Intellectual property of Ms Anna Blake, a great horsewoman, responsible rider and awesome writer.
See Groundwork: the How – Part I for the basics:
- correct aids from the ground
- positioning and body posture
- correct leading from the ground
- curves and bends, halts and rein-backs in hand
- help your horse pick up more weight in the hindquarters, step under, round its back and develop strength by pushing forward from behind
A word on gentleness
“But in so far as the perfection of an art lies in the knowledge of where to begin, I am very well advised in this regard, to teach the horse his first lessons, since he finds them the most difficult, in searching for a way in which to work his mind, rather than his thighs and shanks, while being careful not to annoy him, if possible, and not to rob him of his gentleness: since it is to the horse as the blossom is to the fruit, which, once withered, never returns. By the same token, if their gentleness is lost, one can restore it only with difficulty in light horses with fiery temperaments and not at all in German horses. It never fails that someone who does not work with consideration either destroys his horse’s gentleness or teaches him incorrigible vices.”
– Antoine de Pluvinel, “L’instruction du Roy”
“Perfection of an art” might not be the goal for you – that’s one for us dressage lovers, “work his mind … and not to rob him of his gentleness” SHOULD really be the goal for any horse owner though, regardless of your discipline or riding level.
Who on earth would knowingly and willingly rob a creature so fine, proud and intelligent of their gentleness?
And even riders who are so presumptuous in expecting their horses to function for the purpose they had purchased them for, would not want to create lifeless riding robots with no expression (would lose you points in competition) or teaching their horses “incorrigible vices” and thus make them potentially dangerous (and monetarily worthless).
Last time we discussed how groundwork can and should be fun for you and your horse. Your horse should do the equivalent of a grin when you come around the barn corner with your cavesson or neckrope for a change. “Yay, we’re gonna have some fun!”
Groundwork for me is often exercising by play, ideally for both of you.
So, there really is no need NOT to be gentle and considerate, not to “work his mind” and interest him in new stuff. And while playing together, almost perchance you are exercising your horse, making it more limber, stronger and better balanced.
Now, of course, you need to know what exercises to incorporate in your playtime, and how these exercises are done correctly for them to best benefit your horsey.
Once I’ve been through the basics with a new horse for a couple of days and all the leading, walking, halting, bending and backing up together works well, I like to suggest a shoulder-in to them. Most horses understand the exercise really fast and it can be taught in a fun and engaging way with a goodie for the bend or out on a county road walk, by using the grass strip on the side of the road to measure the tracks.
Back in riding school when I was little, the instructors would let you do leg yields for years before you even learnt that there was such a thing as “shoulder-in”, but I’ve noticed that horses get easily confused by the whole crossing-my-legs-while-walking-sideways thing – funnily geldings more so than mares, in my experience.
This is why I start out by teaching the shoulder-in. Not just because it ensures me almost instant gratification for the horse I work with as they just love getting new stuff right, I also consider it the single most useful exercise in dressage, universally useful and beneficial for any type or breed or age of horse.
This is a movement on two tracks, meaning forehand and quarters are traveling on two different tracks. The hind on the outside track and the front on a slightly more inside track (when looking at the movement in the arena).
The horses neck is bent slightly to the inside, the bend traveling all the way through the horse, or actually only up to about the lumbosacral area, as the hips stay square on the outer track and the hindlegs travel straight forward.
A short excursion into the horse’s anatomy on “bend”:
First of all: forget about ever hearing of “costal bend” – the horse cannot flex its costal vertebraes! This is a myth perpetuated in riding schools everywhere.
So what is “bend”?
The horse can bend its neck vertebraes very well – we know that.
It can also bend the last few costal vertebraes (floating ribs area) and the first few lumbal vertebraes, however they aren’t as flexible as the neck. And then, of course, its tail is very flexible.
This means that “bend” can only occur in the neck, flank and tail.
Most costal vertrebraes and the sacrum are immobile!
How to begin the shoulder-in:
The rider achieves this by positioning the horses shoulders inside the arena, enough to create 3 instead of only 2 lines with his horses legs – so from the front you’ll see from outside to inside:
- line 1: outer hind leg on the outside
- line 2: outer front leg + inner hind leg following, still on the outside track
- line 3: inner front leg, on the second track
Always be careful not to bend the neck further than your horse can hold the bend, this will result in the outside shoulder “popping out”, you might want to start practicing along a fence to avoid this. It isn’t that a pronounced neck bend of 30° – 45° would be in any way harmful to the horse, it’s just that many horses need to find their way there gradually as they become more flexible to bend without losing balance or compensate.
The only thing that can be done wrong here and would not be beneficial is to shorten the neck and overflex the poll. I try to keep the poll up throughout my work, but if they need to stretch down and out a little in between that’s no biggie at all.
I watch out for a nicely shaped and relaxed neck, top muscles active and extending / telescoping the neck forward, lower parts nice and wobbly – the poll flexion isn’t important yet.
The benefits of this exercise:
- You will increase your horse’s mobility by asking it to maintain bend
- You will improve the way it carries its neck and head by asking to telescope (cavesson really helps here)
- You can improve straightness by doing this regularly on both sides, alternatively stretching one side while bending the other
- Your horse’s balance will improve as you keep asking it to shift weight to the outside fore
- You can strengthen the inside hind as it bears more load by asking it to step under
- Your horse will learn to become soft on the inside reign
- He/She will develop more reach and shoulder freedom as the inside fore is kept free with the weight off it
- Your horse and you will both feel motivated by this exercise as it is quickly understood and therefore can be used in any situation (a horses confidence is boosted by exercises it knows and can execute well), e.g. in a scary situation out on the trail
With the shoulder-in, riding or working from the ground becomes a vital part of your horse’s physiotherapy. Dressage, after all, is meant to be in service of the horse – it is not the horse that is in service to dressage.
The leg yield
This exercise isn’t part of classical dressage training, many even think it has no gymnastic value whatsoever – mostly argued based on the missing bend.
As said before, I also think it is one of these inventions of riding teachers to drive their beginners crazy with – the shoulder-in is much easier for horse and rider!
There’s however horses who easily cross their legs and even find joy in it, and when you carefully look at this sequence you can see how it requires:
- shifting of weight from side to side
- balance and overall weight distribution
- movement of adductors and abductors
- and it mobilises the spine (up, down, sideways)
Most horses this exercise also helps into a good long stretch:
You can also see Wesley cheating a bit by not crossing as much behind, bear in mind this old boy is 26 – but he hugely enjoys showing off how well he can go sideways!
Overbend and Falling-In
Anybody who has ever ridden a horse on the circle line knows this:
There’s a “hollow” and a “stiff” side – the “natural crookedness” of horses.
Basically rider code lingo for imbalance. Great example of how NOT to do it shown here:
Now that’s MUCH better, nicely balanced with light legs and correct bend:
To make the best use of gymnastic exercises, it is crucial you know which one is your horse’s hollow side. There’s about a 50/50 chance, so it’s not true that most horses are hollow to the left. Medicine isn’t sure yet what the ultimate reason for a foal to be crooked is, but common consensus currently lies with its position in the womb.
Over the years this natural tendency becomes more and more apparent, and if not correctly spotted and the horse not trained accordingly, the result will be a rather crooked horse.
Let’s take this lovely little lady as an example:
Felina is an Arabian Fullblood mare in her twenties (no point in using perfectly balanced high-school horses here), so a “real horse” that anyone may have in their barn.
She’s never had much training as she spent a long time carrying beginners around country trails, she was a working horse.
About 2 months ago, I’ve started working with her once a week in-hand and now occasionally from the saddle too.
Her lovely new owner takes her mainly on fun trail rides and occasionally works her from the ground.
Felina is quite crooked and hollow to the right.
This means she will offer to bend to the right very well, even over-bend on occasion and popping out the left shoulder.
On the circle to the left she cannot maintain the bend correctly, and after about half a round will fall onto the inside shoulder, bend her neck to the outside and there’s no coming back from that by pulling on the inside rein and kicking the barrel to the outside.
With a horse that is hollow to the right, we will see the following effects to varying degrees:
- shortened, tense and potentially sore muscles on the right side of the neck
- an overloaded left shoulder and foreleg
- the withers sink to the left
- a weaker right hind-leg, often falling in
A horse that is hollow to the left will have the same issues on the opposite sides.
Whenever training a horse, this knowledge is what will make your training useful and beneficial to your horse’s health.
So what can we do?
You can start out each day by doing carrot stretches as described in one of my previous posts.
Start on the “stiff side”, move to the hollow side, repeat on the stiff side. Do this before your ride, after mounting from the saddle and afterwards. See how long you can hold the stretches and gradually prolong them.
