Groundwork: the How – part I

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…

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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.

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Tina wiggled her whip a bit pointing backwards, Sue immediately picks up her hindlegs more and stretches her neck into contact, while lifting her back and withers: “uphill”

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.
For example:

  • hand up or whip vertical means “halt”

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  • hand or whip signalling a “back movement” means “please move backwards with me”

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  • 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.

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Well done, guys! You are on the right track!

 

Next time:

  • 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

Do you ride with your horse? Or against it?

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.

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The polished-up contenders warming up together.

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.

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This is not riding!

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?

wp-1475596972573.jpgSure, 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.

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That’s what they’re worth when you stop competing… a picture my mum send me a while ago, we used to compete 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.

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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!

“On the bit”

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”.

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What if there’s no bit at all? Can a horse be “on the bit”? It can definitely stretch into Contact – bit or no bit involved!

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.

NO Rollkur.jpgApart 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:

  • Rhythm
  • Relaxation
  • Contact
  • Schwung (or impulsion)
  • Straightness
  • Collection

…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:

  • Trust
  • Balance
  • Rhythm
  • Relaxation
  • Contact
  • Schwung (or impulsion)
  • Straightness
  • Collection

…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!

On “Natural Forcemanship”

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.

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Wesley loves to hear what a good boy he is!

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:

“Methods”

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.

Fear

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.

“Dominance”

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

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Take a stance and be firm with bullying cowboy “trainers”. Think of your horse.

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.

 

 

Release your poll first, human!

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):

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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:

  1. 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, …
  2. 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…
  3. 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.

How to lunge your horse correctly

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:

Lunging Tack

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.

soft leather cavesson - Wesley.jpg

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.

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Attach the lunge at the middle D-ring for easy “Stellung”.

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.

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Note how nicely Claudia is keeping a triangle between her “Knuddel”, the lunge and the whip.

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.

Tipps:

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.

Lunging

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:

  1. It’s easier for your horse to move along the fenced outer line which helps it balance itself correctly.
  2. It goes easy on the joints as the forces aren’t as intense as on smaller bends.
  3. 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.

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With a horse well-used to lunging you can exercise anywhere!

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:

Wellenbewegung-pferd

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!

A spa day for your horsey

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.

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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:

Wellenbewegung-pferd

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
    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
    lateral stretch
    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.

Horse_anatomy_posterior_view

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!

 

 

The importance of praise

The other day I was doing some, as I call it “senior dressage” training with Wesley in the arena and another horse trainer who’s professional opinion I hold in high regard was watching and commented on how hard the old boy is still trying, positively “marching” for me. Of course, this made me grow a few centimetres in my saddle – but most notably, Wesley really started showing off then, throwing his legs in an extended trot and swinging his back like a youngster.

This little exchange of nicety between two horse trainers made me think about why an arthritic 25-year old would still give his all to please me.

I’ve come to the conclusion, that he must think he still is a super star. Simply because I treat him like one.
I make a point of being respectful and polite with him, treat him with pride, love and trust and probably most importantly praise him profusely whenever I can.

praise
With an oldie (just as with a youngster) it is also very important not to fatigue them, doing long warm-ups, keeping sessions at about 30 – 50 minutes max. – depending on how he’s feeling on that particular day – and doing lots of interval work with very short burst of demanding manoeuvres and lots of stretching times in between.

I have never given a lesson and rarely watched anyone work with their horses where I wasn’t constantly saying (in the latter case usually thinking) “Praise your horse more!”. For some reason humans seem to have a filter in the head that sorts out everything positive and almost solely concentrates on the negative. It almost seems like they don’t see their horse trying for them: reaching a bit further, balancing themselves better, being a bit braver around spooky stuff, being more attentive, etc.
The main problem with this is that it’s not only unfair to ourselves, criticising our every move/word/thought, but it is hugely unfair to the horses we work with.

Try and put yourselves into your horse’s shoes:

“My human comes from time to time, pulls me out, grooms and saddles me and then he/she asks me for tricks.”
(Dressage, jumping, flying changes, smooth transitions, being brave as a lion on the trail, whatever it is – to your horse it’s probably all just tricks.)

Now pause for a moment and think of your horse and what it would say about you and doing “tricks” for you.

