Thursday, 26 January 2012

Is the horse´s personality changed through schooling?

Now and then I'm caught in philosophical pondering concerning what the heck I'm doing in relation to my horse. What have I the right to ask of him? These ponderings can be fuelled by a day when my horse and I have had completely opposite ideas of what to do that day. But I can also be attacked by them after a day when my horse has been quiet, calm and responding to my every thought.

It is the dream of having such a light and close relationship with my horse that gets me out of bed all these early mornings. One would think that the days when the dream comes true that everything would be just fine. Apparently not. After a day like that, I sometimes take a step back and look at what I've accomplished with amazement mixed with horror at the extent to which the horse have given himself to me. The better leader I am, the better posture and balance I have when I ride, the more influence I seem to have.

Let me give you two examples.

The first is my mum's Arab, Pargon OX. Those of you who have been through the seat training with me know him as a very quiet and steady horse. He has not always been like this, very far from it. Today he is 16 years old. When he was 9 he still wasn't started under saddle. The previous owner said it couldn't be done. Pargon OX was afraid of everything and would take off in a complete panic,. He would not allow you to even brush him, let alone put a saddle on his back and mount. That was Pargon OX seven years ago. Today he is the most mentally stable horse I know. This change is visible, not only in his way of interacting with humans and the human world, but also towards other horses. He is more prone to defend his space instead of running away from other horses in the field. Has his personality changed? Has his soul been taken away from him? Or, deep down, has he always had these traits but the high level of stress he lived with made ​​him seem half crazy, spooky and unmanageable?

The other example is my Connemara, Hagens Yeats. He is a former school horse and has had some difficulties in adjusting to life as an individually and privately owned horse without the constant company of all the other horses in his herd of school horses. I vividly remember the first few weeks after I brought him home. He was fully aware of where all the other 20 horses in the new stable were at all time. Me he didn't notice. He walked on my feet,squashed me against the wall and dragged me around at the end of the lead rope. Not that he was trying to be mean, it was just that he did not see me and definitely did not understand that I was trying to communicate with him. Today it is very different. I have his attention and, although he probably still knows what all the other horses are doing, he communicates with me and can even leave the herd and be OK with being alone in the indoor arena or out on the trails. Since he is calm, I have been able to school him according to classical principles, giving him a whole new way to use his own body. Today, just as before, he occasionally runs around the hilly pasture playing happy, frisky horsey games. The difference is that, in the past, I used to close my eyes and pray that he would not take a tumble because his movements were so uncoordinated, heavy and clumsy. Today I enjoy just looking at him because he moves with such grace and ease. The stiff school horse has turned into a master of motion and posture. Have I changed his self-image and his use of himself? Or have I helped him to rediscover a way to be that he had as a foal? Even if I have changed his self-image, would that be a bad thing?

That horses are affected by the people that surround them has been shown by research. There are, for example, studies that have shown that a nervous rider makes the horse nervous. But this is a temporary emotional reaction. What I believe I see with my horses is a change that is there even when I'm not in the close vicinity. My intellect tells me that this change is positive. Is it not better for a horse to live without high levels of stress than with them? And even if both of my horses now interact with other horses in a different manner, and also use their own bodies differently, is there anything wrong with this? Yet, my heart trembles with the realisation of the incredible power of influence I seem to have.

Such possibilities. Such responsibilities. 

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for checking my spelling and grammar! All other errors are my own.

Friday, 20 January 2012

A connected leg 2

We continue with the hip joint in this posting. The hip joint is where the torso meets the legs. Along with the pelvis the legs form a "bridge" over which our weight from the trunk is distributed over our feet.

Since the hip joint is a ball joint, it theoretically have the same mobility as the shoulder joint. What keeps us from being able to rotate the leg as we can the arm is muscles and ligaments that surrounds the joint, they restrict the movement and stabilises the relationship between the legs and torso. (The pictures are from Wikipedia, a source I hope to be able to return to...)

Here we see the deep muscles of the hip, these muscles function to support and stabilise the hip joint. The sciatic nerve passes through between the Piriformis muscle and the Quadratus Femoris and if these muscles get into a spasm the nerve might get squeezed and we suffer from sciatic pain.

The muscles that we place on a chair or a saddle seat is the gluteal muscles. They are actually three muscles; maximus (the most bulging muscle in our body), medius and minimus (not seen in the picture but lays beneath medius).

The gluteal muscles are connected to the hip joint as well as the postural muscles in the back. Medius and minimus stabilise the pelvis sideways when we walk and maximus contributes to keep the torso upright above the hip joint.

If we sit in the saddle and tense the gluteal muscles we push our seat bones out of the saddle seat, the upper thigh contracts and that brings the upper legs away from the saddle, knees and heels loose their position and "climbs upwards" and the lower legs leaves the horse's sides. All in all we lose our balance and become "like butter on a hot potato", the imbalance often causes the upper body to tilt backwards and to overcome the insecurity and imbalance we start hanging on to the reins and thereby in the horses mouth.

Inbetween the hip joints we have the pelvis and pelvic floor, a region of importance to us as riders and the scope for my next posting.

A converation around the kitchen table between me and my second son, 7 years.

- You can not have everything, I say (a typically boring adult comment)
- You always have everything of one thing, he replies. We all have a whole life.

A book that I return to often is Anatomy of the Moving Body, by Theodore Dimon Jr. A great book about our human body written with an Alexander Tehchnique perspective of use and movement.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Improve canter departs

The other week I was asked how to improve canter departs. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

First of all, improving the canter depart is related to whether the horse has a decent canter or not. In my work as a riding instructor I've met a lot of Icelandic horses and trotters who do not have a decent canter, even when the horse moves freely without a rider. It is not my goal to discuss this issue in this blog entry.

