Wednesday, June 27, 2012

New posts coming...

Well, it's been an interesting few weeks.

Relatives in from out of town, car repairs, a trip to the oral surgeon, and little girl attitude issues have made it hard for me to update.  Everything is fine, so no worries.  But it's just been a little bit nuts. 

The ponies are good, and we've got a schooling show coming up.  And hopefully I can get a lesson in before the show.  So hang around a bit.  It'll be fun! 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Semi Regular Weekly Post - Other Aids

Whips and Spurs. They are aids in dressage that I fully employ when necessary. I have definite opinions on both that I’ll share with you now. This is going to be a long one.

Before I rode dressage, I never used spurs, but almost always rode with a whip. When I started to ride Kaswyn dressage I never used a whip because he was super sensitive. My trainer eventually told me that I needed to ride with a whip and get him used to it, because the whip is an aid that I’ll need to use in the future at the upper levels. It didn’t mean I had to use the whip on him all the time, but that he needed to not be so hypersensitive to it – just respect it and react properly to it.

At the beginning it was a struggle. Any time I would use the whip, even to tap him, Kaswyn would have a total breakdown. He would get so upset and nervous that it would take like ten minutes to get him settled down and working again. Mind you, I broke this horse and had never whipped the snot out of him, so this was just him overreacting to the whip and not any past trauma. Well, there was ONE time when we were schooling trot half passes in a lesson and he wouldn’t come off my left leg…well, I got frustrated and I will say I did get aggressive with the whip. Yeah, I had a little hissy fit. I’m not proud of it, but that one incident certainly didn’t scar him for life. My trainer still makes fun of me about that incident. Truthfully he had an issue with the whip before then. Aaaannny way…

Eventually he got accustomed to it, and realized that I wasn’t going to BEAT him with the whip, and was able to tolerate the correction without melting down. But then it came time to teach him to piaffe, which involved my trainer on the ground. WITH A WHIP. Kaswyn was pretty trained at this point, but still almost turned himself inside out at the thought of my trainer lightly tapping him with a whip. We had to laugh at his extreme reaction to it, and we could just hear him saying “Why??! Why must there be so much WHIPPING???” I’m sure even today if my trainer would pick up a whip while I was riding Kaswyn and walk towards us, he would immediately preprare to piaffe.

I also began to wear spurs, and for years I would wear spurs and carry a whip as my regular riding gear. I didn’t need to spur the snot out of Kaswyn, but just like the whip, my spurs are an aid. If my light leg is ignored, I apply a little spur. Or if I really need more push in a situation (like a canter pirouette that is losing impulsion in the middle of it) I’ll use the spur. The whip is like an extension of my leg. If my leg is ignored, I apply the whip. I’ll even apply it firmly if a light tap is ignored. My goal is to get reaction, and with spurs and whips the reaction from the horse should be "Sorry I ignored your initial aid.  I'll try hard to do as you ask".

What I DON’T do is use my whip or spurs as a punishment. THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN!! Like, really NEVER EVER. There is no need to spank your horse for misbehaving. There are so many other tools at your disposal. It’s amazing to me how many people I see using the whip as a punishment. In the past I have helped people with their horses and they always seem surprised when I say “No, no. Don’t spank your horse. Your whip is not for punishment. It’s an aid.”

So let’s say your horse does something naughty that you think needs to be punished. Like, say, breaks from the canter to the trot. So you think you should get angry and whip the horse for this, right? Teach him not to break? Let’s think about it. Why do you think he broke in the first place? Not enough impulsion at the canter? That’s something you could have fixed three strides before he broke. Not really his fault. What about lack of balance? Again, something you could have helped with. It could have been a change in dept of footing, or muscle fatigue, or pain in a joint or his back. Was he really trying to be naughty? Or was he a victim of the situation that you possibly put him in?

Or maybe he spooked? Bad pony… or was he? Horses are prey animals. They’re not very good in an up close fight with their flat teeth and now claws, so their best defense is to RUN AWAY. Four legs make that really easy. And because of the way the horse’s head is shaped, with the eyes on the side, and the vision overlapping in the middle of their face, it’s possible for them to see something out of only one eye, and then turn to look and see it out of both eyes. In this case the Monster Thing jumps from one-eyed flat vision to a 3D version of the Thing, which makes the Thing appear to jump out at them. It’s self preservation, really. And instinct.

I can’t say this enough. To beat a horse that is truly scared is the worst thing you can do for a horse. You will then have a horse that gets scared, and then gets beaten for being afraid. In very short order you will have a horse that is AFRAID OF BEING AFRAID. Just like Phil. And like a lot of Arabian horses. This is why they get such a bad reputation. Learn some other tactics to deal with spooking horses. Beating them is never the answer.

