing, so you will stop your correction before he gets to the center so that he'll end up in the right spot. If you overdo all your corrections, you will just have him ricocheting off these lines and then you will have a really confused horse.

Buck BrannamanBuck Brannaman

Tuba is a Thoroughbred horse that I started for Lee and Melanie Taylor. He was difficult in that he was super- athletic, but he kept me really busy all the time keeping him centered. I did not jump him at all until I went back to do a clinic in Memphis. By my sixth jumping lesson with Melanie, we were jumping 4' oxers with a 6' spread because he was centered before I asked him to jump. It was so fun because he was broke enough that I could point him at the jump and there was no question of him leaving; he was right there. I had taken the time to get him sensible. I had done clinics on him, roped and branded on him and spent the time to get him ready.

Oppressive Riders
On my horses I am continually fixing and releasing. You can't hold them in the center. I have been teaching clinics for 20 years, so my observations are based on fact; the least centered horses that I come into contact with are dressage horses. (Now don't think for a minute that I am bad-mouthing dressage, because when it is done correctly by a good hand, it's beautiful, it doesn't get any better.) I am talking about the rider who does not let their horse find center and choose to be there; I am talking about the one who overconfines the horse and tries to hold him in the right spot. Their horses blow right through the front line, and if it's an oppressive enough rider, they go right through the line in back and get their horse dull to the leg. It can happen with any horse in any type of gear with an oppressive rider.

Where riders get into trouble is that they don't give their horse enough room to find the center. They are going to make him do it, by being oppressive in the way that they ride. They think they can force the horse to the center and then hold him there. But the horse has to hunt it, you can't make him be there. It doesn't matter how you dress a horse up, it's all the same. Getting a horse organized and on the spot is the same no matter what you are doing.

Always Hope
Sometimes people will ask me about their horse and ask me what I would do if he were mine. I tell them that I would ride their horse like he was my horse until he looked like my horse. I don't do anything different. If you have an older horse that has some kindergarten stuff missing, go back and get it right. Age is irrelevant. It might take him longer to learn because he has some other things in his past to overcome, but he will change a lot quicker than most people can.

Once you have seen quality horsemanship and are exposed to the things you can do to help a horse be gentle and dependable, then why wouldn't you do those things? No matter what your horse's age, you are going to try to offer him the best that you can. If you adjust what you are doing, he will adjust too; horses have an amazing capacity to make changes. There is always hope.

This article originally appeared in EH#7Eclectic Horseman Issue #7

I really have very little to add, Brannaman said it best! Keeping your horse in his rectangle ensures he is straight
and that he is neither behind the leg nor too far in front of your leg. There are times we want a horse to almost push against the front of their rectangle, to push against our hand, to pull us to the base of a fence, for example, however this is done in moderation. This is not to be confused with a horse on the forehand, however, or a horse who is too far in front of the leg. Developing your horse to the point where his rectangle is small and he rarely moves outside it means he is on the aids and is obedient - you have ultimate control. This should apply to EVERY rider in ANY discipline.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The warm-up

A good warm-up is key to a good ride and it is imperative to the health of your horse - both physically and mentally. Ultimately, the way to develop a good warm-up is to listen to your horse. Try different methods and find what works best for your horse. The primary goal of the warm-up is to loosen the horse up - to create flexibility, softness, and relaxation in the horse and to warm up his muscles. This reduces the chance of strain and stress on the horse's soft tissues in particular, that may lead to either acute or chronic injury.

While there is room for flexibility in a horse's warm-up routine, an absolute must for both the warm-up and cool-down is 10min of walk. Sound boring? Turn on the radio or listen to music on an ipod. Take this opportunity to stretch and warm up yourself while on the back of your horse (some rider stretching exercises were provided on the website linked in my last blog). Here are some exercises you can do before you throw your leg over your horse. The walk should be done on a loose rein whereby you allow your horse to stretch out and warm up his muscles without any demands.

