Many riders become frustrated when they want the horse to do something, and he doesn’t do it or does it in a way that they didn’t ask for. Frustration, to my way of thinking, is unsuccessfully trying to do something that one thinks one knows how to do, but, in reality, one don’t know how to do, and one don’t want to take the time or expend the effort to learn how to do it correctly so one can do it successfully.
As a result, where knowledge ends, frustration begins, followed shortly thereafter by the use of force, which, in my mind, is nothing more than ignorance in action and for which the horse suffers the consequences.
One must bear in mind that the horse one rides is the horse one made that way, so if all is not going well, one has nobody to blame but one’s own self. Therefore, in an effort to alleviate or at least minimize this problem, the following suggestions and information are offered to increase the rider’s knowledge base and reduce one’s frustrations, thus resulting in a happier horse.
The establishment of boundaries creates the foundation for respect. Horses in the herd establish boundaries by using their physical presence to determine their position in the herd and then continue to make sure that the other horses know and respect that position. Boundaries set a line between what is acceptable and what is not.
At the root of a horse’s rudeness is the human’s failure to establish and reinforce boundaries. It is the handler’s responsibility to establish those boundaries and ensure that the horse respects them. When they have been carefully thought out, put into place, monitored, and enforced, boundaries maintain order. A horse that does not accept and respect boundaries is a dangerous, disrespectful animal.
An example of some boundaries that should be established are as follows:
- It is you who moves the horse’s feet. The horse does not move yours. Stand your ground and have the horse move away from you.
- If the horse needs to move his feet, you direct where they are to go
- The horse moves because of you; he does not move in spite of you
- You must create a space bubble around yourself and the horse must respect it at all times
- Where you place the horse’s feet is where he must stay until you direct him otherwise
- Your attention is always on the horse and the horse’s attention is always on you when you are both together
USE OF WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION, STIRRUP STEPPING AND THE REINS
Slowing down and stopping the horse:
- Slowing down the horse – Step straight down into the stirrups for a brief moment and at the same time roll your pelvis slightly forward by slightly arching your lower back
- Really slowing down the horse – Step straight into the stirrups for a moment, arch your lower back, then turn your toes forward which will soften the calf against the horse and reduce the pressure on the flanks of the horse. This will almost turn into a hesitation walk, so you must keep the horse moving, albeit slowly
- Stopping the horse – Step straight down into the stirrups; bring your shoulders back to open up your chest but without leaning backward; keep your upper and middle back straight so as not to let the horse’s movement cause you to sway from side to side; brace or tighten your lower back muscles (the lumbar area of the back) momentarily. This will stop your hips from moving in rhythm with the horse’s hips. Finally, turn your toes slightly outward to keep your calf muscles on the horse so that his abdominal and oblique muscles stay contracted to keep his back up and rounded
- An alternative method to stop the horse – Step straight down into the stirrups and, at the same time, exhale. This action will slightly push out your stomach and slightly flatten your lower back which will stop your hips from further movement and the horse will follow suit
Enlarging Circles – Step straight down into your outside stirrup when the horse’s outside shoulder and foreleg are swinging forward but do it before the foot touches the ground. Do this with each step of the horse until you reach the size of the circle you want. But, by doing it this way, the horse will have a tendency to put more weight onto his outside shoulder and be a little straighter in its shape during the movement
As an alternative, you can use your inside leg at the cinch to move the horse out to a bigger circle by touching and releasing each time the horse’s inside hind leg is swinging forward – you will feel that inside hip starting to drop down. By doing it this way, the horse will remain perpendicular in the circle, will not fall onto its outside shoulder, and will stay balanced over all four legs
Decreasing Circles – Step straight down into your inside stirrup when the inside shoulder and foreleg are swinging forward but do it before the foot touches the ground. Do this with each step of the horse until you reach the size of the circle you want. But, by doing it this way, the horse will have a tendency to put more weight onto its inside shoulder and not stay round on the circle
As an alternative, you can decrease the size of the circle by touching and releasing with your outside leg a little behind the cinch each time the horse’s outside hind leg is on the ground – its hip will be in an up position. This action will provide more thrust from that leg which will cause the outside shoulder to move inward a step. Additionally, the horse will stay perpendicular in the circle, will not fall onto its inside shoulder, and will stay round on the circle
Use of the Reins – Only if absolutely necessary should you make use of the reins to ask the horse to stop. First, give your horse the opportunity to feel your body movements and relate to them.