Is your horse going to say, “She’s alright, but she asks me things I don’t understand and then I’m confused and she’s unhappy – even though I try my best.”?
I think a lot of horses out there would say that. Because they are trained inconsistently and simply not praised enough for trying or even executing the right thing.

Or is your horse going to say, “She’s great, we do tricks together and she gets super-excited when I get it right. I think tricks are fun!”

Now that’s what everyone would want their horse to say about them. How do we get there? By simply being consistent with our aids, routines and especially with our praise.

I usually say to my student: Correct very little, praise a lot – praise so much and even the little things until you feel like an idiot.

It is our job to motivate our horses to give their all for us, if we fail to motivate and positively excite them, why should they even leave the barn with us?

Another reason for praising frequently and silly Wesleyenthusiastically is it makes for confident, bullet-proof horses. I’m sure Wesley would say about himself: “I am a really good boy, I get all tricks right most of the time and my human has fun with me.”
He knows for a fact he’s a good boy, since he get’s praised constantly – he receives that feedback, resulting in confidence. Does your horse get enough positive feedback?

 
Even though Wesley is very gentle and low in herd hierarchy, he is a very confident horse, always the first to pass a scary new object on the trail, no trouble with new things, he even wanted to see inside the beer tent they recently put up near his stable, other horses wouldn’t even go near and wanted nothing to do with it.

It’s easy for him to be brave, nothing bad ever happened to him, going out with humans is a fun diversion from paddock life and they always bring him back home save.

Horses are incredible animals – they will try and please their riders at all cost, even if they are in pain or haven’t always been treated kindly by humans.

Here’s an example of a young mare I’ve been helping to train for a while. Her owner bought her at the young age of five, it was evident that she hadn’t done much before. She would accept saddle and rider without a problem and could go straight lines in all three gaits fairly well – so I assumed she had been standing on a paddock most of her life, been taken out for a hack every now and then, but had never received proper training.

This particular horse is very delicately build, we assume half quarter-horse / half Arabian, rather small, slender and when she first arrived with next to no muscles in her back, hind quarters and neck.

Her new owner doesn’t have much experience with training horses, so she gave her to a Western trainer in our area. Now, this trainer (for whatever reason) deemed her fit to be ridden fully five times a week. So this young girl, after having been moved out of her quiet paddock life, was immediately started out to be ridden, she spent two months under an ill-fitting and heavy Western saddle and a harsh rider that asked way to much of her.

Until the little mare had had enough and just couldn’t be a good girl anymore. She started bucking or just laying down with a rider on top, rearing in hand and generally not behaving very well. It had gone so far that her new owner was starting to get afraid of her.
This is when her owner turned to me for advice and we changed her saddle to a much better fitting and lighter English jumping saddle. We trained her in hand and on the lunge for two months before starting to ride her again.

And she responded beautifully to a positive training approach, she quickly learned to lead well, tried her hardest to understand and execute new moves such as leg yields and generally turned into a gentle and motivated little horsey.

Turned out, we still underestimated how bad her muscle sores had become from the abrupt and overwhelming training she had received, in addition there was often not enough time to keep the intervals between groundwork sessions short enough to build muscle mass. She started to refuse galloping on the left, even though she still seemed to be very motivated and trying hard to please her handler with whatever else we asked from her.
So we stopped riding her again to wait until she can be checked out by a vet and treated by an osteopath. Last week the vet had suspected the worst: “kissing spines”! Her owner and I were devastated!
But thankfully the x-rays showed nothing, so we could breathe easy and continue the investigation. The osteopath assessed and treated the little mare and explained how she is just extremely sore and tight in her back muscles and needs more ground training to loosen her up again and build strong muscles for riding. Happy to have an agenda now, her training goes on!

This little mare impressed me hugely, by being such a good girl and trying hard to please us humans even though she was just not capable yet of carrying a rider. And this is why it’s so important to listen to your horse and have it checked out as soon as their behaviour changes. She just tried to tell us about her back pains!

Another example is a former client’s Shetland pony mare. This client had bought the pony at 5 years old for her 6-year old daughter as a riding pony.