Before you start working together, you can give your horse a good neck rub – use your bare fingers instead of a brush and get the blood flowing. Brush your fingers gently from the base of the neck upward towards the poll. You can also try to gently lift the skin and roll it up and down. A horse that is hollow to the right will require more loosening and warming of the right side of the neck.
Continue the rubbing session on the left-hand shoulder, then move the horse’s weight onto the right shoulder by pushing on the withers in order to release the muscles you are massaging.
Circle work for straightness
When teaching something new, always start out on the easier / the hollow side.
When your horse is used to the exercise, start out any bending work on the stiff side first – this way a repetition of three will ensure you bend the stiff side more than the hollow side.
We work Felina on a wide 20m circle in hand on the left-hand side.
Here I need to watch out for many things simultaneously:
- bending the neck inwards without compressing the poll
- moving her weight onto the outside shoulder (right shoulder)
- engaging her hind to step under to avoid the haunches turning outwards
Number 1 is easily accomplished by the use of the cavesson, it gives correct Stellung without compressing the poll and shortening the neck.
Number 2 is the trickiest but also the most important part. With some it’ll be enough to use the inside hand on the shoulder blade to avoid the inside shoulder from falling in, with Felina the neck rope, used the same way as a neck rein is used in all working equitation disciplines, works very well as she will naturally lean away from the touch on her neck.
Number 3 is a combination of two different aids: with the whip pointed backwards I will already encourage her to use her hind in a more forwards fashion.
Once she gets used to point 1 and 2, I can also use the aids on her nose (or with a bit on the mouth) with a distinct upwards attitude as well as my upper body mirroring the upwards “growth” to relief her shoulders, allow her to “grow in the withers” and distribute more weight on her quarters.
This will in turn stabilise the quarters as they now bear more weight.
Please bear in mind that the shifting of weight backward by an upward motion of the hand, classical dressage speaks of the “arrêt” or “demi-arrêt“, also known as the infamous “half halt”, will only work with horses that have already learned to telescope their neck and use their top-line muscles.
And secondly, that every “arrêt” must be followed by a “descent de mains“, the subsequent lowering of the hands once the horse shows the first inkling of cooperation.
Another way of helping horses that throw themselves on the forehand is to use a “wrap”, literally a polo wrap around their body – touching chest and lower neck as well as wrapping around the hind just below the Tuber ischiadicum, aka seatbone.
The slight rub when they move will help to adjust their posture, similar to physio taping.
Of course, correctly executed reinbacks are also a great way of distributing weight.
If you think all of this sounds “French” to you, then by all means – work on correcting lateral balance – and leave weight distribution from front to back to a later chapter. Never ask too much at once and make sure you have understood what you are trying to achieve before teaching your horse, whatever it might be.
Now we have discussed how to work the horse on the circle line on the stiff side, in this case the left. Lets continue our work on the hollow side, the right-hand side.
Since your horse already offers ample neck bend to the right, we will not ask it to train contracting the muscles of the right even more. Instead we’ll ask it to bend to the outside of the circle, on a counter-bend. This way you will also insure that the haunches don’t fall in, a common occurrence. And you keep the weight on the lesser-used right shoulder.
Once both of these exercises work well and are fully understood by the horse, you can combine them on a big figure of eight, by moving from circle to circle.
And remember to have fun together! May the two of you always train in harmony.
I started out my previous post on groundwork with “the Why”: your horse’s health.
A short excursion into my recent “Pony Fitness Training” members will show you what I mean:
There’s the young little, nervous mare with a history of rather bad back pains due to too aprupt in-saddle training combined with a weakly muscled constitution and an ill-fitting saddle.
There’s the obese Haflinger with a history of problems in the lumbosacral area, weak back-stabilising muscles combined with immense pull caused by a huge belly plus earth’s gravity. Her previous saddle was too long and put additional pressure on the lumbar area (saddle fit seems a theme here, maybe for a future post…).
I’ve just started work with a gentle-natured Arabian mare who’s of a certain age already and struggles with lung issues – not exactly easy to build muscle mass.
And then there’s the super-opinionated alpha mare who’s strong and knows it, but – now also past the 20 – started developing issues with her legs, a swollen tendon sheath in one back leg and a suspiciously looking superficial flexor tendon in the opposite front leg. Possibly aided ailments by her strong believe that relaxation leads to her and her herd being devoured by tigers, instantly. This is not an exaggeration, the lady’s neck, withers and shoulder areas are rock-hard and bending on a 20m circle is advanced yoga to her.
Of course, there’s also my 26-year-old, 177cm tall ex-show jumper, Wesley. Still around, alive and kicking!
Anyone who knows retired jumpers and/or very tall oldies, knows your troubles are with the legs: Degenerative arthritis in hocks lead to dragging toes and altered protraction with a lateral curve instead of taking the leg straight to the front. This altered movement pattern leads to a chronic irritation of the tendon sheaths. A problem in a hindleg will, over time, lead to another, compensatory issue in the opposite front leg and so on…
You can guess where I’m going with this, the above mentioned list of “fitness club members” can all greatly benefit from in-hand work, with some – at times – it might even be required to only do groundwork for a while before mounting them again.
This might be rather clear for the back-issue candidates – no need for much medical training to understand that the weight of saddle and rider might not be the best idea until they’re better again.
But this also goes for the weak lungs and especially for the troublesome legs. See, most horses I know aren’t very well balanced – and by a horse’s balance it’s important to regard all 4 dimensions: front to back as well as side to side. Secondly, and let’s face it, none of us are truly balanced, fantastically fine riders that never disturb our horses when mounted and never throw them off-balance. No, riding is a lifelong process of learning and improving.
And what happens if I have a chubby horse that is hollow on the right and poorly balanced? It will throw its weight onto the outside, in this case left front leg whenever going into a right-hand bend, drifting to the outside of the bend. Now add a rider that might be just a tad crooked or stiff in the hips, maybe with a quite long upper body. The two ride into their right-hand 10m volte at the trot, the chubby horse with all of its own, plus the rider’s weight on the front left leg might still not break anything – now think of the same mechanics when going into a left-hand volte… see the problem?
I study physiotherapy for horses next to my job(s), so of course, I see a lot more issues than most owners would, and I hope this helps me in becoming a better trainer and help owners adjust their training routines, workload and assessment of their own horses.
And to help you become a better fitness trainer for your horsey, I’d like to go into some practical pointers and exercises on “the How” of groundwork.
In my teaching horse owners the basics, I came to the conclusion that many riders are quite willing to improve their horses’ health by working with them from the ground, but very often don’t quite know how to go about it.
So, let’s start out as if you’ve never even led a horse:
First of all, I try and practice leading. Yes, leading a horse – by a lead line, neck holder or its mane if you guys can communicate really well.
And I don’t mean the pulling-the-donkey-after-you to the practice area kind of leading. Sure, when horses are unsure or scared, they are allowed to hide a little behind their human. But this is a working exercise in an arena or paddock your horse knows well.
Practice walking together in the partner position, meaning shoulder-on-shoulder.
This has the advantage that you can see your horse’s face, eyes and ears, make sure you don’t accidentally over-bend the poll and neck (happens a lot!) and can easily reach the girth area or shoulder with your hand and the hindquarters with your whip.
I always recommend working with a whip, this way you can ensure your horse works from back to front, steps under properly and it can be very useful for giving directions and signals your horse understands well. It really is just an elongation of your arms, or when used as a driving aid as a replacement for your seat and leg aids.
Now, your position and body language are crucial here. You want to carry yourself upright and controlled, think “ballerina” – your horse will mirror you, so don’t slump and drag your feet in the sand.
Your position should be similar to when mounted: your shoulders aligned with the horse’s and your gaze always in the direction you are travelling.
Try it out: walk your horse that way, you might need to drive a little with the whip from behind to get your horse shoulder-on-shoulder with you. Good.
Now, try and turn towards your horse. Did your horse turn to you?
What’s super-important with all of your groundwork exercises: change sides regularly, as your horse will naturally always bend towards you.
For session one of your little groundwork course, you practice the basics:
Leading in partner position on both sides and both hands, meaning when walking right-hand-side, you walk at the right shoulder of your horse – when walking left-hand-side, you walk at the left shoulder of your horse.
First along the side of the arena with many long straights, then you can gradually go on to practice the 20m circle and eventually some 10m – 6m voltes together.
Here you are already working on your horses balance and bend, when driving correctly from behind you also help it with it’s front-back balance by motivating it to step under and rise a little out of its shoulders.
When this works well, you can start adding stops and starts. Be patient here and try and use minimum aids with everything you ask. Only when breathing out, slowing down and planting your feet in the ground doesn’t cue your partner to halt with you, can you use some helping pointers.
