Friday, December 18, 2009

A Quick Pic

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Trail Riding

I was at the feed store the other day and over heard a couple of people talking about horses. One asked the other what type of riding she did, and she said, "Just Trail Riding." Quickly the person who asked said, that's cool, and then began to talk about her exploits in competition and eventing.

This made me start to think about recreational trail riding and how it can be considered less serious than competitions.

Nothing could be further from the truth. So I thought to list a few ideas about trail riding; if nothing more, just to get it more clear in my own head.

1. A good trail horse needs to be well trained. Many think that if there is no competition, then training is not that important. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a competition, if your horse does not perform well, you could lose the competition. If you fall, medical attention is often immediate.

However, on a trail, you could be far from any of the modern amenities that keep us safe. Help could be far away, cell phones may not have coverage, and nature can be far less forgiving than a judge who gives low scores.

Nowhere is a well trained, reliable horse more important than when you are far from civilization and from assistance. A trail horse should be calm, compliant, and intelligent. I have met many horses who can fool judges into thinking that they have these qualities, but I have never met a horse who can fool mother nature.

2. A good trail horse needs to be fit. Fitness is imperative for all horses but never more so than for the horse who must haul a rider for hours and miles. A fit trail horse will be far less prone to injuries, and less prone to being trailer sour, or herd bound. Fit horses stumble less, and are generally more willing by virtue of the fact that they are more able.

3. Equipment for trail riding is even more important than for competitions. The primary purpose of equipment is for the comfort and ease of the Horse. And for a horse who will be hauling a rider for hours over many miles, the smallest discomfort can quickly become agony. Furthermore, trails are generally far away from the barn where ill fitting or broken equipment can be easily swapped out, or repaired. Thus, by the time you are ready to take a piece of equipment on the trail, you should be completely sure of its comfort, utility, and reliability.

4. Last but not least are your companions. These guidelines are not just for you, but should be for most of your fellow riders as well. Fellow riders and horses should be compatible in ability and skills. If your fellow riders are very experienced, it is inconsiderate to subject them to a horse who is not well mannered or fully trained. On the other hand, we should also be tolerant of others who are just starting out and give them as much assistance as we can.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Getting On

There is a local state park where I live that uses volunteers to patrol the park. The volunteers serve in a variety of different capacities from docents to mounted patrol. I thought it would be fun to volunteer to be a member of the mounted patrol so I asked them what the requirements were.

They gave me a list of requirements that ranged from being able to ride your horse at a walk, trot, and canter to being able to administer first aid. But one of the requirements that surprised me was that they wanted to see the volunteer mount their horse from level ground without assistance. I thought that this should be fairly obvious and I asked the ranger who administered the test about that. His reply shocked me. It turns out that it is the single most stringent requirement and disqualifies nearly 80% of all applicants. I thought he was exaggerating but he showed me the paper work, and sure enough, his statistics were correct.

Being able to get on your horse without assistance from another person or a mounting block is really a skill that every rider should have if they are intent on riding on a trail. If you cannot do it, then I highly recommend it, at least as a long term goal. The following are some ways to help you reach that goal:

1. Join a gym. (and go)
Horse back riding is a physical skill. It requires practice, and fitness. Get fit, get flexible, and develop the arm strength that it requires to start getting on your horse.

2. If you cannot afford a gym, then consider the following exercises:
-Find a fence like the ones seen all over stables and climb over it. Do it for about 20 repetitions and it will definitely help you develop the flexibility and the strength.
-Every time you go out to see your horse in the pasture, if the fence is strong enough, do not go through it, or through the gate. Go over it. Force yourself. It is just another chance to use all those muscles that you would use to mount your horse.
-Grab a bale of hay, and toss it over a log or a jump. Then step over the jump and toss it back. Do this 20 times a day.

3. If, in the end, you have done all these exercises and you find that you are simply too short or your horse is too tall, (take note when you buy your next horse) then consider stirrup extenders that can be purchased to help you mount your horse.

Personally, I would be afraid to ride my horse on the trail if I could not easily mount and dismount. And of course, now that I have been preaching exercise, I suppose I better get my lazy carcass out there and do it too.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Command or Control, a Ground Based Review

In a previous post, I mentioned how important it was to understand the difference between Command, and Control. As a quick recap, I have to restate that Control of a horse is an illusion. Control of the horse is the province of the horse alone. It is the rider's task to teach the horse to control himself. When this is achieved, the rider may assume command. But many have mentioned that they do not necessarily know if and when they have command or when they are attempting to exert control.

