Author Archives: maxinekemp
We all know it’s important for the horse to be thinking and moving forwards. It gets shouted often, referred to on dressage sheets frequently and generally discussed as one of the Holy Grails of training, but what does it mean? And more importantly what does it mean to you?
To have travelled ‘forwards’ just means you started from ‘here’ and got to ‘there’ and unless you are going backwards or sideways you must be going forwards right? Pretty much anyone can get from here to there… eventually, so there must be something about the ‘how’ that warrants a look when related to training your horse.
I find the word ‘forwards’ is used almost obsessively by many trainers and in some ways, rightly so. Problems can arise however when the ‘getting from here to there’ element is valued over elements such as balance, suppleness and joint mobility. Racing Thoroughbreds get from one point to another very efficiently but not much about how they do it resembles dressage.
Generally speaking in training it’s not useful to value one singular element over another, which can often become the case when one is felt to be the horse’s most obvious weakness. An obsession with a lack of forwards can give way to incessant driving of the horse with aids that can never cease. At this point it’s useful to know that all elements are related, one always being affected by another to some degree. So when you are struggling with one particular element and finding it isn’t improving it’s useful to have a look at the others and how they might be affecting things.
Horses that lack ‘forwards’ are almost always suffering from stiffness and asymmetry. Continuing to kick or drive such a horse forwards with little regard for these issues often results in an attempt by the horse to comply by simply moving his legs faster with a stiff back, accompanied by an obvious increase in tempo. Alternatively he may become more reluctant and shut down, bracing his body against the request for increased activity from a stiff hind leg.
So, ‘Forwards’ becomes nothing more than ‘faster’ when joints are stiff and postural muscles are disengaged. In the absence of balance, hind leg articulation and suppleness this kind of ‘forwards’ at best, has very little value to the horse in terms of gymnastic development and at worst breaks the him down over time.
Many riders struggle with showing enough change in the ‘medium’ elements of their earlier dressage tests because the training has focussed on the ‘getting from here to there’ element of forwards in the earlier stages and missed the elements required for collection, or being able to remain on one place. And here’s the thing…
Horses who are lacking in forwards often need to slow down first. I think this is one of the most counter intuitive things in riding and something I so often see misunderstood. I can’t remember how many times I have asked a rider to slow down on their “lazy” horse who “won’t go forwards” (usually to their horror) only to find that they actually can’t! It always gives me a chuckle. They find that they don’t have a downwards transition readily available and can’t slow the trot to a sittable jog, yet they complain that their horse is not ‘forwards’ Hmm… It’s got to be one or the other right? So which is it? If you have ‘forwards’ issues, please go and see how slowly you can trot. <Evil trainer grin> 😁
So this is where you need to put your thinking cap on because if you aren’t able to slow down with some ease, maintaining rhythmical steps you can count then you must be going too “forwards” so asking the horse to go more forwards can’t really be the answer.
Faster isn’t ‘forwards’ simply because fast has more thrust than carry. True ‘forwards’ requires both elements. The element that is the ‘carrying phase’ of the hind leg needs to be in place from which the horse can then thrust. If you only obsess about the thrust part you will never train ‘carry’ and it is this element and associated functional issues that is often overlooked.
Ensuring that the horse is stepping forwards and covering ground in a lively fashion is of course the goal to seek but each horse has a personal ‘speed’ at which he is able to maintain balance and confidence more naturally. This may not feel like “forwards” enough yet for your end goal but it’s a place where his joints and muscles can remain supple and available to him. If you push him out of this natural rhythm too early in the manic pursuit of FORWARDS he will lose his ability to find and maintain the balance and articulation of joints required for the much needed carrying phase of the stride.
Free forwards travel is a minimum requirement in training so if you find yourself feeling as if you have to create this with continuous ceaseless aiding then you may want to check on other elements that might not seem obviously related to the problem of getting from here to there. 😊
Forwards comes from training balance to which we add activity. 😊
This is an updated version of a post I wrote after one of our wonderful clinics with Patrice Edwards. We so often see such significant changes in the horses both at clinic and during lessons and it’s always interesting to have a rummage around in the ingredients of that, of which there are often many. 😊 My original post got lost in the depths of Facebook so I decided to resurrect it, add some thoughts and re-post it here.
When we train the horse it is basically our intention to take what nature gave us and make it better. Horses are of course, already perfect just as they are but they weren’t designed to carry people around, so by ‘better’ we simply mean physically enhanced, and better able to carry out that job, stress and pain free…
The horse of course, has absolutely no idea what all the fuss is about or that this training lark is all in his best interests. Why would he? He’s just there… Hanging out, living in the moment attempting to get by the best he can; dealing with each dilemma in his life as it occurs. We humans could learn a lot from that philosophy! lol
One of the wonderful things about the kind of Horse Centred training which focuses on correct biomechanics, is that it provokes positive feelings in the horse because it seeks to improve his sense of balance, well-being and security. If we repeatedly teach the horse, and consistently prove to him, in the moment, that his compliance to our aiding produces something that makes him feel better then we very quickly begin to have a willing partner because horses, although relatively simple, are not stupid. 😊
From the moment we enter the horse’s space everything we do is teaching him something about what happens in that space. It can be easy to assume that training is only occurring when something we are specifically taking notice of or liking in that moment is happening, but of course this is not true at all. How could it be? The horse has no idea whether his behaviour, or what he offered as a training response is what we wanted or not unless we consistently make that very clear for him.
