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.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Finally, the Impulsion, Collection Connection.

Robin and a Random Chestnut

Now that Impulsion is well understood and the anatomic mechanics of Collection have been explained, all that remains is to make the connection between the two. The relationship between Impulsion and Collection is simple and elegant.

Simply stated, Collection is a measure of Impulsion with respect to the horse’s velocity. Thus:

Collection = Impulsion/Velocity

But if, as explained in previous posts

Impulsion = Horse's Response/Rider's Cues


Collection = Horse's Response/((Velocity)(Rider's Cues))

So once the horse has Impulsion, then all that is needed to make him Collected is to reduce his Velocity, without losing Impulsion. But by looking at the last formula, it becomes clear that Collection can be increased by adjusting one, or all, of three variables in the following manner:

1. Increase the Horse's Responses

2. Decrease Velocity

3. Decrease the Riders Cues

Actually, it would be nice to do all three.

This can be seen when a horse is brought to an extreme state of Collection by a reduction of velocity as he is brought from a working or Extended trot to a Collected trot. From the Collected trot, his responses are kept high but his velocity is reduced as he is brought down to the Passage where a moment of suspension in the trot delays forward movement. Then the horse’s velocity is reduced even further as he trots in place in the Piaffe, while still remaining responsive.

At this point, the horse’s forward movement is reduced as far as possible (Velocity is near zero), so the only way to increase Collection is by increasing the horse’s response. Thus the next step is the Pesade as all the weight of the horse is loaded on the hindquarters in a rearing motion. In other words, the Horse responds without increasing Velocity. Next in line is the Levade, a lower more difficult form of the Pesade. From the Levade, an even greater responsiveness can be achieved in the Corbette, causing the horse to hop into the air from the Levade. And finally, the greatest response to the cues with no forward movement is the high flying Capriole.

The Western horse will undergo a similar sequence as he is put through his paces in the Reining Arena. The finale of his sequence will be a demonstration of extreme Impulsion as he is asked to gallop at full speed. Then his Collection is put to the test as he is asked to respond on a loose rein and bring his forward velocity to zero in the Slide-stop while still maintaining the high Impulsion established in the gallop.

Now that the relationship between Collection and Impulsion is understood, developing Collection becomes nothing more than a matter of increasing Impulsion while at the same time decreasing Velocity. Beware of exercises that seek only an arched neck or lowered head. These may give the appearance of Collection but without a high Impulsion to Velocity ratio, it will be an illusion.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Impulsion Understood? So what of Collection?

The next thing to fully understand before delving too deeply into the subject of Collection is a bit of anatomy. A full course in anatomy is not necessary but some concept of it is required if one is to understand the physiological effects of Collection.

First it is important to recognize that the average horse carries about sixty percent of his weight on his forehand. An untrained horse will generally travel with his withers relatively low and his shoulders rolling over his grounded fore limbs. Collection will require a horse to lower his croup by compressing his hind quarters and elevating the forehand by pushing upward through his shoulders. Essentially, Collection lightens the forehand by shifting the bulk of the weight onto the hindquarters. Understanding how a horse can do this is where a small knowledge of anatomy will be helpful.

I shall start with the vertebra. The vertebra in the neck are called the Cervical Vertebra. The first Cervical Vertebra which is connected to the skull is called the Atlas. This allows the horse to nod his head in a motion referred to as breaking at the pole.

The next Vertebra is the Axis and it, along with the rest of the Cervical Vertebra, allows the horse to swing his head from side to side and bend his neck.

After the neck, the next set of vertebra is called the Thoracic Vertebra. These are weight bearing and carry the rider. It should be noted that there is generally very little movement in this area compared to others. These Vertebra are extremely stiff in their articulations and offer almost no flexion at all.

The next set is called the Lumbar Vertebra. The first joint in their union to the Thoracic Vertebra is called the Thoracolumbar Joint. The next set of Vertebra is behind the Sacrum. The joint between the last Lumbar and the Sacrum is called the Lumbosacral Joint. The reason it is important to know about these vertebra and their joints is because the way the individual portions of the spine flexes and articulates is an essential part of Collection and constitute the process of what is known as Rounding the Back.

The Cervical Vertebra have a great deal of flexion thus allowing the neck to bend. The Lumbar and the Thoracic have very little. The exception is the Lumbosacral joint. The ability of the Lumbosacral Joint to articulate as much as thirty degrees is what allows the horse to tuck his croup and load the hindquarters. It is what makes Collection possible and in particular, the extreme examples of it, as in the Piaffe for Dressage or the Slide-Stop for Reining. It should be interesting to note that cattle do not have a Lumbosacral joint and therefore are not capable of Slide-Stops.

The next area to examine is the shoulders. The horse does not have collar bones. The thorax is carried in a cradle of muscles called the Serratus Ventralis. Contracting these muscles can cause the Thorax to rise between the shoulders thus causing the withers to rise.

So ultimately, Collection is effected by the horse when he performs the following:

  • Articulates the Lumbosacral joint in order to tuck his croup and round his back
  • Flexes the Serratus Ventralis to raise the withers
  • Flexes the Cervical Vertebra to arch his neck
  • Flexes the Atlas in order to break at the pole

All these movements require a great deal of coordination and an entire set of muscles that are generally not used for anything else. Consequently, collection is not only something that needs to be learned from an aspect of coordination and dexterity, but also something that requires conditioning over time. The Enlightened Rider will not ask for all of it at once; especially from a young horse. Nor will he ask for movements and performance that cannot be expected from a horse who is not collected before the horse has the coordination and the conditioning needed to deliver these movements without injuring himself.