The following tests might help:

1. Lead your horse through a series of obstacles, there should always be slack in the lead rope, if you never lose the slack, you have command.

2. When you groom the horse, is it necessary to tie him? Especially in cross ties? If so, you do not have command of your horse. Cross ties may be used to train him to stand quietly, but the training is not complete until he no longer needs them.

3. Can you fully tack your horse without tying him? If so, you have command.

4. When you bridle your horse, does he lower his head for you?

5. When you ask your horse to stand and wait for you while you walk 20 paces away. Will he wait at least 30 seconds without being tied or held? If so, you have excellent command.

6. When in the pasture, can you call your horse to come to you, then send him away, and call him back? Can you do so in the presence of other horses? If so, command is well established.

7. Can you step up to a mounting block and have the horse swing his side to you and present himself for mounting? Or do you do the mounting block dance?

These are all tests that will test your command of a horse on the ground. Mounted tests are generally well established in many disciplines but there are still a few tests that you can do yourself to test your command. However I will leave those for another blog.

Many extremely well trained horses will fail these simple tests so if you do not get them all, do not be discouraged. I cannot pass them all myself with my own horses. And passing on one day does not mean I will pass on another day. And indeed, passing is not as important as having them as a goal and recognizing that there are many times when I may be deluding myself into thinking that I have command when I am actually trying to exert control.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cross Training

When most people think of Dressage, they think of competition, judges, and scores; precise movements with rhythm, cadence, and balance. Few things are as beautiful to watch as a Grand Prix dressage test but I would like to suggest that we look beyond pleasing judges and audiences and start looking at the purpose of these movements.

I don’t speak French, but I am told that Dressage means training. And although they are beautiful performance movements, they carry even greater value for training. Thus, it is a pity that many riders do not bother working on these movements unless they are considering competing in a dressage test. Furthermore, if a horse is not considered to have the potential for competition, it’s common practice to exclude him from the practice of Dressage. But for me, it is precisely these horses with low potential that need the training most of all. For I believe that the purpose of training is to effect improvements, and the lower the potential, the more improvements are needed.

To illustrate this principle, let us say that a horse has trouble picking up a particular lead in the Canter. Horses are one sided as much as people are right or left handed. They always have one side that works better depending on the exercise and the horse. One side will always have a tendency to be stronger, or more flexible. We can help horses be more symmetrical with lateral movements. The lateral movements include Shoulder in/out, Haunches in/out, Side Pass, Half Pass, and Leg Yields.

All horse will have one side that picks up the lead more easily than the other. But when a horse becomes excessively resistant to picking up a particular lead, then it may need training to develop the weaker side. The question is, how are you going to train that weaker side if he never picks up the lead. You have a catch 22. He is weak because he never does it, and he never does it because he is weak. The solution lies in the dressage laterals. A Cantering horse drives himself forward with the outside rear leg. That is the leg that needs to be built up. You can do this by performing the Haunches in, and the Half Pass. These movements to the left will strengthen the outside right rear leg by forcing it to reach deep under the horse, and propel by driving far out the side.

The following are a list of common problems, and suggested corresponding lateral movement solutions.

Problem: Horse drops his inside shoulder on a circle.

Solution: Shoulder out.

This encourages the horse to pick up his inside shoulder and reach straight forward with the inside foreleg. It strengthens the inside fore, loosens and develops flexibility and discourages weakness and tightness from dragging the horse into the circle.

Problem: Horse spirals in on circles, and cuts corners.

Solution: Haunches in.

Keeps the driving force of the horse inside the circle and drives the horse back out to the outside of the circle.

Problem: Crooked back up.

Solution: Shoulder in and out.

Crooked back up happens when horse shoves himself back with his front legs, instead of pulling himself back with the hind. So the hind quarters end up getting pushed out of the way and the back up becomes crooked. Many riders will try to straighten the back up by moving the hindquarters back inline to straighten the horse instead of moving the forehand. I recommend shoulder in/out to loosen and school the shoulders to the cues, then during the back up, use your command of the shoulders to straighten the horse. When the shoulders can be moved laterally during the back up, the horse will be forced to use the hindquarters to pull himself back, and the back will be straight and powerful.