Nothing in nature stays the same; it is always building up or breaking down. This means that we are always either enhancing or diminishing the horse to some degree; he can never really stay the same. For this reason we have a responsibility to keep a close eye on which direction our training is taking us, even if it’s by the minutest degree either way…
Very few large changes occur “over night” I will often hear how a behavioural or training change, or even a lameness has occurred “all of a sudden” but in reality this is rarely the case. Often by the time we are seeing the big change it is a product of lots of small changes that have been going on in the background, relatively unnoticed over a period of time.
So if EVERYTHING is training then we need to be vigilant. We all have an idea of what we would like to receive or feel, and hopefully we readily praise our horses for that when it turns up. No problem there; however, what I often come across is a lack of, or urgency in ensuring that negative training is not inadvertently taking place in the background. We would never knowingly do this right? So how and why might it be happening?
All of the caring and wonderful riders who choose this path for their training are here because they want to understand how to train their horses with kindness knowledge and understanding and most work incredibly hard to make that a reality. I think we are all from the section of riders who seek to increase our skills in order to facilitate better and healthier movement in our horses. So while this is absolutely correct and highly commendable, I see it also lay the door open to potential problems for progression in training. Perhaps it goes back to the old saying about our biggest virtue being our biggest potential vice? Sometimes we ‘kind’ folk may need to get a little more… ‘Urgent?’ shall we say 😀
Horses really do have no idea what ‘the point’ is. They are maximum efficient and will always look for the easiest option. Your horse is never going to wake up one morning and say to himself “You know, I think I’m going to try a bit harder with that right hind leg today” It’s never gonna happen! lol.
Most of what the horse offers us naturally is not really useful to him in terms of how we know he needs to function in order to carry a rider and for this reason it is you who needs to be his constant reminder. Not just when you remember, not just when you noticed, not ‘in a minute’, or when you can be bothered or are in the right mood or have time… But always! Because every step you ride is a step you trained. And it’s just the same in-hand or around the yard. Every time you allow your horse to carry out any behaviour at all around you, you reinforced that behaviour.
So consistency is a huge contributory factor when it comes to ensuring maximum efficiency in training. It’s another one of those annoyingly simple things, but I see it lacking over and over again, slowing or stunting progress. If you teach your horse to do one thing in this moment and then allow the opposite in the next, while you weren’t paying attention, what did you train? At best you trained nothing, (although I’m not sure this is actually possible?) at worst you trained a resistance. It’s true to say that avoiding this pitfall in training certainly takes a great deal of focus on the part of the rider and horse; and this is why work should be broken down into relatively short periods of intense focus interspersed with frequent brain breaks for both horse and rider. Time for both to rest and reflect, allowing the horse his full freedom from the aids and to trust that this is also possible.
Your horse should either be ‘on the aids’ attentive, responsive and ‘ready’, or on a totally free rein at rest. Check how often you might spend time in neither one nor the other but instead a sort of ‘grey area’ in between?
So when we apply an aid to the horse, we are asking for something to change in his body state. (otherwise, what was the point?) In order for this aid to be of any use at all it must be answered by the horse. Something needs to change. Now! If an aid is applied and no change occurs or worse still is met with a resistance to which you then resist or yield, again, what have you trained?
So useful questions to ask yourself are, how many times did I sit up here applying the same aid almost continuously with no actual change occurring? Am I being clear and concise when I aid in that moment? Does my horse clearly understand when he got it right?
To be ‘an aid’ it must be applied and then ceased within that step or stride, not ‘held’
Now here’s the thing… At this stage it may not necessarily matter what change you get, because if it wasn’t the one you expected or hoped for, it just means you have to reinvestigate the aid you gave, perhaps modify it in some way next time or go back a step to discover what your horse understands of that aid. What is not acceptable is ‘no change’ If this is the case then at this point you have trained your horse to resist or ignore your aid.
Riders often tell me that they are afraid to see an aid all the way to it’s conclusion for fear of being wrong or confusing to their horse, especially if they are experiencing a little resistance from their horse due to past training. The truth is that making a “half aid” or an overly long aid that doesn’t create a change, not only leaves the horse in the same negative body state but it also trained him that this is ok. This really isn’t better for the horse than risking the original fear because if nothing else, the former is creating a dialogue between the horse and rider. We all make mistakes and mistakes are better than doing nothing because we learn from our mistakes.
Although we might need to be adamant at times, insisting on change is certainly not about coercion or being a bully because creating successful positive changes in the horse always requires good equitation, good timing of the aids, the ability to cease an aid at the appropriate moment and all of those other pesky skills required that we need to practise. 😃 It is however about ensuring you are not training negatively.
If you resist a resistance or yield to a resistance, you train resistance.
The truth is that horses just hear what they hear. They don’t know that you made a “mistake”, they just react with the answer they have to what they heard. So as you begin to ride with less fear of being wrong, and more courage of your convictions whilst also listening intently to your horse’s response, he then becomes your teacher. 😊 By ensuring that you do get a response to the aid you gave you enable yourself to then decide if it was appropriate related to what you wanted to change, or if you would like to do it differently or better next time. You will also receive a far clearer understanding of what your horse actually understands vs. what you thought or hoped he did. (Definitely another post)
So on the journey from the rider you are today to the one you would like to become, you will make mistakes. Your horse may also tell you from time to time that “This is difficult!” and that’s ok. You just do your best and say, “OK I hear you, buts now lets try… ” Because if you constantly meet a difficulty or stiffness in your horse with a resistance or a passive fear of doing it wrong instead of an urgency for change, you will, over time, train stiffness and resistance.
So be a little bit courageous! 😀 Go out there and see how many changes you can make in your horse in every stride, because the possibility of constant fluid changeability from one state to another is one of the keys to ensuring you are on the correct path heading in the right direction.