The spurs are exactly like a whip – to be used when your other aids are not working. It’s not necessary to rake your spurs across your horse’s sides. Sure, sometimes a well-timed poke is needed when your leg is being completely ignored. But incessant or prolonged jabbing with your spurs is punishment, not an aid.

So how do you punish your horse if he’s being bad? First, don't think of it as punishment.  Think of it as a correction to whatever your horse is doing.  Next, you have to find out why he’s being naughty. In general, I find that most horses just want to make the rider happy. If they aren’t trying to please, there is a reason. Mainly when horses are misbehaving it’s because they HURT. Back, neck, legs, tummy – something is making them say “I don’t want to.” Make sure they don’t hurt, and see if the disposition improves.

Now I will admit that there are some (but very few that I’ve come across) who are just assholes. Yeah, I said it. And they don’t care about making you happy. In this case I think these horses just hate their jobs. You’d be a grumpy ass if you hated your job too... and maybe you are when you’re at work. Get these horses another job and stop fighting it.

So that was really long, but I think it needed to be said. Go ahead and use whips and spurs. Just be smart about it and use them as aids, not as punishment.

In short, just be nice! :)

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Semi regular Weekly Post - Gadgets

I'd love to get back in the Weekly post groove.  Lets see how long we can keep this up, shall we? 

#4 (or something) – Gadgets
DISCLAIMER: I am not a trainer. These are things that I've learned from lessons, books that I've read and personal experience.

I’m a classical dressage purist. I think Alois Podhajsky is the classical dressage master and his book The Complete Training of Horse and Rider is a book that every dressage student should read. It’s not an easy read, but it’s fantastic.
Because of this, my stance on gadgets like martingales, draw reins, and until very recently, side reins, have no place in classical dressage. Don’t get me wrong, I used to use them all the time. Sometimes I’d lunge a horse in side reins, and then ride it with a martingale and draw reins at the same time. How’s that for ya? It’s not uncommon to see horses at breed shows so trussed up with lines and reins and gadgets that they can hardly move. How is that beautiful? It’s not. So I’ve completely (almost) moved away from any artificial gadget. Here is why.
I’ll start with martingales.

The standing martingale is something I’ve only used with a jumping horse, and, as I haven’t jumped very much at all, I haven’t used one more than a handful of times. It’s used basically to keep your horse’s head out of your face. Something I actually could have used when Phil whacked me in the face with his head! But for everyday use, it’s totally unnecessary for dressage.

The running martingale is something to help you get your horse’s head down. It gives you leverage on the reins so that when you pull back, you are actually pulling the mouth in and down. This type of situation makes contact impossible. There can’t be a direct line from bit to hand if there is a ring in the way making the rein not straight. Sure, you can adjust them so that the ring doesn’t come into play unless the horse’s mouth is above it’s withers (which is something to be avoided in dressage), but if you don’t learn how to deal with that at home, then how will you deal with it at a show when you can’t use the martingale? Best not to use them at all.

Draw reins. Used to increase the leverage of the rider even more to pull the head into position. Just writing that sentence is so wrong. In dressage you can’t pull the head into position. You have to first let the horse go to the bit and stretch the neck and back. Then, after much time has passed to allow the back to be strong, you can begin to elevate the front end. At this point, if you have done your homework properly, the neck and shoulders will naturally come up, allowing more weight to be taken on the haunches. This can be done safely, with less risk of injury, if the back and haunches have been developed properly and systematically over a long period of time. Any horse can have a FEI frame with big spurs, two whips, and draw reins. That doesn’t mean the horse is strong enough to maintain it, or do it at all without injury. Also, draw reins make it impossible for the horse to make a consistent contact and connection, since the reins are constantly sliding through the bit. Just don’t use them. Ever.

The German Martingale. Also called Thiedemann reins.  Kind of a draw rein/martingale combination. It’s like draw reins that have a “stop” to them so you can only crank the head so far in. An improvement on the draw rein, but still not the ideal thing. If adjusted loosely you could argue that the draw rein would only come into play if the horse’s head were dramatically out of position. Again, this is something you need to deal with, and teach the horse that it’s wrong, without outside gadgets that you can’t use in the show ring.