I mentioned earlier that few things are as beautiful to watch as a Grand Prix dressage test. But even more beautiful to watch is a down hill, one sided, shuffling, long backed, iron mouthed scrub, transformed, through a systematic process of conditioning, drills, and training, into an uphill, high stepping, light, responsive and agile poetic verse in motion.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Perhaps one of the most common complaints about a horse is that he is hard to stop. A horse that is reluctant to stop is not only an annoying ride, it is unsafe. I find it interesting that aside from a few sprightly dances and a little cavorting in the pasture, horses are generally sedentary animals. They will quietly saunter across the pasture until they find the perfect spot for grazing. Then they will often stand, graze, and do little else for hours. But as soon as you put a rider on its back, the horse becomes a careening maniac. A logical examination of this phenomenon will tell us that the urge to run at dangerous speeds must therefore come from the rider. This leads us to understand that getting a horse to stop must first begin by learning how to NOT make him go. When you are able to sit quietly on a horse without the unintentional delivery of cues, you can begin working on stopping. There are many drills that can teach us to sit quietly on a horse but they are not the subject of this post. Suffice it to say that although they may seem tedious, they are worthwhile.

Once you are able to ride your horse without unintentionally asking him to go, the next ingredient for a safe and reliable stop is a good rein back. The rein back, or back up, I speak of is not a reluctant, ambling, backward shuffle above the bit in response to a constant jerk on the rein. What is called for is a Back up with Impulsion and Collection in response to subtle cues. Therefore it is imperative that whatever method you may use to school the backup, its objective should be to be able to ask a horse to backup while it is in a forward gallop, WITHOUT pulling on the reins. If possible, start schooling the horse in the round pen, before moving to the arena. Then school the horse in the arena before taking him on the trail. You will use the reins to aid in the schooling process, but remember that you will NOT have achieved your true objective until they are no longer necessary.

Another important step in training a horse to stop is to teach the horse to go forward properly. Although forward may seem like the one thing a runaway horse already knows, nothing could be further from the truth. These horses have not really been taught how to move forward on cue, and in a proper manner. So either the horse has not been schooled in the proper cues for forward movement, or the rider does not know what the proper cues are. Of course, the problem could be even worse if neither the horse nor the rider knows the proper cues. This situation will quickly prove the saying that “green on green makes black and blue.”

To be a horse that stops easily, it is imperative that he be schooled in the proper cues for forward movement. Proper schooling will result in a horse that is considered in front of the leg .

A horse that does not go forward properly will not stop properly.

The cues for forward movement must include separate and distinctly different cues for the walk, the trot, the canter, and the gallop. The horse should be expected to be able to go from any gait to any other gait without the need to transition through any intermediate gaits. In other words, a horse should be able to go from a standing position, straight to a canter without the need to transition through the walk and the trot first. This is important because until the horse learns this, he will not know the difference between the cues to change gait, and the cues to change speed.

Train your horse to move forward into specific gaits and at specified speeds. This can be done in a round pen or small arena. When the horse will move forward properly into any gait you ask for, and willingly stop and back up without the use of reins, you will find that you will have transformed your runaway horse into a much safer and more enjoyable mount. And in the process, you will also have transformed yourself into the kind of enlightened rider that every horse will enjoy carrying.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bomb Proofing

Lets face it, no Horse is really bomb proof. But maybe grenade proof will suffice. Some horses have a temperament that is more conducive to being calm under pressure than others. These, so called, easier horses can lead us to believe that all horses should act the same and learn as quickly. But that is simply not true. There are some horses with a nervousness that is very difficult to mitigate. But I do not believe that it is impossible.

So a few quick words on Bomb Proofing:

There are two categories of things that may spook your horse:

  1. Normal things to which your horse will inevitably be exposed.
  2. Abnormal things which you could never predict.

Let us first cover the things to which you horse will inevitably be exposed. These include Saddles, saddle pads, blankets, bridles, whips, ropes, etc. Be aware that all these things and many more are things to which your horse will be exposed need to be processed by your horse.But it is not enough to bring them forth and let your horse sniff it. That's a good start but the real work is just beginning.

A good example is the horse blanket. The horse should not flinch if the blanket falls off him, if it flaps in his face, if it falls off the rack in front of the horse. When these things happen, and they inevitably will, the horse should not spook and hurt himself or anyone else. He should also not pull back and he should still respond to the lead rope.

In this following video, you can see me really working a blanket around a BLM Mustang. He is somewhat concerned but he is getting more and more calm about it. When the blanket will be on him I do not want to be concerned that if it slips off him, or blows around his head, that he will not come unglued.

It is important that the horse is completely inured to these everyday objects. The list of these objects is limited and easily taken into consideration for everyday sessions of Bomb Proofing. In your sessions, make sure that they are truly proofed. Not just exposed. In the video you will see me really slapping the horse with the blanket. Nature will not be gentle when it blows a stray blanket off the rack or when it falls off the horse so neither am I. I start small but I do not consider the job done until I can apply the object more forcefully than Nature can apply it.