Next time you ask for the halt, just position your whip parallel in front of its chest. Make sure you stay with your hips, shoulders and eyes in the direction of travel, no turning to your horse. Use your body and voice cues.
And then praise, a lot! Praise for every try of understanding you, soon your horse will think groundwork sessions are super-fun!
When halts and starts work well (make sure never to pull your horse forward, drive from behind and use your body’s energy, stance and upper-body positioning to signal “walk”), you might add a few steps backward.
Practice this first on the straight, with a wall or fence on one side. Most horses already move backward when you lean your upper body back, no need to pull on the lead line – and if they are a bit “slow”, just tuck on it lightly, then loosen as soon as they move back only a fraction. Release is instant praise!
Should this not work because your horse is exceptionally opposed to going backward, you can wiggle your whip in front of its chest a little to indicate a backward movement.
Now, try combining it all in quick sequences, walk a few curves and bends, halt every now and then (remember to prepare well by breathing out and using your voice), then go backwards together (you are still facing forward, leaning back a little), and then move forward again by driving the hind.
This will help your horse pick up more weight in the hindquarters, step under, round its back and develop strength by pushing forward from behind.
You can refine all of this by adding hand and / or whip signals to your little dance.
- hand up or whip vertical means “halt”
- hand or whip signalling a “back movement” means “please move backwards with me”
- moving hand and /or whip energetically from back to front means “let’s run /move”
- pointing to one side or the other indicates a bend or curve in that direction
Always end your sessions with something the horse already knows well, so it can feel good about itself and you have a reason to praise it before calling it a day.
Well done, guys! You are on the right track!
- correcting over-bend on the circle
- my horse falls inside the bend with its inner shoulder!?
- helping with bad posture, aka. the dreaded “on-the-forehand”
- trot-walk transitions and shoulder-in from the ground
“In-hand work is an integral part of my training, one that I use with every horse, from green to Grand Prix, as it prepares and eases them into the demands of ridden work.” says Manolo Mendez, founding member and the first Head Rider of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez. A man who’s skill and understanding with groundwork as well as his dressage riding I greatly admire.
I learned a lot about working with horses on the ground by watching Manolo’s videos of his in-hand work: observing his posture, his timing to the horses’ footfalls, his awareness of their balance, his understanding of each individual’s conformation and restrictions.
And I learned what groundwork is all about and why it is so important: it keeps our horses healthy!
Two and a half years ago, I unloaded an old, skinny and unfit ex-retiree off a trailer. Wesley was 23 at the time and had spent the past three years on an open meadow doing absolutely nothing all day.
The last time I had ridden my mum’s star jumper was at my goodbye tournament ten years earlier. Back then he was a mighty horse with a broad chest and strong hind-legs, always preferring to take obstacles one stride early, easily making up in strength to pass without failure. We won that last competition. What a glorious memory that now was!
And our start into “active retiree” training wasn’t off to an easy start, as he got himself a leg injury a few days later in the course of finding his place in the new herd. So what to do? We spent the following six weeks walking through the forest together every day. Its a forest with nice soft paths and steep hills – perfect training ground.
Turns out, that injury was probably what made us start his re-training at exactly the pace we should have: slow, very slow. This gave us the time to get to know each other again, it gave him the time to get used to his new environment and his newly re-obtained purpose in life, and it gave me the time to read and learn and think about how to get him fit again.
It also gave his body time to fill up a little and re-adjust his metabolism to working life.
After six weeks of walking together we had both achieved a minimal fitness level, Wesley’s injury had healed and I switched to focusing on his stamina and started with some light cardio-training on the lunge. I had read about routines that help to grow muscle mass as well as conditioning the rehabilitation candidate’s heart and lungs. After about two weeks, I alternated the lunging training with some short trail rides.
Over the following year of more and more trail rides and our regular lunging sessions, I incorporated more in-hand training as I wanted to help him with straightness and flexibility. So I started reading and researching on the internet what kid of exercises would improve his stiffness and what to watch out for when working horses on the ground.
At this stage he was getting noticeably fitter, but was still rather thin and not very well-muscled.
About a year after that old horse had walked off the trailer, I began riding him in the arena again practising dressage exercises that would improve his overall fitness, flexibility and strength. Mind you, that meant very long warm-ups walking and trotting and very short intervals of actual exercises – also, only once a week.
Building up a horse’s health and fitness, be it one that you just bought, one who’s life’s training is just starting altogether or a rehab case; it doesn’t happen overnight.
For me it was getting a second chance with a horse, who happened to have crossed its zenith years ago, that brought me to study groundwork.
I now incorporate it in most of my riding lessons and and with some of my clients its often groundwork-only for weeks or months as we are starting their young horses or rehabilitating one that hadn’t been well.
Last week I had the good fortune of giving a two-day course on “gymnasticising groundwork and correct lunge training” to four leisure riders who I am all very proud of for wanting to improve their skills working from the ground and on the lunge for the benefits of their horses.
Those four ladies have owned their horses for one to two years.
Except for one youngster, they had all passed the 15 year mark and had been working horses in a trail riding business before.
All four horses are a bit on the chubby side, ok – to be frank, they are too fat.
The three little mares are all more or less struggling with weak backs, wrong postures and stiffness – probably also as a result of years of carrying mostly beginners over cross-country trails, never having been trained properly and (before their new owners) also hadn’t received the right medical and hoof care.
Some observations on posture, starring Sue (on four legs) and Tina:
More on posture, but also impulsion and balance:
In this sequence it’s clearly visible how delicate the balance between aids is in order to support your horse exactly when and how it needs it, without abrupt stops and starts. Mind you, Tina is not working with her own horse here. It takes time to get to know each other and even more time to get your timing right.
On day two of our course, we focused on training the horses on the lunge line and what to look out for. First, we started out each horse as if they were a green youngster never to have seen a lunge line or walked on a circle before (with a helper guiding the horse):
We then went on to watch out for correct rhythm of the horse’s beats: 4 in walk, 2 in trot, 3 in gallop – this is were lunging is a very useful diagnosis tool.
Most importantly though, we were watching out for correct posture and how to influence the way the horses carry themselves, where and how to use the whip and why a long neck stretching into contact is so important. Here you can see Sunny picking herself up quite visibly, coming out of her shoulders, stepping under a bit more and stretching that short little neck while maintaining a beautiful bent – relaxed and forward:
I think I might have mentioned it once or twice, but I will again: groundwork is vital to your horses health and well-being! No matter if all you do is trail-riding.
I recently made the experience myself of how weak a fully ridden horse in its prime can be: Kaitsu is a beautiful, charming 7year old gelding, he’s been under saddle for at least 3 years. Some while ago I started training him, my goal being to teach him some dressage and improve his own body use under saddle.
This little horsey cost me some nerves, as working with him almost always ended in me not exactly looking like a great horse trainer at all. I caught myself actually lying in bed at night thinking of how to fix the problems I had with him: Why would he shut down, often all of a sudden? Why was he first very willing to come along, start work, be mounted, then abruptly change his mind about it and even start bucking a little? Why would he not move one leg sometimes – me waving the whip behind his butt? Was this a concrete horse?
Turns out, being half-asleep while pondering such questions doesn’t get you anywhere. So, the next day I asked my friend and Kaitsu’s owner to come watch while I worked with him on the ground. My initial intention was to show him how to strengthen Kaitsu’s back muscles and what exercises would help with that as well as improving balance. At this point it was clear that I’m not going to get anywhere near actual dressage work anytime soon with this stubborn young lad.
During that hour I spent with the gelding and his owner in the arena, the coin dropped. I understood why I hadn’t been successful at working with this horse, or – more specifically – why it had gone south after a while. Every single time.
Kaitsu was simply not fit enough for what I was asking him to perform!
He might be in his prime, look strong and move lovely when free – but: this horse was only ridden on the trail and that very much forward as he is by nature a rather calm, slow and phlegmatic horse personality.
This way of riding led to Kaitsu carrying all of the rider’s and most of his own weight on his front legs when ridden – his appearance changed dramatically when mounted – gone was the square, well-balanced young horse. His being very forward and “downhill” as riders say, led to a short neck, extremely hollowed out back and trailing hindlegs that took on almost no weight at all.
And here I come, and ask him to carry himself balanced and with much more weight on his hindlegs, asking him to constantly lift his back and stretch his neck. Those back-muscles were not used to this kind of work – and I had assumed this was a fit young horse with good base training out on the trail, and so I started out with 45 – 60min sessions – big mistake!
Mostly ground-work to build up muscle and conformation for me to eventually sit on and no more than 10 – 15 minutes of ridden work is more like what the little guy can handle at his current state of training, and that he does with the motivation and curiosity of the young.
I’m glad I figured out the mystery of Kaitsu’s uncharacteristic “disobedience” and am very much looking forward to slowly, very slowly building him up to show a great travers, master the canter pirouette – and who knows, maybe even the piaffe one day?
