🐴 Starting a horse… 🐴
When I’m trusted to start a horse it’s always a great privilege, and it should be so even if you’re starting your own. I now take considerably longer than many people to start a horse and much longer than I did a decade ago. The main reason for this would be simply due to continued education, as we learn and educate ourselves, we change, we develop and we progress, it’s the way of the world in general.
If you have a young horse, I highly recommend taking the time to educate yourself on how they learn, how you can help them be the best version of themselves and what you can do personally to be the best partner you can be.
WHAT’S THE SECRET TO SUCCESSFUL TRAINING?????
I was recently asked for our most recent magazine article for my top training tip. I hesitated because there were so many things that popped into my head, but I couldn’t pull out one that didn’t work without others in alignment. After I went away and returned to our most recent handover sessions, I realized there was something, but it wasn’t a technical exercise or a specific movement.
Just like our horses, we're asymmetrical. The way we function internally and externally is designed to make our lives easier, quicker and more efficient (even though sometimes it leads to the opposite of these!).
As we move and respond to our environment our biomechanical and physiological functions are consolidated, reinforced or adapted but things like injury and lack of use can cause compensation and coping mechanisms which sometimes work against us.
During training we expect/want our horses to be symmetrical, measured and controlled both physically and mentally - often our training and expectations are very different to their 'normal' which requires both rewiring of the brain and adaptation by the body alongside increasing physical strength in different areas.
Our thought for the day is brought to you by the letter ‘S’…SPOOK!
Imagine you’re feeling anxious or you’ve had a fright. Would your tension and adrenaline dissipate more quickly if you were reprimanded or reassured?
🐴 ARE YOU LISTENING? 🐴
As a rule, horses are non-confrontational, given the option of fight or flight they will usually choose flight or remove themselves from a situation, fighting back only if they feel trapped or have learned to become defensive through previous experience or association. In addition to avoiding confrontation, horses are generally a fairly tolerant species, hence our ability to teach them, as a prey animal, to carry a rider and perform tasks out of the norm for them.
Usually if a horse feels the need to fight back they will indicate their intentions first, using a facial expression or the raise of a foot. These signs may be subtle, so if we plan to work with horses or build our relationships it’s our job to listen to their communication and learn their language. Sometimes we can be a little wrapped up in ourselves and only notice a behaviour when it begins to affect us adversely or interfere with our training sessions, at this stage the behaviour may be magnified or escalated. So how can we better listen to our horses?
I’ll be honest, I’m a perfectionist with a good dose of OCD…in some aspects this really helps in my training. It means I try to be thorough and consistent, which gets results, however, it can be a double edged sword.
Horses are dynamic, they live, breathe and feel…which can make training a bit of a rollercoaster at times! Particularly when we factor in our own mix of changing emotions, physical fitness and imbalance.
Chasing perfection can happen in our personal lives too, we often judge our own success on reaching goals, be it gaining material possessions or hitting personal targets at home or at work, in the belief that reaching these goals will somehow make us feel complete or that we’ve reached the pinnacle of our success. The reality, of course, is that we raise the bar, we set another goal or target to reach and so on…
It’s easy to get trapped in this cycle and in doing so we forego the enjoyment of our experiences, being in the present and practicing gratitude. We essentially forget to stop and smell the roses. I’ve found the more loss I experience as I go through life, the more I have started to realise the importance of this and I think I’m not alone in this train of thought. It’s not a new revelation and it’s the basis for many inspirational quotes but putting it in practice can be difficult when your tunnel vision takes hold, I guarantee everyone who comes to this point wishes they’d had that lightbulb moment a little earlier!
So as far as our training goes, we might find ourselves in what I like to refer to as the game of snakes and ladders, some days you make great progress, some days you have to reinstall a basic button, some days are just a write off! But don’t wait until you hit your next goal or until you’ve reached the elusive pinnacle to enjoy your time with your horse! Celebrate all the wins, big or small and when you’ve had a bad day look back at parts of your journey you’ve learned from or how far you’ve progressed!
When I was a young child I remember riding the school horses, lovingly cared for by Mrs. Parker...on special occasions she would click in a cassette tape over the loud speakers and we would ride to music to help us listen to the horses and what they could teach us. We were to keep tempo and adjust our seats, soft and quiet or extravagant and flowing...the school horses were well versed and knew that tape off by heart. Without any hesitation while the music ebbed and flowed from adagio to allegro they would transform from plodding school ponies to light footed unicorns, sometimes we would close our eyes to feel the air on our cheeks as we floated on our dancing ponies.
One year my grandparents took me to Olympia, I was astounded by the Frenchman and his fleet of white horses parading their extravagant liberty displays. I sat on the edge of my seat squinting while trying to figure his cues as they drew patterns around the arena, always returning to his side.
At home I would sit cross legged, inches from the television screen as I watched the Dressage freestyle to music. My brow furrowed, concentrating as hard as I could to see if I could catch the flick of leg or hand that made those horses dance...I rarely could...and to me, that was MAGIC. Witnessing that secret language only heard between the horse and their rider and dreaming that one day I could have the same.