- However, if you must activate the reins, you should be holding them adjusted to a length that with a slight closing and opening of your fingers the horse will feel the pressure of the bit as a reinforcement to your weight aids. You must not pull on the reins nor use them in a sustained holding fashion. The action of the rein, if used, should last but a half second at a time, but you may have to repeatedly use them, in half second intervals, until the horse responds immediately to a single, subtle touch of the reins
- Your feel and timing are going to be important
- Pick a place where you want the horse to stop. Then, as one of its front feet is on the ground, let’s say the right front foot (the right front shoulder will be forward) [this is feel], close your fingers on the right rein [this is timing] and hold the pressure. Then, as the other front foot (the left one) swings forward and touches the ground (the left shoulder will be forward) [this is feel] , close your fingers on the left rein [this is timing] and hold the pressure. As soon as the horse stops, immediately [this is timing] open the fingers of both hands and relieve the pressure of the bit on the horse’s mouth
- Repeat this sequence until the horse will stop without having to activate the reins
- If the horse’s feet get stuck and he won’t move them, rock your weight from side to side. This action will cause him to start shifting his own weight from side to side to regain his balance and when that happens then just ask him to move his feet where you want them to go
THOUGHTS ON THE TRAINING OF THE HORSE
What a horse doesn’t do what you want him to do is precisely what you should be working on. What he doesn’t do, which you must uncover through exploration, is what you need to fix. You want a horse to oppose what you are asking him to do until he has a change of mind. He may get tired and sore, but he must change his mind.
You must push the horse out of his comfort zone and find out where the trouble spots are and then work on them to diffuse them. The horse will be stressed until he gets a better understanding of what you are asking him to do.
Then he can work in a stress environment and be more comfortable in it with less or no bracing.
Massaging the nerve bundle at the end of the neck at the withers will have a tendency to calm the horse.
If you loosen the musculature of the horse, you will loosen his mind. Hence, the value of gymnastic exercises; dressage in other words.
Horses can put up with annoyance (sometimes for a long time), but when confronted with trouble then they don’t know what to do because what they did to get away from or tolerate annoyance doesn’t work anymore. So now they must figure out how to get out of trouble. For a horse not to want trouble, then sometimes they have to find out how much work trouble can be
When a horse has to guess what you want him to do, it is usually not going to come out in your favor. If you are not particular, the horse will quickly learn not to be particular also
You can train a horse to a high level, but you may not have taught him anything
Don’t wait until the basement is flooded before you get the leak fixed
A horse must struggle to find its balance and a psychological change may take place. To have this happen, the rider must have a logical (to the horse) line of questions to ask him and the rider must know what kind of questions to ask. Additionally, the rider should understand why he or she is asking the questions as well as knowing how to ask the questions. Whatever line of questioning the rider presents to the horse should be designed to get the horse to try to find a peaceable answer – but the horse may have to go through some not so peaceable responses getting there
All horses of all disciplines have the same body parts
The use of automatic aids (knowing which aids to use and when to use them) for the rider will always precede the use of instinctive aids (using the aids with feel and timing at the right time without having to think about which aids to use and how to use them anymore). This skill will only be developed after hundreds of hours of riding coupled with gaining a feel of the horse’s movements. In other words, you must first learn all the technical skills and all the details of those techniques before you can become proficient in your craft
The most important thing to remember is what a specific exercise can do for the horse. Each and every movement has a purpose to allow the rider to access the horse’s body in different ways. Use exercises to develop the horse; don’t use the horse to ride the exercises
The bridle on a horse’s head is not meant for control, but only to send messages. The rider must have something in mind that he or she wants the horse to respond to before the reins are picked up
Riders must gain control over the use of their bodies. Aimless wandering hands, chattering ineffective legs, whacking, non-effective use of riding whips, and flaccid, flopping bodies will only confuse and irritate the horse. Also, riding in a semi-catatonic style posture will not be helpful either
For every defect in the rider’s seat, there will be a flaw in the horse’s performance. Don’t take energy away from the horse by not being with him because of your position in the saddle, meaning that he either has to push you out of the way or drag you along because you are ahead or behind the movement of the horse. In short, don’t interfere with the horse’s movement – stay balanced in the saddle
Your chances of success in training the horse improve if you know yourself, know your job, know your capabilities, and know your horse. Three out of four won’t get it