I assume therefore that the horse whose canter depart we seek to improve has a nice canter when, for example, he moves freely in the pasture. The first step then could be to have the horse strike off into canter from trot when given a signal to do so. Some horses can become very stressed when asked to canter in the beginning. One reason for this can be that canter is a gait the horse mainly uses for running away. If this is the case this is very important to deal with right away. But again, this is not an issue I'm going to linger on further here. Thus I assume the horse has a decent canter and does not get overly stressed about cantering.

One way to start building a cue for canter is to have the horse canter when lunging. The horse will only have to deal with its own body and not the rider's also. In the videos I've asked my horse Hagens Yeats to stay on a rather small circle (approx 15 m). If your horse is not used to cantering on the lunge when asked to, you will most likely be better off letting the horse move on a larger circle covering the whole with of the arena. Good footing and an enclosed area is always a good idea when introducing a horse to this kind of work. I've taught Yeats what the voice command “galopp” (Swedish for canter) means by simply asking him to increase the trot until he canters. As he now knows the spoken cue he don't have to speed up and can thus handle the smaller circle. As always you have to work the horse in both directions and on both leads.

As a little bonus, you can see in the first video how I switch direction in trot. I can ask Yeats to do this since I have attached the lunge line under his chin and I'm not using any side reins. A lunging cavesson where you attach the rope on the bridge of the nose would also work well.

When the horse can canter on command when lunging, in both directions of course, you can ask for the same when you ride the horse trotting on a large circle. To teach the horse to strike off in the canter lead you want on a straight line, you can use a broken line to help the horse find the right balance. For the horse to strike off into canter the horse needs to put weight on the outside legs, especially the outside hind leg. One way to put the horse in this balance is to ride a broken line along the long side of the arena. You bring the horse in from the track and as you ask the horse to return to the track (both hands to the track, your weight on the outside) the horse will shift his weight to the outside. This is when you ask for the canter. This exercise teaches the horse to listen to the rider's outside leg (which stays still against the horses side) as well as the rider's inside leg (which gives the impulse for canter by lightening its contact against the horse's side.)

To improve canter departs from walk the horse has to be in self carriage, that is light in the hand, and in proper balance that is elevated enough in the front. When the horse is in self carriage and in good balance you can ask for the canter with an reverse half halt on the inside rein. Reversed half halt means to start a half halt by lifting the hand, then lower it forwards, this will “open the door” for the horse's inside shoulder and the horse can step into the canter.

Reinforce with a light tap on the horse's inside shoulder if your horse needs clarification on what you're asking for when using the reverse half halt. To get the horse to understand a very small reverse half halt as Yeats does in the video, you must first offer such a small signal to the horse and support this small cue with a voice command or the whip on the shoulder as needed. The primary cue, in this case the reverse half halt with the inside hand, should never become large or heavy. Use a secondary supporting cue instead.

I suggest you also let your outside leg stay snugly against the horse's side for two reasons, the horse will recognise this as the preparatory cue for canter from the previous exercise, and as you progress into more advanced canter work like counter canter and two track in canter this snug outside leg will let the horse know which canter to strike off into and also which canter to stay in.

Some exercises that can improve the canter depart:
*) reining back – especially if the horse has a tendency to lean on the bit either in the depart to canter or in the downward transition after canter
*) shoulder in – to prepare the horse for a balanced canter depart from walk by strengthening the hind legs. In shoulder in the horse strengthens one leg a time
*) collected walk – will strengthen both hind legs at the same time

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for checking my spelling and grammar! All other errors are my own.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

A connected leg

To improve suppleness, it is important for riders to have some basic knowledge about their own anatomy, and in this post I thought to start with the legs.

In riding the rider's legs belongs to the horse's trunk. The legs should rest around it without squeezing, ready to support the aid from the hand and equally ready to send information about the horse's movement to the rider.

There are many who on a straight question as to where the hip joint is actually do not know the answer. To be able to improve our riding skills it is worth while to spend some time learning more about how our body works; where movement take place and what happens when we move. Let's take a closer look at how our legs are connected to our torso both bone wise and muscular. (Picture below comes from Wikipedia).

As you can see by the picture, there are several muscles in and around the pelvis attached to the femur. (There are 17 different muscles responsible for moving the femur in different directions, the other can be found here.)

The hip joint, like the shoulder joint, is a ball joint with the ability of movement in multiple directions (picture from

A muscle that is relevant to the rider's ability to obtain a stable vertical seat is psoas major. Its origin is on the inside of the spine, lumbar vertebrae 1-5, and it attaches to the inside of the thigh bone. Psoas, among other muscles, are responsible for the flxing of the hip, that is to bend the torso towards the legs (the legs are fixed) or the legs towards the body (the trunk is fixed).

A shortened psoas muscle pulls the lower back forward and tilts the pelvis forward (increased lordosis). If the pelvis is tipping forward it means that the movement the head of the femour is impaired and that affects our ability to absorb the horse's movement.

A gentle stretch can help to overcome a shortened psoas muscle is the Alexander rest. During activity it can be helpful to think about letting your legs and torso "let go" of one another so that the legs can hang down from the torso and the trunk can have a direction straight upwards over the legs.

We may be content with less mobility than this three-year-old can produce but the potential is there...

"Riding turns 'I wish' to 'I can'."
Pam Brown