Over the past few weeks I hope you – and your horse – have had plenty of ‘thinking time’ and the opportunity to work on establishing the trust that is essential to a building a strong foundation in your training.
Giving your horse time to understand is also crucial to creating, and maintaining, calmness. I focus on establishing this foundation of calmness so that I can help the horse to understand and learn what I am asking in a gentle and effective way that helps the horse trust it is safe for him. The more you handle your horse, calm and reassure him, correct and reward him, the more he will learn to feel safe doing what you ask. So, you see, you need the one to create the other.
Thinking Time Tip
Some people may say all the kind words, but teach you to force the horse to do things. Talking the talk and not walking the walk does nothing for your horse. You can force his body, but you can’t force the horse to relax, exhale, lick and chew or yawn as a sign of release, calmness and understanding.
Calmness, Suppleness and Obedience
Calmness is much more than just standing still. By calmness, I mean true mental, emotional and physical relaxation, where the horse is focused on you and on trying to understand your request, not easily distracted or confused. Distraction and confusion can cause physical tenseness, stress, resistance and panic, which destroy balanced movement and lead to wrecks.
Sure, some horses have better conformation and inherently move better than others, but even a well-conformed horse with beautiful movement will move like a three-legged horse if he is not calm! We are looking to also develop the softness and proper balance that comes with a calm horse.
A horse’s instincts will kick in if he is working under stress, rather than through good leadership and understanding, particularly a shy or sensitive horse. Think about it – don’t you learn better when you’re calm? How difficult is it to learn when you’re under pressure or someone is standing over you saying, “hurry up!”? Horses are no different. If instincts kick in, the horse will only be concerned about his safety and comfort and display this through what humans term ‘bad behaviour.’ You and I can display our discomfort with words. A horse talks with his body, using expressions and behavioural signs. We often seem to miss these.
Your own calmness will help create calmness in your horse and help you achieve obedience and suppleness, that ability to move forward, backward, up, down and laterally with softness and balance. A supple mind creates a supple body. Control your horse’s mental and emotional state and you are better able to handle his body.
Thinking Time Tip
Calmness, suppleness of mind and body and obedience are the fundamentals of good, sound movement. In my experience, unacceptable behaviour in a horse is often due to fear of the handler or rider, or the request made, which is caused by a lack of understanding or intimidation. If the horse has full confidence in the handler or rider, and the message is clear, he can stay focused and responsive.
Firstly, it is important to make sure that there is no physical cause of nervousness. One of my favourite ways to create calmness is simply to give to the horse before I take.
We continually take from our horses, but rarely give back. Even the simple act of riding puts the horse in a situation where he has little, if any, say. There are many ways to give to your horse – scratching an itchy spot, brushing out a winter coat, ensuring the tack you use is clean and properly fitted, riding without force, etc. Softness is not being weak – it is simply assertiveness, not aggression.
Many people overlook groundwork, but it is the essential first step in establishing not only calmness, but also suppleness of mind and body through understanding and focus – the human’s included. It’s that understanding and focus through which the horse learns to follow your feel, and not a signal or another tool that you rely on to achieve a desired response. It’s one of the main reasons I choose to ride bitless. Many of the horses I start and retrain will be, or are, competition horses for which the bit is required to comply with a traditional rule. When the bit is eventually introduced, however, the horse has a solid foundation in communication with the rider not based on equipment, but rather on how well they understand one another.
So, how do you maintain calmness when you’re training? You reduce the stress and increase the horse’s ability to learn when you break your training goals into small segments. As you then gradually put the segments together, your horse can experience the final goal as a smooth, stress-free task.
When you familiarize a horse, you ask him to calmly accept something and to become calm and relaxed while you do so. The tools you can use to familiarize him to scary things that make noise and move fast are only limited by your imagination (a rope, tarp, bamboo stake and plastic bag or streamers, umbrellas, leaf blowers and stock whip are a few examples).
Use rhythmic strokes and don’t appear hesitant or “sneaky” – be absolutely matter of fact. If you act like there’s something to be afraid of, your horse will too! Be absolutely sure you’ve cemented CCKL = TOR (Confident, Consistent and Kind Leadership = Trust, Obedience, Respect) so you and your horse can handle the new issues that familiarizing present and give him plenty of time to work things out for himself. When you are both confident on the ground, introduce these things under saddle.
Lunging a horse in mindless circles does absolutely nothing to calm his emotional levels. Circling a horse in two or three circles in each direction and switching sides often allows the horse to focus on your request, while developing guidance and leadership before you mount. Pay attention to the signs your horse gives you with his eyes, ears, tail, body language and breathing (often overlooked). Soft eyes and a lowered head are sure signs of calmness, along with free movement and a nice rhythm and cadence at the walk and trot. If I am working with a horse that is nervous or being retrained for undesirable behaviour, such as bucking or rearing, for example, I do ask for all three basic gaits (walk, trot, canter).
Like you and I, horses have their own rhythm. Each is an individual and moves according to his or her conformation. Good rhythm can only happen when a horse is in physical and mental balance, which also means he is calm and comfortable.
