Recently a young woman started lessons with me in my work/exchange program – she works, I teach her. Her initial enthusiasm did not surprise me as I see it often in new students. Then, I saw it in her eyes: passion and desire for time with horses. And it made me smile.
Rider after rider, training after training session, I see riders who enjoy their horse time, maybe even have love for the horse, but it’s not something they must have.
This lovely image shows a horse moving in the most elegant self-carriage. Longitudinal bend, flexion, and give create the lowered hind quarter, elevated front and ultimate lightness in movement.
My last post was concerned with the lateral bend of the horse. Today I hope to add the missing piece to put the puzzle together that will help you to connect the energy created in the hindquarter of the horse.
There is a vast number of articles in print regarding longitudinal bend and flexion, however, through working with my students and my own training I realize there is an important aspect that is very rarely discussed: GIVE, so I thought I would share my prospective.
Longitudinal flexion is in regards to the entire top line, (spine) of the horse in a straight line (versus lateral flexion, meaning left to right).
Longitudinal bend is the lowering of the hindquarter caused through hindquarter engagement which will produce a higher neck carriage and flexion at the poll.
Now if that doesn’t make you ponder for a moment, think about this: you can have longitudinal flexion without a bend, but you cannot have a longitudinal bend without flexion.
Confused you yet? I certainly had to sit with pen and paper and sketch that out the first time was told this tidbit of information. Since I would love it if you would stay with me for a while and not click me off, let me explain how it makes sense to me and what this post is really all about: Longitudinal give.
In training our equine athletes we want to bring out their utmost athletic ability. In order to do this we want to develop a channel of energy of the entire spine. So when we cause the horse to round his back and soften that spine, we create flexion. If we want a greater use of the energy and power of the hind quarters we must keep the flexion, which will develop the strength and power. This enables the bending of the hindquarter joints, creating a lower hindquarter and elevated front end.
The conflict in today’s training world is the idea that the more we round the horse’s back, the better it is. Because of this, riders of all disciplines have found usefulness in devices that force flexion. In my opinion this is tragic. Forcing a horse’s head position between their legs or to the saddle with any number of tools (tie-downs, draw reins, etc) does not — I need to repeat that — does not develop a strong, supple back. What it does do is cause physical damage to the spine and muscles, and it does not allow a true connection of the entire horse.
It is truly the bend and lowering of the hindquarter developed through the flexibility of the spine that will create that flow of energy. It is a most amazing feeling of effortless energy under you. It is power with softness. It’s a feeling, once experienced, you will always continue to strive for.
I added the word “GIVE” to the title because many times riders teach a horse to flex, but they do not release the pressure of the bit. Instead, they feel they must hold onto those reins with a steady pressure. In doing so, this encourages the horse to lean and to pull, which in itself does not allow self-carriage. This prevents the horse from moving freely through the spine.
I believe in training where pressure is used to ask a horse move in a certain direction with any part of his body. Once the horse complies, release should be immediate. This is equally as important as the pressure used to cause the response. This does not mean you lose connection or communication; you simply go back to no pressure, but you maintain a light feel or contact.
I tell my students it’s like the feeling of flying a kite. You feel energy flowing through the reins and it’s alive, not dead weight. Anytime you hold pressure either with your legs, seat or hands after 2 seconds a horse will brace and begin to hold stronger.
In nature, horses communicate to their herd using body language in the form of varying degrees of pressure such as carriage, eyes, ears, teeth, and limbs. If another horse does not respond to the softest of pressure of perhaps the carriage, eyes, or ears, the horse will add more pressure in the form of a bite or kick. At whatever stage of pressure the horse responds and gives space to the leader, the pressure is released.
So if we use a natural horsemanship approach to train, we need to talk to the horse in a similar fashion. We ask with pressure, the horse responds, we release pressure and go back to contact. Psychologically, the horse understands quickly, and physically, it allows the development of the correct muscles to create self-carriage.
We do not need to hold our horses up if we develop the longitudinal flexion and bend; they can hold themselves up just fine.
I know some of you may ask, “how?”
It is a process of teaching the horse to give quickly to your aids through gradual, progressive pressure. At whatever stage of pressure (less than 2 seconds) the horse responds, release the pressure. Do not add pressure again until the horse needs direction.
As an example: we know energy comes from the hindquarters. We ask the horse to move forward with calf pressure. We should start with a very light breath of leg, and gradually but quickly, adding a stronger pressure. Once the horse moves even a step, we release all pressure. As long as he is still moving forward we should only keep a light contact on the horse, but no pressure. The first stride he falters, we start again with a breath of a leg and gradually, progressively, add pressure until he responds, then instantly releasing it.
All it takes is absolute consistency, knowing what your leg is saying to the horse at all times, whether it be at work or at pleasure. Horses respond to the pressure of legs, the seat, or the hands willingly if you give them the chance. Through consistency, the horse also learns to respond to the lightest of touch. That is why it is so important to always ask first as gently as possible before going to a stronger pressure. You can always add pressure if the horse does not respond but once there you can’t reduce the pressure.
Horses learn so quickly if given clear, consistent, and repetitive aids. When you give in response to the horse’s willingness to give, you will find in your horse a partner wanting to follow your lead.
