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.