(Hey! We all get to dream…)
I brought an old, retired, ex-athlete back to strength and fitness with ground-work and patience: he’s now full of life again and loves to storm off on the gallop straights, just because he can – and it makes me laugh every time he does it, happy to see him healthy.
If you start working on the ground now, with regular practice you’ll both get fitter and you might be able to add a few year’s to your buddy’s life – fitter, happier years!
Next time: the “How” of Groundwork with exercises and pointers…
It’s been quite a while I thought yesterday morning when the alarm rang a few hours too early on a bank holiday…
Too many cups of coffee later and in the car on my way to my student’s barn I realised, it had been 10 years!
10 years since I last sat foot on tournament grounds (not counting attendance as a mere spectator).
I must admit, accompanying my student to her first tournament made me quite a bit giddy, despite the early hour.
Her mare, Butterfly, had had her mane plated and tucked up and she was being groomed to a shine, her blows visible in the crisp morning air as she felt her owner’s anticipation.
There’s something festive about tournaments: the uniformed riders in white breeches and dark jackets, shiny boots and slightly nervous smiles as they’re making their first rounds on the grounds, horses whinnying from their trailers and coaches and mums running about making sure their competitors have all their equipment and are on time for their tests.
I had spent a big part of my life in this setting, during the season we’d compete every weekend at some venue or another, so I was in quite a nostalgic mood.
The memory train came to an abrupt halt the minute I walked into the warm-up arena, and my dreamy smile was wiped away. There it was, the thing I missed least about my time as a competition rider:
Humans putting their desires to win, to look good, to be admired above their horses welfare. What I saw in this warm-up pen was young girls and grown women shouting insults at their horses, whipping noisily, spurring every step, and brutalising their mouths.
I pictured the scene in my mind with horses that could scream, it was very loud indeed!
See, this was one of these tournaments where competitive rider careers begin, an entry-level test only event. In this pen there where probably quite a few first-timers, not unlike my own student. The very first time they ride “for something” – and it’s already there, the ambition that often kills all cooperation and harmony between horse and human.
One lady stuck out to me immediately, she was riding a young, seemingly hot Haflinger gelding.
Let me rephrase – she wasn’t riding, she was straight-forward brutalising that poor horse.
Her hands would move 20 centimetres easily, pulling at an already completely rolled-up neck, while – as “good” Rollkur requires – leaning back heavily, pushing on his loins while spiking him with her spurs. For good measure he would get to feel her long whip every other stride or so.
And boy, did he still try to defend himself! Tail swishing, half-bucks, kicking. Whenever he did get his neck free, he’d toss it from side to side with wide, terrified eyes.
Surely in a few years, he’ll shut down and just give up and let her wreck his body.
Looking around in horror, trying to find a face with the same disgusted expression as mine at this sight, I realised just why it’s so hard to end this particular animal cruelty. There wasn’t any!
No, the worst part of this was that people would look on in admiration, commenting on how well he’s going and if she wouldn’t take part outside the competition today, she’d surely win. I don’t know the particular judge that day, but sadly, they might have been right. From entry level to FEI tests, this kind of “riding” gets rewarded repeatedly.
If those people obviously couldn’t see this horse screaming, couldn’t they at least see that he wasn’t “going well” at all? He was tight, his leg movements forced and jagged, his back didn’t swing at all, he carried all of his weight on his forehand, the list goes on and on… hadn’t they at least heard about the sacred rule of dressage never to ride a horse with its nose behind the vertical? Did they need a ruler to see?
Sure, we’re still working on stepping under and gaining contact, but the left horse is happy and trusts her owner. What would the right one say about his?
Looking around the arena again, seeing very few pairs in harmony or at least attempting to achieve harmony together – again, an entry-level test niveau, I’m not expecting to see perfect transitions, flying changes and beautiful travers – I saw mostly young girls using their voices and whips harshly, kicking their disconnected, tied-down horses forward and pulling at reins, I realised that this lady and her poor Haflinger are local stars because she has developed enough seat, routine and biceps power to force a horse into frame.
Her riding had gone completely off track somewhere close to where these girls where with theirs today. And once the side-reigns come off their horses, I can only pray that they accept their fate and go the hard way of actually learning how to ride. Accept the fact, that they won’t look great yet, that dressage is a long way to go and that they decide to go on this journey together with their horses, not against them.
What I wish these girls (and maybe also that lady) the most, is role models that show them what beautiful dressage looks like and what a relaxed, strong and happy horse feels like.
I hope on their way, they find real partnership with their horses and have lots of fun improving their seats, trying to get the contact right or learning more demanding movements together.
Because after having been there, shouting at my disobedient pony back in the day, and ten years as a competition rider – with the luck of having had fantastic role models and incredible partners under saddle, I have only fully realised what it means to ride “together” with your horse in the years after, when my riding life got quieter, muddier and more focused, far away from white breeches.
Now my partner is 25, still quite fit but not immortal – I sometimes wish I would have gotten there earlier.
This is why it makes me all the happier to see how my protegee student and her mare mastered the three tests at their first tournament together. Despite of nerves, they showed a very harmonious, if not perfect, dressage test in the morning.
They would have won the following style jumping competition with the highest mark, if it hadn’t been for one little misunderstanding, and ended up winning the last time jumping test together.
No whipping, no spurring, no side reigns – just trying. Together.
I walked off the tournament grounds a bit taller than I had walked in, very proud of the two for showing what all riding, be it competing or not, is about: riding together to the best of your abilities!
What does “on the bit” mean?
Well, here’s one of the major points that equestrians can argue hours about.
First, of all – there’s many different styles or disciplines, Western pleasure riders or Dressage riders, who follow Baucher’s theories, like their horses completely off the bit, the young horse gets taught to stay in a certain frame without any contact at all. This practice usually leads to horses that are heavy on the forehand and show little to no engagement of the hindquarters, trailing out behind them. They carry their heads behind the vertical and are practically “avoiding” the bit.
The other extreme would be the “drive and hold” wannabe Dressage riders who hold a ton of weight in their biceps because they think they need to pull their horses into a certain position, usually heavily leaning back and excessively driving their horses into contact.
Then there’s the jumpers, hunters and eventing horses which often tend to be “above the bit” when charging a jump or racing along the track…
So, now we’ve covered what it doesn’t mean to ride your horse “on the bit”.
Let’s hear what Classical Dressage says about riding “on the bit”…
Master Nuno Oliviera defines this as follows: “Putting the horse on the bit means feeling that the poll flexes, the back rises, the haunches become active.”
“A perfect contact is possible only when the horse is in absolute balance, carries himself, and does not seek support from the reins. It may then be said that the horse is <on the bit>.”
Podhajsky, Alois. (1965). The Complete Training of Horse and Rider In the Principles of Classical Horsemanship
When teaching a new student for the first time, I’ve noticed I usually spend the first lesson adjusting their reign-handling and the way they carry their hands. In 90% of the cases the riders have gotten used to pulling their horses’ heads into the desired position on the inside reign and their first reflex to anything is to use that inside hand, especially when moving on bends or circles.
Noticing this, I was first dismayed. My mantras being “ride your horse from back to front”, “use your seat, leg and voice before touching the reigns”, “contact, engagement, throughness come from the hind-end, not the reigns” – and what do I do first? Talking about reign aids for 45 minutes!
But then I noticed that all subsequent lessons go more and more in the direction of my well-repeated mantras. So, I concluded that it pays to first remove the bad habits, mostly a too strong inside hand, before we can start working a horse back to front.
This particular bad habit of an overly dominant inside reign seems to be not only common in students that haven’t had much training before coming to me, but also – shockingly – in students who’ve had riding lessons for years!
One of my newer students told me that her previous trainers taught her to shorten the reigns, ride with low, broad hands and keep flexing her mares head to the inside, then shorten the reigns some more. All to “get the head down” (this one’s becoming one of my favourite pet-peeves).
Now her particular horse is one of these “giraffe” types, little or no muscles in the neck and back and dealing with balancing out her rider by going frequently over the bit and hollowing out her back. If I try hard at putting myself into her previous trainers’ shoes, I can see the intended result of this approach: rounding the horse.
Well, and here we really get down to the discussion of Contact (on the German Training Scale:”Anlehnung”) or riding your horse “on the bit”.
What is most important to remember with any horse, green, old, rehab, “rollers” or “giraffes”, is that there’s no shortcuts! Pulling your horse into a frame does not mean that you have achieved Contact, because you cannot force real Contact, you can only offer it until one fine day, and this comes gradually, your horse stretches into it willingly and over time the two of you establish a fine but constant Contact.