I’d love you to give it a try. Allow your horse that freedom and you will be amazed.
I highly recommend the late Mark Russell’s wonderful book Lessons in Lightness.
Have you ever heard your trainer say, “more bend, less bend, incorrect bend…nice bend”? Why do we make such a fuss about bend anyway? Regardless of discipline we want our horses to excel to the best of their ability. Bend affects every movement in all disciplines. We train daily (hmm…or we should), in order to bring out their full potential. The end result comes from the foundation behind it. In developing a horse we need to create straightness, which means a horse must be evenly balanced on both sides of his body. This aspect of balance allows the horse to perform evenly in both directions. Horses who have difficulty picking up a correct lead, have an uneven stride, or prefer to do spins, pirouettes, or even just travel more comfortably in one direction are often having difficulty in balance due to a lack of straightness in their body. Often I see horses going around an arena in one direction with their heads turned in the opposite direction. This is one example of incorrect bend that will cause a lack of imbalance in a horse and difficulty in certain movements.
Horses, like humans are born either left or right handed. If they are right handed it will mean the horse will be stronger on the ride side, but also stiffer on that side. The right handed horse will be softer (bend more easily), on the left side but weaker. Through careful development we can create an even left to right balance. This includes, many many schooling figures of various sizes, lateral work such as leg yields, traverse, renvers, shoulder in, half-pass and gentle manual manipulation of some of the pressure points where the horse holds tension such as the pole.
Sadly, I see a large number of misguided riders pulling their horses head around similar to the photo of Draoi above and holding it and even worse tying it there. Not only is this counter-productive, it also is painful. Pain should never be a part of any training. Draoi turned on his own to look behind him but adjusted his body to compensate and only held that position for seconds. Anything beyond a few seconds would be come painful. You can even try it with your own body. Turn your head as far as you can in either direction and HOLD it! You will quickly feel discomfort and eventually pain. When horses feel pain they initially brace against it in self-protection. So often these same riders pull the horse’s head further. If I can make one point for you to give some thought to in this post I would encourage you to study what true bending is. One of the problems with over bending is it tends to make the neck very wiggly but also disconnects the horse at the wither. It’s like riding two different horses. It does not give a horse the chance to develop the ability to bend through the body and use it’s back or undercarriage muscles. True bending must begin at the hindquarter, continue up the spine and ultimately through the neck. Creating flexibility in a horse means working with the whole body, not just the neck. Creating proper self-carriage means guiding the horse to it’s place of true balance then allowing that horse to carry itself without you holding it there. In doing so you allow the correct muscles and ligaments to develop and stretch. If your horse is gradually allowed to properly develop it’s body it will not be mentally or physically stressed during work.
It takes time to develop the feel of what’s happening under your seat. Learning the feel of straightness requires time and concentration. However, when your horse becomes straight there’s no feeling like it. It releases energy, adds a spring in the step, and a softness to the back. In another post I will talk about Longitudinal bend which is equally important in self carriage.
Below are examples of bending:
In the first photo, this horse with too much bend in the neck which in turn causes the shoulder and hindquarter to travel to the outside of the track. It appears that she pulling on the inside rein without enough guidance from outside leg and rein aids. Once she learns to guide the horse to follow her outside leg the hindquarter will move towards the direction she is going followed by the rib cage and then the neck. Continuing to pull the inside rein will make the shoulder fall out further and the cycle.
If we look at this next photo we can see a gently curve throughout the entire spine creating a true bend from head to tail. It is clear the rider is riding the horse from the hindquarter forward.
Keep in mind the goal here is to create a balanced, light horse in self-carriage enabling that horse to be the best athlete it can. Bending can be complicated. We have to teach the horse to “give” to our aid instead of holding or pulling against that. And, that my horse friends will be a post for another day!
EPM, equine protozoal myeloencephalitis is a neurological disease in horses caused by exposure to certain protozoal parasites. It infects and invades the central nervous system. Depending on the severity of the disease some horses are severely effected with gait abnormalities, weakness, asymmetric muscle atrophy, ataxia, and in-coordination. Such is the case of Olympia, owned my students, Amy & Brian. Olympia had his first bout with EPM several years ago and since has relapsed 2 times. He was left with some permanent neurological damage.
Olympia loves to be involved with his people and enjoys time working. I wanted to share an idea that seems to be a great way to add variety and difficulty to his program. After his initial recovery time we needed to help him regain strength through a gradually progressive exercise program. EPM horses with nerve damage should be exercised as soon as they are stable enough to do so. Too long of a wait can result in permanent damage of cells. This is an excellent article explaining in detail the re-generation of muscle damage
So, Olympia is starting out once again in his rehabilitation program. We started with some initial hand-walking and light lunging. In order not to bore him we decided to start long-lining. With long-lining we can work more effectively on bending, stimulate different muscles, begin some lateral movements, walk up and down hills, around obstacles, over poles, etc. He is also learning to trust Brian can take care of him, (due to his limited eyesight). This should carry over when he’s strong enough for carrying weight. We are seeing Olympia enjoys it and appears to be getting stronger which also helps him in controlling a wobbly hindquarter.