I’m sure many of us entered into equestrianism for the same reason, searching for that same secret language. In pursuit of our goals this might be momentarily forgotten or may become lost in translation. On our way I think it is important to stop and regroup now and again, to remember those moments of awe and return to searching for and striving for that subtle communication. Creating the kind of relationship that allows those special moments that make you feel alive or as if you are flying.
On your journey it’s important not to lose THE MAGIC. 🦄🦄🦄
As trainers we are frequently faced with an element of proving our worth – with each new client comes a certain burden of proof to demonstrate how or why our methods work.
Sometimes we see dramatic changes during our first training session - cut to scenes involving much moving of feet, rearing, striking, bucking etc.
More often than not, our first session may be underwhelming in terms of the action movie we have envisioned, with minimal explosions and car chases. Though in some cases this may not be enough for our critics, we would encourage you to watch through to the credits. Think of it more as a slow burn with a feel good ending and sometimes even a little unexpected twist.
With every horse that is presented, I work with the energy level that is in front of me.
I frequently yabber on about the ‘volume knob’, this can be related to pressure, cues, energy or gaits, on the ground or under saddle.
I always try to minimise anxiety and tension throughout a session to promote a good learning environment and maximise retention of information. Even when teaching coping mechanisms to an anxious or nervous horse or responsiveness and awareness to a dull or shut down horse, I want to keep high energy to short bursts and set ambient conditions for the horse to figure out the correct answer.
I will always work in the best interests of the horse and will not compromise on causing unnecessary stress for the WOW factor, even if that leaves the door open for an inconclusive review.
Something I try to live by every day.
Some of the horses that arrive to us may not be that pleasant to be around initially.
A few things to bear in mind, some of them have had very little life experience, have never left the safety of home or if so, not for a prolonged time, often they have had a few regular handlers.
On the other scale some have had many negative experiences, have been moved on many times with many different handlers. Either way, they are thrust into the unknown, a new environment, a new routine, new tasks to learn and new directors. This can be overwhelming and cause the horse to employ coping mechanisms which might involve some degree of flight response, aggression or shutting down. We’ve all felt angry, irritated, nervous or tense and can probably agree that these emotions don’t make us feel great - increased heart rate, uncomfortable, anxious; we can also probably agree that when we are feeling these things we are not that fun to be around and they can affect our interactions and relationships. There is also a tendency to be more defensive when we feel vulnerable and although the horse may function differently to us, having different priorities, security, survival and safety are at the top.
Clarity and consistency are the first steps to predictability, hence security and eventually trust and along the way you’d be surprised how many of those unpleasant behaviours start to diminish. We can also teach more productive coping mechanisms, those which make the horse feel more positive feelings, by reshaping and conditioning their responses.
We have had horses arrive who have been given many labels, varying in degrees of negativity. It’s important not to let these preconceived notions dictate our mindset going into a training session. Often when a horse is described as pushy, disrespectful, arrogant or similar, it can shape the way they are approached, often with more dominance, more force and greater pressure. When the horse then responds with more of the same, more labels are added which continue to influence future interactions. Surely, we all know by now, that assumptions make an ASS out of U and ME…
It’s worth noting that many of the pushiest, most argumentative, stubborn or aggressive horses we have encountered have emerged to be some of the most insecure, often exhibiting poor relationship and social skills both towards people and other horses, when they start to drop related behaviours they may switch to the other end of the scale and become anxious or overreactive, once again, continued clarity and consistency help guide them towards a middle ground.
Acknowledging, creating a dialogue and listening to feedback also helps to decrease the need for an escalation in communication if they feel they are not being heard. For us it’s about uncovering their true personality, or identifying the positive aspects and cultivating those traits so we see more of them. The more insecurity or trauma involved, the more patience and time it will take to unearth these, so try not to judge a book by it’s cover!
HOW DOES OUR TRAINING STYLE DIFFER TO OTHERS?
Other versions of this question are ‘Whose methods do you follow?’ and ‘What training style do you use?’
Over time, I have made decisions on which principles are the most important to me, what goals and objectives I would like to reach with each horse and how I can achieve those goals most efficiently, while taking into consideration the safety of the handler/rider and the welfare of the horse.
Alongside constant observations and lessons from every individual horse that we work with, our unique training programs have been developed and continue to develop.
We use a combination of exercises and methods based on horsemanship, straightness training, equine biomechanics and classical dressage to achieve mental and physical engagement.
Here are some key aspects of our training:
🐴We encourage the horses to draw in to us, rather than move away or employ their flight response. As opposed to some methods which push or drive the horse away frequently, our goal is to motivate them to focus on us, to convince them we are of value and a place of security.
🐴In asking a horse to perform a task or exercise we place expectations on them to respond or move their body in a certain way. Instead of leaving it up to the horse to figure out a random answer to achieve our goals, we aim to provide adequate direction, which guides them to succeed in finding the correct answer.
