Continuing the effort to provide practical information that can be helpful to you in working to improve the performance of your horse as well as helping you learn how to communicate with him more effectively, the following items are provided.
THE HORSE’S HINDQUARTERS
Horses do not want to keep their hind end directly behind their shoulders. They always want to fall in or out with the shoulders or step to the inside or outside with their hindquarters because it is a lot of work to keep the shoulders and hindquarters correctly aligned – thus the need for gymnastic training and development, commonly called dressage.
For example, a crooked poll comes from the horse’s hind end because he is not stepping under himself. You want the horses inside leg stepping toward the outside hind leg and the outside hind leg stepping toward his outside foreleg and a little bit (about half a hoof width) toward between his shoulders – not to the outside.
If his hind legs are splayed to the outside of his haunches then his thrusting and carrying power will be diluted; much like a human sprinter who runs with his legs spread too wide apart causing him to lose some of his forward pushing power and, additionally, causing him to lurch from side to side.
So, when you are fixing this problem, you must keep the hindquarters active with your legs to maintain balance between the driving (legs) and restraining (hands and body) aids as well as keeping the horse’s neck straight without shortening it and get his head up, nose a little (1”-2”) in front of the vertical with an open poll.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE HORSE’S INSIDE LEG
A world-renowned 19th century German riding master stated that the importance of getting the horse’s inside hind leg to step forward but simultaneously also to step toward its outside hind leg is so great because all the flaws in the gaits and all resistances of the horse, without exception, can be traced back to the non-observance of this rule. This is due to the horse using this inside leg as its main pillar of support to stiffen those parts of its body that are by nature most difficult for it to bend. Only by asking, through lively action of your inside leg and spur can the horse’s inside leg be correctly pushed underneath the weight and become flexible. You must get the horse fluid with performing his lateral movements (shoulder-in, counter shoulder-in, travers (hip in), renvers (hip out), stepping the hind end around the front end, etc,) and oblique movements (leg yield, half pass, side pass, etc.) to gain mobility in the hind end.
REDIRECTING OPPOSITION FROM THE HORSE
When asking questions from the horse i.e., turn right/left, stop, go, etc, if there is no answer or a slow answer, which constitutes an opposition, then you must address it by using an appropriate exercise or a series of them immediately to disarm or redirect that opposition so that you get at least a physiological change and perhaps later a psychological change in the horse. You want the horse to oppose you so that you can address the issue, fix it, and get it out of the way so you can move on. It is not wise for you to ignore or avoid the resistance.
The level of knowledge needed accomplish this should and must be the foundation for everyone who claims to be a trainer or clinician of whatever discipline. Unfortunately, it is often not the case. Generally speaking, these individuals can only utter such general statements such as: “more forward”; “use more leg”; “don’t let the horse run through your hands”; “stop straight”; “you have to get to the feet”, etc. These kinds of generalities just cover up the fact that these types of people might just be technically deficient. They can never be wrong spouting generalities, but they won’t help you progress much either.
Remember that the horse reflects what the rider has taught or not taught him, and the rider reflects what the teacher has taught or not taught the rider. You must go back to the source of the problem to find out why it got started and then got developed to a point of opposition.
THE DANGER OF PULLING BACK ON THE REINS
No horse ever lowered its head by the rider pulling back on the reins. All you do by that action is shorten the horse’s neck. It also stifles the free forward movement of the shoulders which, in turn, does not allow the full swing forward of the hind legs causing the horse to ‘step short’. Additionally, it causes the horse to drop his shoulders and withers which puts him on his forehand as well as hollowing his back.
To fix this problem, get the horse to mobilize his jaw. This can be done by:
- Taking the inside rein and moving it up the neck against the hair toward the ear
- Keeping the neck straight by maintaining contact with the outside rein
- Then asking the horse to move forward into the contact.
When all this happens, you will articulate (unhinge) the jaw and it will mobilize (soften) as well as activate the tongue which will relax the horse. This can be done while riding the horse.
THE HORSE BEING TOO STRONG IN THE HAND DURING THE CANTER
This situation is a problem with many hunter/jumper riders. If the horse feels heavy in the hand it may be because they are riding with their toes pointed outward with their weight mostly on the ball of the foot which puts their calf firmly fixed to the horse’s flanks which may, in turn, put too much calf pressure on the horse thereby driving him more strongly into their hand. This violates the principle of not driving more energy into the hands than can be regulated by the rider.