I feel it’s always important to listen to what the horse is telling you. Olympia was clearly not happy about being left behind during training sessions. Watching his expressions, his ears, his posture, his mouth, (we can’t see his eyes due to the protective fly mask), show us where he comfortable and where he is not. Brian is an amazing student of the horse. He often tells me, (his trainer), that I’m overly ambitious – and he’s right! I get so excited when a horse responds to a new task that I sometimes forget that is a very good place to stop! I have to continue to check myself from asking too much of my horses. If you treat horses well, work becomes play and they actually enjoy it. He loves his time with Brian. Happy horses do not turn and run when their riders come to get them.
Being creative, not treating horses like they are objects on an assembly line will allow you to find where the horse will shine. If he shines, you will too!
Hopefully, Brian will be back astride his beautiful horse someday, but, if not, he’ll enjoy whatever time he has with Olympia.
It’s been quite a span of time since Lily 6 was posted. We had regrouped from Lily’s explosion and continued with her training. Her explosion was one of total fear and loss of mental control. Because of this we returned to ground work. I felt we had made a mistake and needed to gain Lily’s trust and acceptance before trying to mount again. We repeated much of our previous work but added new challenges as well. It was not difficult to obtain her willingness and try. We moved around the Morrises’ property and worked with Lily in different locations and settings. Although she was cooperative and listened to Amy, she was also still prone to becoming easily unsettled. Her energy would heighten to the point of explosion, and I watched this over and over again. Bringing her back to calm and starting again, over and over again. The key words here are “I watched,” but now I realize I did not see!
So, after months of ground work, Amy once again carefully mounted Lily. Making certain our previous mistakes were not repeated, Amy and Lily, with Brian by their side, began to walk. It was wonderful – nice expression, nice easy walk… then something behind Lily startled her. In one brief second she was off like someone had shot her out of a gun. Heart in my throat, I watched in horror as Lily became air-born and Amy rocketed through the air before hitting the ground.
Amy hurt her back and was out of commission at this point. Along with the pain, the fear came back. She made a very difficult decision not to continue her training with Lily. Lily would never leave their farm; they loved her dearly, and after such horrific past abuse they felt sending her to a trainer would traumatize her even more. So, for a while Lily was retired to a wonderful pasture life.
But, that is not the end of this story! We discussed the fact that Amy needed a quiet steady horse to develop her skills on and to gain her confidence back. It is clear that Lily will probably always have these moments of fear due to flashbacks. If the rider tenses, grips, or loses her balance, the leadership is gone and Lily will have to take care of herself. Amy needed time to grow as a rider.
It seems the universe was listening, because a few days later I mentioned this to my farrier, who told me his wife had a solid citizen pony available. Perfect! And so, along came “MaMa G.” She is a tiny pony rescued from auction. She is unflappable, with an attitude much bigger than her stature. She has been exactly what Amy needed.
But as I said, the story is not over for Lily. Brian’s horse, Olympia, had contracted EPM a couple of years ago. He was in remission, but at this time he had a set back and needed treatment and time to heal. So, without Olympia to train with, Brian revealed to me that he had always wanted to work with Lily. And, so the with a fresh start we proceeded. Once again we went back to the ground work. Lots of ground work! All over the property ground work! Lily loved it and was very willing. Brian has an incredible kindness and softness in his approach so Lily was content. With such great progress, Brian was ready to ride.
When he mounted, Lily I saw a clarity in Lily’s express that for whatever reason I did not understand previously. Lily went somewhere else in her brain. Her body changed, her eye was “gone.” Brian just sat there stroking her neck and talking to her. After awhile she seemed less tense so we decided to take a couple of steps. Not at all willing, Lily just stood there with a blank expression on her face.
I was disturbed because I am personally familiar with PTSD. None of Lily’s past history and abuse would ever go away. But handling her properly and learning to listen to her and read her signs might head us in a direction she would be comfortable with.
I have studied this horse for years and although she had been saying it all along, I did not hear. We’ll never know the why or the cause, but if you mount Lily in the arena she is frightened. She tries really hard to listen and follow your lead, but she is so tense that any little noise, movement, etc. will cause her to explode. The flight instinct is high. In the past I felt we needed to keep the Morrises as safe as possible, never putting them at risk in the pasture or trails where, if an explosion occurred, it could be devastating.
However, knowing that Lily never did anything with the intent of hurting anyone, that she truly shows a desire to be with Brian and Amy, and has always enjoyed her walks in hand on the trails around the property, I felt it was time we left the arena behind. The ever-willing Brian never hesitated. Outside the arena, we walked Lily down the trail, then he mounted and we walked back home. A very happy horse and a very nice walk. Even when she shied at a branch that hit Brian’s helmet, she just scooted a bit and stopped. No drama, no explosion.
After a couple of months I thought we’d take her in the arena to work on Brian’s trot work with her. It was an instant change back to the old frightened Lily. She stood like a rock, scared to move. Reluctantly, she would take a couple of steps, but it was obvious that she was not happy. And so, the decision to leave the arena for good has been made. PTSD does not go away. In a human we can learn to recognize the triggers and we can hopefully adjust our life to keep us from re-living the horrors. If Lily had control of her environment, she would completely avoid a person on her back in the arena. Regardless of the 100’s of hours of quiet, gentle training, Lily’s memories are always on the surface.