For example, even when asking what may seem to be the simplest of tasks, for example, asking the horse to move out of space or move out on a lunge line, the smallest of requests to move the body can be broken down into bite sized pieces, such as how to shift weight and move positions, this aids understanding and trust.
🐴We have an open dialogue with the horse as opposed to placing a continued list of demands on them. Once we have directed or set them up in a way which promotes success in achieving the goal, we ask a question… ‘are you able to do what I am asking?’. If the answer is ‘I can’t’ we redirect and ask again until the answer is ‘yes, I can’...and always remember to say ‘thank you’.
🐴Why does straightness matter?
Horses find security in balance as becoming unbalanced leaves them vulnerable (to predators). By helping them to be stable and secure in their body and movements we create softness and eliminate anxiety or negative behaviours.
🐴Proprioception is closely related to this and is defined as a sense of self movement and body position. If the horse is aware of each part of their body, the sensations they feel when weight bearing, shifting weight or performing exercises become less concerning as they become more familiar. By repeating a specific body position, movement or muscle pattern, neuro pathways are formed between the brain and tissues (muscles/tendons/ligaments) to aid in repetition of useful body movements and postures.
🐴Following on from this, biomechanics is linked to the two points above and another focus of our training. By directing the horses body in a way that promotes core and hind limb engagement and associated muscle development, we are teaching them to use their body in a way that can most efficiently and comfortably carry a rider and perform the tasks we regularly ask of them, neither of these, the horses’ body was designed to do. We also do not underestimate the physical strength required to achieve this and take a gradual approach to conditioning as with any athlete.
🐴‘Dressage’ is a French term which translates to ‘training’ and in its classical form serves the purpose of developing the horses’ natural ability in order to maximise potential under saddle. We use common gymnastic exercises to gradually develop suppleness and elasticity with the aim for the horse to respond smoothly from minimal aids. By this definition it is incredibly valuable in all disciplines.
🐴While working on the above four points we work ‘back to front’ and believe that what is happening through the forehand and mouth of the horse is a symptom of what is happening at the hind end, therefore, if we influence the larger portion of the body (the last 2/3) to work efficiently and correctly, the result is an aesthetically pleasing front end, eliminating the need for restrictions on the head, neck or face. This leads us directly to mouthing…
🐴There are many ‘mouthing’ processes to teach a horse to ‘accept’ a contact. We aim to provide security through teaching the horse to feel comfortable enough to sit quietly and softly at the end of our reins. We use this mouth feel, as mentioned above, as a method of communication that allows us to gauge how effectively the horse is working through their body and influence changes in this mouth feel by influencing the rest of the body, particularly the latter portion.
By using the above principles we aim to produce a willing partner who is relaxed in our company, seeks direction from us and is physically equipped and able to perform the tasks we ask of them.
Pressure can be identified as anything that makes your horse experience negative emotions such as being uncomfortable, overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious or panicked and can run through a scale of mild to more intense. Although pressure can come in many different forms and intensities it is possible to identify the most common responses exhibited by each horse, we can then work on redirecting the horse toward finding release, relaxation, security or calmness. By modifying these RESPONSES TO PRESSURE we begin to create conditioned responses and more productive coping mechanisms to build self-confidence, alongside building trust through the belief that we can aid in diffusing difficult or uncomfortable situations.
Your horse may be more sensitive to pressure around different areas of their body, often those that have previously suffered injury or are weaker. We want our horses to be comfortable when moving around but also standing still with pressure around them to prepare them various movements and also environmental pressures.
Encouraging BODY STABILITY and BALANCE promotes active thinking on the horses’ part regarding how best to support their body and avoid falling over, into or away from the handler or rider, it is a also a starting point to installing boundaries and self-carriage in it's basic form.
By improving BODY AWARENESS and proprioception we can create new neural pathways which aid the horse in recreating useful postures, correcting asymmetry and addressing sensitivity or spookiness, particularly around the hind end or weaker areas of the body.
BOUNDARIES prepare the horse to be moved around comfortably and allow us to direct their body during handling, on the ground or under saddle. By creating these on the ground first we can smooth the transition to using aids under saddle such as the legs and reins. Using these boundaries we can begin our straightness work. Pushing into boundaries may be caused simply by asymmetry, lack of balance or body awareness or by assertively pushing back into pressure as a method of defence.
YIELDING to pressure is somewhat unnatural for a horse, using size or strength can be utilised defensively, usually before resorting to aggression. By modifying the instinct to push into or pull away from pressure we can start to change the thinking of the horse that they may redirect their body and energy in a way that is beneficial to both them and the handler or rider. Here we encourage the release of tension in the forehand and also forward motion from the hind end.
