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! 🦄
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!