After walking for an equal amount of time in both directions, you can pick up the trot. At this point the trot might still be stiff and your horse will likely be lazy, he won't be using himself properly. He should not be expected to. Same as with anything 'horse', all is initiated by the horse and is done on the horse's timeline. This is his chance to do his best impression of a giraffe and to trot around with his head and neck wherever the heck he wants to put them and his hind legs trailing several kilometers behind him. Stay off his back during this time ie, post your trot. Let him trot along the rail on a loose rein for a good 5min minimum before starting to ask for large patterns - ie, figure-8's that take up the length of the entire arena, etc. As you feel your horse start to warm up and soften, you can start to ask for smaller patterns. Smaller figure-8's, circles, serpentines, etc. These are more demanding exercises by virtue of their size so they should only be asked of the horse as the horse tells you he can do them, as his muscles become sufficiently warm to tackle increased engagement and greater demand. You should feel him soften, relax, become more flexible, and start to naturally engage from behind. At this point you have probably taken 20-25min to warm your horse up - he should feel pretty good beneath you.

One exercise my instructor recently showed me that I wanted to share was one that stretches out a horse's shoulders. Some horses in particular hold a lot of tension in their shoulders, but this exercise can benefit any horse. Essentially the exercise is a figure-8 smooshed up against the arena fence or wall:
(hey, I never claimed to be proficient at Paint!)

Two oval loops flattened against the wall, with a change of direction between them. Ask your horse to maintain balance and to not drop his shoulders in the corners. He should also maintain gait and pace within that gait. As for pattern size, the smooshed-figure-8 can be as large or as small as your horse is capable. If he is unbalanced and struggles with the indicated smaller size, increase the size of the loops (ie, the broken line in the image above). Only ask this of your horse after he's been trotting his warm-up a minimum of 5min and once he is comfortable with smaller patterns.

Where you take the remaining 5-15min of your warm-up should depend specifically on your horse's needs. With some horses you might want to start at this point including exercises such as lateral work and transitions. I find leg yields and shoulder-ins to be particularly beneficial in suppling some horses. I often ask a horse to alternate bends down the centerline to supple their neck and barrel somewhat. Jane Savoie has an excellent poll suppling exercise she explains here:

And here:

You might also want to add some gallop or canter in your horse's warm-up routine. A good gallop really allows a horse to stretch out and can be greatly beneficial to any horse. In fact, allowing your horse to open up in a good gallop as a regular part of your weekly routine has a lot of both mental and physical benefits to your horse.

A proper warm-up should take a rider 25-35min minimum, longer if the horse is older or if the weather is particularly cold. Your cool-down should be similar and should serve to really stretch and supple your horse in addition to progressively cooling him down and allowing his breathing to slow. Halting and putting your horse up after a work-out while his muscles are still warm may cause his muscles to stiffen and seize, which is of course of detriment to your horse.

Your horse is an athlete as any other - make sure you condition and treat him like one!

Monday, March 5, 2012

At the girth

The rider's position plays an important role in achieving desired results from a horse. If we are not in the proper position, we can hardly expect the horse to read our minds and respond as we desire - they are instead to respond appropriate to the aids we have given them. I think many riders are potentially mistaken in their interpretation of the term "at the girth". Since many of my blogs refer to a rider's leg being "at the girth" or "a tad behind the girth" or such, I felt it prudent to clarify exactly what this term meant.

This is what "on the girth" looks like:

When the rider's leg is at the girth, this is NOT meant to imply that the rider's leg is actually ON the actual girth strap. The correct position of the rider's leg is so the heel is in a straight line with the rider's hip, shoulder, and ear. THIS is "at the girth". Any instructor or rider who tells you otherwise is incorrect. We might slide our leg back only slightly (ie, 1-2 inches) from this position or even forward (ie, half an inch) to specifically cue the horse's shoulders or haunches or to deliver a stronger aid (ie, forward), but the rider's leg should always return to this neutral position. The way a rider can imagine this position from atop their horse: imagine your horse were to disappear right out from under you. Your position atop your horse should reflect being able to land on your feet with your knee bent under you and your heel in line with your hip, shoulder, and ear. If you are not in this position, you need to reposition yourself and consider what could be altering your position from chiropractic misalignment to your saddle.

While we're at it, notice the second pink line in the above photo? This is the position your arms should be in. I obtained the above photo from this website, which has a ton of fantastic information on it as it pertains to your position and how to improve it. Some of the exercises provided are ones my instructor has me perform - they really help. Any rider who considers themselves an athlete (and every rider is) should be stretching appropriately so as to maintain the proper position on their horse and so as to prevent possible injury.