There’s no getting away from the fact that your ‘equitation’, or the way in which you present yourself to the horse in a physical sense, is all-important when it comes to what you can expect to get back in return, and to deny this will always slow your progress. Equitation however, is not the end of the story because good equitation is only needed in order that you can fairly and efficiently convey your wishes to the horse in a way that he understands and enables him to comply.
(Note: Throughout these posts I am going to refer to the horse as ‘he’ or ‘him’ Just for ease and continuity. Other mares are available.) 😊
There are so many aspects to riding and learning to become a good rider that it sometimes seems almost impossible to know where to start when writing these posts and I hope can do the subject justice on words. Because everything we do is so intertwined, with one thing always affecting another, I often find myself starting with an idea and then wandering off of on a tangent. So I’m going to try my best not to do that but I can’t promise. I too am learning, always… 😊
So these posts are going to have a look at various aspects of equitation in both a theoretical and practical sense with a bit of discussion and then a practical exercise to do.
At this point I want to explain that no ‘one thing’ I discuss here is ‘the magic thing’ It will only ever be one aspect of… It is important though that as you try a ‘thing’ or learn a ‘thing’ that you then run that ‘thing’ though everything else you do to see where it might fit or what else it might be affecting. Ask questions if you don’t understand or something doesn’t seem to fit with your current understanding or your idea of the destination, because confusion can lead to fear which can lead to giving up and going back to treading the old familiar path. Give yourself the best chance…
What’s in a Word?
I hear so many potentially useful words out there (The internet is awash with them) but I also see that these words are not always working for people, in part I think, because they are often being misinterpreted or lost in translation. So in these posts I want to encourage you to look a little closer at those words and what they might mean to you; Apply some honesty as to whether they are working for you and then shed some light on how you might make them work better for you, instead of often leaving you with more question marks. There shouldn’t be any question marks as it either works or it doesn’t. If what you are doing is not making your horse feel better, lighter, more harmonious, then you are not doing what you thought you were, because good equitation applied correctly always works.
So what about these words and sound bites? Perhaps they are things you’ve had shouted at you by trainers in the past or something you’ve read in a book or just something you made up. “Heels down!” Is an age old instruction that I have never seen produce a desired effect in the rider or horse, yet it haunts and hinders adult riders all the way from childhood. In the early years I found that some of the new things I was learning didn’t immediately seem to fit with my current soundbite library. As I stuck with it though, I found I began to understand… I now understand what ‘heels down’ means and why it’s a desired ‘thing’ but I also know that it’s not achieved by ‘pushing your heels down’.
It’s true to say that one of the biggest obstacles I come across when teaching adult riders is the interpretation and translation of some of these words, terms and ideals and the effect they have on the riders ability to progress both in the lesson and during homework. I find that some riders can have so much invested in them that it can literally paralyse their ability to make the changes which are so desperately needed if they are to progress.
Equitation vs. Positon:
On the whole I prefer the term equitation over position when referring to the rider’s body on the horse as the word ‘Position’ tends to conjour up something more static, perhaps even separate from the horse. I see a lot of riders attempting to ‘keep’ various parts of their body still on the horse or ‘hold’ various parts of their horses body still. lol. Well not only is this virtually impossible in itself, but it also creates a static and restrictive feel for the horse which is never useful. Riding is always a dynamic pursuit, which involves continuous movement throughout both entities.
Soundbites of the Seat:
Good equitation originates from the seat. Whilst it’s agreed that equitation alone doesn’t train the horse, it is a vital part of the whole process. Sadly today very little, if any time is spent educating and improving the rider’s seat. We do endlessly hear soundbites based around how you should ‘ride from the seat’ or ‘use your seat’ or have ‘an independent seat’ or…? I’m sure you have one; but what does this mean? What does it mean to you? How do you interpret this when you get on your horse? Do you have a good seat? And how do can you tell?
You see to me, these are all incredibly important questions to ask yourself and to discuss with your trainer. Does your idea of the seat actually reflect the original and intended meaning of the soundbite you were intending to emulate? Are you doing what you thought or hoped you were? Because if not then you are going to spend a lot of time working really hard on something that isn’t going to enhance your riding or your horse’s way of going and you’re going to get very old doing it. So it’s useful to check in on this stuff regularly.
(Note: You must seek a trainer who is able to and happy to discuss the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ with you, not just the ‘whats’)
Meet your Seat:
So how can you tell if your idea of what something means is correct or not? Well, your horse will be telling you and then you have to make sure you’re listening. 😊
The moment your butt hits the saddle you are now presenting your ‘seat’ to the horse. It is your first point of contact and you should be consistently presenting a ‘good’ or ‘independent’ seat from this moment until you get off. (No pressure there then! lol) But what does this mean? How? And are you?
Books and the internet offer an array of opinions on, and descriptions of, what you should be doing with your seat; describing ‘weighting’ of this seat bone or that one, or positioning your pelvis this way or that depending on what you want to achieve but how many times has it all made sense on the page only to go out there and discover that somehow this doesn’t seem to translate to you and your horse? Are the words then wrong? Often they are being offered by highly skilled and respected riders and trainers, so what’s up? Why with so much advice out there and so many trainers available do people still struggle so much to achieve harmony with their horses, train them past preliminary level or keep them sound as they progress up though the competition levels? These are serious questions we should be asking.
The Interactive Part:
So here is a little exercise designed to help you to get to know your seat a little better and get you thinking… In some of these interactive parts you will need to give yourself time and permission to silence any urgent voices in your head telling you that contemplative time spent at halt and walk is not valuable training time and that unless you are twirling around the arena at speed working up a sweat then you’re not doing dressage.