POSTURAL work promotes the activation of correct muscle groups (required to carry a rider or shift weight around the body during handling or performance) and allows the release of tension or pressure from other areas such as overworked muscles or joints. By using the theory of activation first rather than moving straight to strength training, we can improve coordination, core and hind engagement, encourage the shift of weight from forehand to hind end and the thinking process of driving from the hind end as opposed to pulling from the fore. This can all be done under low intensity so that as strength training and physical intensity increases we can avoid discomfort or injury.
STRAIGHTNESS allows energy to flow fluidly and be shifted more rapidly around the body without kinks or blockages, it can also be recycled, is not ‘lost’ or needing to be constantly regenerated and enables the horse to maintain spatial boundaries more easily. During training, our outside boundary should remain straight in order to maintain forward or driving motion.
The majority of FLEXION should come from the abdominals and centre of mass, not from the head, neck and shoulders. When we create flexion on the ‘inside’ of the body (depending on the direction of movement) we must still have straightness, forward and drive to support the outside. This prevents loss of balance and disengagement which can lead to negative behaviours. Functional (lateral) flexion promotes suppleness, particularly through the ribcage, this release of tension encourages softness and efficient breathing regulation. The combination of straightness and correct flexion minimises resistance, tension and rigidity.
Our postural work, straightness and flexion start the process of building CORRECT MUSCLE TONE which in turn enables the horse to efficiently carry a rider, perform the tasks asked of them more easily and without resistance or tension.
Once we have the horse activating the correct muscle groups for longer periods of time and these responses become more conditioned, we can start to safely increase exercise intensity with a minimised risk of discomfort, lameness or unsoundness, hence improving STAMINA and longevity.
This gradual increase in STRENGTH and physical loading means the horse is capable of greater degrees of COLLECTION and therefore more advanced exhibitions or balance and performance.
By PROVIDING DIRECTION to the horse in a way that helps them to feel better physically and mentally, we are able to more effectively convince them that we can be useful as part of their team and that listening to us and directing focus towards us is beneficial to their security and well being. If this is the case our horses are more likely to TAKE DIRECTION from us and also direct questions to us, particularly in times of increased pressure, insecurity or imbalance as opposed to simply reacting.
This open dialogue is one which we value greatly, one that can significantly improve our relationship with our horse and increase the chances of our horses offering that little bit more, things like that extra moment of suspension without being asked or the harmony of increased responsiveness with the subtlest of aids. These magical moments are seldom created purely by obedience and delegation.
These are the fundamentals which make up our ENGAGE EQUINE TRAINING PROGRAM (c) to create willing, responsive and sound equine partners.
If you’d like to learn more we’d love to see you at our upcoming clinics or meet your horse to help with implementing these foundations!
A few weeks ago we shared our blog post called 'a matter of perspective' to insight some thinking into what it takes from our horses to meet our expectations. We then identified WHAT our training goals were and what we would like from our horses.
Previous posts can be viewed here:
Now that we’ve identified WHAT it is we’re looking for from our horses, let’s take a look at WHY we would like our horses to possess these attributes?
Some of the answers may seem fairly obvious but it is really important that we remember and refer back to them throughout our handling and training to make sure our shared experiences are as positive as possible from both a horse and rider/trainer's perspective! As many of the above are intertwined we will not address each point independently but talk about how our desired attributes make things easier and more pleasant for both horse and human.
Being mentally ENGAGED means having the ability to use more productive (perhaps more from our perspective, but also to help the horse feel less stressed) coping mechanisms in times of pressure or anxiety, this is pretty much anytime our horses are asked to perform a task and anytime they are out of the paddock, be that leading, handling or training.
Left to their own devices they would remain out in the paddock, eating, sleeping and hanging out with friends. When we disturb this natural rhythm it is important we recognise that this presents our horses with situations outside of their natural comfort zone, it is therefore our job to minimise tension and anxiety as much as possible when we are around them by teaching them to be RELAXED but AWARE. Since we are also taking them away from their herd, increasing their vulnerability and therefore their anxiety we must also teach them to be SELF-CONFIDENT alongside building a trusting relationship with them. They must believe that we will not purposefully put them in harms way and that we can direct them to feeling safe and secure. A relaxed and confident horse will be mentally COMFORTABLE during working and handling.
Being physically ENGAGED, BALANCED and STRAIGHT allows our horses to feel COMFORTABLE during handling and training. When we teach balance and body control we build correct muscle tone and improve proprioception and coordination, making routine HANDLING much easier for us and making it easier for our horses to achieve what is being asked. This includes tasks as simple as picking up feet, treating injuries, bandaging, tolerating leg straps on rugs, stepping around gates and leading. If the horse is able to freely shift weight around their body they will be able to balance while standing on three legs and having a single leg lifted and manipulated. If your horse is straight and engaged they will not walk into you with the shoulder while leading and will be able to maintain good spatial boundaries during handling or training, they will be able to MANOEUVRE around gates and will not feel worried around things behind them or around their hind legs.