Since that day, a few months ago, we stayed out of the arena. Amy and Brian ride together both completely enjoying their dream of riding their horses. We go out in the pasture, on the trails, around the beautiful property. Lily is happy, willing, and making great progress.
I thank the Morrises for all their dedication, care, kindness and loyalty. I will forever be grateful to Lily for the opportunity to learn from this wonderful horse. Horses are our best teachers – we just need to listen to them! I’m appreciative of her forgiveness for the mistakes made. I have grown to love her dearly and look forward to many more fun adventures.
Forward energy is an important, if not the most important, aspect of training a horse. Without energy you have nothing to guide. Our legs communicate movement to the horse. Movement can be directed forward, lateral, gait changes, directional changes, extension and collection. There are many subtle aids used by the riders legs. If you use your leg without conscious care the horse will not become educated to the different requests you may be trying to communicate.
Recently while observing a student I was reminded of how often riders are unaware of what their leg is saying to the horse. So many times I see riders pushing, kicking, spurring even hitting horses to move forward. The horse is responding by moving, but he/she does it without energy and quickly slows down to a crawl. 9 out of 10 times this problem is created by the rider. The one time it is not, could be the result of discomfort in the horse. Before you begin you want to be certain all tack is a proper fit and comfortable for the horse. Observe the horse for any physical difficulties the horse might have, i.e., arthritis, back pain, hoof pain, etc. Mares can be very sensitive during their cycles and become resentful of you pushing on their sides. Any discomfort can causes bracing instead of giving to pressure, (horses in nature always brace against pressure to protect themselves). If all is well, and you are working with a healthy, sound horse it is most likely a rider created problem. This could mean the rider has over used their leg aids by constantly (and sometimes unconsciously), pushing or kicking with every stride. The once sensitive horse has become dull to this, perhaps in order not to go insane from the constant nagging! You can just imagine if you were standing next to a friend who kept nudging you with her elbow while you are in conversation it might drive you to either throttle her or shut her out. Since we don’t want to hurt our friends we would just ignore it. Well, horses do not wish to hurt us either. They can either buck us off or they can shut down and ignore us. I do respect that horses have the right to an opinion. If your horse is not responding properly it’s a clue to listen to the horse.
Pushing constantly is also a lot of work for the rider, push, push, push-exhausting! I recently had one student tell me her former trainer told her she just wasn’t strong enough. She had been told to keep strong pressure with her heel on the horse’s side at all times. The horse had no other choice but to shut down.
What is a forward horse? This is not about speed but more about mental energy. One wants to have the feeling that with just a “whisper” of an aid the horse would move to the next level of movement. It’s the feeling that the horse “wants” to go somewhere. It’s similar to how it feels when a horse is exploring a new trail. Speed or fast is what you get when the horse is heading home. That is not the kind of energy we are looking to create. Energy feels soft yet filled with life. So, it’s not about speed. Pushing a horse too much can cause the horse to lose his rhythm tempo and ultimately compromise balance.
If your horse has become dull to the idea of moving forward the positive thing is this can be rectified. The first step is exam your leg aids. In most cases if this isn’t the whole cause it’s a part of it. I like to think of the leg as a soft wet towel gently draped against the horse’s sides. If it is soft and relaxed you will feel the horse breathing with his sides expanding. The horse will not become dull to this type of leg, there is no pressure.He feels the life and energy of the leg and instead of a nuisance it simply feels like part of the his body.
So, to create movement one wants to ask gently with a very gentle squeeze of the calf muscle at the same time taking a light inhale . If the horse does not respond quickly add a strong squeeze. If this does not bring movement one must lightly tap, not kick, the horse with the heel or carry a dressage whip and gently tap behind your leg, (not on the hindquarters). The dressage whip is a tool used as an extension of your leg. It can create a different sensation to alert the horse to notice the leg pressure. It must never be used to hurt the horse. Its function is to reinforce what the leg is conveying to the horse so it is of the utmost importance to always use your leg before you resort to the extension of the whip. Blunt spurs can be used as well with a gentle bump, but one must have complete control and awareness of your leg. A spur also must never be used to hurt the horse. A mistake with a spur is much easier to make. If you do not have good control of your leg you should not use a spur. Be prepared for the horse to take a quick step forward. Once you clarify with a whip or spur you must never get in his way to move forward, even if it’s quickly. Make certain your reins are giving with no pressure and get out of his way! Once the horse moves completely soften your leg, allow it be that towel again and allow the horse to move.
Now, concentrate on the horse’s movement. Feel the first stride the horse changes tempo and begins to slow down. On that very first stride quickly squeeze gently and follow through with the steps above until he moves forward. The key here is to stop the second he moves forward and react the second he slows. I like to think of asking in 3 progressive stages of pressure. Ask, Clarify, and Do it! The rider must be consistent 100% of the time. If you “forget” what your leg is doing and you go back to pushing, kicking, etc., the horse will be confused and not progress. Horses are conditioned response animals. It is important to put the same condition on the horse in order to receive the same response and ultimately a habit to respond to leg pressure with the lightest touch.