Some might argue that horses perform many movements that require collection when they are playing in the pastures. While this may be true, a horse under saddle with the weight of a rider is a far cry from a horse playing in the pasture. The horse under saddle must make adjustments for the weight of the saddle and the rider. Furthermore, he is asked to engage in collection and then maintain the collected state indefinitely until the rider decides to release him. This could be a considerable amount of time and is never something that a horse in the pasture would elect to do. To fully understand what this means I suggest donning a backpack consisting of twenty percent of your body weight. For the average person, that would be about forty pounds. Then Squat down over a chair until your seat is almost touching the chair. Hover over the chair (without touching it) for about half an hour and you will understand what is being asked of horses in a typical arena training session.

By understanding these processes, you can make a much more enlightened, and reasonable request for Collection. Furthermore, you will be able to recognize your horse’s honest attempts to deliver this often elusive posture and thus be able to respond with more timely releases.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Impulsion, What is it?

Few subjects about horses are as misunderstood as Collection. If you asked a group of riders to explain Collection you will often get a multitude of responses. But persistence will yield at least two answers more common than the rest. One is that Collection is when the horse reaches deeply under his body with his hind legs, thereby assuming a greater portion of the horse’s weight. The other is that Collection describes a horse that tucks and lowers his croup. Both answers are correct but carry with them only part of the story.

These describe the horse's appearance when collected but do not describe what the horse is actually doing. They appear incomplete because they fail to include the concept of Impulsion, and a sufficient detail of anatomy, as integral parts of the explanation. Without these aspects, no treatment of Collection can be fully illuminating. So before even talking about Collection, let us first discuss Impulsion.

Impulsion is usually described as a horse’s forward movement. This answer suggests that to increase Impulsion, a horse need only increase his speed. And yet, a faster horse is not necessarily a horse with greater Impulsion. Some might say that a better definition is that Impulsion is a horse’s TENDENCY for forward motion. Although this is an improved definition, it implies that a horse performing a Rein-back not only has no Impulsion, but that his Impulsion would, in fact, be negative. But this is not true because horses are expected to have Impulsion even during a Rein-back. Therefore the definition does not sufficiently describe the action.

My aspersions on these definitions are not meant to criticize. They are in fact correct descriptions. My only concern is that they are arguable and cryptic for some people.

There are many masters who can give good definitions but they are often hard to find among the morass of well intended suggestions. And of course, instead of keeping my nose out of it, I decided to throw my opinions on to the pile and I hope they are helpful. If not, discard them for some that are.

After researching the matter carefully, I believe the following definition serves the concept best:

Impulsion is a

Measure of the Horse’s

Responses with Respect to the

Riders Cues

Another way of saying it is in the mathematical formula

shown in the picture at the top of this post

By applying this definition, one can readily understand that the more a horse responds to a cue, the greater his Impulsion. Conversely, the more a rider must cue his horse in order to the get the same response, the lower his Impulsion.

The next question is, of course, how to develop Impulsion. The answer is a proper application of the cues. To do this, make sure that all your cues meet the following criteria:






Immediately Released


To be effective, a cue must be distinct from other movements made by the rider. I have often found that asking a student to simply sit on a horse and do nothing can be a challenge. However difficult it may be, it is a worthwhile exercise to develop a sufficient quietness of body to detach your lower body from your upper body enough to keep from unintentionally giving cues to the horse.


A horse must know what a cue means before he can respond with Impulsion. Although a horse can offer correct responses to a cue by accident, or as a means to discover the meaning of a cue, he will not develop Impulsion until the discovery phase is over and he is sure about the meaning of the cue. Until then, he is reacting, not responding.

Too often, cues are repeatedly given to horses who have either never been taught its' meaning or have not been given enough time to learn. The frustration and futility that are the obvious results of such an approach should be avoided as they are not only unpleasant, they are also dangerous.


The third criterion requires a cue to be fair. By fair I mean that the horse must be physically capable of performing the movements demanded by the cues. A horse who is asked to do something that it is prohibited from doing due to environmental restraints or physical limitations, at best, will cultivate disobedience and distrust, and at worst, may become injured. In either case, he will not develop Impulsion.

Not Repeated

A cue should not be repeated without compliance on the part of the horse, or correction on the part of the rider. Continuously repeated commands and cues without compliance or corrections serve only to dull a horse and teach him that ignoring a cue until it is repeated five or six times is a viable option. This attitude is the complete opposite of the desired result. If a horse ignores a cue, it is usually because the horse either does not appreciate the immediate urgency of the cue, or does not understand its meaning. Therefore, the rider must provide corrective or suggestive hints before applying the cue again.


The next criterion requires a cue to be given in a consistent manner. Continuously changing the nature of a cue is a very quick way to sap a horse of his Impulsion. Without Consistency, all other aspects of your efforts will be quickly undermined by growing confusion and misunderstanding.


The most critical of all criterion states that an immediate release must be given whenever the horse offers the slightest hint of compliance. The Release will inform the horse that his movement is correct at the critical moment of performance. It requires the rider to acknowledge, by a release of the cue, any attempt made by the horse to correctly interpret the cue. The vital importance of a timely release outweighs all other considerations and is often considered the cornerstone of Traditional Equestrian arts.

Hopefully this post will cast some light on Impulsion and how to achieve it. On my next post, I will discuss the anatomy of Collection before moving on to Collection itself.