During riding, movement and training if your horse is balanced, straight and engaged their centre of mass (and a rider) will be adequately supported, as this allows the core muscles to be effectively activated and utilised; as a result they will not travel heavy on the forehand, will not be ‘hard in the mouth’, they will be able to turn corners easily and adjust gaits smoothly with minimal pressure. The lumbar-sacral region and spine, in particular, have a limited amount of support without core engagement and where does a rider sit and create the most downward force?
Without core strength and balance we risk our horses’ SOUNDNESS and LONGEVITY due to increased pressure on these areas and also the joints, which may lead to damage or injury.
Using handling, training and riding techniques which use excessive force or restriction are a serious WELFARE concern for our horses, mentally, the instigation of submissive behaviours or learned helplessness teaches our horses to ‘shut down’ whereby we may still create an obedient horse but never a WILLING partner. There is also the chance that these methods may create a defensive and therefore aggressive horse, who may be labelled as dangerous, pushy or arrogant, making his future a little more uncertain and opening him up to more punishment and harsher interactions (later on we will take a closer look at how to identify a horse who is awake and active in the partnership as opposed to ‘checked out’).
Likewise, the use of excessive forced postures and restricted movement during training or riding is detrimental to both balance and true SELF-CARRIAGE – by restriction and restraint we are robbing ourselves of fluidity and softness, those wings we grow and that floating feeling that can’t be matched by any other.
Which leads us into a reminder that spending time with our equine partners should be ENJOYABLE, PLEASURABLE and FUN!
For many of us, our horses happiness and contentment while they around us makes us feel good, the paddock or barn is often a welcome escape from reality, from work, from daily chores and a horse who nickers when they see you, comes up to be caught, is happy to hang out and easy to handle can cure many ills.
When spending time around our horses seems an uphill battle and negative behaviours develop on the ground or under saddle, it can take away this enjoyment, dent our confidence and leave us feeling deflated. Being human, it can be easy to search for a ‘quick fix’ in order to snatch back a glimpse of the good times and those happy feelings, be it a different halter, a stronger bit, a tighter noseband or girth or a ‘more secure’ saddle - realistically these may actually hinder our relationship with our horses. Time spent addressing issues through training will make the rewards much more beneficial for both sides of the partnership and longer lasting.
In the next post we will look at how we can achieve the WHAT!!!
Stay tuned and Happy Horsing! 🐴
Many of our new clients or clinic attendees express that our training programs are often quite different to other methods they have experienced or utilised previously.
We thought we would take the opportunity to introduce ourselves, our principles and our training style with some informational posts.
A couple of weeks ago we shared our blog post called 'a matter of perspective' to insight some thinking into what it takes from our horses to meet our expectations. The post can be viewed here:
Secondly, we are going to look at our training goals and WHAT it is that we would like to achieve...
- we want our horses to be RELAXED. By this we mostly mean comfortable in what they are doing and not in a heightened state of alert. When the horse is 'relaxed' they are in a good head space for learning, the associations they have with the task being performed will also be positive if connected to positive feelings, this promotes the likelihood of the horse to want to replicate the task.
- our horses should be AWARE, we do not want to shut our horses down or 'desensitise' them into a submissive and closed state. It is possible for our horses to be awake and aware, to acknowledge pressure and utilise conditioned or taught coping mechanisms or responses to disperse or redirect anxiety and tension. This means that our horses do not have to fear pressure or new challenges, allows them to think and be proactively involved in the partnership as opposed to simply following orders.
- when our horses are more SELF-CONFIDENT they are able to utilise taught exercises and postures to re-centre and re-balance themselves both mentally and physically. We often feel the desire to placate our horses when they are struggling, particularly if they have been exposed to previous trauma or are predisposed to being over-reactive or sensitive in nature. Developing self-confidence removes the need for us to placate, placating may work short term and with a limited amount of pressure but is not a reliable training tool, when we placate in times of raised tension or anxiety we are often forced to remove pressure which can result in a learned response, it is also not always possible for us to remove the offending cause. It is far more effective to teach safe and more healthy coping mechanisms.
- teaching good BALANCE means that our horses can comfortably and efficiently perform routine tasks on the ground and under saddle without feeling vulnerable. Being unbalanced makes the horse instinctively, a target for predators. By asking our horses to engage, collect, circle, flex and bend, alongside carrying a rider, we are prone to unbalancing them as these movements are products of training and somewhat unnatural when performed routinely and repetitively.
- a large focus of equine training is to have our horses ENGAGED. For us this means both mentally and physically, training body and mind simultaneously. Relaxation, awareness and self-confidence, target the mind. Physically, core and hind end engagement are generally what we are referring to.
- STRAIGHTNESS is linked to balance and often grossly underestimated or misunderstood. Horses are naturally asymmetrical so bear uneven amounts of weight on each limb and each section of the body. By teaching our horses to be straight we allow the freedom of energy and weight shifts through the body which creates fluidity and looseness and improves balance and body control. A crooked horse cannot engage or stretch, will hold tension and may become uncomfortable or sore through compensation in overloaded areas or muscles.