The other problem that can and does create a horse with dulled senses is boredom. If you only ride your horse in the arena or do the same thing daily your horse will shut down. Groundhog Day! (A fun movie where the character keeps reliving the same day over and over again.) Remember, riding in the arena is your idea — heck, riding at all is your idea. I do not know of any horse that will raise his hoof when you ask the pastured horses who wants to go to work! Ride your horse outside the ring as much as possible. Trails are interesting and create the desire to move forward creating a positive happy horse. You can work on many aspects of training while trail riding. If trails are not available ride in your pastures or create a totally different routine for your horse. Keeping your horse mentally stimulated will encourage a forward thinking horse.
In the end it is the rider’s commitment to using proper legs aids consistently. It takes self-discipline and a few weeks to create a habit. If you’re going to create a habit why not make it a good one! Your efforts with be rewarded with a light responsive and happy horse.
I am excited to guide my blog into a direction that will encourage and allow more interaction from the readers. In addition to articles I will now include monthly training tips including horse keeping, handling or perhaps tips on tack! Basically, anything that applies to horses of all breeds and styles of riding or care can be a subject of discussion. I welcome feedback from you and look forward to hearing your experiences, perspectives and questions. We can all learn from each other.
I am asking that comments be polite and respectful of others. This blog is for those who want to learn and develop their skills, negative energy is not conducive to growth. So, here we go!
Post-traumatic stress is very real in horses. It can start during the early and unnatural weaning of the foal. In nature horses will generally keep their foal by their side until they are ready to foal again. Then they gently push them away. Most breeders want to breed back their mares so they are in a hurry to wean the foal. This is usually done at 3 months. If you’ve ever been witness to this process it’s heartbreaking to hear the calls of both mare and foal crying out for the other. This is so unnatural and stressful for both mare and foal that it can create PTSD.
The stress of weaning is just the beginning. If the colt/filly is fortunate enough to have other youngsters around they can continue a somewhat comfortable life until either they are sold and taken away from their home completely. Just think about this. If this were a human child removed from their parents the ultimate trauma can last a lifetime. The horse is removed from it’s herd mates, put into a trailer, which in itself is enough to cause ulcers in any horse, then forced into a new environment with new people, and training begins. Training, no matter what approach you use is not natural. So, even a kind approach can cause stress on a horse. Life continues with mostly completely unnatural happenings for a horse. We often put them in a stall which clearly is the opposite of a grazing animal. We dictate their feed, their companions, their work. They are ridden in many different ways with many different jobs. If handled with love, care and kindness most horses adjust surprising well. However, there are a vast number of horses that have lived through horror, who have been hurt in so many ways, sometimes unintentional, many intentional. These horses are often victims of PTSD.
PTSD is a real and horrible disorder. I know because I suffer from it. I struggled through much of my life to cope with the effects of trauma and although I am fortunate to have learned not to allow it to take away the good in my life I still suffer many effects over 50 years later. I suffer from anxiety when the darkness of night comes, I am uncomfortable in the house without music or television on, I am an introvert, (although with animals I am at complete peace), I have low self-esteem, and I have a foreboding of doom on dreary days and if you come up behind me quietly I will jump 3 feet in the air!
Horses with PTSD show it in many ways. Some are extremely jumpy, will shy at the drop of a pin and tend to be the horse that explodes easily. Some are shy and keep away from people if possible. Some are indifferent. They almost seem like they are robotic. It’s their way of handling situations they just “disassociate” and go elsewhere in their brain. Then there is the aggressive horse who is willing to fight. Flight didn’t work for this horse so he learned to fight. These horses will hurt you if you push the wrong button. Whatever type of response the PTSD victim has it most likely was caused by humans. So, instead of discarding a horse with problems wouldn’t it make sense to help these horses back to normality? I think so. I was discarded, but, my brain allowed me to look for healing and a way to enjoy life. They can’t do it on their own, they are controlled by us.
Recently, I was told about a horse that someone shot because he killed a man. This man took this young horse on knowing he had aggression problems and was warned. He made a mistake by putting the horse in a position where the horse felt trapped and had to defend himself. He attacked, the man died. The horse was shot. The horror of it all is sickening to think about, but, it didn’t have to happen. You don’t take on a horse that hates humans without a thorough knowledge and understanding of how to safely work with him. The horse didn’t have to die either. Someone made that horse aggressive, and with a skilled knowledgeable trainer perhaps he could have been rehabilitated.
Just like humans there can be a horse with a chemical imbalance unrelated to life experience and that horse can have unpredictable behavior. Those horses may not be able to function in the realm of what humans want with their horses. Perhaps those horses could live in a herd of a retirement horses. But, I believe this is rare and the majority of horses with PTSD are created by man.
I’ve had my fair share of meeting troubled horses. There is a story of a horse named Lily on this blog.