These are times to investigate your understanding and your feel, get subtle feedback from your horse and by moving slowly and mindfully, improve your propreoception and change muscle memory. Actually, nothing could be more ‘Dressage’ 🙂 You can add twirling later! 😀 Because lets face it, If you can’t do it at halt, you’re going to struggle at canter 😉
Focus on your seat:
Every way in which our seat or any part of us is in contact with the horse, means something to him and is having an affect of some kind. This could be a daunting thought but it could also be empowering because the more you understand it and are in control of it the more wonders you can achieve with your horse.
The first task is all about you. Just sit down and think about what the seat means to you? No one else. How do you ensure you are ‘riding from the seat’ as per the popular instruction? Perhaps write down some ideas. Things you say to yourself whilst you’re out there riding; if anything at all? Things your instructor has told you, things you’d like to ask them? Anything else that relates…
The next task is to take this to your horse. Commence your usual ride but with a strong focus on your seat. What you think you ‘should’ be doing with it. What you ARE doing with it? Why? When? And what response you are getting? Are there ‘soundbites’ occurring? 😉 This needs to be done purely for the sake observation and diagnosis so that you can get to know your seat and how it is affecting your horse in it’s current state. It sounds like an easy task but notice how many times you might want to change something rather than just allowing yourself to observe it and listen to the feedback.
A Bit of Theory:
There are loads of things you could be “doing” with your seat, that’s for sure and don’t we all like to be DOING something? 🙂 However as is often the way with horse riding, the thing we want to do is often the very thing we shouldn’t be doing, and too much ‘doing’ is often the first problem with an uneducated seat.
An educated, independent seat is one that is first and foremost able to ‘do’ nothing. Whaaaat!? Yep! Before you can ‘do’ you must first be able to ‘not do’ because the first aid of the seat should be ‘Passive’, ‘Open’ and ‘Receiving’. None of your other aids can be effective through a blocking, pinching or overly active seat.
Where the horse feels any contraction, muscle tension or power in the seat or leg, his back and barrel will tend to remain stiff defensive and contracted. (I intend to list the symptoms of such things in a later post). A restricted, contracted or over-active seat is unable to firstly receive the horse’s movement and then to diagnose… (Again, another post) You see… Not going off on a tangent 😀
So firstly lets remove the idea that this is in any way difficult or Rocket Science. It’s actually very simple. As with most things in riding, it might not be ‘easy’ to do, but the good news is that effectiveness in riding is always based around simplicity… Thank god! 😀
Your horse will help you out with all these exercises because they love to interact in this way and will absolutely tell you when it feels better vs when it feels worse, so keep your antennae up for their vote.
Climb aboard your horse and lower your bum into the saddle. Allow it’s full weight to rest there and observe the feelings. Take some time to also feel and observe your legs hanging heavy and soft by the horses sides.
[Note: Nothing that touches the horse, including the inner thigh, calf and buttocks should contain any muscle contraction or tension. The horse should not feel any tightness of the buttock muscles or any closure of leg muscles inwards or towards his body]
See if you can sit astride your horse and achieve this feeling. You can do this with or without stirrups as you feel works best for you right now. Check in on your shoulder/hip/heel alignment vertically to the ground for the best sense of balance to the ground that you can find for now.
Take time to observe what is going on in your pelvis and seat and legs. Are these areas truly free of tension or contraction? You are only in halt, so you don’t need to cling with anything, and nothing here should feel as if it needs to be active. (I personally find the word ‘empty’ useful for the feeling of my pelvis and everything inside and associated with it.) Are your buttocks inflated and free from tension, resting heavy, with your seat bones released out of your body onto the saddle? Repeatedly scan these areas, releasing tension from them wherever you find it, almost as if ‘exhaling’ through them. Continue observing the feeling and any feedback you might be getting from your horse.
The main point of this exercise is for you to get to know your seat and associate yourself with this open, inflated and released ‘feeling’ at halt where there is no need to aid or stabalise yourself for movement.
(Note: Your horse doesn’t care what you look like, he only cares what you feel like)
The next part is to pick up the reins as you usually would in readiness to move off. As you do this, continue scanning the aforementioned areas and notice if anything begins to change. (The horse’s reaction to the rein at this point may be such that it makes these areas in you to want to change. It’s not an excuse to do so) So does tension or muscle or a change in texture begin to creep into your pelvis, seat or leg? If so, at what point? And why? Really take time to ask yourself those questions because guess what? It’s not allowed and that is basically it for now. 🙂
At this point, it really is that simple! This is not the end of the seat story of course, but we must take one thing at a time and if you have limited or no awareness of this part then the next part will always be flawed to one degree or another. You must get to know your body and know how to achieve and return to ‘neutral’ or ‘nothingness’. ‘Open’ ‘Passive’ ‘Receiving’ before you can start ‘doing’
You should never be doing things ‘AT’ your horse with your seat or your legs!
Then of course you can move off in walk and progress to whatever it is you wanted to do in your schooling session that day, but taking this lesson with you as the equitation priority for this ride. What, when and why do changes occur in your seat, pelvis area and legs, from open passive receiving to muscle contraction and ‘doing stuff’? (Return to halt as many times as it takes at this stage to rediscover the feeling you found there) Despite all the possible old sound bites in your head, could you use your own imagination to discover the ability for this not to change somehow, whilst you still manage to ‘ride’. That part is very much up to you and belief that it IS possible is one of your most powerful tools when you are out there alone with no teacher.
