Thursday, 2 April 2009

How we work.

We have been running clinics for a few years now and we are happy to work with most situations people ask about. I would like to explain a bit more about how we work. If you are booked into one of our clinics or would like to attend one, then it is best that you have some idea about our work.

Our most important aim when we work with horses is that they are relaxed. When a horse is relaxed he can learn, or at least he can learn stuff you want him to learn. When he isn’t relaxed there is a good chance he can learn a lot of stuff you’d rather he didn’t. A lot of us can get our horses relaxed when we are on the ground, but sometimes when we are riding they are anything but. It took me a while to work this problem out, but as with everything, once I realised it, I couldn’t believe I’d missed something so obvious.

I just kept thinking, how come they trust me when I’m on the ground, and how come nearly all driven horses, and nearly all working horses just get on with it, but a large number of leisure horses just can’t relax when they are being ridden? The answer is that horses just find it really difficult to deal with grey areas – they need to know and understand what is going on. If they don’t know or understand, they don’t feel safe, and that is when you get all the tricky stuff happening. It’s a fair enough deal, I’d say: the horse is entitled to feel safe, or worry – that’s what horses do.

So I set off on my search for grey areas when I ride my horse. It didn’t take me long to find some. Here’s a really basic one that I reckon a few of us have come across. When I asked my horse to turn right she went nicely around the curve but when I asked her to turn left she fell across the turn. Now, before you all go, ‘ah, now what you need to do is this, blah blah blah’, I want to explain what I thought my horse made of this. She thought that my cue for turn one way meant one thing, and my same cue on the other side to turn the other way meant another thing.

For a while I just assumed she was stiff or bent or something, but now I have worked it out. If I get her to completely release all her tension, and then I explain the two types of turn, and have them on different cues, then she is fine. When I got this organised I felt like she was saying to me, ‘Why didn’t you explain that to me properly before?’ Looking further into that situation I suddenly realised that there were a whole lot of movements there that my horse had options on, that I wasn’t in control of, she was. That, for her, was a huge grey area.

As it turns out, the two things we have found that make the difference with pretty much all horses are understanding the bit, and balance – front to back and straightness. Getting a nice relaxed mouth, and nice soft hands with no pull, and getting the horse balanced on all four feet, can make a huge difference. So that’s how we work. Everything must make sense to the horse. It’s just not fair if it doesn’t. And if it does, what do you get? You get a nice calm horse!


June said...

It always amazes me they are able to filter out all the noise from the rider and pick the cues that we mean to give from the ones we give by accident. I do my best to sit still but there is movement there that I don't intend and yet the horse generally knows what I'm asking and is able to ignore the rest.

I've been riding Tal, the horse Row rode at your last clinic here, quite a lot recently. We are still working on slow and it was only on Friday that it dawned on me that I was now leaving too many grey areas, so your blog is very timely.

I'd been allowing her to move her feet when she felt the need to, but at my speed and direction, at least most of the time! That was fine at first, and pretty much the only way she could cope - I think - when she was still very concerned with having a rider on board, but now that she's much more settled its time to tighten the boundaries.

I spent yesterday asking for halt and then just sitting there for several minutes at a time. Until recently she'd have really struggled with that. I could get halt pretty easily, but it wasn't till near the end of each session that I could get halt and stay in halt for a while, with her relaxed.

I'm sure anyone watching yesterday would have thought I was mad, just sitting there in the arena doing nothing, with the horse resting a leg and dropping her head, but I was in control of her feet and she was quite happy about it and so was I.

On reflection I still think we had to get to this stage via the slightly broader boundary stage but now its time to press on and clarify those grey areas for her.

el said...

I'm sure anyone watching yesterday would have thought I was mad, just sitting there in the arena doing nothing, with the horse resting a leg and dropping her head, but I was in control of her feet and she was quite happy about it and so was I.

I did this too :) It's one of the basics for any horse... confidence, trust, calmness, and being in control of their feet. What I found amazing with Oz is while doing this he looked like he was half asleep, his brain was still totally engaged and focused on me. Even a tiny cue after a minute or two of doing nothing, still worked as if we hadn't just stood still for two minutes. The horse was relaxed but he still was focusing on me and thinking about what I was going to ask for next.

They're pretty incredible animals really. Brilliant students, if only we were better teachers :)

glenatron said...

Are you sure you've got the student-teacher relationship the right way round there, el?

el said...

edited: Brilliant teachers, if only we were better students


Tom said...

June - It's nice to know we are thinking the same kind of stuff. I always worry a bit that I might be going off on one and dissappearing somewhere......

El & Ben - That's interesting isn't it. I went out to teach my horse something today, which I did ok actually, but I reckon she taught me more than I taught her.

June said...

"June - It's nice to know we are thinking the same kind of stuff. I always worry a bit that I might be going off on one and dissappearing somewhere......"

Lol. Just because I'm thinking it too doesn't mean we aren't both disappearing somewhere.

But, I've been really clear with my cues for halt for the last two sessions and very clear that she doesn't walk off without being asked, and suddenly the walk is much calmer much earlier in the session and we had a slow trot in a straight line yesterday. Previously we've only managed semi-controlled trots in a circle.

I'm finding my cue for soft has changed with all my horses. It is now a soft, elastic feel down one rein and then the other but not both at the same time. Both at the same time is one of my cues for slowing the speed and I was finding that the horses were getting a little confused sometimes if I used the same cue for the two different things. Nothing major but this way seems to work better for them.

glenatron said...