Once you read Lily’s story you will understand why she is so traumatized. Amy, shown in the photo with Lily, and her husband, Brian, will not give up on Lily. I will be writing soon on an update of Lily’s progress. I can tell you that through Lily I learned a clear lesson. That lesson is LISTEN TO THE HORSE! She has taught me that my agenda does not count. She cannot help her absolute unpredictable explosions, but, often there is a look, a body posture, a twitch or warning. Instead of saying ‘you’re alright, Lily and continuing I realize we have to pause. We have wait for Lily to tell us she is ok with what we are asking before we continue on with our task.
If you have a troubled horse you will benefit from first learning about body language – both the horse and your own. What are you telling the horse with the way you stand, the way you move, etc? What is the horse telling you? Do you know the different aspects of a horses body language? Do you understand what the horses’ eye is expressing? These are the most important of all basics to working with any horse. Spending leisurely time in the pasture with him, studying his behavior before you attempt training will help you tremendously. From there retracing the foundation work and finding out what troubles the horse is a step towards rehabilitation. When you hit a trigger instead of pushing through it, take time, back off a bit. Allow the horse to return to a comfortable posture and start again. Take away the horses need to use flight or fight. One step at a time may take a bit longer but in the end you have a created a bond with a horse who will both trust you and follow you, not simply obey.
Expectations…what do you expect from your horse? A blue ribbon at a show, a wonderful trail ride in the forest or a safe and reliable horse that even a small child can ride?
Regardless of whether you are training your horse for the show ring or for pleasure riding training your horse should be gradual and progressive. In order to obtain the ability of the horse to perform physically and in comfort as well as develop a healthy mental attitude one must commit time and effort to the endeavor.
Horses are generally couch potatoes. Unless they are very young foals they tend to spend the majority of their time quietly grazing their pasture without exerting much effort. Although they may look incredibly strong they are not fit for work unless they are involved in regular exercise. Horses that are ridden once or twice a week, or once or twice a month are going to fatigue quickly. Physical harm involving ligaments, tendons, muscles and skeleton can easily occur with the horse that is unfit. Additionally, mentally a horse can become despondent or show it’s fatigue or discomfort with bad behavior.
What amazes me is the number of people that will speak up during lessons about their own fatigue or soreness and yet think nothing of how hard or long the unfit horse is ridden.
For over four decades I have worked with people in helping them train their horses. I try to give each student 100% when working with them and their horse. However, this is an area of frustration I meet on a weekly basis. no matter how much I give during a training session I cannot do the best for the horse or the student because week after week, month after month and sometimes even year after year very little if anything is done with the horse between training sessions. I explain how the learning process develops and what has to be done. I like to ask that horses in training are worked with 5 days a week, but, I know some people have very little time so I ask that a minimum of 3 times a week is set aside for the horses well being. Most of the time the intent is good but somehow they just do not manage to fit it into their day. I do realize that life happens to us all, and can understand the occasional difficulty in practice, but if it’s constant and continual we have a problem.
In these situations horses do not develop, improve or advance. The rider does not develop, improve or advance. It leads to frustration for all parties involved. Sometimes I have a student who totally understands he/she cannot expect improvement without the work and will not ask too much of the horse or expect to be moving forward at that point. I can accept that. The lesson is then a review and a reinforcement of the previous information. However, when a student takes it out on me or the horse is when I have a problem. If a student abuses a horse I will step in and stop it and if necessary end the session. If I lose that person I feel sorry I can’t help the horse, but I won’t let them hurt the horse. If they abuse me I also stop it.
Students, this is team work between student, horse and trainer. If one of us falls short results will be less than optimal. You payed for the horse, the care, the tack and the training, now it takes commitment to the process to become one with your horse. My suggestion is to treat your practice riding as though it were any other appointment you make. Put it on your schedule, block out that time for you and your horse. I assure you the results will amaze and motivate you. Once you get on a regular schedule it will be habitual. Give it a try – the sky will be the limit!
I don’t sell horses, I don’t trade, I don’t give them away. My horses are my friends, they are part of my very being. If they cannot work due to lameness or disease they simply stay with me until they leave this life. I am honored to take care of them and joyed to enjoy my time with them whether they can work or not. They are not used cars, they are beautiful beings. So when I tell you this story you’ll understand the difficulty of my decision.
Horses bring so much joy to those of us fortunate enough to have them in our lives. And in turn, I’d like to think that most horse owners also want our horses to be content and enjoy life. Allowing the horse to be a horse is a great way to start. Time to graze, a herd to socialize with, shelter from the elements are so important to the horse’s mental and physical well-being. These basic needs are obvious, but going beyond the obvious is something not all horsemen do. What may not be obvious is whether or not your horse enjoys his time with you, whether he likes his required “job,” or whether he is compatible with his pasture mates. Simply because a horse can do something does not mean he should.
I recently made a very difficult decision to let a horse go back to his original owner. Ace came to live with me through a student four years ago. When the student decided to move on to another horse and no longer wished to care for him, he was offered to me.
I thought he would be a great lesson horse for my students without their own to learn on. I was wrong. He is a very bright, athletic horse. His mind is active and he is easily stimulated, which is what he loves. As time went on I started to see signs of his dislike for his work. Using him for beginners means lunge line lessons, very slow work, and for him it was very boring work. He has never been used more than 5 days a week, and generally 3; only an hour each time. He certainly is not overworked. His riders all adore him, but he is quite simply bored! He was previously an endurance horse, and going around in circles is just not his cup of tea. At times he would express that displeasure in very clear terms.