Time and form are important. Teach the horse the correct form, give him time to think, and speed will come by itself
Never bend the horse much. When you lift the inside rein and the horse tips his head, the straighter you can keep his neck and just get his head to swing out on the end of his neck – that’s flexion
Just do not take NO for an answer, even from the worst horse
ISOLATION MOVEMENTS TO GET THE HORSE BETTER BALANCED
Front end of the horse around the back-end exercise
- At the trot, ride a 25 to 30 foot circle, moving in either a clock-wise or counter clock-wise direction
- Start the exercise by stepping into the inside stirrup when the horse’s inside hind foot is about to touch the ground (the inside hip will be raising and getting ready to touch the ground. When the foot is on the ground, then the hip will be in an up position). This will hold the horse’s inside hip on the ground longer so he can turn over his inside hind leg
- Then move the horse’s outside shoulder over to the inside of the circle and turn the shoulders in a 180 degree arc using the outside rein as a neck rein (2nd rein effect) at the base of the neck and at the same time bringing it back a little toward your navel
- At the same time, drive the outside of the horse use your outside leg slightly back of the cinch in a back and forth sweeping motion (not a pressing-in motion)
- Remember that when the horse’s outside ear starts to move to the inside of the circle the horse’s outside shoulder must move in that direction at the same time
Back end of the horse around the front end exercise
- At the trot, ride a 25-30 foot circle, moving in either a clock-wise or counter clock-wise direction
- Start the exercise by stepping into the outside stirrup when the horse’s outside front leg is about to touch the ground (its outside hip will just be moving into the up position). This will hold the horse’s outside shoulder on the ground longer. If the rider doesn’t do this, the horse will have a tendency to try to step into the circle with its shoulder
- At the same time, move the back end of the horse to the outside of the circle in a 180 degree arc using your inside leg a little back from the cinch in a press and soften motion every time the horse’s inside hip is in the down position as that leg will be in a non-weight bearing mode and it will be easy for the horse to move it
- You want the horse’s inside leg to step slightly under the mass of its body and cross over in front of its outside hind leg. Be watchful that the inside hind foot does not shuffle alongside or step behind the outside hind foot as this would represent a resistance that you do not want to encourage
The isolation of moving the front end of the horse around its back end is so very important because it loosens and directs the shoulders which is a forgotten part of training the horse
Likewise, the mobilization of the inside hind leg is also as important because that leg is the seat of all resistance in the horse and you must be able to have access to it and move it anytime you need to
Do these exercises with the horse’s head in an up position. This puts the horse’s head and neck over the shoulders which shortens the horse’s steps so that he will not pull on the reins. Once the horse gets the inside of himself loose, he will drop his head and hunt for the contact. But he may have to go seek the contact up high at first before dropping his head down
INFLUENCING THE HORSE’S FEET
You can put the horse’s front foot on the ground quicker by weighting that foot when it is leaving the ground (the shoulder will be back but will be starting to move forward).
The horse’s front feet stay on the ground too long because when the front leg is back beyond a vertical position it stays on the ground too long by making too big a step (disengaging too much). The front feet should not go past being straight down from the shoulder before moving forward again. Similar to a hind leg making big steps and over-tracking but disengaging too much after it passes a vertical position.
In doing a walking walk (a very slow cadenced walk), you don’t want the horse’s hind legs to deeply engage. You want them to not go beyond a perpendicular line dropping from the point of hip. Also you want the weight of the horse’s head and neck to be distributed over the horse’s front legs. This helps with a horse that wants to stop and rear.
A horse should step his inside hind foot inward toward the mass of the body and in front of its outside hind foot when the inside rein is activated. If the inside rein is used too much with no hind leg stepping over, then the horse will just shuffle his hind end around.
Circles, of all diameters, are a very important exercise in the development of the horse. Among other things, they help the horse to learn to bend, to maintain a steady pace and to place its feet correctly in the track of the circle. However, most riders do not ride the horse on a circle, although they go around and around. In order to ride a geometrically round circle the radius from a fixed center point out to the edge of the circle must stay the same throughout the entire circle and in the narrowest of tracks so that a common garden rake could erase the entire track. The rider must finish the circle in exactly the same spot on which the circle was started. Any deviation, meaning that the horse is stepping with its front end more into or out of the track of the circle or drifting its hindquarters to the inside or the outside of the circle, signifies that the circle is no longer round.