The solution is to turn the toes more forward which will place the weight of the foot more onto the little toe and reduce the firm grip of the calf thus lessening the pressure (drive) of the calf on the horse.
CANTER DEPART CUES USING THE INSIDE LEG
By having the horse canter depart on a cue from the rider’s inside leg instead of the outside leg, he will execute the departure on a straighter line as opposed to him over-reacting to the rider’s outside leg (or being pushed by the rider’s leg) and doing the canter depart with his haunches crocked to the inside.
Here is how to do it:
- Ensure that the horse is ‘together’ and in an energetic walk
- Step briefly into the outside stirrup to momentarily ‘hold’ the outside of the horse more on the ground, then
- Using the inside leg, touch at the cinch with the spur for a canter depart
- Use the inside rein as the ‘flex’ rein (4th rein effect)
- Maintain contact with the outside rein
- Transition to the walk by bringing your inside foot forward
MORE ON TURNAROUNDS
When a horse bobs its head up and down in a 360-degree turnaround maneuver, it is because he has lost his forward motion and he is not moving his outside shoulder over or getting his inside hind leg under himself to provide a base of support. This also causes a ‘coke bottle’ turn, i.e., swapping ends.
To correct this problem, you must ride the outside of the horse around the inside of the horse using the outside rein (the neck or brace rein [2nd rein effect]) to push the shoulders over rather than pulling him over with the inside rein. At the same time, ‘load’ the inside stirrup by stepping into it when the horse’s inside hip is in the up position in order to hold it on the ground longer for support.
THOUGHTS ON THE EDUCATION OF THE HORSE
The horse must be willing to accept training before the training can start. So, there might be a persuasion phase, which could last quite a while (and even longer if the handler is not technically proficient in his/her craft and lacks a solid understanding of the biomechanics of horses), before the education phase begins.
Horses (as well as their riders), if given incorrect information at the start, will not reject it as not being correct because they just do not know. But, if given good information at the start, then they can tell the difference when given bad information.
It takes about 120 days, with consistency, to re-pattern a horse’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments and just as long, if not longer, depending on the individual horse and his previous encounters with the human, to get a mental and psychological change. In the end, unwilling cooperation may be as good as it is going to get, because most of his forgiving nature may have already been used up.
How correctly you explain all the various movements to the horse in the beginning of his education (step by step and little by little) by making correct use of the five rein effects (and their innumerable combinations), weight distribution, leg aids, (opening, closing, and pressure) and stirrup stepping will have either a positive or negative effect on his physical and mental being for the rest of his life. Therefore, as both a teacher of the horse as well as being a student of the horse, it behooves one to accumulate the necessary knowledge before the schooling begins – not during or after it, which is an impossibility anyway.
If you do not synchronize yourself and your actions with the horse without resistances, you will not ever ride in harmony together. You cannot overpower the horse’s resistances with force, but if you do manage to temporarily do so, you will be teaching the horse to do whatever you forced him to do with resistance. You must learn to decontract the resistances as they occur in order to gain his cooperation or, better yet, feel when they are about to happen and ‘fix it’ before they happen.
To be successful with the horse, one must be persistent, insistent, and consistent
BALANCE AND REBALANCE OF THE HORSE
The word balance is used in equestrian terminology to indicate that a horse performs movements and exercises easily and without any apparent difficulty in maintaining its equilibrium. However, perfect balance is precarious and momentary. So, balance and return to balance is what riding is all about.
It is achieved by schooling the horse using specific exercises that build strength and suppleness, thus improving its balance. The rider also assists the horse in returning to a state of balance after falling out of balance through the use of what is called the leveling function which is the distribution of your weight using your torso, pelvis and the lumbar part of your back as well as stirrup stepping.
In its most basic form stirrup stepping involves the placing of added weight in one or both stirrups momentarily to signal a change of direction or a change of gait to the horse or to hold a specific leg of the horse on the ground longer or make a leg spring off the ground with more energy.
RIDING EXERCISE TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE OF REBALANCING THE HORSE
Ride the horse in a square pattern (about 60 feet per side) at the shoulder-in position, keeping him on a straight line on each side of the square (use his outside shoulder as the ‘line of travel’) and use the inside rein to lift up his front end.
Always set back the outside shoulder with the outside rein. Setting back the shoulder basically means to rebalance the horse’s forehand and lighten the shoulder. It is more about getting the front foot on and off the ground quicker because the longer the foot stays on the ground the more the horse will tend to lean on it and get heavy in your hand.