Here is another very informative photo that demonstrates the rider's (correct) position in context of the rider applying the 'circle of aids' and causing the energy of the horse to flow freely beneath him:

The grey arrows refer to the cycle of energy allowed and guided by the circle of aids. The rider's hands must be soft but firm, his elbows must be elastic and his shoulders relaxed. The rider's hands and upper body MUST be independent of the lower body. This requires strength (especially core strength) and balance and a correct position that places the rider in balance and with his gravity centered. This is the best position from which to influence the horse and also to allow the horse to move in a beneficial manner.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The rein back

The rein back, same as with any maneuver or exercise, is very beneficial to riders in disciplines other than dressage though it is a required dressage maneuver. As always however, it is not about the actual maneuver or exercise in itself but rather about the way(s) that exercise can benefit the horse's training in general. The rein back is a helpful exercise that helps to engage the horse's hindquarters and can help further develop responsiveness to the aids and thus control.

Anna says it best!

The cues:
1 - imperceptibly lighten your seat so as to encourage the horse to move backward by freeing his back
2 - close your hands to inhibit forward movement
3 - gently apply leg slightly behind the girth

The hands guide the horse's 'forward' movement in a backward manner solely by closing and the rider's legs generate the actual 'forward' momentum and the steps. You can close your hand around each rein with the stepping of the corresponding hind foot. Your legs however should remain steady and consistent in their pressure.

Having a helper on the ground might definitely aid in teaching the rein back however this is not possible for all riders. Be very patient with your horse and quiet in your aids when teaching this maneuver so as not to create tension and resistance in your horse.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Horse's View of The World

The information out there pertaining to how horses see the world around them has been ripe with confusion and misinformation. As new research flows in we can adjust our perspectives and increase our knowledge. Knowledge of how a horse views its world can greatly impact our approach to training because it allows us to understand why a horse does what it does and it allows us to anticipate certain behaviours and adjust accordingly.

Click here for an article concerning a horse's vision as it pertains to orientation and recognition of objects. Essentially, while a horse will likely immediately recognize an object from a new viewpoint, he might find some rotations to be more difficult to recognize than others. Hanggi's research found that horses performed best when objects were upright instead of upside down. Allowing a horse to stand relaxedly and observe its environment might be of benefit because it can allow a horse to observe its surroundings and familiarize itself with certain objects that might otherwise have caused him to spook.

Another article by Evelyn B. Hanggi and her research team that proves our horses have better nightvision than previously thought. I can recall being specifically instructed by my Pony Club instructors years ago to not ride at night because my horse would be unable to see well. There have been countless times since then however where I have had to ride my horses at night (returning home after working cattle, etc etc) and my horses have seemingly navigated with ease. Research seems to prove however that they could actually see better than I could in the dark!

As most horsemen know, the horse has two blind spots - an approximate 3 degree area directly behind the horse and another area just in front of and under the horse's nose. Each of the horse's eyes has a horizontal visual field of approximately 190 degrees and a vertical visual field of about 180 degrees. Interocular transfer of learning between both eyes is possible via the horse's corpus callosum. There seems to be conflicting opinion and research results however in regards to how effective and how developed a horse's corpus callosum is. Rule of thumb: do things on both sides of the horse at all times. For one, a horse could still become accustomed to things being done on only one side (ie, being saddled and mounted only on his left side) and later be alarmed when the human tries to do something on the opposite side. The rider needs to consider that a variety of factors may influence a horse seeming spookier touring the arena on one rein versus the other rein, from the way a horse's vision works to potential behavioural factors.

It has been believed for the longest time that horses have a ramped retina whereby they must raise or lower their head to focus objects at certain distances. Instead, it has been determined that the horse does have the limited ability to adjust the thickness of the lens but that he will raise or lower or swing his head for better visual acuity. For example, he will raise his head to focus better on distant objects because binocular overlap is oriented down the nose - here. The central retina of the horse also is believed to have a higher concentration of photoreceptors and thus the horse will try to focus objects specifically on this part of the retina. Objects viewed outside this area might even have the ability to take a horse by surprise.

The typical horse has good visual acuity though not as good as a human's - approximately 20/30 versus a human's 20/20. Though the horse's eye is much larger, the the receptors (ie, cones and rods) in a horse's eye are not as numerous and are less densely packed. Page 5 of Hanggi's article The Thinking Horse discusses this.