Side reins. Podhajsky addresses them in his book, saying to use them on a young horse but that they should be long. In my pre-dressage years I used side reins all the time to achieve a “head set”. I would adjust the reins so that the horse’s head was where I needed it to be, and then lunged the horse that way. The thinking was that I could show the horse where I wanted to head to be, and that he could work in that frame and build up the right muscles, etc. This works for other training, but not for dressage. We don’t want a “head set” in dressage. We want a fluid frame, one that can be shortened and lengthened and is flexible. This is not possible with a head set. So when I first started with dressage I abandoned the side reins, thinking they were counterproductive to what I wanted to achieve.

Now, I am using them again. I was surprised when my trainer suggested I use them on Phil. He was a maniac on the lunge line when I first got him, and at time I was afraid he would fall down at the canter because he was tearing around and was so unbalanced. She said I should use a long side rein, attached to the girth, so that he couldn’t whip his head around in the air like he was doing. I didn’t have any side reins, but I found one (useable one) at the barn that I started to use. I used the side rein on the outside, and then on the inside I ran the lunge line through the bit and attached the end line to the girth. That way I had a rein on the inside that was flexible and movable, but could still contain his head and neck to the point where he understood that when he was wearing equipment it was work time and not time to toss his head in the air and act like a fool. The side rein on the outside was long enough that he could stretch his nose almost to the ground, but if he brought his head straight up it would stop him. I think it’s a good compromise, and it’s certainly worked for us.

All of these gadgets, and many more, are listed in a much more in depth manner at this site -

You should really hop over and check out this page.  I know the author is critical of side reins, as am I if they are too tight (as they are in the photos on the site).  I'm using them very long, and only to keep my horse from tossing his head in the air and fooling around.  He still has plenty of room to stretch down without jerking his mouth on the reins.  I'm also not trying to do any straightening, or head setting.  So I find my use of the side reins acceptable.  The author may disagree.  :) 

This all indicates that I’m a complete and utter dressage snot. But I’m not so inflexible that I’m unable to see the benefits of something that is presented to me in the correct way.

So, my stance is – just go with a straight bridle and simple snaffle if you can. It’s really the best way to teach your horse, to develop your horse’s body, and to train yourself in how to deal with the less than perfect frame. Dressage is hard work. As it should be.

Friday, June 01, 2012

May.. err, June Weekly Post #... I don't even know.

Well, that Weekly Post thing didn't work out quite as well as I has intended.  Ah well.  Here is what you get.  Call it #3 in May or #1 in June.  I don't really know.  :) 

#3 - Connection

DISCLAIMER: I am not a trainer. These are things that I've learned from lessons, books that I've read, and personal experience.

You've got the hang of reducing resistance, and you understand what elastic contact feels like. Now it's time to take advantage of your horse's obedience and your ability to make contact and connect the back and front ends of the horse.

This is not easy. But it is all connected. (HA! See what I did there!?) What I mean is that connection continually relies on eliminating resistance and maintaining elastic contact.

By this point you should have developed some feel. You should be able to feel when your horse is becoming tight in the neck, or about to break the contact. Or even when he is behind the contact. All of these things disconnect the horse. Tightness in the neck stops the energy from the back end from flowing through the shoulders. The horse breaking the contact (mainly by raising the head) stops the energy at the back as the horse's back drops out from under the rider. Being behind the bit and having no contact usually dumps the horse on the forehand, stopping any pushing power that could be generated from the hind end.

The goal is for the horse to be relaxed in the neck and the back (thus not resisting), have a connection with the rider's hand, and be able to use the hind end to generate thrust, thus transferring energy through the soft back, carrying the rider up and forward, and elevating the front end.

So, how to put it all together? It's different with every horse, and even every ride on the same horse. It really depends on the situation. Here are some common ones.

1) My horse is making too strong of a contact. His head is too low and he's pulling on me and it feels like his mouth is full of bricks! This sounds like a horse that has figured out that he cannot resist, make a connection, but not connect. Most likely this horse is what I'd call "behind the leg". Meaning that he's not carrying the rider forward, and most likely the rider feels the needs to constantly kick or cluck to the horse to keep him going. No resistance, established contact, but not exactly what we're looking for.
In this case you need to get the horse more responsive to the leg. For that to happen, you must take your leg OFF the horse. I know that sounds really weird, and I'm not saying "Don't use your leg". What I'm saying is your horse should carry on at whatever gait you've requested without you having to boot him in the gut every 30 seconds to keep him jogging along. If you have a death grip on your horse all the time to begin with, will he feel it if you apply a teeny bit more leg? He won't.