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The little pony had had a rough life before on a farm where she would carry around different children all day in a riding school and would even be rented out for trail walks with inexperienced and often incompetent parents leading the little horses. Reportedly, she even had to give birth to a foal with her saddle still on!
At six years old, when I met her, it quickly became apparent that she didn’t like adults with whips in their hands. In fact, she would attack you straight on when you tried to lunge her with a whip in hand to defend herself – brave little girl!

She wasn’t what you would call an easy children’s pony. She was still very young and liked to run, she would buck on the lunge like a rodeo horse and was spooky out on the trail.

I gave riding lessons to the little girl who is her human and it would amaze me every single time how that little mare seemed to become a different horse once the adults quit chasing her in circles and it was time for her human to mount her. Even on very wild days, she would be visibly relieved when her little girl approached for her riding lesson and would proudly carry her around the arena, always on her best behaviour.

The little mare loved her child, probably simply because the child loved her – with an unconditional intensity and honesty only children can love their pets with. That little girl was remarkably patient with her little proud horse and patted and praised her all the time, so it was an easy choice for the little mare to be a good girl.

Try and be more like a child with its pet, love it and praise it as much as you can.

After all, as a child you probably though of horses as these magical, proud creatures majestically galloping over meadows, flashing their tails and showing off.
Let’s try and give our horses back the dignity they deserve! A horse wants to be proud and feel good about itself just as much as we do. Next time you work with your horse, look at it with a child’s awe, be proud of how it moves and praise it for every little thing it does right – you’ll see, it’ll work wonders on your buddy’s motivation and he’ll work even harder.

A great way the famous circus artiste Fredy Knie turns a misunderstanding or botched move into positive reinforcement is by way of what he calls “counter exercises” – basically, instead of punishing the horse, he asks it to do something else for him, something it already knows well and that gives him the opportunity to praise it. Then he continues practising the new move the next day.

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Fredy Knie training one of his white stallions from the ground.

There’s nothing you can ever do wrong with praising, only watch out to be prompt with it – getting a treat out of your breeches while you are riding and reaching over to give it to him will probably take way too long. In groundwork, treats can be immensely useful.

Praise can be a a whispered “Good boy!” from the saddle while you are riding manoeuvres, not to get distracted or risk the moment from falling apart. It may be a reassuring scratch on the withers. It can also be dropping the reins and enthusiastically patting your horse on the neck, praising it loudly for a big thing: like a new move executed right for the first time.
Or it can mean, big pats, followed by getting out of the saddle (the ultimate relief) and more patting and scratching and cooing. The cool-down can also be done on foot when your horse has just shown extraordinary stuff. And your horse will feel like a star!

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I always try to keep Gustav Steinbrecht’s words in mind when training horses: “Merke dir wohl, Fortschritt macht dein Pferd nur wenn du auf gutem Fuße mit ihm stehst.” – which translates roughly to: “Remember well, your horse will only make progress if you are on good terms with him.” – from his book “The Gymnasium of the horse”.

The perfect in-saddle training session

Why train horses at all, you might ask?
Horses are as fragile as they can be strong. Seeing them play on the meadow, when they act all imposing and full of energy always fills me with awe. That’s what they are made for, playing, dozing (a lot), eating (even more) and walking – in the wild 30 – 50 km per day.

What they aren’t made for: carrying the weight of a rider on their backs.
And this is precisely why we need to train them accordingly, we simply owe them.

A well-trained riding horse is not only well muscled in its neck, back and hindquarters, ideally it is perfectly balanced with all four legs perpendicular to the ground, can stretch its neck forward-downward in a relaxed way without falling forward and shows self-carriage under the rider as well as without.

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Beautifully executed forward-downward stretch without reins shown here by Andrea and her 7-year old mare. Note her upright but relaxed and independent seat.

To form a well-balanced, strong and self-carried horse with a great posture, we work a lot from the ground. But a thought-out riding session can also help your horse improve:

5 – 10 Minutes: Arriving together

Take some time with your buddy to arrive where you want to be, with him/her. Cuddle a little or do some leg stretches, then walk around the arena together and get tuned in to each other. As much as you might still be with work issues in your head, your horse isn’t much different.