Approximately 146 degrees on either side of the horse is monocular vision and approximately 65 degrees of his vision directly in front of him is binocular vision. This binocular vision is what allows your horse depth perception - however, only within that specific field of course. A horse's depth perception is likely not quite as accurate as that of a human's.

Horses have only two types of cones and therefore their vision is likely similar to that of a red-green colour-deficient human. This means they can likely discriminate red or blue from grey but have greater difficulty differentiating between yellows and greens. This applies to training and riding the horse because certain objects might not be immediately distinguishable to the horse. If an object that seemingly blends in with the background suddenly moves, it is understandable if the horse then spooks. There seems to be some differences in opinion and findings however here is a 2007 study evaluating colour discrimination in horses.

It is crucial a rider understand that a horse perceives his world much different than how a human perceives his world. This is due to a difference in input from visual input to olfactory (smell) and auditory (hearing). As a prey animal they also perceive their world differently from a behavioural standpoint and respond differently than we might immediately understand. The key to training and riding a horse is understanding that horse as a horse and as an individual. In such a manner a rider can better adjust their approach to be effective and so as to work harmoniously with the horse.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Training Gone Wrong

I bring you Cleve Wells - teaching a horse to 'soften up':

We don't know the full story. However here is my interpretation of a very brief clip without context:

0:02min horse softens though actually effectively evades the bit by going behind the vertical. He is trying what he thinks could be the right answer.

0:09 Wells nails the horse in the mouth continuously until the horse 'gives'.

In all training, the horse will offer up what he thinks are the right answers or what he thinks are appropriate answers to your 'question'. An effective but gentle trainer is the one who gently tells the horse 'no, wrong answer' without force, and who guides the horse to the right answer, which he then rewards with a release of pressure, a rub, etc. Think about it: would you learn more from the math teacher that yells at you when you get an answer wrong, or the teacher who tells you matter-of-fact you are incorrect and then proceeds to explain to you how to obtain the correct answer?

I hope I would have had the guts to stand up to Wells at that clinic and to walk away with my horse.

A better way of teaching a horse to release to pressure?

Introduce the concept first on the ground - teach the horse to give you turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches via pressure applied by your fingertips, to back by applying pressure at various points (ie, nose, chest), to sidepass via pressure, etc. Teaching a horse to release to pressure is essential to his training and to his well-being in general. We want the horse to move off our leg under-saddle and to give to rein pressure and to give to the pressure of a strand of wire across his pastern if he finds himself caught up one day. Next, take this concept under-saddle and use patterns to refine what the horse already understands (this has been discussed extensively in previous blogs). I like to start and re-start all horses in a plain rope hackamore (no bosal, no shanks) so I can get that horse soft before I ever touch the sensitive insides of his mouth. To deliberately cause pain to and potentially injury a horse's mouth as Wells demonstrates in his video is nothing short of abuse. Instead, a trainer uses increasing pressure and appropriate timing of his releases and reward to teach the horse to be light. The rider is what creates a soft and light horse. This is done in progressive steps the horse may understand and is done in a gentle fashion - NOT by jerking on the horse's mouth. If you do not understand the concept sufficiently to teach your horse, find yourself a good trainer in your area who can demonstrate admirable training skills and who can help you.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


There has been some heated discussion regarding nosebands recently. Eurodressage in partiuclar has published some very good articles:

ISES Suggest to Empower FEI Stewards to Control Tightness of Noseband

Part 1: The History of the Noseband

From the article:
"One of Germany’s most popular riding manuals, Wilhelm Müseler’s “Reitlehre”, first published in the 1930s and still in print, explains that nosebands are there to hold the bit straight and quiet and to prevent that the horse opens its mouth and thereby avoids the impact of the reins."

This still holds true for the use of the noseband nowadays, for the most part. Certain nosebands can aid in giving stability to the bit (ie, flash or drop) but the noseband is most often used to prevent a horse from opening its mouth to evade the bit, to the extreme of strapping a horse's mouth shut completely. Can that stability of the bit not be achieved by other means? For example, using a bit that is naturally more stable by virtue of its design (ie, eggbutt, full-cheek, Baucher), and by allowing the horse the opportunity to pick up the bit of its own accord? Is it really necessary to restrict the horse's ability to evade the bit? Can this instead be approached by other means?