For quite a while I kept thinking that it wasn’t too much to ask of him in trade for the very cushy and pampered life I give to him. But in my heart, I’ve been troubled by his unhappiness. If he were happy living here I would have happily allowed him live a life of leisure. But he also does not fit in with the herd. When I look at him, I see a horse who just is not where he’s meant to be.
Still, I held back, since I know that some of my students truly will be sad to lose him. But the universe again stepped in, and I finally was led to the decision to talk to his original owner about taking him back. I was so pleased at her instant enthusiasm to do so. She originally had to give him up due to life circumstance, but always has missed him. She adores him and expressed the desire to do some endurance with him again, which I do think he will come alive and enjoy.
So, my lovely, beautiful Ace will be leaving soon. Laura will be smiling in anticipation and I am heavy in heart. But it’s the right thing to do. As much as I wanted to see Ace happy here, it was not going to happen. The wonderful thing is he will go back to live with one of his old pasture mates that he enjoyed. Laura and I have an agreement that if she ever needs to let him go again, he has a home waiting for him back with me.
If we are going to use horses for our pleasure, they should be happy with their life… but in this case doing the right thing is bittersweet.
Twenty-five years ago I attended a John Lyons clinic where he said something that has stayed with me throughout all of my own training, the training of horses, and my teachings to my students. He said, “There are two rules in all training of horses: one, the horse should never be hurt and two, the rider should never be hurt.”
Throughout the years I have witnessed both. Generally, if a rider gets hurt, it’s through a mistake of their own. Horses are not out to hurt us, but they are large and can be very quick when they are motivated to protect themselves. Sometimes a rider is just in the wrong place at the wrong time or we don’t read the situation properly and we get hurt. Just today I read about another knowledgeable horseman who was killed while leading a horse out to pasture. She had put the lead rope on her shoulder. The horse took off running as the rope went around her neck and she was dragged 250 ft. So very tragic. According to the article the farm where she worked did not use this practice and it was perhaps a moment of distraction where she was not focused. It cost her her life. Was it the horse’s fault? Absolutely not. He was being a horse: something startled him and he bolted. Should he be punished? Of course not! Tragic and sad, but the horse did not intentionally set out to do harm. Horses never do; they simply react.
It’s our choice to take the risk of getting hurt when we work with a horse, but the horse does not have that choice. He is under the control of the rider/handler. When someone is hurting their horse – for example, kicking the horse’s sides or yanking on their horse’s mouth, the most common thing I hear them say is, “he makes me mad!” What??? Suddenly, the horse has an agenda? No, he does not. Horses are NOT humans; they do not think like humans. They are simply responding or not responding as a result of something we are either doing or not doing. It’s really that simple. The horse may have had a previous experience that was not pleasant. They never will forget, and in a similar situation may revert back to that experience and react in self-protection.
One mistake many people make is humanizing the horse. People will say, “but he knows it’s me!” Yes, he does, but remember, horses live in the moment and are conditioned-response animals. A condition is placed upon them and in that moment they will react out of instinct unless the handler/rider is aware and reacts to assure the horse is focused on them and trusts them to guide them. Slapping, kicking, and yanking is not convincing a horse to trust you.
A young student of mine, a beginner, was trying to guide her horse around the arena. The horse was just meandering around, stopping constantly. I could see that her aids were inconsistent – she pulled and fidgeted with her reins, her legs didn’t relax after she asked the horse to move, her posture was slouched, etc. We had several discussions on how to show her horse what she needed from him, but she was still doing the exact same thing. Finally she got frustrated. She suddenly took both reins and yanked them… hard! I was in the arena and a second from making her dismount. But I realize why it happened. Frustration turns to anger. It’s also because she humanized her horse. Her horse wasn’t trying make her mad; he was probably as frustrated as she was. He was receiving so many conflicting instructions, he simply gave up on listening. Thankfully, he was gentle enough not to react violently – he could have bucked her off instead! I will not allow horses to be abused and she received the message loud and clear! She felt badly and later apologized. It was the horse who needed the apology, not me, but horses don’t understand apologies. Our mistakes will be remembered.
Horses are not machines. They cannot be programmed and left to run by themselves. Creating a partnership with a horse requires stride by stride communication and connection. Any horse would rather be out in pasture with their pasture mates than carrying a human around on their back doing what probably seems like insane movements. How many horses would volunteer to run barrels, ride circles, jump courses, go around an arena hundreds of times in an exact posture that the human requests instead of grazing and enjoying what they naturally are intended to do? I think the count would be small. That’s not to say horses do not enjoy working with us sometimes. I’ve known several horses in my life that are so very willing and seem to shine when working. I have to believe it’s because their well-being comes first in my training. It’s never how perfect something is, it’s the “try,” the “intent,” that I reward my horses for. If I myself never made a mistake, maybe I would expect perfection, but that is not a reality. Putting myself in the horse’s place, I would not appreciate someone who only criticized me for my errors without praising my accomplishments. I would rebel. I would certainly react in self-protection if I were being hurt. I would not trust that person again.
