by Chantal Marleau
Have you ever wondered why some of the world’s top equestrians often use a lot more equipment than just a saddle and a simple snaffle? Whether it’s at the Olympics, the World Equestrian Games or even a local event, you will notice a great number of horses outfitted with intricate bits, martingales and their tie-down cousins. Are these extras really necessary for a winning ride?
Many of us tend to follow the example of upper-level riders and dash to the nearest tack shop at the first sign of training issues. Whatever the problem, we are often taught that all can be remedied with a simple upgrade to our horse’s gear. In reality, we are simply compounding issues, while learning to ride multiple layers of resistance.
For example, when a horse chronically pushes through our hands, a common reaction is to purchase a slightly harsher bit. If a horse can’t quite settle into “proper frame” then there are gadgets that will make sure he does. Other forms of resistance affect our personal safety and can leave us feeling weary when it comes to working with our horses.
Perhaps you’ve been launched from the saddle after one or two rodeo-style bucks; or maybe you are apprehensive to ride because your horse has a tendency to spook or bolt. Whatever difficulty you’re having, and the possibilities are endless, the one thing you do know is that you need help.
In this article, trainer and clinician Josh Nichol explains that the solution to your riding issues is as simple as learning to feel resistance in your horse and developing the skills to remove it.
Resistance: The Root of all Issues
However difficult the issues you and your horse are encountering under saddle, they all fall within one of seven categories: rearing, bucking, spooking, bolting, stopping and falling in or out. Resistance that has been left unchecked is likely the cause for each of these problems.
It is important to mention that before these problems can successfully be addressed with training, your veterinarian should be consulted to rule out any pain or other physical limitations that might be causing your horse to brace. It is also advisable to have a knowledgeable saddle fitter assess your saddle and ensure it is well-suited to your horse.
Once your horse has been given a clean bill of health and you are certain that his tack provides a comfortable fit, you simply need to develop the ability to feel what is going on inside.
“As a trainer, people come to me with many different problems,” explains Nichol. “I try to help them understand that anxiety in their horse’s mind always translates into tension in his body. Relieve his anxiousness and you will find yourself with a horse that is relaxed and able to move softly forward, without the help of any artificial aids like martingales and harsh bits.”
One of the reasons so many horses today suffer from various levels of anxiety is that they live in artificial environments that do not provide the safety and comfort of a well-organized and balanced herd.
Most of us are not able to provide perfect herd mates for our horses. What we are able to give them, however, is consistent leadership and the time and patience they need to learn new skills.
We have discussed the details of providing the comfort of clear leadership in past issues of Horse-Canada (see May/June, July/August, September/October 2010). Now we will focus on how to connect to the anxiety deep within your horse and how to release it.
Connecting to the Tension Through the Rein
Most riders can easily recognize the tell-tale signs of a truly scared horse: the head is upright, the neck is braced, nostrils are sometimes flared and every muscle is poised for flight. It is the subtle and deeply rooted signs of everyday anxiety that are more difficult to detect, explains Nichol. “Unless a horse is quite scared, the brace is typically locked into his shoulders or hips,” he says.
“You have to turn a horse loose through his whole body and reach inside to be able to feel the brace that lies within. This is how you’ll be able to free your horse from tension.”
How do you connect to something as abstract as a feeling of tension in the body? Through the rein, explains Nichol.
“Pick up the rein and slowly increase the pressure on it. What do you feel? If there is something pulling against you in that rein, you have just accessed some of the tension you are hunting for,” he says. This occurs because horses store every bit of their fear and uncertainty as tightness in either the neck, shoulders or hindquarters.
“When you pick up your rein, try to rate the amount of tension you feel on a scale of one to ten,” he says. “Maintain a steady hold until you feel your horse decrease his level of tension by at least one increment on your scale. Release as soon as you feel that.” The next time you pick up your rein, you should begin to feel a slight decrease in that initial tension. “This is a sign that you are on the right track,” adds Nichol.
At this point, your only focus should be on what can be felt through the rein rather than what your horse looks like on the outside. “The emphasis should always be on sensing how a movement feels,” says Nichol. “You are trying to feel for tension in the rein that exists because a part of your horse’s body is tight.
“The key now is to remain soft in your own body all the way to your hands and heels. Any brace in your body will cause your horse to stiffen against you and will create further resistance.