Part 2: The Purpose of the Noseband

From the article:
"A correctly fitted noseband not only helps to show the youngster the right acceptance of the bit, but also prevents that it establishes unpleasant reactions like gaping, crossing the jaws or even putting the tongue over the bit which can happen no matter how good the rider’s hands are."

So what about the youngster started in western disciplines, where a noseband is not used? When these youngsters are started correctly they also show the right acceptance of the bit and do not exhibit unpleasant reactions - despite the absence of a noseband. Personally I start all youngsters (regardless of discipline) in a plain rope hackamore:

In such a manner the horse understands expectations and to release to pressure to the rider's hands and the reins before the bit is ever in his mouth. Introduction to the bit later is usually uneventful and in fact the youngster usually even stops chomping at the bit and accepts the bit quietly within the first ride. On the other hand, I cannot argue with the benefits of setting the young horse up for introduction to the bit successfully by establishing boundaries (ie, limiting the horse's ability to evade the bit) as proposed in the article. Makes sense - assuming the noseband is used in moderation, to establish limitations without actually strapping the mouth shut. Still, is this really necessary?

From the article:
"There are FEI disciplines such as reining and endurance in which we mostly see horses without nosebands, but then these are riding styles which do not need a constant bit contact and are mainly ridden with loose reins not effecting the jaw. Dressage is about having a constant, though light contact with the horse’s mouth and for this we have to impact it. Does this automatically mean a choice between gaping or a firmly closed noseband?"

I think this proposes a valid point, but only to an extent. The validity in the argument is that it is true a reining horse is not in contact with the rider's hands in the same way a dressage horse is. However the 'to an extent' part comes into play because even a reining horse or a good bridle horse is on the bit in the same way a dressage horse is. The dressage horse should be just as light as the bridle horse or reining horse and the horse initiates this contact, not the rider. As such, I believe the answer to the question posed is: no.

"Amongst dressage riders outside the competition ring we can see youngsters and advanced horses alike ridden up to high level without a noseband, for example through the followers of the French Philippe Karl, a fairly controversial figure in dressage."

I found Karl's student Corinne Daepp's statements in the article very intriguing. I am not sure whether or not I agree on her premise however the results speak for themselves regardless, in that she and many other proficient and professional riders are able to develop horses in a manner where a noseband is not necessary. I find this interesting and can agree with it based on my own experiences:

"Badly trained horses with tongue problems or which are heavy in the hand improve if I take the noseband off their bridle. Some horses do open their mouths if I remove it, but it stops as soon as they become light on the bit."

From the article:
"Ruth Klimke...: “Uta Gräf and her stallion show that a highly trained horse does not need a noseband or a bit. My daughter Ingrid rides Abraxxas (her Olympic champion in three-day-eventing) over small jumps and in tempi changes only with a neck ring.”
German Martin Plewa, an international eventing rider in the 1970s, the German national eventing coach for many years and today the chief of the German Riding and Driving School in Münster, also expressed in a seminar some years ago that a highly trained horse should be able to do without any noseband. Former chief rider of the Cadre Noir and FEI judge Colonel Christian Carde, like the Henriquets a representative of the French approach, is in unison with Klimke and Plewa’s and told Eurodressage: “If a rider has good hands there will be no gaping of a well trained horse, so a noseband is dispensable.”"

"In principle it should be. However not all horses reach this level of lightness, not even the most highly trained one. Furthermore not all riders, not even at Olympic level, have that ideal contact with the bit, nor have those soft and feeling hands which are required to get such a contact."
(bolded done by me)

In my opinion, then these riders should not be winning at the Olympic and Grand Prix level. Allowing these riders to force their horses' mouths shut in lieu of correct classical training and correct riding is NOT acceptable, in my opinion. If these riders at the Olympic and Grand Prix levels do not have this ideal contact with the bit (whereby contact is an essential step of the training scale as a result of the overall process of training) and do not have the soft and feeling hands required for such contact, how are they winning? Incorrect contact whereby tension is present does reflect in the horse's movements:

"When the chewing musculature is braced for whatever reason the neck and the back of the horse become fixed and automatically the hind legs are affected as well."