The surprising thing is, most of the people I encounter hurting their horses in frustration are truly in love with their horse. Perhaps they are displaying a flaw in their own being. Instead of reacting with anger when a horse is not responding properly, we should look at it as a learning opportunity. We should evaluate ourselves as well as the horse. I doubt any of us are free of making mistakes, so why should we expect the horse to be? You’re training your horse with every ride, and problems occur when we are not teaching properly. Please think about the harm you are doing to your horse and your relationship when you purposely hurt your horse. It’s not what you want in the end, and it definitely is not what will bring you success. If you have anger issues then as a trainer once said to a former colleague of mine, “jump off your horse and go punch a tree instead.” Good advice! Do what you have to control your anger, just please… STOP HURTING YOUR HORSE!
Working with horses daily for the majority of my life has taught me many things. One of the most important is the issue of safety. Surprisingly, this is sometimes less of an issue when we’re around horses that are nervous, high strung, or otherwise unruly. In those cases we use caution and awareness, and we generally don’t get hurt. But when we’re working with horses that are quiet, relaxed, “solid citizens,” we sometimes get complacent – especially with horses we know and trust. This is often when we get injured.
This was not the case last evening when I was trying new boots on a horse. EZ was in his stall, happily munching hay. I was focused, and I was positioned properly. But as I was fitting the boot on, another horse made a sudden loud banging noise on the wall and startled EZ. There was no warning, no second or two to protect myself, when he jumped into me, slamming me into the wall and to the floor. I am so grateful that he stopped with a hoof that was inches from my face. My arm was bruised, but my head was fine. I was a bit dazed, but recovered quickly. Could I have put him on cross-ties instead of fitting boots in the stall? Absolutely. But that would not have been a guarantee of safety; in fact it might have been worse since he would not have been able to do what nature tells him to do: run.
The same day, I was standing at the head of another horse, Ace, to adjust his bridle. Something behind him startled him and he leapt forward. Again, I was fortunate, because instead of running over me as he could have done, he stopped. Thank you, Ace!
Another time I was simply fastening the buckles on a horse’s blanket when she shied and ended up jumping into me knocking me back against a wall. When I landed face down in the stall she stepped backwards onto my foot. Painful and frightening. She eventually stepped off my leg and I crawled out on my belly.
My point here is that accidents can happen anytime, and are often beyond our control. Horses are horses and they sometimes do unpredictable things. However, I often see people around horses doing incredibly dangerous things. Why would anyone put themselves at additional risk through carelessness? Just recently I saw Facebook posts showing a woman sitting with her bare feet touching her horse’s front hooves, a man cleaning a hind hoof squatting down with the hoof level with his face, someone allowing their 3 year old to lead a horse by himself, and two young girls diving into a pond off their horse’s back. No helmets, no protection. Once I saw a 2 year old walk under the belly of a horse, and the mother saw no harm in it. I once witnessed a groom at a show, lying on his side sanding a horse’s feet. Even the most settled horse is still first a prey animal and a flight animal. One never knows when a horse will mentally “return to the wild” and defend him/herself the way they were intended – which is often violently quick, and with tremendous power. If you are in the path of that power you could be seriously hurt, or worse.
As horsepeople, we understand the inherent risks. But to become careless is just plain foolish. Horses don’t intend on hurting us, but they do react to a stimulus. We don’t have to be paranoid, but we should always keep in mind the nature of the horse, and act appropriately for safety.
Think about safety the next time you’re handling a horse for your vet or farrier. Often a horse is nervous or distracted, while the vet or farrier is in a precarious position. I have seen people obliviously chatting away not paying any attention to the horse’s body language or how they are positioning the horse. I’ve known people who will even groom their horse while the farrier is trying to work. There are things you can do to help keep your vet or farrier safe. For example: if the vet is doing an exam on a hind limb, turn your horse’s head towards the side the vet is on. If the horse were to threaten to kick and you pulled the horse towards the vet, the hindquarter would move away from the vet. (If you had the head turned away from the vet and the horse went to kick, he would be coming toward the vet – not safe!) Little things like that can help everyone stay safe, as well as just being aware of your horse’s body language so you can warn the vet or farrier when they’re in a position where they cannot see or feel when the horse is warning them.
People aren’t the only ones who get injured because of our carelessness; our horses do too. The animals we love are often put in harm’s way because we aren’t paying attention. It’s easy to be distracted when other people are in the barn. I understand wanting to socialize, but the focus should be on the horse and socializing later. Don’t leave a horse untied with a halter or bridle on – they might stick their heads in places where the headstall can snag, causing them to panic and pull back. Equipment may break, but that’s repairable. A horse’s mouth can be damaged, neck and back muscles pulled, and/or spinal damage may be done. Be careful leading your horse through a gate. Riders often open the gate wide enough for themselves, forgetting that their horse is much wider. The horse does not know the danger lurking and needs his human partner to take care of his wellbeing.
There are no guarantees when handling horses – accidents do happen. But we owe it to ourselves and to our horses to focus and make choices that will keep everyone safe as possible. Horses’ body language can be very clear in warning us of potential danger but we won’t know that if we don’t pay close attention.