Generally, you hear about rhythm and tempo in relation to classical training. But they are important for any horse – from a trail horse, ranch horse, games horse or pony to an international dressage competitor.
Rhythm, in essence, is the tempo and length of stride at a particular gait. When a horse is ‘in rhythm,’ there is an equal amount of time between each step of each stride of each gait. It is the ability to speed up or slow down and maintain a gait.
Tempo refers to the speed of the rhythm – quick, medium, slow. The horse’s tempo (speed) should remain the same if the horse shortens or lengthens his stride or completes a manoeuvre, such as turning a corner.
The best gait to school rhythm in is the trot – it is more energetic than a walk and the gait uses diagonal pairs of limbs. If the horse’s rhythm is too slow, he needs more impulsion or energy, no matter what gait he is in. If the horse has irregular rhythm at a walk, he almost paces instead of moving with an even four beats. At the trot, an irregular rhythm will look like the horse is a bit lame or uneven and, at a canter, it looks like a plodding four-beat gait instead of an even three-beat gait.
If the horse gets faster, for instance on a corner where he drops his shoulder, he becomes unbalanced. This lack of balance causes the rhythm and tempo to become irregular and the horse to tense and perhaps lose calmness.
Introducing the Half Halt
Before the horse gets too quick or unbalanced, I introduce the half halt or ‘check.’ Not only does this help the horse to rebalance himself physically, it helps him rebalance himself mentally and be aware of my request.
When you are asking for a half halt, you are asking the horse to come under himself a bit more, thereby helping him rebalance physically, but also serving as a mental check for the horse because you’re getting his attention without pulling on him to slow down and, therefore, making him more nervous or causing him to raise his head and hollow his back.
To slow the horse, I will sit the trot for a couple of strides and lightly squeeze my reins one-two alternately. By not following the horse with my body and slowing him with the alternate squeeze of my reins (not a backward pull of the reins), the horse doesn’t over-bend one way or the other, so I don’t have to over-correct with a single rein.
This is not traditional, but I will tell you why, in my experience, it works. Most people are right-handed and most horses are naturally crooked to the right. If I were to use the more traditional half halt in a scenario where I was working in the arena on the left rein (going around to the left), I would squeeze the outside (or right) rein so as not to block the inside (left) shoulder. While, in the traditional half halt I might not be blocking that left shoulder (providing the horse is straight), if I over-bend the horse to the right, I may cause the horse to fall in on that left shoulder and put more weight on it, which I then have to correct with squeezes on my left rein anyway to straighten the horse.
The way I use the half halt, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the trail or in the arena – there is no inside or outside rein to overuse. My legs are passive, not driving the horse forward as is traditional. By blocking the horse with my body (and by that I mean not following the horse’s movement with my seat for a couple of seconds until the horse feels more balanced and has better rhythm), I don’t slow the horse down too much. If I were to pull the horse’s head, I would put him on the forehand. If I then drive the horse into my hands with my legs at the same time I am using my reins, he might tense up and become nervous. This is particularly true with sensitive or young horses. In time, when these foundations are in place, I would ask the horse for more engagement from behind into my receiving hands.
By simply slowing the horse’s movement a little and asking him to get under himself more, I can help him to rebalance and find his rhythm again.
Applying the Leg Yield
We can also use the leg yield to help the horse re-establish rhythm. If the horse is rushing, we use the leg yield to slow him down without having to pull him around, and also help straighten his body a little if he is becoming crooked. Asking for a few lateral steps while moving forward requires the horse to step under himself a bit more as he moves sideways. A horse moving in a leg yield is moving away from the direction of bend. Let’s say I am doing a leg yield to the right. At the start, the horse is bent a little more to the left, away from the direction of travel. My right rein is slightly away from the neck to allow the shoulder to move. My right leg is also a little away from the horse to ‘open the door’ to the right. My left leg and rein will ask, independently of each other, for the horse to move to the right (if I were to use them together, it might confuse the horse).
If, on the other hand, the horse is moving too slowly, I would ride the horse with more energy forward. For instance, if the canter became a slow, four-beat gait instead of three, I would rise my seat in the canter to get the horse moving forward, similar to rising the trot, but at the canter.
The leg yield is a great exercise to introduce the horse to move forward and sideways off the requesting leg and rein. The horse will move forward at an angle of about 40 to 45 degrees, while his inside hind leg and inside foreleg cross over and in front of his outside hind and fore legs. This is also a great exercise to correct a one-sided or crooked horse.
As I mentioned in the last issue, the leg yield should not be over-done, as it may place horses (especially young horses) more in the forehand. It is also not appropriate for horses who are not forward going, as asking for those few lateral steps while moving forward slows the horse down more, as he needs to step under himself a bit more as he moves sideways.
After you’ve established these fundamentals, you can introduce some shoulder-in and shoulder-fore work for more suppling. But that’s another article!
Take Home Message
When your horse is calm, supple in mind and body and obedient, he will be responsive, not reactive – and there’s a BIG difference. A responsive horse focuses on you and the job at hand; he will look to you for help if he shies or spooks, not blindly react and flee or fight.