So how is a horse being ridden at the uppermost levels with his jaw cranked shut still winning if his movements are incorrect, if his neck and back are fixed and his hind legs are thusly affected??

Continue to follow Eurodressage for more articles concerning the use of nosebands. Part 3 of their series concerning nosebands is to concern top riders and trainers and their choice in nosebands.

Next time you adjust your noseband on your horse consider why and how you use it and ensure you are using it for the right reasons and that your noseband is not potentially actually inhibiting your ability to train your horse.

Happy riding!
(and to be clear, no, I am not anti-noseband... just anti-incorrect-use-of-the-noseband-or-any-other-equipment-for-that-matter)

PS. Twice-weekly posts are scheduled to be published over the next few weeks :-D

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


One common 'rule' some trainers seem to set is that a horse must w/t/c on the first ride. Their reasoning being that by doing so you establish the expectations of achieving w/t/c, right off the bat. Fail to do so and you may run into resistance later in asking for, say, the canter, if it was not asked for on the first ride. I feel Pat answers this query aptly here:

To recap:

There are no rules

There are goals, principles, and timelines - the horse is in charge of the latter, the trainer is in charge of the goals

If the horse offers you something - take it!

Slow and right will beat fast and wrong

To further explain what Pat meant:

Any trainer has specific goals in mind as they work with a horse whether that be to have the horse greenbroke or at w/t/c or they intend to develop that horse into a proficient reiner or maybe a jumper. You, the trainer and rider, are in charge of these goals and must possess and seek the right education and knowledge to attain these goals. The horse should always be left in a better state than when one commenced work with that horse and in such a way the goal of always developing the horse to be a better horse - calmer, braver, smarter, more athletic - will be attained.

The horse is in charge of the timeline. The trainer may work with the horse in such a manner as to influence the timeline however the horse is ultimately in control. As this pertains to achieving w/t/c with a horse - the horse is in charge of whether that occurs on Day 1 (ie, the horse offers up w/t/c) or whether it occurs on Day 65 (as an extreme example). It can be detrimental to a horse's training or affect a horse negatively to tell the horse to w/t/c on the first day if that horse is not sufficiently prepared for such. Instead the trainer may wait for the horse to be ready for w/t/c and as a result the end product (ie, the w/t/c) will be a better product. A trainer has to walk the fine line of being effective with a horse and attaining their goals within a reasonable time frame and pushing that horse to progress and improve, while respecting that horse's timeline. A horse should never be intentionally pushed beyond its capabilities either mentally or emotionally or physically. It is never fair to ask a horse for something he is not ready for, then to punish him for responding in a negative manner. When we instead respect and follow the horse's timeline, we will often accomplish goals faster and better because we do all the prior and proper preparation to get the horse there.

The word principle refers to a basic truth, law, or assumption. A rule or a standard. The horse is in charge of this too because the only rule or truth that may be applied to a horse is what works for that horse. This means the trainer or rider must constantly adjust his or her approach to the needs of that horse. While one horse might need seemingly endless repetition, another horse might require to be challenged and progressed in a fashion that effectively stimulates his mind.

As a trainer our goal is to always set the horse up in a position to succeed, sans force. If we cater to the horse (while maintaining boundaries) and consider his wants and needs, preserve his dignity, and treat him with respect and love, we find the horse becomes more willing and starts to offer us different answers. What we ultimately want becomes the horse's idea because we set him up in such a way to work with us as a willing partner and to choose the 'right' answer. If you are confident in the horse's response, you can take what the horse offers and say 'yes!' to your horse. In such a manner you are working in true partnership with your horse whereby you are interacting and communicating back and forth, harmoniously.

Lastly, there are certain situations and scenarios (etc) whereby we might have to push a horse quicker than we would like. Optimally however the ideal 'slow and right will beat fast and wrong' rings true. Take the time it takes to establish a solid foundation with a horse, to really prepare that horse for the next step. The result will be a happier horse and a more thorough foundation that lacks the holes a 'fast and wrong' job creates. In the end, having to struggle through those holes in a horse's training and having to go back and fix a horse's basics or foundation will take far more time than the horse who was started correctly from the start. The horse who is worked with in a manner as Pat describes will progress rather quickly because he is interested in learning and is actively seeking to be your partner and work with you.