The second list of objects are those things which you cannot predict. There is no way that you will be able to predict what these things will be and when they will jump out to attack your horse. But what you can do is teach the horse how to react to frightful objects. This process will take a long time but it will be well worth the effort. For those who follow the John Lyons school of horsemanship, you will recognize this as spooking in place.

The process is fairly simple. Take a whip or any scary object and bring it quickly to your horse. Your horse can flinch all he wants, but as long as he does not move, immediately take the object away. This shows the horse that if he does not move, the object will leave him alone. If he moves his feet and tries to avoid it, keep the object near him or on him until he stops moving. As soon as he stops moving, then remove it. This teaches him that if he tries to avoid the object or to run away, it will follow him until he stands still. And then it will leave him alone.

It is normal for people to remove an object that frightens a horse as soon as the horse starts dancing around. Unfortunately, what this teaches the horse is that if he dances, jigs, rears, or jumps around, you will remove the frightening object. This is the opposite of what you want your horse to understand.

But if you keep the object near the horse until the horse STOPS moving, he will learn the appropriate response to a frightening object. This gives the horse a tool for managing his fear in a way that will be much safer and more enjoyable.

Bear in mind that nothing is fool proof, as no horse is truly bomb proof. Additionally, no horse will be able to resist bolting in the face of overwhelming fear. But this exercise will definitely reduce the amount of dangerous spooking and reactions that your horse will exhibit from time to time on the trail.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Barn Sour, take him back and work him

Many people do not bother to teach a horse not to be barn sour until they are returning to the barn after a long trail ride with friends. It can be done this way, but it is certainly the more challenging way to teach a horse this particular lesson.

For me, it is much easier to fix barn sourness, by dedicating specific lesson times to this difficult problem. It is interesting that, as riders, we will spend weeks, months, and even years, teaching horses so-called natural movements, like piaffe, and passage, but expect a horse to learn something

unnatural like trailer loading, or non-barn-sourness by simply asserting that it should be no big deal.

A problem of this sort can become fairly serious and the longer you wait to fix it, the harder it will become. I have found that the easiest way for me is to take the horse out by myself or with a willing companion who understands that we are not going for a fun trail ride. We are going for a TRAINING ride. In fact, I go on a training trail ride with friends and students every few weeks. We go out on a ride dedicated to the training of the horses and there is no expectation that we will complete any loop, circuit, distance or anything like that. Everyone brings their problem horses and we work together to fix those problems. This we do as a group every couple of weeks, but if I really have a barn sour horse, I dedicate a portion of everyday to this problem until it is gone. Then I use the occasional group training trail ride as a maintenance exercise.

When I have the horse out ready for his training, I ride out from the barn or the trailer as the case may be, and ride only a short distance. Then I run the horse back to the barn and when I arrive, I work the horse heavily for 3 minutes. (Get a kitchen timer to make sure if you don’t already have one.) Then I walk the horse back out on the trail. I ride the horse a little further than I did last time. Then I turn around and start riding back to the barn. If the horse starts to jig or pick up speed, I run the horse even faster back to the trailer and when I arrive, I work the horse heavily again for another 3 minutes. Then I walk the horse back out onto the trail. And of course I go a bit further. When I get to some arbitrary turn around point, I dismount, loosen the girth, and let the horse graze. Bring a halter to put on so you can even remove his bridle. Let the horse graze for 3 minutes. Then tighten the girth, put on the bridle, and ride him back to the barn. If he starts to pick up speed, run him back to the barn and work him hard again for 3 minutes and then bring him back out onto the trail.

Keep repeating this until he no longer starts to pick up speed on the way back. The first time he keeps his speed down on the way back, get off him immediately, loosen his girth, and let him graze for 3 minutes. Do NOT wait until you are back at the barn. Do it right on the spot.

This will teach the horse that returning to the barn does not necessarily mean that the work day is over. On the contrary, most of the time, it means that the hard work is just beginning. Furthermore, by stopping and grazing at the turn-around point, or wherever he decides he wants to slow down, he learns that the more calmly and more slowly he goes to the trailer, the sooner he gets the benefits of being at the trailer. The light bulb will go on when he realizes that he does not even need to be at the trailer to receive benefits.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Catching the Uncatchable Horse

An interesting thing about training horses and being online is that I get a lot of questions about various topics. Ok, well that might not be so interesting, but what really is interesting is that when I get a question from someone out in cyberspace, it almost always coincides with an issue that I am currently working on with a horse. A few weeks ago I was commissioned to rehabilitate a horse that had a severe bucking problem. I did not advertise it online, but out of the blue, I got someone asking about a bucking problem with their horse. When people send me their horses for training, I try to keep a running blog of their day to day activities so that the owner can follow their progress. Well it turns out that these blogs are getting fairly popular. To some extent, more popular than my main blog "The Enlightened Horseman" which you are reading now. (To check out these side blogs, look at the links on the left hand side of this page.)