Interestingly enough, June, I'm doing the opposite, but the same, in that I'm starting to change my cue for halt so that it's one rein then the other- normally it happens off other stuff now anyway, but if you use your rein to stop the hind feet in turn you can get a very sharp stop indeed.

June said...

I don't suppose it really matters what cue you use as long as the horses understand it. The polo ponies stop dead if you take your feet out of the stirrups! It's an instant halt. Tal stops if you take your thigh away from the saddle! No idea why that is and only discovered it by accident when I needed to move the stirrup leather out of the way.

I find with halt I tend not to have to use the reins at all once the horse understands the body cue. My cues for halt are double up on the core stability, stop the seatbones (both those equate to stopping me!)and finally a feel on the reins. The final feel of the reins is often not necessary as the horse tunes in and responds to the other cues. I don't really think about stopping each leg in turn. I think about stopping the whole horse.

Tal is pretty sensitive and will mostly stop on the thought. I'm finding I have to be careful she isn't anticipating what I'm asking, obviously by thinking about halt I must give a cue, and make sure I pick the spot I want to halt at rather than her picking it.

Interesting subject with many paths to the same thing!

June said...

Meant to say, this is still very much work in progress, so it could easily change over time!

Tom said...

June and Ben - Re the various ways of how to get soft? I have changed what I do quite a bit too.
This is my aim, and so far it's working well, with some horses with an astonishing change, and others not so, but still a very nice feel. I accept absolutely no pull or lean on the bit. I have started to train the mouth to relax and move when I lift the reins. I have started to train a sideways flex into the poll when I pick up the individual rein, not massive, just a bit more than a response, but looking for very smooth. I have started to train a lowering and lengthening of the neck from the small sidways turn (this is difficult, at least I am finding it so, but it's coming). I am trying never to pull back on the reins. I raise them if I need to, but that gets less and less as we go on. I completely do not ask my horse to give at the poll in the way I did - lots of reasons, but mainly because of my, and my horses, confusion with overbending, and also I felt like I had lost her mouth - she had gone behind the bit. Now we have a pretty good communication most of the time.
Apart from today when she couldn't seem to concentrate (so annoying), but she got it in the end and we had a nice ride.

June said...

So if you are training a lowering and lengthening of the neck how are you stopping them going on the forehand? I've found some of mine, and one in particular, have a tendency to go on the forehand with the softness work and I have to correct that with my body rather than the reins, but maybe there is a simpler way.

It isn't that they go too low and drop behind the bit which I could correct with lifting one rein. It feels more like the whole horse is going downhill rather than shifting the weight back onto the hindquarters and feeling more uphill.

Tom said...

June - I am just doing the lowering and lengthening of the neck in halt at the moment. The idea is that later, I will be able to ask for relaxation of the neck whenever I want it. I also find that it really seems to relax the horses when they stretch the tops of their necks. It'a a bit of a guard against horses scrunching up too. Ultimately the lowering won't be so dramatic as to affect the balance.
Hope that makes sense.

glenatron said...

That's interesting, although I'm not sure whether I follow it entirely on the page, I may understand better when we can visit about it in real life.

Certainly with a horse like Small who is sweet and gentle and just wants to get along, he'll duck behind a contact much more quickly than he'll pull on the bridle and that can be quite hard to work with.

All my in-depth riding earlier in the year has left me no clearer about contact because it's not an issue in that way of riding. But it's left me a hell of a lot more conscious of how little you have to do for the horse to feel you're pulling on them...

Tom said...

Ben, yesterday I was riding one of our horses and she was really going well. We were working on staying in balance (what Jack Brainard would call 'even loading') in walk and halt,
; and bends and counterbends, in walk.

When it is all going well, and when I am on form, there is absolutely no weight in my hands, and the horses mouth feels soft and alive, as do my hands. We had a friend watching and I wanted her to feel what it was like, so I offered her to ride the horse. She got on and within two seconds the horse started anxiously chewing the bit. Sarah just said straightaway, 'you are pulling' and she said, 'No I'm not'. But she was. It was tiny, but it was a pull, and the horse didn't appreciate it. As soon as she took up the right feel, the horse relaxed her mouth and they did some nice work.
It was great because once you realise the unbelievable communication there can be, it's just so inspiring.

June said...

Re the head lowering, that certainly seems to relax horses. I wonder why that is. I know in NH circles they say it reduces the heart rate but I don't think there is any proof of that.

Interesting what you say about your horse thinking the rider was pulling even though the rider didn't think she wasa.

I was teaching someone recently who had switched from leather reins to clip on rope reins. They gave a totally different feel to the horse, and the rider was pulling ever so slightly, probably because there was no weight in the rope so she couldn't feel she was pulling. The feel in her hands was just like the weight of a leather rein but the feel to the horse was a pull, however small.

Once she switched back to the leather reins and put a soft push down the rein rather than a pull the horse breathed a sigh of relief and everything went back to harmony.

Just goes to show how aware we have to be when we teach our horses about this softness stuff. There's no going back when you've changed the rules like that!

jmk said...

Just found your blog. Very interesting. I'll lurk here again when I have time to read your previous posts.
Anyone who likes Mark Rashid is okay in my book.