  • Walking together: The great advantages of walking together is that you can give your horse the chance to loosen up its back and most importantly produce joint fluids that are vital to avoid injuries. Don’t forget that a horse in captivity is mostly just standing around and usually rather stiff when you pull it out to go for a ride.
  • Ground exercises are a great way to gain your horses attention and interest before getting into the saddle as well as loosen up the musculoskeletal system.

10 Minutes: Getting the juices flowing

  • Getting in the saddle:
    Use this as your standing ritual to practice standing still with your horse, don’t kick it into a walk as soon as your behind hits the saddle. What’s it going to learn from that? Well, probably not standing still and patiently until you are ready. This becomes especially important for save dismounting and mounting out and about on the trail.
  • Please do yourself and your horse the favour to use a mounting block whenever you can, even if your horse isn’t that tall. It will spare its probably still stiff spine from being pulled to one side by the rider’s weight and when practised regularly gives them a “target” for standing patiently for you to mount.
  • Warming up at the walk: Choose big figures and light exercises, for example leg yields (I explain more about this further down), big serpentine lines to do initial bends on. As a rule of thumb: walk your horse straight to start with, then go into wide bends, avoid tight bends and turns before your horse is fully warmed up.

15 Minutes: Warm-up

  • “Jogging round”, trotting exercises (relieve the horse’s back through posting to the trot, stepping on the stirrups), again first on straight lines, then bended lines.
    I encourage all my pupils to make the jogging rounds a fixed routine in their riding, at the beginning and at the end of each riding session. Horses feel save and relaxed with routines they know. And there’s no point in working a horse that isn’t relaxed.
  • After 5 – 10 minutes, ask for lots of walk – trot, trot – walk transitions to soften your horse. This also builds strength in the haunches and the lumbar region of the back and  improves their self-carriage. Be patient with the downward transitions in young horses and use your voice in combination with your seat with all requests, and only then the reins.

Watch out for active hind legs, a relaxed top line and frequent neck stretching – this should make up most of your session.

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Posting to the trot to relieve his back – Slight forward-downward position

10  Minutes: Short bursts of work at the trot

  • First, a little definition of side-step exercises:

1) Leg yields: can be ridden on the long side or diagonals, more challenging on circles or bent lines in walk, trot and even canter.
Leg yielding means asking your horse to step sideways with its front and back legs. The horse is straight in itself, with possibly a little positioning of the head towards your inside leg (if you do it on the long side, your inside and outside leg switch around in this exercise). Do not override the angle, maximum 45° towards the arena wall.

2) Shoulder in: long side or big circles (+ counter shoulder-in to the outside of the arena) in walk, trot and canter.
With a shoulder in, you are asking your horse to to keep its hindlegs in a straight forward movement on the same track (be careful not to push the hindlegs out), meaning its hindlegs should step straight and forward and not cross! The head is slightly positioned inwards with a minimal neck bend and its forelegs are on an inside track crossing each other, with the inside foreleg crossing over the outside foreleg. From the front you’d ideally see three legs, as outside front and inside back legs align – this isn’t the most important part though, more important with this exercise is to keep the hindlegs straight and forward stepping.

3) Haunches in: long side or diagonals (also called traverse) in walk and trot, – leave the “bended sidesteps” in canter to the pros as this requires your horse to take a lot of weight on the outside hindleg. The counter-exercise here is called renverse.
This is in effect the opposite of shoulder-in when it comes to your horses footfall: the forelegs are on the original track stepping straight and forward, the haunches come on an inside track (mind that front outside shoulder, don’t let it pop out) and the outside hindleg pushes forward and crosses over the inside hindleg. What stays the same compared to shoulder-in is your very soft positioning and slight neck bend to the inside.
I recommend doing haunches-in only with well-carried and strong horses, not a beginner’s lesson as it isn’t productive when not executed out correctly.

! Very important for a harmonious and sustainable training routine:
Alternate all collection work with stretching exercises and relieving the horse’s back through posting to the trot (stepping on the stirrups) frequently in between or giving them a walking round after an exercise well done.
Your horse does not have to put its nose into the sand for a correct and beneficial forward-downward movement, however, always look out for active hind legs and a relaxed top line.