In my experience, you can congratulate yourself on buying a “giraffe” as opposed to a “roller”, because it is so much easier to teach a horse that holds its head too high (mostly out of a lack of topline muscles) to stretch into contact than a horse that tends to roll itself up and avoids the bit by staying behind it (mostly caused by harsh hands and aprupt training).
Both types of horses can however be “rehabilitated” with the right training and a patient and thinking rider – over time they will learn to trust your hand and accept real Contact.
Don’t get fooled by the pictures we see every day, don’t accept a horse forced into Rollkur positioning as the norm or even an image to strive for. Better to ride your horse way in front of the vertical than only an inch behind it! At least, this way you aren’t harming your horse by overstretching the nuchal ligament (neck-back connector) over the third vertebrae, preventing blood circulation and ensuring nerve damage. Rollkur positioning also prevents a horse from breathing and swallowing correctly, the jaw presses onto the Atlas (first vertebrae) and the gland in charge of saliva production (right under the ear) gets squeezed which can lead to chronic inflammation.
Apart from all these health hazards, this way of riding also robs these beautiful creatures off all glamour and pride, forcing them into a demeaning position in which they can neither move freely nor see very well.
The best way of putting even veteran, established riders and their seemingly together horses to the test is taking away the bit. Put your horse in a Cavesson and see if it stretches into Contact and if it still looks like a well-rounded, together horse under saddle – with many riders who rely too heavily on the mighty bit and fall into the common trap of thinking if the head is down, they have achieved contact, their nice look will completely fall apart when the horse is not forced into a head position by the pain the bit poses.
Here I’d like to mention that a big problem with many riders is about “looks”, they accept shortcuts, make compromises and fall into bad and often harmful habits in order to “look good” – this becomes especially bad with training young horses. Many riders, even accomplished trainers, feel the pressure of onlookers, even if they think they don’t. With a youngster it is paramount to accept the fact: it won’t look pretty for a loooong time.
But luckily for most of us: we have time!
So many of my students have to go through some agonising adjustment time in which their horses wander around the arena with their heads in the air while we concentrate on engaging the hind-legs and only offering contact with a steady and gentle hand or helping to balance out the open circle-line with the outside reign only, but there’s no regulating, no pulling, no adjusting the head/neck frame – only offering contact.
To most students’ surprise it doesn’t take that long at all until our riding “from behind” yields results and the horse lets its neck fall as it relaxes and finds balance in its strides, starts to stretch into Contact – and often for the first time ever, they gain a feeling for what it really means to hold “contact”.
Most are surprised it’s so light, so easy – it just happens.
This is when they’ve understood the second most important thing in achieving true Contact: Contact talks about all aids. The horse must accept contact to your seat and leg aids just as much as to the reign aids. Contact to the mouth is just one aspect.
This light, willing Contact gives us the means to communicate mere thoughts to our horses without having to give strong aids or “fighting” the horse as it often happens.
It gives us the means to ride with our seats and to feel where the horse needs some help, it prevents us from blocking the Schwung to get stuck as a result of a hard inside-hand. This Schwung that our horses offer from behind can now travel through the whole horse, starting from hind-legs stepping under and carrying weight, over an elastic, rounded back, towards a stable and telescoped neck into the contact we feel in our hands. At the same time it allows us to regulate this power coming from behind with the tiniest reign aids, setting in motion the circle of aids.
You will notice how your horse learns to carry itself more, balancing itself out much better, how the shoulder lifts naturally and the croup starts lowering.
This is where riding becomes utter bliss and harmony.
However, I cannot repeat it often enough: There’s no shortcuts to this!
The German Scale of Training might not be perfect, but it goes as follows:
- Schwung (or impulsion)
…leads to: Throughness
Many Classical Dressage (opposed to competitive) trainers maintain that “the Scale” is missing the point of “Balance”, which should be the base of the pyramid or scale. Klaus Balkenhol even says, and I agree with him enthusiastically, that at the base and starting point of any training, there needs to be “Trust” – because a horse without trust in human, surroundings and equipment cannot learn and improve. So, I suppose the scale I like to work with goes as such:
- Schwung (or impulsion)
…leads to: Lightness & Harmony
Whatever scale you train by, it is paramount to climb it step by step and remember both, the interconnections between each of these points as well as the years it takes to master it.
It takes time and patience and a lot of self-control, as well as throwing your ego over board and accepting not looking great yet, maybe also taking a step back in your training every now and then when you run into resistance. But it pays off in the long run!
Not only will you have a true and fine communication in the saddle, your horse will learn to assume a healthy position, grow the right muscles and balance itself out correctly.
This is what gymnasticising, and finally the Art of Dressage, is really about and what will keep your buddy healthy and happy for a long time as the wear and tear of incorrect postures and tense muscles is removed.
And always remember to train your horse in harmony!
Once upon a time, there was this horse-crazy little girl who had read The Man Who Listens to Horses and since that day practised talking with horses.
To this present day, she works hard on studying them and improving her communication skills with these beautiful minds.
The little girl in me is heartbroken today when she thinks of how pink and innocent this concept, put down by a cowboy named Monty Roberts, seemed to her back then.
Today, also with the use of the internet, my view of this man’s work has altered, his practices leave a bitter aftertaste, the glory of his brave new concepts is tarnished… by something critics call “Natural Forcemanship”.
The little girl would have preferred to continue idolising the horse whisperer, in blissful ignorance…
See, horses are wondrously gentle half-ton animals.
Force works on most of them in a matter of one lesson, but only with repeated abuse does it work long-term… thus the success of “Natural Forcemanship” trainers who practice abuse on varying levels of intensity to delight their two-legged clientele with “horse whispering” miracle results.
And when the mount becomes “pushy”, “disrespectful”, “aggressive” or “dominant” (my absolute favourite) once again, they call on the miracle worker again to fix it.
I want to make clear, that it is not my intention to put the following individuals on the same negative level here. These are just different examples of problematic topics among natural horsemanship (NH) training methods:
- e.g. Clin*ton Ande*rson’s (yes, I don’t even want to add to his search hits) steel-handed Rollkur reining style and violent attitude. (This individual deserves a special place far, far away from any horses – or, in fact, any living creatures.)
- e.g. Pat Hook’s (discipline: cutting) instructions on how to teach your horse to lay down and do other tricks – a lot of ropes around legs and straightforward forcing the horses to do tricks…
- e.g. Monty Roberts (discipline: original horse whispering) chasing young wild-eyed horses around a round-pen, using fear to make them cooperate.
- e.g. Pat Parelli’s (discipline: remastered horse whispering) pathetic and forceful displays of “liberty work” – rather the opposite of what working at liberty is about. Or what he did to the horse “Catwalk” in a 2010 demo in England: tying down his leg and pulling a rope over his gums in order to bridle him… gentle method? I don’t think so!
Even though it’s nothing new, the whole concept of natural horsemanship is wonderful.
In his book On Horsemanship, Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BCE) emphasises, amongst other topics such as how to train a horse, reassurance over punishment. One might argue, he was the first Natural Horsemanship trainer.
Those same principles of gentle techniques come up over and over again through the centuries by anyone who is anyone in Classical Dressage, such as the Old Masters Antoine de Pluvinel (1555–1620 CE) and François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688–1751), and in more recent times with Nuno Oliveira (1925–1989) and Alois Podhajsky (1898–1973) of the Vienna Riding School.
Here’s how the term “Natural Horsemanship” is described on Wikipedia, and it does sound lovely indeed, especially that last bit:
Natural horsemanship, colloquially known as horse whispering, is a collective term for a variety of horse training techniques which have seen rapid growth in popularity since the 1980s. The techniques vary in their precise tenets but generally share principles of developing a rapport with horses, using methods said to be derived from observation of the natural behavior of free-roaming horses and rejecting abusive training methods.
However, there’s several major problems with:
Many NH trainers are salesmen, with big, effective marketing machineries selling equipment and, what’s really problematic: methods – a one size fits all approach each of them has come up with that promises leisure riders and many, many inexperienced horse owners to overcome any obstacle, if only they use their equipment and method.
Well, horses come as different in interior, habits, former traumas, exterior and training level as humans do – what works on one horse might very well not work on another, it might even make your problem worse. There’s no way around a decent, gentle and experienced trainer who comes to see you and your horse in person at least once a week. No online-course, book or 2day clinic can replace the years of training that bring you and your horse together, and most of us need assistance that can adapt to our individual needs.
Showing = Money
Of course, the problem with public showing/competing and money are very much a problem of more tradition equine sports. Rollkur seems to get a 9year old to win big Grand Prix’ in Dressage (Anky van Grunsven on Blue Hors Matine), cutting corners efficiently – while taking off years of horse health at the end of their careers… but money matters, now! The same can be seen with show jumping and reining. The abuse of race horses or saddlebreds (see “Big Lick” and “soring” – warning: ugly!), the danger riders put eventing horses into… the list goes on and on… all in the name of money and fame.