In my experiences it is not necessary to w/t/c a horse on the first day - I cannot recall a horse I have ever started in such a manner. Instead, we establish the basics. As the horse is comfortable with each step we progress to the next. Working with a horse in such a manner I have never encountered any struggle or resistance in later obtaining trot or canter.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


From 'Cesar's Way':

The most important thing to understand about energy is that it is a language of emotion. Of course you never have to tell an animal you're sad, or tired, or excited, or relaxed, because that animal already knows exactly how you're feeling. ... Of course animals can't always comprehend the context of our issues; they can't distinguish whether we're heartbroken over a divorce or losing a job or misplacing a wallet, because those very human situations mean nothing to them. However, such situations create emotions - and those emotions are universal. Sick and sad are sick and sad, no matter what your species.

One of the most important things to remember is that all the animals around you - especially the pets with whom you share your life - are reading your energy every moment of the day.

He is also reading your body language. Dogs use body language as another means of communicating with one another, but it's important to remember that their body language is also a function of the energy they're projecting.

You can learn to interpret your dog's body language by the visual clues he or she gives you, but it's important to remember that different energy can determine the context of a posture.

Horses are no different from dogs in the aforementioned quoted sense - ultimately, we are all animals and as such body language and energy transcends species differentiation. No, your horse does not perceive you as a horse however he does read and understand your energy and your body language on a constant basis - body language that may be perceived as predatory or as a leader and partner. He also uses this same language in his communications with you.
As a sort of sidenote: the fact that your horse may read your energy and your emotions is an important fact to keep in mind because your energy and emotions impact your behaviour and your posture. Emotional discipline is therefore absolutely crucial when handling horses. When you allow the horse to lead you into emotion rather than choosing and controlling your emotion, the horse will assume leadership and you may also negatively impact the relationship between you and your horse (for example, by unintentionally turning assertiveness into aggression as a result of your emotions and energy).

In my opinion the word dominance has received a bad rap; when we think of the word dominance, we think of a horse forced to be a prisoner instead of a partner.

The definition of 'dominant' as per the merriam-webster:
a : commanding, controlling, or prevailing over all others dominant culture>
b : very important, powerful, or successful dominant theme> dominant industry>

The word 'dominant' itself does not actually have a negative connotation without context. Therefore it is how we apply the use of dominance in the context of training that determines whether or not we use dominance in a negative manner or in a manner that is simply effective.
In fact, horses live in herds comprised of a hierarchy whereby there is a leader and members of descending hierarchy, all which includes 'dominance'. This is what we attempt to replicate in training - an effective but fair means of commanding and controlling the horse that remains in the horse's best interests and results in a happy horse.

As dominance impacts a horse's interactions with you: a horse may be exhibiting dominant behaviour or actions without it being an actual challenge to your status in relation to that horse. However every behaviour or action is always done within the context of that horse's social status in relation to you. This means that while your horse infringing on your space or even kicking out toward you as he rockets past you, loose in the arena, might not be a direct challenge to your status as 'alpha', it certainly is done within the context of where he feels he is socially in relation to you (which includes - you guessed it - the use of dominance). It is very important to be aware of your horse's social status in relation to you because this impacts his behaviour toward you and your partnership with him.

Here is a video with some good information:

He who moves his feet least is the 'boss hoss'. The horse who is best able to use calm-assertive behaviour and energy - dominance - to move the feet of the other horses in the herd is the horse the herd will turn to for guidance and leadership. It is important to note that dominance is not restricted to the hay pile but relates to every aspect of the horse's life within the herd.

How this relates to us and our perception of the word dominance: when people hear the word 'dominance' as it relates to horse training they often give it a negative connotation to envision a horse forced into submission. Yet in fact we may handle a horse utilizing dominance and creating submission while earning the horse's respect without force and without fear, without applying a dictatorship. To use dominance to influence a horse does not necessarily constitute forceful techniques that are harsh and offer the horse no choice and no dignity in a relationship. In fact, the horse may be worked with in such a way where he willingly and happily offers submission, where he willingly follows your leadership in a partnership. This is how it works in the herd, where the horse willingly follows the leader he feels best suited to the position.

The horse is acutely aware of his social ranking within the herd and in respect to individual members he works and plays with - including you - and so it is important we are also aware. As such, we may effectively establish boundaries and earn the horse's respect as one part of the whole of the partnership we develop with a horse.