5 Minutes: Halt exercises (from the ground or in the saddle)

Now, these can also be done very well from the ground and should definitely be practised first time from the ground. I can only recommend getting off your horse in the middle of your riding session, it gives it a chance to get the blood flowing in its back muscles again and will have a great effect on your horses’ interest in your requests. They get bored easily!

  • Turn on hindquarters (“walking pirouette”) = the forelegs move around the inside hindleg. If done correctly, meaning not letting the horse’s front legs walk away from the hindlegs and “leaving” the pirouette movement, this is a great exercise to form the muscles and self-carriage necessary for collection.
  • Turn on the forehand (“counter pirouette”) = the hindlegs move around the inside foreleg. This exercise improves flexibility and strength in the hindquarters, especially in the lumbar back, pelvis and croup area.
    Tip: Rather do leg yields with youngsters as the counter pirouette inhibits forward movement and might lead to stress.

5 – 10 Minutes: Gallop work

  • Start on a wide circle, slowly and controlled decrease the size of your circle but maintain the horse’s forward tendency to ensure a correct start of collection, then increase the circle again. Tight but smooth turns and bends, like volts or serpentine lines help here, too.
  • Counter gallop exercises help straighten your horse, vary tempo and use the middle line (off the sides) frequently to check for straightness.
  • Flying changes are a great way to work those back, shoulder and hip muscles. You may want to start doing these over ground poles first.

5 – 10 Minutes: Cool down

  • Posting trot jogging round = make this a routine, your horse will quickly learn that jogging rounds are there for it to relax and leave the session with a good feeling.
  • Wrap up: dismount, say thank you, loosen the girth and walk a few rounds together.
  • Don’t forget, especially when it’s cold out: Blanked the horse when sweaty until dry!
getting out of the saddle
Say thank you when you get off!

 

*My time indications are, of course, recommendations:

  • 5 – 10 Minutes: Arriving together
  • 10 Minutes: Getting the juices flowing
  • 15 Minutes: Warm-up at the trot
  • 10 Minutes: Short bursts of work at the trot
  • 5 Minutes: Halt exercises (from the ground or in the saddle)
  • 5 – 10 Minutes: Gallop work
  • 5 – 10 Minutes: Cool down

For rehab candidates, youngsters and older riding partners I recommend long warm-ups and very short work intervals.
As a rule of thumb: Try not to ride longer than an hour.

6 steps before getting in the saddle

Yes, there’s no better place between heaven and earth than on a horses back! Even though I am much more on the ground nowadays, there’s still nothing like a racy gallop in the early morning when the sun has just come up behind the Alps, the meadows are still dewy and the last mist whorls recede into the forest. Or one of these days when everything seems to go easy and smooth while practising those dressage moves in the arena and your horse is all gaits and movement.

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I haven’t forgotten that feeling, I still understand it, but lately more and more horse owners are giving me the feeling what really wanted was a mountain bike, not a living, breathing, highly social animal.

Think about it. We keep horses in captivity that would walk 30 – 50 km per day in the wild. Every other day or so, we pull them out of their herd (hopefully not a tiny 3×3 m box) for an hour, clean them, saddle them, hop on, ride around, put them back… same procedure every time.
Wouldn’t a mountain bike do the job?

Here’s why I try to teach horse owners to vary their training:

First of all, it will hugely improve the relationship you have with your horse. To build trust, horses need a fair leader, good communication and body language – that’s rather difficult when you spent most of your time together in the one spot it can’t see: your horse’s back.

Secondly, that aforementioned back is a lot more sensitive than most riders are aware of. After only 15 minutes under saddle, a horse’s back becomes numb, like a foot gone dead from sitting awkwardly. Its vertebraes are compressed, blood circulation comes to a standstill – you are, after all, sitting on its spine!

Lastly, you will get much better training results compared to doing everything from the saddle. Be it teaching a new move, giving your horse courage to be saver on the trail or just see them in action from the ground.

These are the 6 steps I recommend doing regularly and definitely well before getting into the saddle of a new horse. Your horse will love you for leaving the saddle home every now and then!