Even if once a gentle method, also Natural Horsemanship showing requires these clinicians to produce miracles with horses they have never seen before in a very short period of time, the pressure of which leading to force.
The problem is with endorsements, sponsorships, phone cameras and audiences – all expecting the “method” to work on any horse these trainers get to handle – often in 30 minute periods. Everyone expects them to tame a wild horse, forgetting that it takes weeks, months and sometimes years to win a horse’s trust and motivate it to answer to your requests.
A lot of trainers seem to make their money by creating fear.
Growing up being trained several times a week by different trainers, I never once had a trainer mention over and over again how dangerous the animals we are handling are and therefore we must apply this and that method – to “keep them in check”…
Don’t get me wrong: an ill-handled horse can be dangerous, they are big and heavy, their hooves are hard and they happen to be flight animals. All I’m saying is, it is conspicuous how the whole community seems scared of the horses they work with.
The idiocy of “dominance” training/issues/practices – yes, dominance-thinking in general. Horses are not tigers where this might come in handy, they are PREY animals – and guess what we are? Right: PREDATORS
So please, next time you think in terms of “dominance” regarding your horse, remind yourself of the prey/predator situation and then forget about this word once and for all.
The big excuse
Veiling psychological force (e.g. pressuring a horse in a round pen), sometimes physical force (e.g. spores, sharp bits or just the stupid rope-whipping into their faces) or even downright abuse (e.g. as with Rollkur – no matter if it’s in Dressage or Reining) behind the mantle of “natural ways”.
Pat Parelli and others speak of “love and respect” while tying down a horse’s leg or simply forcing it into cooperation with intimidating body language, all while being cheered on.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard one of these NH trainers justify their means by citing the example of horses in a herd biting and kicking each other and that this is the “natural” way of correcting your horse. C’mon! Your horse knows very well that you are NOT another horse, how dim do you think they are? Secondly, be glad it doesn’t – because then all your gloomy talk might come true and your horse will, in fact, become dangerous, should they choose to reply in kind.
The “guru” status
Fans blindly following along like lemmings, accepting each word as ultimate truth, ceasing to question and an inability to adapt to a horse’s individual personality and training needs as a result.
An extreme example: the aforementioned Australian reining and horse-abuse media star who is hugely popular and successful, especially among women leisure Western riders/trail riders, can afford to publicly insult just this exact target group, repeatedly. Without losing “followers” or sponsorship contracts…
Trust your gut
Just LOOK at the methods! Go on youtube and watch videos of the gurus I’ve mentioned performing “miracles”. Or if you chose to work with a natural horsemanship trainer, watch them work with your horse very critically. Do you like what you see? Does it look harmonious? Is the horse happy and content?
If yes, congratulations! You seemed to have found a trainer that deserves to call themselves a “natural horseman/woman”. Of course, there is plenty of good ones too: kind, intelligent and gentle people that choose not to work with force and fear and are able to help you overcome difficulties with some creative training techniques.
If not, if you see the whites in your horse’s eye, if it is tense and constantly on its toes, if you watch them “wiggle” the rope around its head, with the metal hook slapping against its jaw, head held high in fear and confusion… if it gets chased around small confined spaces for no apparent reason, if your trainer talks a lot about dominance, punishment and danger, then your “natural horsemanship” trainer is nothing more than a common bully.
Then go with your guts and fire them. If it’s not a harmonious picture, it’s probably not what you wanted for your horse in the first place.
You probably all know this situation: You are riding in the arena, practising something or other and it’s just not working quite right today. Then someone steps in and you stop for a brief conversation. A few minutes later, you pick up the reins and, all of a sudden, everything works smoothly. You experience one of these glorious moments when you and your horse become one, almost like a centaur (a picture I like to use when trying to convey this feeling to my students).
I borrowed this analogy from Klaus Balkenhohl, a German veteran dressage rider and star instructor. He uses this situation to explain how the horse regenerates its muscles in this break and how important it is to drop the reins every now and then and grant it a break.
I’d like to look at this situation from the viewpoint of the rider: What happens to your body when you are interrupted by a friendly conversation?
That’s right, you relax! And when we are relaxed, our horses are happy.
Look at this happy horse stretching forward-downward, marching relaxed and motivated round the arena with my friend Clarissa (who, not expecting too much from her first ride in a dressage saddle, is nice and relaxed herself):
Five minutes later, I sat on the same horse in the same arena and then something happened to me that many riders struggle with: I fell into performance mode!
Even though I try and not do it, it still happens sometimes, this silly idea of having to show a perfect performance. The result: nothing worked!
My perfectly relaxed, happy and warmed-up horse tensed up and wasn’t cooperating with anything, not even his favourites: extended trot and half-passes.
Why? Because I mounted and immediately started giving aids, probably way to intense and I didn’t give him or myself time to loosen up and find a connection.
This is why it’s always better to warm-up your horses yourself!
Quite recently one of my riding students made me aware of something called “The Alexander Technique”. She told me about this course she had attended and the instructor helped her understand some fundamental issues in her posture, particularly when sitting or riding and how these issues interfered with her seat and aids. I was intrigued.
So I started reading and watching youtube videos, the way I usually research anything that might help me in my own riding and especially with my teaching others.
What I learned is that many postural problems come from the fact that we unknowingly refuse to let go of our own tensions, which leads to sore muscles and all sorts of pains.
The Alexander Technique follows three major principles: Observe, Inhibit, Direct.
So I tried to apply it to my sitting at a desk, lugging moving boxes (oh yes, we moved to the country side last week!) and, of course, to riding. Here’s the results of my self-experiment:
- Observing habits I displayed when mounting, sitting, driving and giving aids. And boy, there’s a lot of unwanted stuff there! A forward rolling right shoulder, a tensed up left shoulder, a shortened and backward-drawn neck, a crooked right waist – as a result a stretched-out left hip, …
- Inhibiting these unwanted tensions was harder. So I tried to stretch out my neck, up up and forward to loosen the muscles at the base of my scull – my “poll” if you will. I squared out my shoulders and balanced my hips and waist. And generally made sure every step of the ride not to curl or tense up in any way. Easy said…
- Directing I interpreted as a prolonged idea of what I was trying to fix in step two – basically a general sense of up, building an image in my mind that I was much taller than I though, but also much more relaxed than I am.
It’ll be a long way to really creating a new posture and body image altogether, but I will continue to work on myself, having added a mirror to my office and maybe asking some folks I go trail-riding with to tell me when I forget to be tall and relaxed.
For any of you interested in learning more about the Alexander Technique (that isn’t my personal interpretation), here’s a link to plenty of resources: http://www.alexandertechnique.com/
“The Alexander Technique is a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way… the way nature intended.”
Even though I know – and teach – that you need a clear mind and a fit body for riding, I still struggle with it sometimes.
I tell students to meditate in the car after a stressful day in the office before even walking to the stable and to do breathing exercises in the saddle before starting warm-up. All this to quieten the mind and be in the “now”, that’s where you horse is all the time: in the present!
But then, there’s also the physical aspect of tension.
Horses have this immediate calming effect on me, they work like Valium to me. I arrive, put my boots on, walk over, get breathed on by one of the horses and I have forgotten about the aggravating call earlier, the overdue project deadline and time itself. I can make the switch to “now” in an instant when with horses… but my body can’t let go of it all that fast. The aforementioned call still sits in tight shoulders, the project deadline in a tense back – and since my mind has forgotten about it all, I need reminding to ease up my body.
And this is important, to actually look at yourself and notice what’s hurting. It’s important for your well-being, as much as your horse’s. You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon that a horse you ride regularly will start mirroring your physical problems: a sore right shoulder won’t take long to transfer to your horse – and then your training needs adjustment because the horse is crooked! I wonder how often this happens…
A much better way would be to try and avoid this altogether, by taking better care of yourself – get that shoulder checked out! You might require a visit to an Osteopath or some physical therapy – if you are overall tense and sore (like after moving house), maybe treat yourself to a massage, a hot bath or a sauna to loosen up before thinking about riding again.
There’s plenty of fun to be had outside the saddle. Here’s Wesley inspecting a scary loop, having a hard think if the goodie is worth walking through it or not…
It’s time for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and I am looking forward to watching the Dressage Gran Prix tonight.
But when I am watching tonight, I will not only watch for the perfect seats of the riders, the amazing moves of the horses (and my ever-present criticism of noses behind the vertical – this needs changing in this beautiful sport!), but I will also watch out for tall and relaxed postures, for how the riders carry their heads, shoulders, arms and hands – and hopefully take something away for my own arena work.