(Note: Depending on the horses training he may not initially understand that he needs to respond to aids that are presented with so little muscle-tone of seat and leg. For this reason he may need some gentle re-education on this subject. Use your long whip as an aid to help the horse understand your request before you employ the ‘more muscle tone’ in your seat and leg that he may be waiting for. It will quickly make sense to him and training will have occurred.) 😊
So that’s it for now my friends. Remember the biggest bestest and fastest rewards come from practice and sticking to the task come what may. Just do it! 😀
I welcome any discussion or questions on any of the above or anything related to your practice. This is a place where there are no ‘stupid’ questions as the sole intention is to make things better for you and your horses. 🙂
If there is a soundbite or an ideology that you’d find useful to discuss, then let me know and perhaps we can use it for the next post.
I thought I would follow on from my post about the horse’s nature in training, with some thoughts on balance, how this affects behaviour in training and how by improving one, we can improve the other.
In nature, horses have three primary motivations, namely, procreation, eating, and not being eaten. That’s pretty much what solely occupies their life between the parts when we turn up; and so behind each response we encounter we will find one of these motivations. To keep this in mind helps immeasurably when you’re attempting to figure out ‘Why’ your horse does this or that… Give it a try…
In order to train the horse in a healthy and holistic way, we must gain access to his body and mind. It’s our job to help the horse free his body from the confines of contraction and restriction that often occur from attempting to carry the rider, but first we must be ‘allowed in’ so to speak. If we attempt to train without that permission then we face breakdown of the mind and structure of the horse. To train fairly and effectively it is vital to have at least a basic understanding of the biomechanics of the horse and how this affects not only his athletic ability but also his behaviour.
We hear a lot of talk about the need to train balance. So what do we mean by that? Well first we have to understand a little about the horse’s anatomy and perhaps something about imbalance or asymmetry, as his natural asymmetries are what hinder him most in training. If we look at the horse’s body and how it’s arranged, we see that he carries the greater proportion of his weight on the forehand, which we can consider his first ‘natural imbalance’. It is the horizontal imbalance and it’s what we seek to change with good training.
The second is the ‘lateral’ imbalance and is related to how much weight the horse carries on one side of his body in relation to the other.
Together, the above have an affect on how much weight is distributed over all four feet and what share of the work is carried out by each hind leg in terms of thrust and carry etc. (Linked to the ability to ‘collect’) This is very important to the horse because the degree of imbalance he suffers directly affects his ability to remain upright and therefore his fear levels.
In a sense, the horse’s skeletal structure is similar to our own in that he has two skeletons; The ‘axial’ skeleton, which consist in the main of the spine, head and ribcage and the ‘appendicular’ skeleton, which consists of the pelvis and legs, (or in our case legs and arms) The horse then differs from us in one particularly relevant way. Unlike us, he has no clavicle, or collar-bone, meaning that his two skeletons are not stabilised or joined together as they are with us.
This means that the spine and ribcage with everything stored inside it are relatively more free to float and move somewhat independently of the legs. (Who hasn’t experienced at some time in life, the frustration of taking the horses head and neck so far in one direction only to find yourself travelling somewhere else entirely?) Welcome to the world of ‘No Collar bone!’ lol This is why thats possible and this is why it’s vital that the rider learns to balance across the horse. (another post)
Wherever there is imbalance in the main framework or skeletal structure of the horse there will be compensations in the surrounding structures, i.e. the muscles, tendons and ligaments, because something has to hold it all up. For now we will just consider the muscle tension that results from imbalance, because it’s these muscles that do the compensating, which affect what the horse is offering us.
Lets go back briefly to the part about being ‘allowed in’ In order for the horse to develop use of the correct muscles he must be relaxed in his body and mind. The aim of dressage training is to teach the horse to engage and use his postural set of muscles rather than his inherent ‘flight’ or locomotor set of muscles. And here is the link… Flight, or locomotor muscles do what it says on the tin. When engaged, they are ‘ready’ for flight and in the worst case, if you’re half way through your dressage test on a windy day, already carrying that out. Not useful! lol
So back to the anatomy. Not only is the ribcage and everything stored inside it, somewhat rogue in terms of where it can turn up, we then add the weight of the saddle and rider to that. Uncontrolled, in some cases this can cause the horse very real conflict and angst as he feels the weight of his barrel (Rider, saddle an’ all) falling in one direction, while his legs are being asked to go in the other. This will always be compounded by an unbalanced rider or one who doesn’t understand how to sit equally across the horse.
Being a prey animal, a horse’s primary concern is to stay upright, on all four feet. If you fall down in the wild you might be left behind by the heard and end up as somebodies lunch! So put simply, when a horse is struggling with his balance, especially at speed in a confined space, the fear of falling is very real for him. Fear switches on the flight responses, adding more tension until a viscous cycle is created. Often no amount of human reasoning at this point is adequate to help the horse. Instead he must be taught to balance, and find the use of his postural muscles.
So piecing all this together we can begin to deduce that the less ‘trained’ or developed your horse is in his postural muscles, the more likely he is to be subject to flight responses and unless you are training a racehorse this simply isn’t useful and can even end up being dangerous.
In some instances, where the the rider attempts to shut down the flight response using force we may even begin to see the ‘fight’ responses kick in, by which time much damage is being done to the horse both mentally and physically.
It is of course possible to influence the horse’s behaviour via accessing and working with his mind as the first point of contact, but it’s useful to know that it works both ways. The mind influences the body and the body influences the mind. So flight muscles that are ‘switched on’ will be sending flight signals to the brain and vice versa. Some horse who have been traumatised by past training methods might benefit from a period of time accessing their trust firstly through training that focuses solely on the mind. But integration of the body should be sought as soon as possible in order to prepare it for the rider.