Last week, I was commissioned to help a client who had adopted a Wild Mustang. The mustang was in his pasture and would not allow himself to be caught. Right at about the same time, someone in Cyberspace asked for my input regarding catching a horse that had, over time, become uncatchable. So again, I put out a quick side blog on the subject. But I think it is important that I really go over this issue in greater detail because I believe that many people have this same problem. Furthermore, it is common for horses to develop this problem over time. So I thought it might be a good idea to cover how to catch horses, and more importantly, how to avoid creating an uncatchable horse.

First of all, let us list some items regarding the psychology of the uncatchable horse.

1. The horse is a prey animal. He is always on the look out for predators, and his survival depends on his ability to avoid being caught. Thus, he is very good at it.

2. We are predators, our survival depends on our ability to stalk and hunt prey. We are out of practice, thus we are not very good at it. But what we are good at doing is looking like we are stalking and hunting. So we tend to stalk the horse. We creep quietly to him, thinking that we are making him feel less nervous. But in fact, we are alerting him to our intentions by our stalking behavior and making him even more nervous.

3. Horses have a feeling that when we do catch them, we are going to do something unpleasant to them. We are going to put a halter on them, we are going to hurt them, we are going to eat them, we are going to put saddles on them and tighten the cinch, and ride them hard, etc. And they are almost always right. So don't do that. Just stop it. Walk up, pet them, give them a treat, and walk away. Catch and release. Don't catch and torture. I know, you may not think of it as torture, but remember that a horse who works in the arena for an hour travels about 5 miles in that arena. I remember a lesson from a trainer from the Spanish Riding School who said:
"The horse in the Arena runs 5 miles in an hour of training. All you riders, how many miles have you run today? 1? 2? or none? And yet you expect him to do all this with weight on his back and be happy about it?" Needless to say, I was very embarrassed. And I still don't get my lazy butt out to run 5 miles a day, but I am sensitive to the fact that every time I catch my horse, I don't want her to think that it always means a 5 mile forced march with a pack on her back. I also watch my diet and try to keep my weight down below 20% of the horse's weight. That is of course, weight including my saddle. So for a 1000 pound horse, if my saddle weighs 30 pounds, (and many western saddles weigh more than that) I cannot permit myself to weigh more than 170 pounds. Which sucks because I hover at around 175 pounds (And I love my Mango Sorbet). So I ride a lighter saddle and back away from the buffet. As for catching and releasing; for a horse that is hard to catch, you should catch and release 5 times more than you catch and ride. For the horse that is easy to catch, you should catch and release at least 2 times for every time you catch and ride. This will definitely make him easier to catch and will not create a problem that will be difficult to fix later.

4. Always have the halter in hand and visible when you go out to catch your horse. You do not want to creep up on him, you do not want to trick him, you do not want to surprise him. If you are going out there to catch and release, bring the halter and lead rope with you. Catch him, halter him, lead him a couple of steps, give him a treat, and then remove the halter and let him go.

5. Spend time teaching the horse to be caught and face you when you go out there to catch him. This lesson requires time. Spend as much time on this skill as you might on any other riding skill. After all, you can't ride him unless you can catch him.

You can look on the blog on the link on the side titled "Side Blogs by Request." for details about catching the uncatchable horse. By the way, the horse in the videos is now easily caught in a round pen after 4 hourse of training over two days. He will now remain in the round pen where he is easy to catch for a few weeks before he is released into the pasture. He started out as a completely wild mustang and after 4 hours of training, he can be haltered, petted and groomed. No picking up of feet yet. That will come on Friday.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


The Bigger the Restraints

The Bigger the Wreck

Many might get the impression that I do not believe in the use of tack. This is NOT true.There is a time for such things as there is for almost everything. I firmly believe that there are no bad horses, only bad riders. And there are no bad techniques, only bad timing, and no bad equipment, only bad applications. Riding a horse without a saddle is an excellent test of your balance. Riding a horse without reins is an excellent test of your relationship. When you know these aspects of your horsemanship are intact, you are then liberated to use tack for its intended purpose.