So, dear riders – whatever way you ride and whatever goal you might pursue with your riding – remember to relax your own poll first! Your horses will thank you.
Lunging horses is an art and many things go wrong in riding arenas and round pens with this training method. This article explains how to correctly train your horse on the lunge, in harmony.
I see it all the time: An uptight horse, tied down with side reigns falling in while almost falling asleep walking or pulling out of the circle rushing to get away from this torture.
This variety often comes with wannabe dressage people who have never read a book on dressage training.
The other example: A “natural horsemanship” trainer chasing a wild-eyed horse around a round pen, the horse leaning heavily into the circle like a motorcycle and carrying all of its weight on the front legs with no balance or training effect whatsoever.
Both of the above are what’s wrong with lunging!
I have long promised a post on how to lunge a horse correctly, so here it comes… let’s start with clarifying your tools:
The best, and only correct way of lunging, is to use a Cavesson.
A cavesson does not hinder the horse in its forward movement, encourages a long stretched neck and gives you the possibility to ask for head positioning (“Stellung”) with very little pressure. It is also priceless with horses that are spooky or tend to pull you after them around the arena, as a little Stellung towards you hinders it from storming off.
Make sure to use a soft leather cavesson with D-rings set into the leather noseband and a strap around the fleshy part of the cheeks, ideally set right under the horse’s eyes. This cheek strap avoids rubbing and getting into your buddy’s eye.
Here’s where you can order this beautiful cavesson: http://www.elcaballo.de/kappzaeume
I’ve seen some quite useful nylon cavessons, too – and those aren’t very expensive. Just make sure that they sit tight and don’t rub around the head.
Should you have neither, then see if you can tighten your stable halter (not ideal as it acts backwards on the nose) so it doesn’t slide around on the head or just use the lunge tied in a loop around your horse’s neck – this way you cannot hurt your horse at all, but it also doesn’t allow you to control it very well either.
You will also need a lunge and a whip. To start yourself and the horse with this new training method you might prefer using a 5 m rope instead of a long lunge, this way you’ll have less to handle in your hands, but you’ll need to walk more.
I like to use a long dressage whip for everything, also lunging – or a nice touchier whip is also very useful. If you don’t have either, a long lunging whip will do the job.
Before each exercise session, show the whip to your horse and softly stroke it along its shoulder, then the back and hind legs, its belly, its chest and finally its neck on both sides to make sure it isn’t suspicious or downright terrified of this very useful training aid.
Lastly, I can only recommend putting gaiters or wraps on the front legs as injuries can happen easily while lunging. You might want to use gloves to avoid burns, too.
What NOT to use: side reins, bridles with bits, rope halters or any other gadgetry as those are completely counter-productive to training on the lunge.
Now we’ve clarified what to use, lets start with the start:
Preparing for lunging
To make sure your communication will work 20 m apart from your horse, make sure that your voice cues and body language work well while leading in the partner position alongside your buddy’s neck – practise walking, halting, changing speed and gaits (well, if you don’t train a pony you’ll be stuck with walk and trot while leading) and make sure to practice all of this leading from both sides.
Then practice the same again from a different leading position: see if all of the above works effortlessly when you are positioned in the middle of the horse, where the girth would be when saddled.
When that works, you can start increasing distance between the two of you while walking together. Do this by gently pushing your horse away with the handle of your whip – pointed at the middle of the horse, imitating your leg aid while riding and your squared chest turned towards your horse’s body.
Try not to step backwards, as this will probably cause your horse to turn in and follow you. This might take a while with young horses who still like to sit on your lap or less confident horses – be patient and just repeat your asking it to move away a little, praise any effort immediately.
A word of warning here: Do not try to lunge a horse that is overly agitated, scared or stressed-out by something. You can only teach a calm and concentrated horse!
If you can’t get your horse to calm down by leading it slowly through the arena a few times, then you two aren’t ready for lunging yet.
In your case I’d recommend turning it loose (if arena is empty and enclosed) and let it buck it out for a few minutes, when it has calmed down a little you can engage it in some liberty work which is very useful in building trust, improving communication between you and giving your horse confidence.
First lunging exercises
If you two have mastered the above exercises while leading and your horse is calm and attentive, you can now start with the first lunging exercises.
If your horse is completely new to lunging it might be beneficial to have a helping hand for the first few times. Your aid leads the horse by the side of the cavesson around the circle while you remain in the middle of the circle holding the lunge with a soft contact to the nose and the whip pointed at its hindquarters. This way the horse can get used to the idea of walking around you, without any unnecessary stress or pressure.
Make sure to pick a very wide circle to begin with, 20 m is ideal with three sides of the circle at the walls or fence. The fence helps the horse to balance itself, it sort of “leans” on it. It is very normal that your horse will “fall out” of the circle on the open side in the beginning, gently nudge him back by very fine “tack, tack, tack” movements with the lunge.
Whenever interacting with your aids, remember a horse can feel a tiny fly – so no need to pull with all your might, a finger movement might be enough.
Once your horse is used to the idea, you can begin by shortening the lunge to about 5 m distance, position yourself at the horse’s belly, facing him. Between your horse’s body, the lunge line in your right hand (horse is walking on the right hand) and the whip in your left hand (pointed at the tail, same height as lunge) there should always be a triangle.
Try not to get behind the horse or in front of it by accident as these are driving and slowing aids respectively if used intentionally.
NOTE: If you horse is whip-shy or suspicious of the long stick, quite common in youngsters, make double sure to show it and do the stroking routine. With these horses you might want to avoid pointing he whip at their hindquarters until they are completely fine around it as this might provoke them to kick at it.
Then let your horse walk at a steady pace around the arena, it’s easier for the young or poorly-trained horse to walk on straight lines first as this doesn’t require bend and you can avoid false bends, balance issues, falling out or in by practising around the arena fence first. Now you have time to get used to handling your equipment and using driving aids correctly.
Once this works you can go back on a wide circle.
If your horse falls into the circle, leaning in like the aforementioned motorcycle, you can use the horizontal whip more towards its middle, again mimicking your leg aid, to drive him out while simultaneously using the very soft “tack, tack, tack” on the lunge to ask for Stellung.
If your horse falls or even pulls out of the circle, probably its neck bend excessively inwards, but its body dragging outward over the shoulder, you are probably to strong with your lunge aids or the circle is too tight for it to manage the bend yet. Slow down, widen the circle or go straight for a bit, then ask for a little Stellung and bend again, while also gently driving it forwards with the whip.
Congrats! Now you guys can start to work together on the lunge proper!
While in the middle of the circle, don’t stand rigid turning around your stationary inside leg. This is what it should look like some day, but we’re not in a rush and your horse still needs you to help it moving around the circle smoothly. So keep your feet moving! Ideally you would describe a small circle of about 5 metres while your horse keeps to the outside of the arena on as big a circle as possible, still benefiting from three cornered sides.
Anything to make the task easier!
The big circle we start out on has several reasons:
- It’s easier for your horse to move along the fenced outer line which helps it balance itself correctly.
- It goes easy on the joints as the forces aren’t as intense as on smaller bends.
- It helps both of you achieving correct bend little by little. Your horse is not used to walking in a bend, it’s still somewhat stiff and needs to build the right muscle structure for this kind of exercise first.
Next, you start practising transitions on the lunge. Again, with a young or lesser trained horse you can’t expect perfect transitioning yet, so we work with longer periods in one gait to start with. First it might be a full round in the walk, before we go to trot, then two rounds trotting before we go back to walk. Once that works well on both sides, we can decrease the periods in a specific gait.
Also with these horses the transitions, especially the downwards ones, will not be immediate. With patient practice they will come quicker and more promptly.
Always make sure to change hand often and practice the same exercises and time periods in each direction.
With a young horse we will practice walk-trot / trot-walk transitions and then changes of speed at the trot for several weeks, before starting work at the gallop. It will be much easier for you and your buddy if you give him some time to find his balance and rhythm before galloping.
Only after all three gaits are performed steadily in all speeds asked and transitions work effortlessly, can you start decreasing the size of the circle and start increasing bend.
Throughout all of your lunging work, you want to encourage your horse to not only move balanced and rhythmic, but also encourage calm but energetic forward movement which improves the swinging of the back and the action of his hindquarters.
You’ll notice he’ll step under and over and reach further with each practice as he learns to carry weight as well as propel forward using his hind legs.
Most importantly we want a relaxed and engaged horse stretching forward-downward frequently.
Here’s what the ideal trot looks like:
After all this explaining on how to do it and what to use for lunging, I still owe you the reasons for actually doing it at all…
Benefits of lunging
Why do we actually lunge horses?
What lunging is definitely NOT for is to cool off a hot horse before a ride. You won’t have an enjoyable ride on a tired-out horse that’s been chased around a circle for half an hour. Please see my “word of warning” and recommended exercises above for this purpose.