- by enabling all of the above we make it possible for our horses to be RESPONSIVE. If the horse is able to perform a task more easily there will be less resistance and therefore improved responsiveness and reduced reactivity or sluggishness.
- by encouraging mental and physical development we enable the horse to achieve what is being asked, again, without resistance or tension. If the horse is strong enough in body and mind and understands what is being asked they are more likely to be WILLING. By allowing our horses to be mutual participants with open lines of communication and adequate preparation we may very well see our horses offering more than asked, this is unlikely if your horse has been conditioned only to be obedient and follow orders without any self expression, self-confidence or self-carriage.
- and of course, the ever elusive SELF-CARRIAGE, the pinnacle of many of our training goals. But what is self-carriage? Simple, the horse is able to efficiently carry themselves. What does this mean for us? That magical feeling of effortlessness, floating and fluidity, without the need to nag, micro-manage or constantly correct.
In our next related post we will take a look at WHY these attributes are beneficial to us and our horses!
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If you own or ride horses, at some point most of us have mumbled, muttered or screamed one of these phrases:
🐴“I just want to be able to walk, trot and canter in the arena”
🐴“I just want to be able to go on a nice trail ride”
🐴“I just want to be able to take my horse out to my local club”
🐴“I just want to ride out with my friends”
🐴“I just want to be able to groom/rug/lead/pick out feet/tie up…”
If you’re dealing with horses on a daily basis, it’s well worth stepping back and thinking about what all of this entails, particularly from the horse’s perspective.
Firstly for the benefit of the horse, who is often considered a part of the family, who you wrap up in rugs, feed, invest in routine healthcare or pay vet bills for and who you want to enjoy spending time with; secondly, for your own sanity and to aid in resolving the frustration, disappointment and stress that can also be a part of horse ownership, handling and riding.
So…I would like you to start by correcting your posture, make sure you are travelling upright and your pelvic angle is correct to remove pressure from your lower back, joints and hips. Add in a few Pilates exercises and get your core engaged, perhaps a couple of minutes of planking or some abdominal curls. Don’t forget to make sure you are using each side of your body equally and perhaps train yourself to be ambidextrous while completing regular tasks. Ok, if you have that covered why not add in some stairs to work those glutes and improve your range of motion …all good?
Great, let’s move on to some weight lifts to increase muscle mass and physical strength.
I think we’ve done enough stamina work so maybe let’s finish with a couple more challenging tasks, we’ll start with an obstacle course and finish with a short sprint to get the cardio tuned. Once that gets a little mundane, why not really push yourself, perhaps by getting a drill sergeant or similar to let you know where you’re going wrong and yell some directions at you, he's a real perfectionist! You could try completing the above in a haunted house to really keep you on your toes, add some distractions and test your focus.
If you’re catching the drift we can also look at the horse’s given programming alongside some of our expectations to help with resetting your perspectives in those tough moments.
By nature, horses are designed to travel slowly most of the time, unless being chased by a horse eating predator. They also tend to travel in ‘straight’ lines (although asymmetrical through the body as far as weight distribution and neural pathways) and are not terribly flexible through the mid-section, using for the majority, the forehand muscles to lift and pull the body around. Without core engagement the pelvis cannot rotate, the mid-section and back cannot comfortably carry a rider and the hind legs cannot travel underneath the rib-cage to support the increased weight mass at the mid-section.
When the horse is put onto a circle without adequate lateral flexion the whole body tends to lean in like a motorbike to compensate, which makes them feel unbalanced, out of control and vulnerable. Horses don’t like to fall over, it makes them a great target for predators.
When roaming grasslands or plains there aren’t a whole lot of obstacles to get around, over or through, making range of motion and articulation of joints low on the priority list, however, these become high on OUR priority list once we get out on the trail, particularly when there’s a 10ft ditch on one side or we’re about to get taken out by a low hanging tree branch. Once again core engagement is a must to allow and maximise this, and again, sit ups and planking are not high on your horses’ ‘to do’ list.
As both flight and herd animals, horses react to environmental stimuli plus the reactions of their buddies, which isn’t a great help to us when the horse next to us bolts because a blade of grass touched their leg or the neighbours have decided to renovate. So, while to us our horse may be acting like a drama queen, in their mind there is obvious life-threatening danger and getting out of there as quickly as possible is top priority.
“Hey Janet, hold still while I grab that huntsman off your shoulder…I said hold still!! Where are you going?!”.
Routine tasks often involve restriction, for example, tying up, picking up legs and feet or enclosing in a float or stable. Most of these also require balance and body awareness. There aren’t many of us who would be keen on being confined in a small, dark room or having our limbs manipulated without a decent explanation, not to mention how disconcerting it might be to suddenly teleport to an unfamiliar location and have to get our bearings while remaining calm and focused, followed by completing said workout above.