There can be no Obedience without the

Corresponding Freedom to Disobey

In keeping with the goal of partnership, the use of equipment must be restricted to the development of a better relationship and better communication. Ironically, this will not only be more enjoyable for both horse and rider, it will also be substantially safer. It is no secret that the vast majority of all injuries associated with horses, whether to the horse, or to the rider, are directly proportional to the level of restraint applied to the horse. This is revealed by the fact that whenever people talk about an equine related injury, it almost always involves a lead rope, tying, hitching, cross ties, trailers, a stall or some other form of restraint.

It is clear that an animal whose survival depends on his ability to flee is most dangerous to itself and to others when it is restrained. It is therefore incumbent upon us to provide a horse with as much freedom as possible.

But safety is not the only reason we should avoid restraining a horse. The best reason is that restraints are designed to limit a horse’s freedom. And freedom lies at the very heart of the matter. The relationship you have with your horse should be a partnership. A partnership cannot exist without dialogue. A dialogue cannot exist without honesty, and honesty cannot exist without freedom.

When a horse is restrained, he does not have the freedom to engage in dialogue. All his responses will be forced reactions compelled by the restraints. They will not be the honest responses that reflect the horse’s true state of mind or level of training. Without honesty, the rider is forced to content himself with the illusion of compliance provided by the restraints or equipment. The rider in turn is restrained. Instead of someone who enjoys the freedom of riding a horse, he becomes someone who rides a saddle, and steers a bridle.

Finally, restraints mock the very reason we ride horses. I contend that no child dreamed of riding a horse in little patterns around an arena. He dreamed of the freedom of riding a horse in the wide open spaces. And yet, we expect to get this at the expense of the horse’s freedom. If you will consider the logic of being free while connected to something that is not, you will begin to see the absurdity of it all. After all, if the horse is restrained, how can he carry us to freedom? A well trained horse has self restraint, self discipline, and self carriage. These virtues are meaningless where he is not at liberty to engage in misconduct and where he is reduced to nothing more than a slave, constrained by mechanical devices and an unrelenting hand

Where there is no Freedom

There is no Honesty

This is not to say that I never advocate the restraint of horses. But restraints should be restricted to the purposes of training, and teaching. A horse that is not finished will require restraints in the same way a child requires restrictions imposed by a loving parent. And the restrictions placed on a child are for the purposes of developing his education and discipline so that as he becomes older, he will become a self sufficient, productive, and above all, independent member of society. Likewise, our restrictions must always be applied with the welfare and independence of the horse as its primary goal and not for the convenience of the rider. In keeping with this concept, they should always be applied in such a way as to promote a reduction of their use in the future.

Riders should strive for the day when their horses can completely ignore their cues without consequences and yet choose to comply anyway. They should continue in this endeavor until such a time as the horse and rider are so harmonious in their collaboration that, to all, they appear as one because they are joined, not by tack, but by a bond of trust and affection more powerful than any bridle, and stronger than any chain.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Came off my Bucking Horse, should I get back on?

It has been my experience that when a horse develops a bucking
habit, it is usually because there were shortcuts taken in his starting process. Although there are many competitions that showcase horses being broke within a few hours, that is really not the best way to create a reliable and safe mount. I am not adverse to top horsemen showcasing their skills in this way, but if you were to ask them if that is how they would recommend a horse be started, they would all say no. Although gentling a wild horse to be ridden in a few hours is certainly impressive, the real trick is to make the horse a great mount for the rest of his life. Many classical schools will take as long as a year to back a horse. During that year, the horse is taught everything he needs to know as a reliable mount so that by the time he is ridden, there is nothing the rider can do, that the horse has not already experienced.

So now what to do if you are bucked off? Many might say that if you fall off a horse you should get right back on. This can be true for the most part if you fell off because the horse spooked, you were not paying attention, or the horse refused a jump. A rider can fall off a horse for any one of these reasons and when he does, he should get back on the horse and continue his ride. But there are occasions when I do not recommend a rider get back on.

After pondering it a bit, I have decided that after a fall, you should only get back on a horse under the following conditions:

1. Your are not injured or hurt
2. The horse is not injured or hurt
3. The reason you came off is NOT the direct result of the horse trying to get you off

If you are injured or hurt, do NOT get back on. Further physical activity may worsen your injuries. There will always be another day, another horse, and even another sport.

If the horse is injured, do NOT get back on. Further physical activity may worsen your horse's injury and possibly make him detest your presence on his back.