All horses react differently to fear, uncertainty and discomfort in there bodies depending on their breed conformation and personality type. Some become sharp and spooky, some resistant and “opinionated” Some become shut down and sluggish, some don’t appear to be too bothered at all but the state of their musculature will tell us that they are working in contraction. So when you feel as if you are experiencing any of these traits in your horse or even if not, it’s always a good time to check in on his symmetry and I’ll be doing a post related to this and how you can check at some point. There is a little check list on the website that you can find here…
Whatever your reasons for lunging, perhaps you’re starting a youngster, training an older more established horse, rehabbing or just exercising, it’s worth having a think about the fact that whatever your reasons, you are ultimately asking your horse the same thing; to work, usually at speed on a relatively small continuous circle for some amount of time.
Lunging on various sizes of circle can be extremely therapeutic for the horse and can greatly enhance his gymnastic training. However, this is only the case if done with careful thought and understanding of the horse’s nature and biomechanics. When the horse is asked to work on a continuous circle in bad form, it is always detrimental to him. It is damaging to joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and causes stress to his over all physical and mental health.
We are not only training the stuff we like to see.
Horses are incredibly easy to train, that’s why they domesticated so well, and this is worth considering the next time you take your horse out for a blast round on the lunge in a head collar.
Every step the horse takes is a step that you trained. So in effect, each circle the horse completes in brace and out of balance on the lunge is a step that you re-enforced this body state and trained the horse that this is the way it should be done. Ultimately, over time these body states lead to breakdown rather than enhancement. So whatever your reason for lunging, what matters to your horse is the ‘how’ as well as the ‘why’.
By nature, when circling or turning at speed the horse will load his inside shoulder, brace his back and take his head and neck to the outside in order to counter-balance. This is fine for nature as these instances are generally short lived before the horse is travelling straight again or is back to head-down eating the grass. This body state was not designed to be maintained for periods of minutes at a time and is detrimental to the horse when it is.
In training, it is our aim to change this natural posture to one that we know is better for the horse, and necessary in order for him to carry a rider with ease. A key to achieving this new posture ultimately requires that the horse learns to become inwardly focused on a circle rather than outwardly as is natural…
So how do we train the horse to change this naturally offered posture? It’s pretty hard-wired and can feel as if it needs some convincing!
First of all it is crucial that we never attempt to shape or fix the horses neck into an unnatural, inward fixed or ‘rounded’ position; however tempting it feels. This action immediately takes away the horse’s ability to find balance, causing detrimental muscle and joint compensations throughout the whole body. In turn this causes stress to his mind, as he feels trapped and unable to balance naturally. What we must do instead is aid the horse into a better posture and balance, helping him to release the braced neck muscles, while showing him how to de-contract and balance himself throughout his entire body. (All parts of the horse’s body, from nose to tail, are linked and we only talk about working with one part as far as it is useful in gaining access to or relating to the whole)
To lunge well, requires a number of skills in timing, body positioning, feel and tact and it takes practice. To begin with, your horse will not understand what you require in terms of his body positioning on the circle and will adopt the natural ‘flight’ posture. It is useful then to start your training with some close in-hand work first in order for both the horse and handler to begin the process of communication necessary for successful lunging.
Learning to work in-hand with your horse is a wonderful way of improving both you and your horse’s balance, coordination and communication. A great amount can be learned about the horse from the ground, which you can then translate to your ridden work later. You might find that your horse is not the only one who struggles with his balance. 😉
A balanced horse is a happy horse.
Here Willow has learned to lower and soften her neck to the inside on a large circle. She then learns to yield her shoulders and haunches to my request. Gradually this work will translate to understanding these requests whilst further away from me, out on the lunge.
Once this work is understood by the horse, there is no need for side reins or any kind of auxiliary equipment. These would only serve to block the horse and take away the ability to use the whole body.
There are an array of opinions on lunging relating to the ‘how’ and the equipment used. Always Lunge off the bit… Never lunge off the bit… Put the rein under the chin… Put it over the poll… Clip it on one side of the bit… Always use side reins… Never use side reins… Use a Pessoa… Use a rope halter…. The list goes on… What I seldom see is the horse being lunged off a simple quality cavesson. Nothing but a well made, well fitted cavesson with the line attached to a centre ring enables the handler access to the effective alignment of the head and neck in relation the whole horse.
The lunge-line should never be attached to the bit!
The mouth of the horse is sensitive and precious and any discomfort in the mouth always leads to tension, fear and resistance. In the first instance, no matter how skilled we feel we are, it is impossible to ensure that no harm will come to the mouth while the horse is out on the lunge line. And in the second instance we will see from the picture below, that lunging off the bit more often than not, causes to horse to adopt incorrect horizontal and lateral flexion.
(Note: I often see the horse lunged from the bit prior to ridden work because the rider doesn’t want to faff about with changing equipment. This is just lazy)
Note the incorrect flexion and bend to the outside, the loading of the inside shoulder and bracing of the neck, barrel and back muscles with stiffening of the hind leg. So although the neck has a round appearance, we can see that attaching the rein to the bit and using side reins has achieved nothing towards our aim of helping the horse to soften to the inside, use his back or flex the hind leg. The neck is a bit ’round shaped’ though. 😉
There are several other variations of attaching the rein to the bit, all of which tend to result in incorrect flexion, and leaning on or sitting behind the bit, not to mention the discomfort to the horse.
So what about lunging in just a halter? Is this kinder as it doesn’t involve the horse’s mouth, or fixing the neck into unnatural positions?
Well, if we take a look at the picture on the right, we can see that in the loose fitting halter we are unable to aid the horse at all with his poll release or neck alignment, and further to that, any pressure on the rein from the underside results in the halter slipping around to the inside whilst tipping the horses nose inwards and the poll outwards.