“Maintain a steady pressure in your rein until your horse begins to release his anxiety. He might try a few different answers to your question by moving sideways or tossing his head, but if you hang in there with him and continue to remain soft, he will eventually relax his mind and begin releasing the tightness in his body.”
Again, release your pressure as soon as you feel your horse begin to soften, and allow him to understand this was the response you were looking for.
The Difference Between Lightness and Softness
Given that we live in a hurried world and often race through each day, it is common to also rush through training goals with our equine partners. Focusing on specific exercises and obtaining quick responses from our horses such as dropping their necks into “perfect frame” means that lightness, a quick and superficial response to aids, is often what we are teaching. According to Nichol, this is another reason we encounter so many training issues.
“First you must develop softness from the hindquarters to the neck,” he says. “True lightness, that effortless movement that responds to invisible aids, will evolve once you have taken care of your horse’s worries and freed his body from tension.” Only then will your horse be able to follow your lead into the dance that is masterful riding.
“Your horse might be very responsive and performing an exercise quite well,” explains Nichol, “but if you are only focusing on lightness, the brace inside will never change. On some days your horse will perform better than on others, but you will never progress because you haven’t resolved the core problem.”
To better understand this feeling of lightness, hold one end of a lead-rope and have someone assist you by playing the role of your horse as she or he loosely holds the opposite end.
On the count of three, close your fingers on the rope and tighten as you gently bring your wrist slightly towards you while trying to hunt for resistance. You won’t succeed. That is because you will have instructed your helper to take a step towards you on the count of two. The result will be slack in the rope that was created prematurely, before you were given the opportunity to feel for tension in the line. When you train your horse to respond quickly to aids before he’s had the opportunity to develop softness, you are in effect teaching him to put the same looseness in the rein that you experienced in this exercise.
“The problem with lightness is that it is only a positive quality when it is preceded by softness,” explains Nichol. “Unless softness comes first, the anxiety and tension that are going to cause you problems will be extremely difficult to reach and correct.
“I do this by continually reaching with flow into my inside rein, feeling for resistance and releasing as soon as I feel the horse try to soften the brace inside. As the horse begins to understand this idea, I close my hand on the rein once again and bring it slightly closer to my hip which will release deeper levels of resistance.”
The deeper you are able to reach into your horse via the rein, the greater the relaxation through your horse’s spine. As you practice this technique, challenge yourself by setting up controlled environments that will cause increasing amounts of uncertainty in your horse. This could be as simple as riding away from other horses or staging your choice of distractions.
“Riding in a quiet area without any diversions is not reality,” says Nichol. “Since your horse is a prey animal and by nature is acutely aware of his surroundings, it is best to create some uncertainty in him while you enjoy the luxury of a controlled setting.”
Once your horse learns to release his worries when you touch that rein, you both will be able to rely on that tool when you head out into unpredictable environments like the trail or a show.
Using the Back-Up as an Exercise to Develop Softness
The back-up is one of Nichol’s preferred exercises for helping riders develop softness in their horses that extends from the hindquarters all the way to the poll.
“Backing provides one of the best opportunities to feel what is going on at deeper levels within your horse,” says Nichol.
Increase the pressure on your rein until you feel tension in it and think about backing your horse. Nudge your hand and gently bump your legs until the tension you feel in your horse begins to dissipate and you are left with a greater feeling of yield in your hand.
If, at any time, bracing begins to resurface, increase your pressure by bumping your legs once again and release as soon as you feel your horse relax.
“This way, you are training your horse to release and soften rather than just move lightly,” says Nichol.
That said, this isn’t an exercise intended to teach your horse to move backwards warns Nichol. “It shouldn’t be about backing at all,” he says. “What you are actually doing is training a greater degree of yield and teaching your horse to pick up his shoulder.”
In fact, if tension melts away and the shoulders release before you engage the backward motion, do not back your horse. “You do not want to create a pattern which has your horse thinking that he should back-up every time you pick up the rein,” says Nichol. As soon as you feel a deeper level of release, you should ask your horse to carry that same relaxed feel forward.
The secret is to learn to continuously hunt for tension and to remind both yourself and your horse that the two of you are no longer allowed to travel while braced.
As you learn to consistently ride while applying all of these skills, you will quickly notice that you begin to advance in your training, without any extra gear, or the fear of what the next footfall might bring.