If the reason you fell off is because the horse engaged in actions specifically to unhorse you, then do NOT get back on. If he did it once, he will do it again. And the second time, you might not be lucky enough to escape injury. Furthermore, you will solidify yourself as someone whom he can easily dislodge and the bucking can become a habit.

If the horse develops a bucking problem, then the following are your options:

1. Train the horse to stop bucking and resign yourself to the time and effort it will take. Your horse has bucking as a habit and thus breaking the habit will be extremely difficult and time consuming. But if you are willing to do it, then it can be done, but be prepared to be in for the long haul. (and also be prepared to fail for that may happen too)

2. Pay a professional to take your horse for a couple of months. The advantage of this is that you are not endangered during the process. The disadvantage is it may be difficult to find someone who really can do it. They may just take your money for a few months and give you back a horse that bucks.

3. Get rid of the horse and get a horse that does not have a bucking problem. This is my personal recommendation. People often feel like they are giving up when they get rid of a horse, but that is not the case. Doing so does not make you a quitter. And this is not the vehicle to assert your fortitude. If you are not a professional trainer, you should not be expected to act like one just because you own a horse. As an experienced trainer I often get too wrapped up in myself and tend to think that everyone should be like me. I forget that if everyone was like me, I would be out of a job. You may have a separate professional and personal life apart from horses where you can engage in courageous, and dedicated behavior. So unless you want to be a professional horse trainer, or some kind of professional equestrian athlete on the show circuit, you should not be expected to take unnecessary risks.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Command or Control

When the Reins are Gone,
All that is left is your Relationship

When I speak of controlling a horse, his hindquarters, forehand, or any other part of the horse, I am not speaking in the physical sense. Physical control of the horse should be the domain of the horse. A rider may believe that he has physical control but that is only an illusion. In fact, a rider is only in control in so much as the horse has no desire to take control. As soon as the horse is angry, frustrated, or frightened enough, he will easily take control back from the rider, thus ending the fantasy. (Often in an unpleasant cloud of dust.)

An example of attempted physical control of a horse is when someone tries to push or pull a horse with a halter and lead rope or when a person tries to shove a horse with their hands. These attempts are usually unpleasant for both the horse and the human and, in many cases, the horses are able to show how easily they can take control back from the human.

Instead of control, what we can have is command. The difference is that having command allows us to exercise indirect control over the horse to whatever extent the horse is trained and willing to obey. There are four elements of command. These are:

1. Communication

2. Training

3. Obedience

4. Relationship

The first element of command is a channel of communication. The very definition of the word command is the communication of a desire from one entity to another. If we want our horses to do what we want, then they have to understand what we want. And since they are not psychic to any degree that is reliable, it is our responsibility to make our desires known to them in a way that is clear. The way to do this is covered in the post on Impulsion.

The second element of command is training. The horse needs to be physically able to perform the movements that we ask. Therefore he needs to be trained in its execution. He must be taught the mechanics of the movement, as well as be physically prepared for the athletic demands that the movement might require. For all but the most advanced movements, the horses are usually athletically capable, but the mechanics of many of the movements such as spins, pirouettes, roll backs, and side passes are unknown to horses until they have had it explained to them.

The third element of command is obedience. Obedience to a command cannot be demanded. It can only be coaxed and negotiated. This is done by showing the horse that the alternative to obedience is less desirable. Over time the horse will begin to understand that obedience will reap greater rewards in the long term. However, in order to learn this, the horse must be coaxed with short term rewards. This is done by the presentation of pleasant consequences. A horse that is given a command always has a choice. Assuming he is trained, and the communication is clear, he can obey or disobey. The rider must be very consistent in making obedience easy, and pleasant for the horse.

It should be remembered that outright punishments for disobedience, especially in the form of violence should be avoided if at all possible. For example, if a moving horse refuses to stop, the rider should avoid jerking on the reins to punish the horse in the mouth. If the environment is too dangerous for high speeds, then the rider can ask the horse to move in ever tightening circles until the horse decides that it would be more comfortable to stop. This is the origin of the “One Rein Stop”. It is extremely effective but should be used judiciously. On no account should a horse be run until it is exhausted, or spun in tight circles endlessly as a punishment. Although, these methods can appear to be effective in the short term, they will have long term consequences that will damage your relationship. Over time, they will render the rider unwelcome on the horse’s back and the horse will eventually develop other more irritating vices.