As with anything we require the horse to learn, it should be carried out over time by way of a step by step training program accompanied by the correct equipment. Below are some examples of how gadgets, pullies, and restrictive pieces of equipment are not only unnecessary in order for the horse to develop gymnastically and build top-line but are actually a hindrance to that process. At best they give a false impression to the uneducated eye, at worst they are painful and debilitating over time.
To the left, a young horse on a circle working in a naturally unbalanced frame with a hollow top-line, and unless he is educated, he will continue to function this way. This is the very same posture that induces people to fiddle about with the horizontal head and neck positioning, usually in a restrictive manner.
What lowers the neck over time is the correct use of whats behind it.
Prior to lunging for the first time Jonjo had completed some education in-hand. This prior work enabled me to communicate with him ‘out there’ right away and help him to begin investigating all possibilities available to him with his neck and body.
With appropriate aiding and no restrictions he becomes more confident and able to discover how to balance himself on the circle.
Here we can begin to see glimmers of what we are aiming towards. Jonjo is beginning to find a little more ‘posture’ and horizontal balance.
It is vital for the horse that we understand that ’roundness’ comes from the horses back, and his ability to balance and use his entire body free from restriction. it is simply not a function of the neck alone.
Sadly, In-hand work and lunging are another dying art in the horse world today. Good equipment is difficult to find and all to often gadgets are used where instead, skill and horsemanship should be learned. Carried out correctly, In-hand and lunge work is an invaluable part of your horse’s training, having the most therapeutic effects on his body and mind. It can be used to strengthen, balance and supple the young horse in preparation to carry the rider, rehabilitate the horse back to work after injury, train new concepts without the added complication of the riders weight and yes, even to get the beans out 😉 provided it’s carried out mindfully.
So next time you go out there, perhaps give yourself a bit of extra time to think about the ‘how’ What it is you are achieving when you lunge your horse and how it’s affecting him.
And finally to leave you with another example of the lack of need for gadgets in training to achieve you’re desired effect. It’s about understanding the goal, learning the skills and believing…
Just lately I’ve been chatting to riders and asking them to evaluate their lessons, how they feel it’s all going and if they have any particular queries in their mind about the whole process. Perhaps any questions or niggles that might me hindering their progress. I’m sometimes amazed at the torrent of stuff that’s obviously been held in there but I ALWAYS welcome it.
(Note: If you are struggling with a concept or something your trainer has asked you to do. ASK!)
It seems that traditionally, a lot of riding instruction comes in a fairly standard format. The instructor stands in the arena giving instruction and the rider does their best to show the instructor what they want to see. It seems that it can often be felt by riders, that questioning the instructor is not the “done thing”, OR that they should in some way already understand all the concepts and terminologies used and that asking questions makes them feel silly, inadequate or rude.
I always encourage students to seek the idea that a rider, trainer relationship is just that. A ‘relationship’ where information is shared, questions are asked and answered and the input and feedback of the rider is valued by the trainer as much as the other way around. I once heard Charles de Kunffy say that he often feels as if he had learned as much from the student and their horse as they had from him.
The world is full of wonderful trainers, and some not so wonderful, but all with their different strengths and weaknesses and it can be a confusing task and sometimes a process of trial and error to work out who is right for you and your horse. “Experts” are around every corner and if as a rider you feel your knowledge is limited then it can be difficult to know who to put your trust in. And trust in your trainer you must…
Owning and training my own horse again recently reminded me of how important it is to have the right trainer. One that you trust and one who can help you understand the true nature of your horse in training. Someone to help you remain focused on the right things and ensure that you remain objective when challenges arise. They don’t have to be super-human and they can’t do it for you. But progress must be made, not just words and money exchanged.
It’s terribly easy to become emotionally focused when training your own horse. I know this only too well. It’s all very well for your trainer to come along and tell you ‘Oh he’s just reacting with his natural flight instinct’ or ‘It’s OK, its not personal’ As you’ve just watched your horse gallop off into the distance or found yourself spooked across the arena for the hundredth time. For some reason, when it’s someone else’s horse it’s a training issue, when it’s your own it’s personal. What IS that all about? Another post perhaps… lol
The fact is that when things occur in our training that feel unwanted, it is almost ALWAYS either a training/symmetry issue, a trained resistance or a pain issue and so often it is just the former. And I say ‘just’ because the great thing is that when it’s a training issue, which is often associated with asymmetry, we can objectify and realize it, meaning there is always something we can do that will reliably work for the horse. Seeking answers from this perspective can often help to prevent us getting upset and working from our emotional state; sometimes rushing off to do stuff that isn’t really useful, like buying the latest gadget or supplement or spending a needless fortune with the vet or even subjecting your horse to the local ‘horse fixer’ or perhaps taking up Parrelli. (Did I say that out loud :-\ lol)
When you are struggling with your horse and he doesn’t appear to be ‘doing what it says on the tin’ You may feel that you have exhausted all the reasons you can imagine for the unwanted behaviour or underperformance. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons that you hadn’t thought of or you just don’t understand at this point in your training, and this is what a good trainer is for. Not just someone who can tell you which arm and leg to put where, but someone who understands the nature and biomechanics of the horse. It’s so very much easier to depersonalise it and therefore become 100% more effective when you understand…
So when choosing a trainer here are a few things to look out for… Pass by on anyone who tells you your horse is naughty, plotting against you, dominant, or needs to be dominated in any way, either physically or mentally. The same for anyone who wants you to use any kind of gadget (tight nosebands included) that restricts or shapes the head, neck or indeed any part of the horse’s body. Also anyone who spends most of your lesson on their cell phone or attending to issues outside of your lesson. These are not bad people they are just lacking in the knowledge and respect you need and deserve.