Popping to the supermarket to grab a snack is easy done and means we no longer need to compete for resources, but when your mum/dad/sister/brother find your hiding spot and eat that sweet treat you’ve been saving, it’s on! Just like the competitive wrestle to grab the last piece of crackle at Xmas dinner, as herd animals, horses move other horses out of space to compete for resources such as water and food and so, are conditioned to push into pressure. Not terribly helpful when we’re needing to yield to get over to the side of the road to avoid speeding traffic or get around that gate.
Did I mention horses are prey animals?
Of course, this is the obvious one, and by some divine miracle we manage to sit atop our horses for longer than 5 seconds without getting turfed (most of the time…).
Given all of that, our horses manage to figure out our complex requirements and mix of instructions, in a relatively short timeframe, without the ability to communicate in a complete and common spoken language or the ability to rationalise why performing these tasks might be beneficial.
So how can we help our horses reach our expectations?
🦄By appreciating the physical exertion and fitness required to complete the tasks we are asking.
🦄By teaching our horses to be more symmetrical and therefore balanced, by strengthening the weaker muscles and stretching the tighter ones.
🦄By encouraging correct posture and core engagement - through teaching this on the ground with mental and physical awareness first, we can build strength and coordinate new movement patterns gradually, to prevent the horse from reverting to using incorrect/inefficient muscle groups once the weight of a rider is added.
🦄By improving lateral flexion to help with those circles and arena patterns.
🦄By gradually building and then maintaining fitness to avoid fatigue, injury and soreness.
🦄By teaching lateral work to help getting around those bushes and gates out on the trail.
🦄By including pole or cavaletti work to increase range of motion and proprioception and aid in stepping over those logs, getting over those ditches and up the float ramp.
🦄By encouraging active thinking alongside conditioning responses to pressure, to help us when those birds fly out of the bushes or cyclists pass by.
🦄By including focus work to help us in the warm-up arena while other horses are moving towards us or on the trail while other horses are moving away from us.
🦄By making ourselves valuable to the horse through demonstrating to them that we can guide their legs and body to provide security or safety, enabling us to get through the creek, squeeze through that tight spot or step into the float.
It’s all in the perspective!
WHY AM I BACK AT THE START?
During our final clinic of 2019 we had the pleasure of seeing a horse and rider combination who we have been involved with since we began our very first series of clinics. Unfortunately, this year has been a bit of a roller-coaster for both of them, meaning they have been unable to remain consistent in their work together due to a wide range of circumstances.
The horse in question is willing in nature, but also very sensitive and can suffer from anxiety, which has also affected her health and temperament at times, hence making the journey extra interesting (I’m sure the mother in question may have used many different words to describe it throughout!). This culminated, very unfortunately, in a recent accident, which although we were very relieved to hear neither horse or rider were badly injured in, both were again shook in their relationship and confidence in each other.
Even before the session, the anxiety and frustration of the rider could be felt, and very understandably so, particularly as since these unfortunate events had unfolded their work together had been somewhat limited. This reflected also in the horses’ behaviour as she showed behavioural signs that hadn’t been seen since our very first meeting several years ago. A short time into the session emotions were still evident and running high and the rider exclaimed ‘I feel like we’re right back at the start…’
Firstly, everything we ask of our horse relies on a basic concept. Even the most complex of movements or patterns relies on the consistent execution of a basic aid or a combination of the basics. As we progress, it is easy to allow our basics to wane if we don’t continue to revisit, recheck and re-tune them, after all, if you don’t continue to practice something, although you may not have forgotten how to do it, your execution may be less than perfect when you decide to attempt it again sometime later. The longer between practices, the more tuning it will take to recover the function.
For example, during my teenage years I was fairly competent at playing the piano, however, if one was put in front of me today I wouldn’t be able to comfortably and fluidly play a tune, even one which I had previously been good at. That being said, it would take less time to refresh my skills than to teach someone who had never played at all.
Secondly, every one of us is playing that good old game of ‘snakes and ladders’ throughout our training. You climb those ladders and get lucky with the dice for a while, only to hit a snake and slide right back down a short time later. It’s just part of the journey that we need to be prepared for, plus, during those fleeting highs all the lows fade away and we are lost in elation, that feeling as equestrians we strive for.
Lastly, my response to the rider in question…
‘Are you back at the start?’
⭐Could your horse maintain a steady rhythm? Could she release, stretch and breathe during her work?
⭐Could she allow you to direct her and tolerate pressure from the legs?
⭐Could she execute accurate figures in the arena?
⭐Were her transitions pushing from the back or was she pulling from the front?
⭐Could you release the rein and have her comfortably follow the contact?
⭐Could she work long and low without losing balance or tempo?
⭐Could you trust her to regain her composure when she became unbalanced?
And as she demonstrated all of these, the answer was ‘no’, she could not. So when you’re feeling disheartened, discouraged or things haven’t quite gone to plan, ask yourself if you’re REALLY back at the start? And regardless of where you’re at, be prepared to figure out which basic aid(s) can help fix your issue.