So why does this happen? I have schooled hundreds of horses and I have never found any one of them to possess an automatic pilot button or a cruise control switch. Riders, as teachers of the horse, must be able to continually balance and rebalance the movements of the horse so as to align and realign their body parts in order to keep them in a state of equilibrium so we can ride a perfect circle. This means that riders must improve the horse’s balance and suppleness with a progressive series of gymnastic exercises designed to build their muscles and strengthen their tendons and ligaments so that, with the slightest indication, the rider can move the horse’s appropriate body parts when needed to keep him traveling on a correct circle and not just go around and around.
For example, the rider should be feeling for the horse’s inside hind leg to step inward toward the mass of its body a little and the outside hind leg to not step wide. Also keeping the horse’s hindquarters behind the shoulders will create the energy for forward movement.
This, in turn, means that the rider must school the horse to respond immediately to the slightest pressure from the seat (the region of the body from the lowest rib to the knees), legs, hands, and subtle weight shifts of the upper torso. Additionally, the horse must respond to the rider’s weight stepping into the stirrups (stirrup stepping is the most nuanced of all the aids).
The sensitivity of the horse to the rider’s aids will not be able to reach the optimum level unless the aids are used in a manner that is both appropriate for the situation as well as timely in their use. Thus, the rider must know not only the five rein effects (and their almost infinite number of combinations with both reins) but also know how to time them to take advantage of the footfalls of the horse, i.e., when in their movement cycle the feet are non-weight bearing and thus free to move and when they are weight bearing to support weight.
A famous, now deceased, western horseman, Ray Hunt, used to say at every one of his clinics “Simply ride a line, straight or curved, just ride a line.”
THE HORSE ACCEPTING THE CONTACT AND THEN SEEKING THE CONTACT
Ideally, the rider wants the horse to seek contact with the bit rather than coming to the bit through actions of the hands which could result (consciously or unconsciously) in the rider pulling on the bit. To achieve this goal:
- Set your hand and wait for the horse’s acceptance
- Then hold until the horse provides resistance and pushes against the hand to seek contact
- Then improve on it little by little to make it quicker and lighter
THE ‘LEVELING’ FUNCTION
Loading (weighting) and Unloading (unweighting) the various parts of the horse will loosen up his back. Here are two examples of how to use your body to help the horse:
- Ride more out of the saddle and put more of your weight on the front end of the horse by arching your back to free up the horse’s back
- Flattening your lower back a little will lessen the weight on the front end of the horse
Move the horse’s shoulders in and out of a circle by weighting the corresponding stirrups as follows:
- Step into the inside stirrup when the horse’s inside foreleg is about to step on the ground (the shoulder will be starting to move forward)
- Then step into the outside stirrup when the horse’s outside foreleg is just about to leave the ground (the shoulder will be starting to move forward)
- These actions will have a leveling and mobilizing effect on the horse’s forehand and shoulders
If the rider experiences a diagonal imbalance with the horse, then the rider must use a diagonal rebalance to fix it. An example of this issue is as follows:
- If the horse is heavy on its inside shoulder (there will be more tension in the inside rein), it could be because its outside hind leg has become unbalanced and is not carrying its share of the weight
- Therefore, the rider must get the weight off the inside shoulder and send the weight back to the outside hind leg
- This could be done by using the indirect rein of opposition in back of the withers (5th rein effect) with the inside rein to set the horse’s weight back over the outside hind leg
- Or the rider could split the difference between the 4th and 5th rein effects and come diagonally across the withers with the inside rein
- The angle of the rein for the 4th rein effect is from the bit toward the rider’s opposite hip or shoulder
- The angle of the rein for the 5th rein effect is from the bit toward the horse’s opposite hip. This is the most powerful rein effect of the five rein effects
A NOTE ON FLYING CHANGES
Sometimes one might try, instead of moving the horse’s shoulders over when changing from the right canter to the left canter, cantering on a straight line that bisects the horse and moving the horse’s left shoulder to the right onto that line. Then, keeping the shoulders straight, move the horse’s left hip onto that line. This keeps the horse straight and equal on both sides. Otherwise, if one were to move into more of a travers movement going onto the line, it would elongate the outside of the horse and for some horses it would be difficult to change leads from that position.
THE HORSE’S NECK
The horse needs freedom of its neck each time it has to modify its equilibrium because the horse’s head and neck play the role of a balancing pole. Any constriction affecting the natural play of the horse’s neck, like too much contact on the reins, puts the horse at a distinct disadvantage in maintaining its balance.