Lunging has many benefits to training your horse:
- It’s a great way to build relationship and improve your horse’s confidence.
- It improves your communication, body language and overall harmony.
- Lunging gives you the opportunity to observe your horse from afar, assessing its training progress, making sure it shows clean gaits and moves freely.
- By use of this training method you can prepare a young or rehab horse for riding as it builds muscles and greatly improves balance.
- Lunging is very useful in making your horse more flexible by asking for correct Stellung and with it the correct bend: a perfect line from poll to tail
Finally, I’d like to remind you that also with lunging a proper warm-up is required by walking your horse at least 10 – 15 minutes and then letting it trot easily for another 5 – 10 before asking it for “work”.
And most importantly with all training you do, do not tire your horse out!
That cowboy wisdom “a tired horse is a happy horse” is complete BS.
Think about it: In nature, a flight animal like the horse that is too tired to run away from the tiger is a dead horse.
After all, horses don’t play on the meadow until they are completely exhausted either.
So, make sure to always train your horse in harmony!
Remember the last time you treated yourself to some good thorough pampering?
Maybe you went to a spa hotel and spent the day swimming, resting, being massaged and doing some yoga, pilates or meditation – or you ran yourself a nice hot bath at home, read a book and had a nice cup of tea with it.
Why do we do this?
Because it is important for body and mind to properly relax every now and then, it keeps us healthy and sane.
This gets even more important for sports people, and our horses definitely are sports people!
Sports horses get pampered regularly, of course, they have baths and solariums after, they have regular appointments with their physiotherapists and osteopaths and most importantly, they get gymnasticised well.
Of course, this is not really practical or financially doable for many pleasure riders.
If you are, however, interested in alleviating your buddy from tensions and supporting your training with treatments, there are many things you can do yourself without having to worry about harming your horse.
These practices are, of course, in no way a replacement for your vet and schooled osteopath if there’s severe physical problems or injuries.
I myself have been reading lots of books, articles and blogs about alternative treatments for horses such as massage, the Masterson Method, TTouch and stretching techniques and have developed my own little layman’s routine to release tensions and improve flexibility in my old horse as well as the ones’ I work with for my clients.
It’s a mixture of Jim Masterson’s Meridian technique to diagnose soreness and tension, Linda Tellington’s TTouch, several traditional massage methods as well as stretches and lifts I do with the horses.
(Since autumn 2016 I’ve been studying to become a physiotherapist and osteopath for horses myself, so watch this space. More tips to come…)
This in combination with specific ground training exercises to make the horses more limber and supple and dressage exercises according to the “Gymnasium of the Horse” – adapted to riding without a bit or spores, makes for well-rounded, relaxed and strong horses that are well balanced on their legs and have a strong neck, back and hindquarters in order to carry their riders even to a very old age.
First of all, you’ll want to have a good look at your horse:
- Does it stand square on all four legs or does it lean forward with its front legs tilted?
Hint: Your horse should stand balanced and square with all four legs perpendicular to the ground.
- Does it favour one leg frequently? (Compare some pics on your phone)
- Are its jaws relaxed or tight?
- Does it clench its lower lip or is it hanging relaxed?
- Is its neck relaxed and soft with strong muscles along the topline or is there unwanted muscle on the underside?
- Is its skin easy to move around when rubbing it or are there tense areas?
- Does it shy away or push against the light touch of your hand anywhere?
- Does your horse walk relaxed and with rhythm or is it rather stiff, does it take short steps?
- Does it step underneath its belly well and flex its hips and knee joints in its hind legs?
- Does it bend well in each direction? Which one is better?
- Does it fall onto its inside foreleg when you walk it into a tight circle line?
- How does it carry its tail? Is it tight and up or tight and down or relaxed?
- Check how it moves on the lunge, get someone else to lunge it and watch from the outside with some distance. This is what it should look like:
As a second step I use the Masterson Bladder Meridian technique to diagnose tensions, this way horses often release their tensions simply by concentrating on the sore spot and letting go themselves. This is clearly visible by chewing and licking, snorting, shifting weight from leg to leg, shuddering or even yawning. Because your horse has to work with you doing this, make sure its in a calm place without food or other distractions.
Here’s where you can find Jim Masterson’s video instructions on how to do this: https://www.mastersonmethod.com/training-videos.html
After going along the entire meridian from poll to hinlegs, leaving my hand at the spots where the horse shows it has a problem until it releases visibly, I continue going back to the sore spots from front to back and massaging them. The only important thing here is to start with soft rubbing and only increasing intensity if the horse doesn’t push back or evade, meaning its relaxed and letting you massage the knots out. Usually, after doing this a few times they get the hang of it and even direct you towards the soreness.
Its quite useful to start massaging a spot by using the TTouch method as it loosens up the tense area and prepares the horse for more invasive massaging.
Wesley is quite used to his spa days by now and relaxes quickly – in these pictures you can see his soft eyes, relaxed jaw and lower lip, the lazy ears and the fact that he lowers his neck so I don’t need a ladder…
… five seconds before taking these pictures he yawned 5 times in a row – wouldn’t let us catch him on camera though!
My stretch and release routine
Once he’s soft and relaxed I do some full-body stretches with him. These stretches I do every day while grooming before a ride or in the arena before I get on – a great way of establishing a connection and prepare for work together. And I see how he’s feeling today.
Neck stretches or carrot stretches:
- Vertical stretch
With this stretch you can mimic an intense forward downward movement. Best to use is a piece of carrot that you dangle in front of your horse nose to encourage it into a forward extension, then slowly move it down to the ground and inbetween its front hooves, hold it for a few seconds, then let it take it.
Lengthen time of holding each time until your horse can hold the position for 20 seconds.
- Lateral – left and right
This one requires the same procedure, but with you standing next to its shoulder, encouraging it to wrap its long extended neck around you. A healthy horse should be able to reach its flank without moving its body.
Go as far as it can, lengthening the stretches and hold times before it gets the piece of carrot each time, until it can hold for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Leg releases and stretches:
With the legs, I work diagonally – i.e. left front, right back, right front, left back. These help your horse to get a better sense of balance and it squares itself out. Take care that your head and toes are out of reach, there might be some resistance in the beginning.
- Front leg release (after Jim Masterson)
With this one you can release your horse’s shoulder – most horses hold a lot of tension there and you can encourage them to let go. Its important to hold the leg so that the toe hangs loose, the movement is backwards-downwards.
You should see the shoulder dropping.
- Front leg stretch
This stretches your horses leg, shoulder and back muscles and ligaments – all horses really enjoy this one once they’ve gotten the hang of it and cease resistance. It is important to have the leg joints stretched through. Do not to force it, you will clearly feel a little push and release when your horse lets go and lets the stretch happen. Should your horse move backwards, stop and have someone help him into a forward movement by gentle pulling the halter forward and down while you are stretching its leg.
- Back leg release (after Jim Masterson)
This release technique helps your horse to let go tension in the lumbar region, hip, knee and hock joints – when done correctly this greatly relaxes your horse.
Watch out to hold the hind leg so that the toe hangs loose, the movement is downward – some soft wriggling might help. You want your horse to show signs of relaxation, lower its hip and croup towards this side and loosely put the hoof on its toe.
- Back leg stretch backward
This way you can stretch your buddies belly, stifle, front muscles of the hind quarter and back. You pull the relaxed leg backwards, around the hight of its hocks until it gives and stretches back. Make sure not to stand directly behind when you pull, it can happen that a nerve makes the leg push back rapidly.
- Back leg stretch forward
After the hind leg is relaxed, you can gently pull the hoof underneath its belly. The movement is forward, close to the ground – towards the corresponding front leg. The toe should hang loose and the stretch is complete when the horse releases the heel to the ground. You might want to help by slightly lifting the toe up with a finger – just make sure to get your fingers out before it hits the ground!
- Hip opener – left and right
Stand behind your horses left back leg, gently push your right hand underneath its tail and feel with the base of your thumb (pointing up) until you find a good handhold – the Ischium (No 17 in the image below) joint between the pelvis and femur.
Then you start pushing gently, increasing up until you have your entire weight against it. The horse will push back. Hold it for 10 – 20 seconds, then release relatively suddenly. Not too suddenly if your horse is new to it, it might fall over! Repeat on the other side.
- These exercises can be complemented by belly and back lifts that strengthen your horse’s core muscles – if you aren’t familiar with those, there’s lots of instructions on how to properly do those on youtube.
I can only recommend to make this little stretch and release routine part of your grooming or exercise session every time – you will soon notice how your horse enjoys it and it improves flexibility and blood circulation in the muscles you are trying to build.
Have fun with your horse!