🦄HERE’S TO REACHING YOUR GOALS BY REVISITING, RECHECKING AND RE-TUNING! 🦄
I don’t have time to ride…”
Many of us can only dream of spending every day riding our unicorns over the hills and into the sunset, the reality may consist of getting stuck in rush hour traffic on the way home from work, grabbing the kids from school, rummaging through the feed bins at dusk, locating our horses via their reflector rug strips, a quick confirmation that all four legs are attached and rushing home to make dinner and feed the pets.
However, quality over quantity rings true. There are lots of things we can do when spending time with our horses and the good news is that all of it counts!
We can use small amounts of time to create positive experiences that transfer over to our ridden work and also our relationship.
Here are some 10-20 minute ideas on spending quality time with the light of your life, your horse…..
🐴Catching – do you struggle with catching on a regular basis? Does your horse turn away when you put on the halter? Work on simply creating a positive interaction by catching, giving a scratch and releasing or if you have some spare time, give them a groom.
🐴Grooming – horses spend time grooming each other and there are many benefits to a good brush. Grooming allows for a thorough body check and allows you to assess coat and skin condition and identify areas of soreness. Grooming also provides massage to keep muscles soft and supple and provides a chance to provide a positive experience through interaction.
🐴Stretching – learn how to effectively use active and passive stretching techniques to keep your horse feeling his best and get the best out of his work. Carrot stretches are a great incentive!
🐴Postural development – teach postures to promote relaxation and engagement, this work can have an unbelievable impact on ridden training
🐴Teach your horse to walk in a straight line – horses, like people, are naturally asymmetrical and can have conformational or muscular aspects that may attribute to crookedness. Check that your horse can walk towards you, maintaining equal distance in the space between the top of the forelegs as the fetlocks, can you see both sides of the barrel evenly and does the nose come straight towards you?
🐴Teach your horse to shift weight from the forehand to the hinds and maintain spatial boundaries by reversing – make sure your horse keeps his nose directly in front of you, they don’t pivot hips to one side or the other, knees articulate and strides are similar in length. Ask for a small number of strides at a time, at a controlled pace to encourage lifting over the back as opposed to hollowing out.
🐴Yielding - teach your horse to yield to pressure, you can work on yielding from the head and neck, poll, shoulders, hinds or mid-section.
Happy Horsing! 🐴
One objective during the training of horses is to creating an obedient horse who follows direction and is tolerant to many levels of pressure and/or changing environments.
The methods by which we achieve this may affect the longevity or reliability of responses.
By flooding the horse with scarier objects and larger amounts of pressure, we create submission or learned helplessness. This state of mind means the horse checks out to block out the aversive stimulus. They learn that flight or fight is futile, so cease to exhibit a reaction.
This submissive behaviour may last for months or even years and may extend to many different experiences or situations, however, since the horse exhibits limited outward expression, signs or signals during their interactions or work, it is not possible to gauge when or where this tolerance level will be over exerted.
What IS possible is that you may be made very aware of when this threshold has been reached!
Instead of flooding the horse, shutting them down or switching them off from their surroundings and environment, we can teach coping mechanisms and conditioned responses which influence their physiological reactions and in turn, their behaviour and responses to stimuli. By training in this way, we create more versatile responses that extend to a wider scale of pressure levels and a broader set of non-specific stimuli, making a more reliable, safer and happier team-mate.
Pressure comes in many forms, ranging all the way from a clover leaf to a chain saw wielding maniac! Your horse’s temperament, personality and past experiences will determine their tolerance level and there may also be specific triggers.
Some signs your horse may be checked out:
🐴 Immobile ears, often positioned backwards
🐴 Lack of blinking or half blinks
🐴‘Statue’ syndrome, even when the feet are still the horse can show awareness by mobility in the head, neck, ears and facial expressions
🐴 Going to sleep, this is often mistaken as a sign of relaxation but may indicate introverted stress or anxiety
How do we keep our horses checked in?
🐴Teaching coping mechanisms and conditioned responses through redirecting focus, balance, body control and postural training
🐴Teaching our horses to seek direction when unsure
🐴Being tactile and allowing our horses to be tactile
🐴Acknowledging our horse when they are unsure and then providing direction
🐴Allowing expression within safe boundaries
”By teaching our horses to be AWAKE, AWARE and ACKNOWLEDGE, we allow them to RESPOND as opposed to REACT.” - Cadence Horse Training
🦄Pole/cavaletti work can be a fantastic tool for strength building...but that’s not all!🦄
Poles are a great diagnostic tool and can help us to assess and improve physical development through various configurations, in areas such as:
All of these factors help to create a capable, relaxed and willing equine partner.
Balance and physical capability play a large role in preventing negative or unwanted behaviours, sometimes in scenarios that you may not connect immediately.
We are passionate about physical development, particularly that which keeps our horses sound and allows them to efficiently and comfortably carry a rider; we use pole work as a fundamental element of all of our training programs.
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CADENCE HORSE TRAINING
Striving to maintain an encouraging and inclusive culture among fellow equestrians. We're passionate about all things equine including behaviour, biomechanics, training and horsemanship!