1. Grooming

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Grooming your horse is a great way to build a strong bond between you. And by grooming I don’t necessarily mean the cleaning you do before you saddle them, it’s much more an act of friendship. Just take a moment as often as you can, to walk up to your horse and give it a friendly scratch with the tip of your fingers, if you have a sensitive horse, just give them a rub with the flat of your hand. Watch their eyes and ears to find out which ones are the good spots.

Scratching the withers or the top of the mane relaxes horses and releases calming endorphins. Horse buddies do it all the time, be a buddy!

2. Walkies

I go for walks with all horses on a regular basis, even if it’s just a 15 minute detour before going to the arena to train. Just a few weeks ago, it was a real struggle for her owner and me to lead this young chestnut mare below. Cody would crowd you, be inattentive and frequently jump into you.
To practice leading, I keep a whip between the horse and me in my right hand. This helps define the space between us and keep her front shoulder away from me, with a flick of my wrist I can bring the whip in front of her chest to keep her from speeding up or overtaking me. Cody now lets herself be led relaxed and respectfully, and it improved her courage and confidence to walk by herself.

leading

Mostly though I go for walks when my time is limited, it’s a great way to say, “let’s do something fun together”, and gets the juices flowing. And a little early morning walk or after a stressful day in the office, it really gets you back on the ground.

3. Hanging out / Feeding & Grazing

This one might be the easiest way to build a real relationship with your horse. Just be around without wanting anything from them every now and then. If your horse has the privilege to live in a free herd, you’ll likely already be spending some time with them after training to feed them – if not, try and make it a habit.

Just take your buddy out to a spot of yummy grass or put a chair into the paddock, you can even read a book. And I can already picture the huge grin on your face, when your horse lifts its head from the grass to walk over and check in on you, all by itself.

4. Liberty Work

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Liberty work is spending time with your horse at liberty, meaning no tack, no strings attached. Start out doing this in an enclosed space, a paddock or arena.

When starting out with liberty training, don’t expect too much and take it easy. This is time for you and your horse to have fun together, at liberty.
Begin by walking together in different positions: partner/companion position, leading ahead, driving from behind (herding).

Then practice stops and starts, left and right turns, backing up…

When Wesley and I do liberty training and he decides to walk away, I let him.
I give him a few moments, then I call him – and wait. It mostly takes a little while for him to decide if he should turn around, I can watch him ponder the question: his ears are with me but he’s pretending he hadn’t heard me, until a few moments later he turns around and walks up to me to see what new idea I’ve come up with, a look of curiosity in his eyes you will only see at liberty.

Now in my books, this is the greatest compliment you can get from your four-legged buddy!

5. Lunging

cavesson
halter cavesson

Correct lunging is an art and I will probably elaborate in more detail in a future post.

For now, all I’d like to say about correct lunging is forget all the tack: please do not use bits, side reins or other stuff that will just render the exercise void.
All you need is a lunge and a stable halter, or better yet a cavesson and ideally a dressage whip (forget about the long whips, you don’t need to reach your horse).

 

With lunging you can really practice your posture and body language and how it affects your horse.

From a training perspective it is also a great way to straighten your horse, yes – straightness does not come from trail riding in the same direction. Your horse should be able to move around the circle without “falling out of it”  – ideally you have no tension on the lunge and its ear and eye are with you with an ever so slight bend in its body and neck around you.
Here’s a nice example of my friend Gaby and her Sandro:

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What’s more, lunging is a great diagnostic tool as you can see your horse move freely and can observe rhythm, footfall, self-carriage and decide what you need to work on.

6. Ground Work

This one is especially important if you enjoy riding dressage, teaching “tricks” or are simply interested in improving your partner’s posture and musculoskeletal system.
Ground work means working with your horse from the ground, for this you can use a bridle, long reins, a halter or just a rope and ideally a dressage whip to elongate your arm reach. I use ground work whenever I teach a new move, say leg yielding, or want to improve something, like smoother walk-trot transitions.

With my old boy I do a lot of ground work as substitute for in-saddle training sessions to stretch and smooth his muscles and work on his flexibility, for example when it’s rather warm outside.

I firmly believe, if your horse can’t do (or does not understand) what you are asking from the ground, you have no business demanding it from the saddle.

 

I hope this post gave you some exciting new ideas to try out with your horse, go visit him/her and have some fun together! Happy to hear what you guys do!?