Instead look for a trainer who feels as if they seek to ‘enable’ both you and your horse. They should feel as if they have a sound knowledge base which they are ready to share, and that what they say makes sense to you and is always in the interest of the horse. As a lesson progresses your horse should feel easier, lighter and more willing, not stronger, heavier and exhausted, even if the lesson has been a tough one. Look elsewhere if by the end of a lesson your legs are dropping off, you have a face the colour of a tomato and biceps like Popeye.
Employ someone who understands how to, and is prepared to work tirelessly with you on improving your equitation at every step of the way. And last but not least, a person you feel has a genuine love and respect of all horses for their horse-ness not just their athletic ability…
It should NEVER feel forced, coercive or abusive in any way, no matter what anyone tries to convince you. If this is happening then that trainer has come to the end of their knowledge and subsequently, their ability to help you. Question it ALWAYS! On the flip side, wafting about still doing the same thing after months and months, still not being allowed to pick up the rein contact means that appropriate progress probably isn’t being made, which is no kinder to your horse really.
At the end of the day, trust in your instincts. You don’t have to be an advanced rider to now when things feel right in your soul. So go with your gut instinct and listen to your horse because he is relying on you.
I frequently come across riders who are looking for answers relating to issues with their horse’s behaviour whilst ridden. One of the most common issues I find from early on, (Often from the words they use to describe their horse) is related to the their understanding of how the horse’s natural behaviours affect not only how we interact with him around the stable and paddock, but also how we train him in the arena.
The horse doesn’t cease to be a horse because you got on him in the school. He still possesses all the same instincts and responses, meaning that it’s important to understand how they affect him during training under saddle.
I often encourage riders to view some of these natural behaviours a little differently than previously, and in doing so, discover how they might sometimes be able to take advantage of them in training, rather than fearing them or feeling as if they must be conquered in some way.
Although challenging at times, It’s important to do your best to remain objective when training. Each time you find yourself using emotive words for you horse like ‘naughty’, or ‘Trying it on’ or you resort to any kind of name calling etc. You immediately take away your power to change anything. Those words might express how you feel but they do nothing to diagnose the actual problem and so in turn, help you to fix it.
Horses will always be horses!
Being both flight and prey animals, horses come with an extremely efficient set of hard-wired, reactive responses to their surroundings, all of which are designed for the sole purpose of staying alive. Nothing is more important to a horse or indeed any of us, than staying alive and so it’s little wonder that neither one of us are eager to give those protective responses up. But what do we do when these reactions in the horse seem to prevent us from achieving our goals? How do we deal with them? What do these responses have to do with schooling the horse in the arena?
Well the good news is that the first two concepts to grasp are simple, as always, and they are that the horse’s fear is always legitimate to him, and we must respect that. The second is that fear causes tension and where tension is present, no positive training of the horses body or mind can occur.
You can’t help your horse with his fear if you refuse to acknowledge that it is important to him. ‘Oh stupid horse, what are you afraid of?’ At the same time, once the fear has been acknowledged for what it is, we leave it at that. We don’t spend time “joining in”. Instead we set about helping the horse to feel more secure through training better balance and symmetry, the two things that make the biggest difference to the horse’s sense of security whilst carrying a rider.
In our attempts to train the horse we often come across behaviours that seem to block our path to success. For this reason we tend to label them as undesirable. I often hear phrases like “He’s not listening to me”.
At which point the horse is usually showing a range of behaviours, from head-high with an external focus and a body in a degree of tension, to a horse who is point blank refusing to go into one corner or spooking and napping. It is at this critical moment that a shift in thinking is needed by the rider, because ‘what’ and’ how’ we are thinking will always determine our next action.
The horse is always hearing you, his response however, depends on what he is hearing. If this is negative and restrictive then you have just become another part of his problem. (The horses natural urge to stay alive will always trump your feeble attempts to wish it didn’t. lol) So now the horse is afraid of the external environment and the rider, who is now appearing to the horse as a possible hindrance to escape should that become necessary. So at this point, no, he probably isn’t ‘listening’ to you, but he can always ‘hear’ you.
The rider will often find at this point, that neither soothing or coercion does much to improve the situation. (And in fact, when you think about it, patting and soothing could even be interpreted by the horse as praise for his external focus) So what to do? Well firstly we must change a statement to a question and ask ourselves. “why is my horse feeling the need to scan the external area for possible dangers?” And “what can I do to change that?” At this point when you examine the facts you will almost always see a relationship between the horse’s levels of imbalance, contraction and asymmetry and his level of undesirable behaviours. Sometimes this may take a more trained eye than your own, but it almost always exists, which is good news because this means it’s fixable.
Horses are not “Naughty” They are however, 100% reactive to their surroundings and always giving us valuable information about how they are feeling in any given moment.
So if we are truly looking for answers, then we must first ask questions, and then be prepared to listen and learn from the answers we receive. We must begin our training of the horse from a place where we understand and respect his natural behaviours. From here we can not only begin to view these responses in a new way, but also use them for our gain during training. Rather than immediately rejecting behaviours by riding in a defensive or restrictive manner, we can learn to blend with and reshape them. The psychologist Carl Jung once said that “What you resist persists” So if in training we find ourselves constantly battling the horse, or feeling that our focus is on ‘preventing’ things, then perhaps some of the resistance we are encountering is also coming from within ourselves; our thinking towards the horse and his motives. To be good trainers we must first be prepared to enter the training relationship with no resistance in our mind to the horses innate behaviours. They may not always suit us , but only from this place of acceptance and understanding can we begin to learn about, and truly help the horse.