So begin to trot, and take your leg off, and see what happens. If he stops, kick him forward, and then take the leg off again. If he stops again, repeat, but kick HARDER. Use your whip if you have to (use it only if you really don't get a response from the leg - I'll address the whip later). Repeat until he gets the message that leg ON means GO, but leg off does NOT mean stop. Once he gets this message, make sure you LET GO with your leg so that it actually means something when you apply it. Squeezing all the time creates an environment of static, and your horse can't hear your soft aids through it.

Getting back to the problem above, this horse needs to be kicked forward. He's behind the leg and not pushing with the hind end. Get him responsive to the leg, and then when he leans on you, kick him up and off the connection. Yes, this sounds counterproductive, as it will also create resistance and tension where there was none before. It's okay if he gets fast, or pops his head up. You already know how to deal with that. When you have resolved the resistance you've created and made the neck soft again, establish the contact YOU want, and keep him there. If he gets too low again, or starts pulling on you, kick him up and off of your hand. The only way he will realize where you want him is if you show him. When you get good and proper contact, praise him, pat him, make a fuss out of him. Then he will know when he's got it right.

2) This horse is curling away from the bit and I don't have any connection when he puts his head down. He's got impulsion but I've got nothing in my hand. This horse is also, in a weird way, behind the leg. I know it sounds super weird, but a horse that is all curled up behind the bit is not effectively driving from behind. Because if he has no contact, what is he driving to? Usually these horses are very on the forehand and are driving themselves down in the front. So the solution, as scary as it sounds to be riding a horse that is okay with going forward (sometimes TOO much), is to push them more forward to get them up and off the bit, rather than behind it. Once you have the head up, even if the neck is tight and in the air, just start all over with dealing with the resistance. But try and be tactful so that the horse will not over-react to your hand. Don't release too much, and make a contact. This takes some finesse and timing, but it can be done.

3) My horse makes contact but he's running his legs off! I feel like I'm always pulling on him and I can't slow him down! This sounds like the horse is not confirmed in it's half-halts. It's hard to get connection without being able to give a good half-halt that the horse is obedient to. There are chapters and chapters in books dedicated to the art of the half-halt. I'm not going to go into that much detail here, but your horse has to be able to respond to a half-halt.

How do you teach a horse to half-halt? Well, it's complicated, and there is more than one way of doing it. Some suggestions of things that have worked for me -

- Give and take rhythmically at the trot, as in take a firmer hold for two strides, and give a slight release for two strides. This will help slow the horse down without you feeling like you're constantly hanging on the horse's mouth. If you keep the rhythm, the horse may eventually catch on and begin to slow just a bit when you take a tighter hold. Praise the horse then, and keep it up. When you feel like you're making progress, hold for two strides and release for three, then four. Try to make your release times longer, but keep your hold to two strides. When you hold, try to also stop the motion of your seat, and hug with your legs (remember your legs are not gripping, right? so it's easy to just give a little hug - not really a squeeze). This is like a "half-halt lite" and will give you practice in timing if your half-halts aren't that great either.

This give and take also works at the canter, but it can be a little scary on a horse that likes to be speedy. Sometimes you'll get a downward transition during your hold phase, and that's okay! It just means it's working. What needs to happen next is you give your "half-halt lite" but use a bit more leg to keep the horse in the canter, but slowed a bit.

- Do lots of walk-trot-walk transitions. Let the horse anticipate the downward transition and use the "half-halt lite" above when you ask for the walk. Or trot across the diagonal and ask for the walk as you approach the wall. When the horse begins to anticipate the walk, start your "half-halt lite" sooner, and when he slows down, give a bit more leg to keep him trotting and praise him for slowing down. This is another thing that works at the canter.

- If you feel really secure in your seat and half-halt, you can do the BIG "I mean it" half-halt.  But you need to really mean it, and get your whole body involved.  Really use your seat deep down in the saddle, lean back really far, and a firm pull on the reins.  Take the horse all the way to the halt with these, and allow him to stand for a minute and think about what just happened.  Then back up into the trot (or canter) like nothing happened, and repeat one more time.  Use your voice too - actually say a low, but firm "Whoooooa".  After a few of these your horse will start to respond when you start the big half-halt.  Any time you feel he's blowing you off after that you can go back a do a few of these as a reminder that the half-halt actually does mean something, and you expect a response. 

Once you can keep and maintain proper contact, you can ask the horse to connect. This is being able to push the horse forward and into your hand in a way that he does not run from your leg, but uses his energy to drive a bit more and begin to carry you with his back. It's just a matter of fixing the roadblocks that your horse, or your own riding, may throw in your way.

Shoot me a comment (or slam me, if you feel the need) or email me at if you have questions or something you wish to say privately.

Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr