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

Groundwork: the Why

“In-hand work is an integral part of my training, one that I use with every horse, from green to Grand Prix, as it prepares and eases them into the demands of ridden work.” says Manolo Mendez, founding member and the first Head Rider of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez. A man who’s skill and understanding with groundwork as well as his dressage riding I greatly admire.
I learned a lot about working with horses on the ground by watching Manolo’s videos of his in-hand work: observing his posture, his timing to the horses’ footfalls, his awareness of their balance, his understanding of each individual’s conformation and restrictions.

And I learned what groundwork is all about and why it is so important: it keeps our horses healthy!

Two and a half years ago, I unloaded an old, skinny and unfit ex-retiree off a trailer. Wesley was 23 at the time and had spent the past three years on an open meadow doing absolutely nothing all day.

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June ’14 – straight off the trailer.

The last time I had ridden my mum’s star jumper was at my goodbye tournament ten years earlier. Back then he was a mighty horse with a broad chest and strong hind-legs, always preferring to take obstacles one stride early, easily making up in strength to pass without failure. We won that last competition. What a glorious memory that now was!

And our start into “active retiree” training wasn’t off to an easy start, as he got himself a leg injury a few days later in the course of finding his place in the new herd. So what to do? We spent the following six weeks walking through the forest together every day. Its a forest with nice soft paths and steep hills – perfect training ground.
Turns out, that injury was probably what made us start his re-training at exactly the pace we should have: slow, very slow. This gave us the time to get to know each other again, it gave him the time to get used to his new environment and his newly re-obtained purpose in life, and it gave me the time to read and learn and think about how to get him fit again.
It also gave his body time to fill up a little and re-adjust his metabolism to working life.

After six weeks of walking together we had both achieved a minimal fitness level, Wesley’s injury had healed and I switched to focusing on his stamina and started with some light cardio-training on the lunge. I had read about routines that help to grow muscle mass as well as conditioning the rehabilitation candidate’s heart and lungs. After about two weeks, I alternated the lunging training with some short trail rides.

Over the following year of more and more trail rides and our regular lunging sessions, I incorporated more in-hand training as I wanted to help him with straightness and flexibility. So I started reading and researching on the internet what kid of exercises would improve his stiffness and what to watch out for when working horses on the ground.

At this stage he was getting noticeably fitter, but was still rather thin and not very well-muscled.

About a year after that old horse had walked off the trailer, I began riding him in the arena again practising dressage exercises that would improve his overall fitness, flexibility and strength. Mind you, that meant very long warm-ups walking and trotting and very short intervals of actual exercises – also, only once a week.

Building up a horse’s health and fitness, be it one that you just bought, one who’s life’s training is just starting altogether or a rehab case; it doesn’t happen overnight.

For me it was getting a second chance with a horse, who happened to have crossed its zenith years ago, that brought me to study groundwork.

I now incorporate it in most of my riding lessons and and with some of my clients its often groundwork-only for weeks or months as we are starting their young horses or rehabilitating one that hadn’t been well.

Last week I had the good fortune of giving a two-day course on “gymnasticising groundwork and correct lunge training” to four leisure riders who I am all very proud of for wanting to improve their skills working from the ground and on the lunge for the benefits of their horses.

Those four ladies have owned their horses for one to two years.
Except for one youngster, they had all passed the 15 year mark and had been working horses in a trail riding business before.

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The three middle-aged ladies and their wonderful owners.

All four horses are a bit on the chubby side, ok – to be frank, they are too fat.
The three little mares are all more or less struggling with weak backs, wrong postures and stiffness – probably also as a result of years of carrying mostly beginners over cross-country trails, never having been trained properly and (before their new owners) also hadn’t received the right medical and hoof care.

Some observations on posture, starring Sue (on four legs) and Tina:

More on posture, but also impulsion and balance:

In this sequence it’s clearly visible how delicate the balance between aids is in order to support your horse exactly when and how it needs it, without abrupt stops and starts. Mind you, Tina is not working with her own horse here. It takes time to get to know each other and even more time to get your timing right.

On day two of our course, we focused on training the horses on the lunge line and what to look out for. First, we started out each horse as if they were a green youngster never to have seen a lunge line or walked on a circle before (with a helper guiding the horse):

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As Maren concentrates on maintaining a triangle between her aids and the horse and squaring herself, Tina helps Sunny with the idea of circling Maren by simply being there with her. Important: handler = active, helper = passive!

We then went on to watch out for correct rhythm of the horse’s beats: 4 in walk, 2 in trot, 3 in gallop – this is were lunging is a very useful diagnosis tool.
Most importantly though, we were watching out for correct posture and how to influence the way the horses carry themselves, where and how to use the whip and why a long neck stretching into contact is so important. Here you can see Sunny picking herself up quite visibly, coming out of her shoulders, stepping under a bit more and stretching that short little neck while maintaining a beautiful bent – relaxed and forward:

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While Sunny is doing a wonderful job, even as her owner leaves her to it by herself, Maren could be a little bit more relaxed in her arms – those outstretched upper arms will give her pains! She has a lovely square but forward stance though and is keeping the horse between her whip and lunge with an open chest. Your body language is so important here!

I think  I might have mentioned it once or twice, but I will again: groundwork is vital to your  horses health and well-being! No matter if all you do is trail-riding.
I recently made the experience myself of how weak a fully ridden horse in its prime can be: Kaitsu is a beautiful, charming 7year old gelding, he’s been under saddle for at least 3 years. Some while ago I started training him, my goal being to teach him some dressage and improve his own body use under saddle.
This little horsey cost me some nerves, as working with him almost always ended in me not exactly looking like a great horse trainer at all. I caught myself actually lying in bed at night thinking of how to fix the problems I had with him: Why would he shut down, often all of a sudden? Why was he first very willing to come along, start work, be mounted, then abruptly change his mind about it and even start bucking a little? Why would he not move one leg sometimes – me waving the whip behind his butt? Was this a concrete horse?

Turns out, being half-asleep while pondering such questions doesn’t get you anywhere. So, the next day I asked my friend and Kaitsu’s owner to come watch while I worked with him on the ground. My initial intention was to show him how to strengthen Kaitsu’s back muscles and what exercises would help with that as well as improving balance. At this point it was clear that I’m not going to get anywhere near actual dressage work anytime soon with this stubborn young lad.

During that hour I spent with the gelding and his owner in the arena, the coin dropped. I understood why I hadn’t been successful at working with this horse, or – more specifically – why it had gone south after a while. Every single time.
Kaitsu was simply not fit enough for what I was asking him to perform!

He might be in his prime, look strong and move lovely when free – but: this horse was only ridden on the trail and that very much forward as he is by nature a rather calm, slow and phlegmatic horse personality.

This way of riding led to Kaitsu carrying all of the rider’s and most of his own weight on his front legs when ridden – his appearance changed dramatically when mounted – gone was the square, well-balanced young horse. His being very forward and “downhill” as riders say, led to a short neck, extremely hollowed out back and trailing hindlegs that took on almost no weight at all.

And here I come, and ask him to carry himself balanced and with much more weight on his hindlegs, asking him to constantly lift his back and stretch his neck. Those back-muscles were not used to this kind of work – and I had assumed this was a fit young horse with good base training out on the trail, and so I started out with 45 – 60min sessions – big mistake!

Mostly ground-work to build up muscle and conformation for me to eventually sit on and no more than 10 – 15 minutes of ridden work is more like what the little guy can handle at his current state of training, and that he does with the motivation and curiosity of the young.

I’m glad I figured out the mystery of Kaitsu’s uncharacteristic “disobedience” and am very much looking forward to slowly, very slowly building him up to show a great travers, master the canter pirouette – and who knows, maybe even the piaffe one day?
(Hey! We all get to dream…)

I brought an old, retired, ex-athlete back to strength and fitness with ground-work and patience: he’s now full of life again and loves to storm off on the gallop straights, just because he can – and it makes me laugh every time he does it, happy to see him healthy.

If you start working on the ground now, with regular practice you’ll both get fitter and you might be able to add a few year’s to your buddy’s life – fitter, happier years!

 

Next time: the “How” of Groundwork with exercises and pointers…

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!

 

 

An ode to the the mature horse

… or the folly of buying youngsters.

Growing up in equestrian sports stables, I took it as a given – almost an unwritten rule – that less experienced riders, leisure riders and especially beginners start out on a mature horse, a so-called “school master”, and only very good riders who were naturally calm leadership personalities would start and train a young horse.
It was unthinkable even for a passable rider to buy a young horse…

Nowadays I’ve noticed a lot of okay leisure riders and even beginners are buying young, sometimes even green horses. Sure, sometimes a horse just comes along, they are rescued or inherited or somehow fall into their owner’s lap – that’s not the ones I’m talking about, I’m talking about the conscious decision to buy a green 3-year old.

In my new world of open-paddock herd stables and trail riding I meet many riders who would probably be a lot happier in their hobby with a mature horse, rather than the youngster they are often struggling with.

Training a young horse requires not only skill, but also infinite patience, true and natural calmness and quite a bit of fearlessness at times.

Should you be thinking of buying a young horse, ask yourself:

  • Am I really skilled enough for the job? Can I gymnasticise a horse enough in hand, on the lunge and later under saddle so it will be strong enough to carry me for many years to come?
  • Am I a patient and calm person? Can I explain the same point over and over again without getting angry? Will I lose my temper at inexplicable jumpiness or lack of concentration?
  • Am I brave enough? Can I handle the occasional bucking, dashing and jumping?

I know I talk about Wesley a lot, my apologies should I bore you with it, but even my human partner knows that this horse is the love of my life, as it had been for my mother before me. People around me know I can’t help and (to be perfectly honest) love to brag about him.
He is such a good boy, so motivated and he’s managed to rekindle the little flame I was hardly aware of over the 6 years I hadn’t sat on horseback, in fact he turned it into a raging fire.
The fire of passion, a fiercely burning love for these graceful, proud and sensitive animals.

After breaking Wesley out of retirement and having him like my own horse (I can hear my mum protesting here: “but he’s MY precious!”) for the past two years, it now burns inside again with an almost child-like intensity.

I have this old boy to thank for that.

rain protection.jpg

He makes me laugh when he starts completely overacting because I seemingly don’t get the hint that he would much prefer to munch on that patch of grass before we start doing anything, as if I were not only dumb but also deaf and blind.

He actually figured out to get the entire stable to work for him.
There’s Gundi, our stable’s good soul, he directs her to whatever location he’d like to take this morning’s hay, preferably away from the others so he can eat in peace and quiet.
Then there’s Gaby, his best buddy’s human, who he swindles whenever she looks his way, complaining he hasn’t had any oats at all for ages – so long until she gives in and feeds him, too.

This one works with almost anyone. Why?

Because he’s such a good communicator! In his long life with humans he’s figured us out and knows how to get his point across, even to us insensitive and obviously slightly challenged beings on two legs. He simply shouts a bit louder at us.

And that’s my point exactly. An older horse can bridge the communication gap human and horse inevitably encounter and will do so, because it has worked in his favour in the past.

A young horse still isn’t sure what to think of us and all these things we ask of him, he has no idea, why we don’t seem to understand if he’s trying to say, “I can’t concentrate any more.”, “I miss my herd.”, “I am tired.” or “My teeth are growing and my mouth hurts.” – and of course, there is the famous “Oh look, a butterfly!”.

butterly.jpg

That same butterfly will be serenely ignored by an older horse who is currently on the job with his human.

Now, let me define what I mean by “young” and “older” for you:
When I say “young” horse I am talking about anything up to 6 or 7 years old, a mature horse would be between 8 and 14years old – that’s when horses are usually the most expensive because they are fully trained and have usually quieted down enough to make for easy companions.

In the sports world, a 10 – 12year old horse would probably be at the peak of its performance years and therefore the most valuable.

An older horse, and this depends heavily on size, breed and work load, will be around 17 – 20+. Many horses can be ridden well into their twenties, we share our stable with a 34year old Icelandic pony who is still happy to go on trail rides.

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Our oldest senior Bangsi at 34 (Happy Birthday!) still enjoys going on rides.

A well cared-for horse will live up to 25 – 35 years, usually the smaller – the longer they live.

Sure, old horses get some common health issues such as arthritis in the legs rather often, but that’s not a “no riding” diagnosis at all (unless your horse shows arthritis in the back). In fact, an arthritic horse needs regular exercise to keep him from pain. They do need a little longer for their warm-up phase, however, 20 – 30 minutes of walking will loosen them up and then they’ll be as fresh as they used to be.

Another common issue in an older horse – usually north of 20 – is that their hearts aren’t as strong any more and that they dehydrate easily. Both issues show themselves on hot days, which means to let them rest that day and not ride or taking them on a round in the cool of the early morning hours instead. For the weakened heart there’s herbs that can help, for example hawthorn or rose hip and your vet has ways to supplement your older buddy.

An older horse needs to get its teeth checked (and with some also filed) each year and with some oldies digestion gets less efficient and they might need to eat more hay simply because they also eat slower. You might need to start feeding fatteners, such as corn.

And what can definitely be said is that there’s a lot of brushing with an oldie in winter! Their coats get thick and shaggy and they take longer to shed it in spring.

After the warning, here come the benefits of an older horse:

What’s probably the biggest advantage is that older horses are more gentle and sensitive towards others, especially us humans and they know how to figure us out.
A horse with some grey showing around their eyes will be calmer and much more reliable out in the country. This makes them predestined for beginners, fearful riders or junior riders.
All oldies I know are great with children, they watch out for them when the little ones groom them, they are patient under saddle with their light-weight riders and they don’t mind the noise and general hubbub that comes with kids.

IMG-20160106-WA0001
With some, like Wesley, I suspect they really love all the attention they get from children.

Out of their prime ex-athletes come cheap and superbly trained. It is a privilege to sit on a well-ridden horse, even if you mostly go out on trail rides. You will notice how much easier it is to manoeuvre them, change gaits and speed or stop them when necessary. And for the rider who is looking to improve his/her riding skills, those old schoolmasters will make you better at giving your aids at the right time and with the right dosage.

An older horse will give its all just to show he still wants to be picked up for a ride, I notice this often, not only with my oldie, but with all of them. The ones that don’t get picked any more would still try to smuggle themselves out with us or volunteer to do stretching exercises when I do them with Wesley in the paddock. They actually queue up!

A horse is made to move and even when they’re older and stiffer, they still want to stretch their legs, get some exercise and most importantly some intellectual stimuli. The joy of movement, pride in work and a sense of being important doesn’t go away.
It is a shame that so many ex-competition horses just get put away on some meadow when they could have a fun second career as a leisure horse with someone who gives them the attention they deserve.

A horse that has passed their 20th birthday isn’t necessarily “old” yet, in fact, a horse that has been kept and exercised well all its life will still be strong and athletic.

Maestoso_Basowizza_&amp;_Oberbereiter_Hausberger

At Vienna riding school they start their horses at 4 or 5 years old, then slowly but systematically train them to become the top-performers we see showing the famous “airs above the ground”.
Their Lippizaner stallions are only fully trained at 10 years old – the starting point of their pro career and do not reach retirement age before they are 25 – 28.
After they move back to their birthplace in the Austrian Alps, many still get ridden then.

I can only recommend an older horse, spending time with an animal that has been trained superbly, can communicate effortlessly with you and is absolutely bullet-proof is an absolute joy and a privilege every single day.

There’s so much older horses can teach us, they become so-called schoolmasters and subtely train us to be better riders and better horse-people in general. They have the grace and understanding to forgive mistakes their riders make, something a young horse simply can’t – it doesn’t even know you just made a mistake.

An older horse is not only wise, but also confident and patient with their human – and in the end, isn’t that what we all want from our equestrian companions?

To recap: For most beginners and many pleasure riders (the ones I’ve met anyway) the best buying age of their companion would be 15 years of age. Don’t listen to people that tell you a horse is only worth anything under the age of 15, in fact that’s when they get really good!

 

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.

Pony and girl.jpg

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!

goodie

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”.