If the rider causes the horse to over bend its neck, especially at the 3rd cervical vertebra, by pulling its face backward with the reins in the mistaken belief that that is all one has to do to get the horse into a correct (collected) frame, then, in actuality, the flexibility and suppleness of the horse’s hindquarters is adversely affected. This is because, by pulling the horse’s head backward, it stifles the free movement of its shoulders which, in turn, shortens the stepping forward of the horse’s hind legs and also causes its back to sink down (hollow out). In other words, the horse is now confined as well as unbalanced.
Too much pulling around of the horse’s head from side to side (as some modern-day western clinicians advocate), thus making it rubbery, will result in the horse’s reluctance to move its shoulders and also cause him to bend too much in front of the withers.
What one should want to look for is, for example, when the reins are picked up to ask the horse for a turn or a change of direction (the assumption here is that one is using the outside rein and leg aids to direct the horse), the horse’s ear (right or left depending on the direction you want to go) gets lined up with the saddle horn and the shoulder on that side moves with it.
When straightening the horse’s neck it is essential to not bend it in front of the withers. The muscles in front of the withers need to be built up on either side of the neck so it can become steady, so that when a rider activates the right rein, for example, the horse will flex at the poll and not simply bend at the withers. If the horse bends at the withers, traveling in either direction, it increases the weight on the corresponding shoulder and holds that foot on the ground longer making the front end heavier.
When a rider is schooling a horse, one wants to keep its head relatively high so that the horse gets its weight over its shoulders. This will stabilize the horse’s neck.
THE HORSE’S SHOULDERS
Loosening of the shoulders is a forgotten part of schooling the horse. The great riding masters of the past always viewed the suppleness of the horse’s shoulders as being the most difficult attribute to achieve, yet it was so necessary to make all movements comfortable.
One must have mobility of the horse’s shoulders to move them on and off the ground, as needed, so the horse does not lean on one’s hands. So one should do exercises to enhance and encourage this such as riding the front end of the horse around the back end of the horse and the back end of the horse around the front end.
One must get the shoulders moving first, not the hindquarters. If one works on the head and neck exclusively without including the shoulders, then one will dig one’s self into a deep hole. A well-respected trainer from the West Coast, now deceased, once said: “When you pick up the horse’s head and neck that shoulder better come with it.”
A horse doesn’t want to hold its head and neck high because it is uncomfortable for him. But once he finds out that he can use his shoulders and not his neck and head to move his front end, then he will find a comfortable place to carry them and keep them steady. By keeping the horse’s head and neck in an up position, his shoulders can move quicker.
The rider should keep the horse’s head and neck up and his nose slightly in front of the vertical position and steady so that the horse’s jaw can be influenced with the action of the reins which loosens the horse’s back.
If the horse is leaning on the rider’s hand, use a half-halt to lighten him up, but make sure that the neck is not shortened or that his face is not pulled in toward his chest. The rider should want the horse to bring its weight back over its shoulders so that he is equally balanced over all four legs. Keeping the horse’s head and neck over its shoulders will shorten the stride of the front legs so they do not travel back too much under the horse. Thus, by not keeping the horse’s front legs on the ground too long, the horse will not have a chance to get heavy in the rider’s hand.
Of historical interest, there was a method used by some of the trainers of the past to reduce the chance of the horse from leaning on the bit. It was to tightly wrap a rope around the horse’s head from the poll through its mouth for a period of about eight minutes, but not more than twenty minutes.
AT THE START OF A SCHOOLING SESSION
The following exercises are designed to loosen and stretch the musculature of the horse so the skeletal structure can be accessed:
- As a reminder, always ride the outside of the horse around the inside of the horse – meaning that the rider does not pull the horse around when turning, changing direction, or riding lateral movements. The rider must use the outside aids of rein and leg to accomplish these things
- Start by riding enlarging and decreasing circles of various diameters
- Ride isolations on small (10 foot diameter) circles – meaning the rider isolates (concentrates on) one part of the horse to work on at a time. For example, moving the horse’s hindquarters to the outside of the circle for a step or two, bringing them back into alignment with the shoulders, then moving them to the inside of the circle a step or two and then moving them back into alignment with the shoulders again.
- Next, move the hind end of the horse 180 degrees around the front end of the horse – all the while keeping the front end moving in a smaller circle. Then ride off in the opposite direction at the next higher gait
- Then do the same with the front end of the horse moving around the hindquarters 180 degrees and moving off at the next higher gait
- Ride extensions (a bigger walk or trot than normal) and shortenings (a shorter walk or trot than normal)
- Once the horse is warmed up, then start the lesson for the day