Monday, May 25, 2009

Minimize your Cue, Lighten your Horse

A common and irritating habit that horses have is that of being, what some people refer to as, "Hard Mouthed".  Others call it "Not Being Soft" or "Heavy on the Bit". These terms describe a horse that will not give to the bit when asked.  When this occurs, you will often hear students complain that they have to pull very hard on the rein to get a response.

This is a difficult problem and I have a mare with whom I often wrestle with this issue.  On some days, I have tremendous success, on others, I have dismal failures.  But on the days that we encounter failures, I have noticed  a couple of things.

The first observation I have made is that since my horse is sometimes extremely light, then it is proof that she is capable of being light, and that this is not the result of ignorance or lack of training on her part.  

So the next thing to track is what is different about me on the days when she is good as opposed to the days when she is bad?

And the most glaring difference I have noticed is my mood.  If I am in a bad mood, the horse will be hard.  If I am in a good mood, the horse will be soft.  It is really that simple.

So the next thing to consider is why?  I suppose that I could make speculations about the horse sensing my irritation, or being a reflection of my psychological state.  Endless talks could ensue about the innate sensitivity of horses to their rider's mental condition, and interesting though it might be, I don't think it would be very useful.  The reason I don't think it would be useful is because it is not realistic to think that you must be in a good mood every time you ride your horse.  I know that a lot people think that simply riding a horse will put you in a good mood, but I have been around horses and horse people long enough to know that this is simply not true for everyone.  Hang around an arena long enough and you will see a myriad of riders cursing and kicking their horses in angst.  (Being tri-lingual, I have often cursed at my horse in three languages in the hopes of finding at least one that she understands. To my detriment, she apparently understands them all and responds in kind.)

So what is it about a bad mood that makes us a bad rider, and in particular, with regard to pulling on the bit?  And my answer to that is sensitivity.  As we spiral into a state of irritation, we, as a general rule, begin to think mostly of ourselves and less about others.  A bad mood is usually a result of some unpleasant encounter where we have felt victimized.  These thoughts are ego centric and so we are generally thinking about ourselves and not in the mood to be empathetic.  Whether or not we are justified in our mental state is not relevant to the horse.  All he feels are your spurs at his side, and your hands in his mouth.

At this point, when we ask with the rein, our hands tend to be less forgiving, and less sensitive to the horses responses.  Thus, when we ask, we ask for bigger responses, and are less prone to giving a timely release.  There is a great saying among great horseman the world over.  Some attribute this to Tom or Bill Dorrance, some to Ray Hunt, and it is echoed by many such as Pat Parelli.  I don't really know who originated the saying and I don't care.  I just know that it is golden.  The saying is: 

Ask a Lot, Accept a Little, and Reward the Slightest Try.

As you ask for a give at the bit, expect your horse to be soft, and when he gives even a tiny little bit, then immediately release.  Having a horse give at the bit or anywhere else on his body requires a series of tiny requests in a long sequence.  Consider the following scenario: 

If I want my horse to walk ten steps, I never ask for ten steps, I ask for one step, ten times.  Thus, for every step my horse gives me, I give a release.  He is then reinforced for every single step he gives and every subsequent step becomes more animated and energetic.  His enthusiasm will build as he is constantly reassured that what he is doing is the right thing.  On the other hand, if I want ten steps and I start asking without giving a release until I get the ten steps, then by the time the horse has taken 4 or 5 steps, without getting a release of the pressure, he may begin to doubt that what he is doing is the correct movement.  By the time he has reached 6 or 7 steps, he may be convinced that he is not giving the correct movement and may even begin to reverse his direction.

The same can be said of the bit and reins.  When I pull on the rein, I want my horse to break at the pole and give to the bit.  Let us say that I would like his head to come to the vertical.  And let us suppose that, because of the current position of his head, it would require him to move his nose down by as much as 10 degrees.  If I want to be successful, I would not ask him to move his head down 10 degrees by a single pull on the rein.  Instead, I would ask him to move his head 1 degree, ten times.  Each degree of give I get from the horse, should result in a slight give from me, thus reassuring him that he is doing the correct thing.  Now these releases of the rein can be very slight; so slight that no one but the horse will notice.  And to the casual observer, it will appear as if the horse broke at the pole in a single pull of the rein.  But make no mistake, the releases were there.

So what's mood got to do with it?  Well, when I am in a bad mood, I still have good balance.  So I am not falling off the horse.  When I am in a bad mood, I still have strength, so I can grip with my legs.  However, when I am in a bad mood, the one thing I am NOT is SENSITIVE.  Thus, I am not inclined to give timely releases.  Because I have just been slighted by the world, I have low expectations, therefore I do not expect a lot.  Because I am not sensitive to the gifts I receive from my horse, I cannot accept a little, and because I am not feeling charitable, I cannot reward the slightest try.  


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