Set the outside shoulder back for two strides (never more) when the horse’s shoulder is in a backward position by closing, then softening your hand on the outside rein and then ‘taking and giving’ with both hands, i.e., pushing the reins forward in order to keep the horse ‘light’ and ‘up’ in the front end. The horse will stay that way for only two strides and then you must begin again to address the issue of rebalance once more.
Also touch with the inside spur at the girth at the same time that you close then soften your hand on the rein. This is to energize the horse to pick up its inside leg.
Keep the horse’s head in a position between being straight and over his inside knee.
Ride a ‘volte’(small circle), about 6 to 8 meters (20 to 26 feet) in diameter, in each corner of the square maintaining the same bend in the horse as you had in the shoulder-in.
Then go back into a shoulder-in position on the next side of the square.
Transitions are the exercises that consist of changing from one gait to another or varying the speed within a gait. They are tests of the horse’s lightness and his ability to change (or ‘reset’) his balance and are the best tests for clarity and correctness of movements.
Exercising the whole range of transitions allows the rider to bring the horse’s speed under control and leads to the complete mastery of balance that determines its maneuverability. Up transitions are easier to achieve than down transitions so the rider must always prepare the horse for the transition before it occurs in order to avoid using aids that surprise the horse. If the rider is a hand rider, downward transitions will be his or her downfall
So, if a horse still ‘rushes’ into trot/walk transitions from the canter or hesitates going into the canter from trot/walk then there is more work to do before the rider can claim to have a balanced horse.
Every gait creates an ‘echo’ in the one that follows so to ‘sharpen’ (or tidy up) the walk, for example, ride a walk to energetic trot back to walk transitions and to ‘sharpen’ the trot do trot-canter- trot transitions.
Frequent repetitions of closer together transitions, i.e., canter – walk/halt – canter and trot – halt – trot transitions, will improve the horse’s balance and attention to the aids as well as sharpen the rider’s use of the aids.
Specific examples are:
- Riding in a counter-clockwise direction (and, naturally, also in a clockwise direction), trot 20 strides (the exact number of strides to be determined by the rider in each case and the rider should count out the exact number of strides. It is a serious matter to remember to do this because it polishes the rider’s riding system) – canter depart 10 strides – trot 20 strides. Reduce the number of strides over time (not in the same session), until you can ride trot 4 strides – canter depart 2 strides – trot 4 strides, etc. Then increase the difficulty.
- Riding in a counter-clockwise direction (and, naturally, in a clockwise direction also), walk six strides, then canter depart on the left lead for three strides and then back to walk for six strides, etc. Repeat this exercise four or five times in a row or until you can get smooth, precise, and prompt up and down transitions. Reduce the number of strides until you can do the exercise with only two walk strides – one canter stride – two walk strides, etc.
- Then progress to: walk six strides, canter depart on the left lead for three strides, back to walk for six strides, then canter depart on the right lead for three strides, etc. Repeat this exercise until the transitions become smooth, prompt, and precise. Then reduce the number of strides until you can do the exercise with two walk strides – one canter stride (left lead) – two walk strides – one canter stride (right lead), etc. This will lead the rider directly into performing flying changes.
THE HORSE’S THOUGHTS
Horses are prey animals. They sense everything they need to sense to survive. They can see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and otherwise sense everything in their environment to a more highly sensitive level than humans. Their ‘ON’ button is always ‘on’. However, when they are with us they must be taught that they have to keep their thoughts with us at all times. In other words, you want to keep the horse’s brains between the reins so you can put a thought where you want it.
A thought weighs absolutely nothing – but there is nothing heavier than a thought that the horse doesn’t want to let go of. So, a horse that can’t flee physically will try to flee mentally with the result being that if you can’t get the horse’s attention back between the reins so you are able to direct it where you want it you will end up having nothing but a dangerous situation.
For example, when a horse’s head comes up and his chest goes out it means he doesn’t want to give up his thought, i.e., his body is caught between his thought and your thought. So, you may have to do something to unstick his brain in order for him to realize that you are more important that what drew his attention away from you.
One of the things you could do is to disengage his hindquarters to break up his train of thought and then replace it with something you want him to do. In the final analysis, the horse must learn (and you must teach him) to stay with you mentally when you are together.
A better educated, more skilled rider means a better trained, safer, and more reliable horse. Safe, trained reliable horses are more valuable horses. Safe, trained, reliable horses are more pleasant under saddle.