The last element is the relationship. We must never forget that command is a concession that we have negotiated. It is a mandate given to us by horses that can, at any moment, be rescinded. It is therefore vital that we maintain a relationship with our horses that is mutually respectful and beneficial. These elements of a relationship must not be taken for granted and needs both cultivation and maintenance. Without it, the other elements of control will not be in effect and we will not have willing obedient partners. However, if our horses are willing partners, then all that is needed is to let them know our desires in the form of commands, (a.k.a. cues) and they will do everything in their power to comply and help us achieve our goals. In return, we should be alert to our horse’s desires and try to be as considerate as possible.

Keep in mind that the horse has a job and he needs the freedom to get it done. If he makes mistakes, correct him. But remember that the horse learns from his mistakes, and so the more mistakes he makes, the more educated he will become. Give him responsibilities, and then hold him accountable. Given time and the right amount of freedom and he will surprise you with an iron core of self discipline.

If we do not impose overbearing and constant supervision on our horses, we can avoid falling under the illusion that we can control them. The result will be a happier horse, a safer ride, and a stronger relationship based on mutual trust and respect. And when you really do need your horse’s total cooperation, as you might in a competition, then you will have it given to you freely. And you will appear to be in total control of the horse’s every movement even though what you really have is cooperation. And that is a much more powerful thing indeed.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Practice Staying On

Are Horse and Rider connected by Tack, or Trust?
The biggest concern a rider, who lacks confidence, may have is falling off. So the biggest way to build confidence is by training a student in the fine art of staying on a horse. Oddly enough, students are often expected to get good at this skill simply by osmosis, and without specific drills or exercises. People will practice all manner of techniques and movements for hours, weeks, and months, but will devote very little time to the specific skill of not falling off. By that I mean that the time spent is purely devoted to this skill and nothing else. Hoping that a student will get good while practicing other skills does not count. It does contribute, but for many, it is simply not enough.

When I started with my own students, I decided that I would develop some lessons devoted purely to the art of staying on the horse. I decided that staying on the horse would take specific training, that would require specific drills or exercises. And I decided that the exercises would have to meet the following criteria:

-Challenging. In order for people to practice staying on, they would have to have exercises that were incrementally more challenging as their skills progressed.

-Safe. To be safe, the difficulty of the exercise had to be easily controlled by the instructor or student such that it could be de-escalated as quickly and as easily as it was escalated.

-Effective. Students had to be able to notice the difference immediately. Learning to stay on a horse should not take years. It should take weeks.

-Not need an Instructor. Drills and exercises are just that; drills and exercises. It is of no use to learn a drill but only perform it once a week when the instructor is present. Students need to be able to do it daily in the absence of the instructor.

I came up with a few, but lengthy explanations would be too cumbersome for them all, so I have included two that I find to be most effective. One is very easy, and the other is very difficult.

First: Eyes closed. There is a school of Horsemanship that calls this the Blind Passenger Game. Whether or not you subscribe to that school is immaterial. This exercise is extremely effective. First pick a quiet arena where the horse is comfortable and you do not anticipate any spooking. Then ride your horse with your eyes closed. Ride the horse anywhere HE wants to go. Do not direct him. At some point he will get stuck in a corner. Do not direct him left or right, simply keep your eyes closed and drive him forward. Let him make the decision to turn left or right. When he makes decisions that you're not expecting, you will feel off balance. But you will not fall off. If it feels like you are going to fall, simply open your eyes, and you will be right back to riding like you normally do. Another way to perform this exercise is with an assistant who leads the horse. The assistant does not need to be a trainer or instructor. He just needs to be able to lead the horse around while changing directions in a random manner. To truly feel the effectiveness of this exercise, spend 10 minutes with eyes closed, and then open your eyes and have the assistant lead the horse in the same pattern again. You will feel such a remarkable difference that you will probably want to incorporate this exercise in every session.

Second: Alternating Toe Touching. With your horse standing still, take your left hand and reach over across your horse's withers and touch your right toe. Yes, I said that correctly, LEFT hand to RIGHT toe. Then switch to the other side. Right hand to Left toe. If you can do this at the halt, then do it at the walk and eventually at the trot. If you can do it at the trot, then do it with your feet out of the stirrups. If you can do it with your feet out of the stirrups, then do it bareback. Bear in mind that doing this bareback is extremely difficult. In fact so difficult that you might think that I have either made a mistake in the description or that it is simply impossible. But I assure you that it is possible and that you can do it, eventually. You may not have sufficient flexibility to do it in the beginning and an easier version would be to start by just touching the opposite knee instead of your toe and work your way down over time.

These exercises are surprisingly effective and if you do them consistently for a couple of weeks, you will definitely notice a remarkable improvement in your balance, strength, and flexibility. And of course, your horse will make improvements in these areas as well because you will be leading by example.