Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Not every day is a sunny day

It's been a long and dreary winter for me this year. I'll refrain from comment on the details but just want to list a few highlights.

* Icy fall
* Injured horse
* 3-year-old blonde tagging
* Husband with heartbeat interference
* Hoof and farrier worries
* Lots of snow (90 cm on the farm - a record)
* Icy spring
Amarettos unfortunate fall last autumn led to lameness in the hind, neck pain in front and a sore back in between. Luckily, Anna Semrén, a skilled vet and chiropractor, gave him a treatment that gave him a good direction. Any exercise that required equipment were put aside and I devoted myself to "clicker training" this season.

The fact is that the horses were set aside this winter because the decision to try clicker training evoked a lot of thoughts about myself as a learner, coaches and training methods and the horse as a trainer.

Over the past three years I have educated myself in everything from horseback riding to horse handling and horse health. I've been a good student, but sometimes I felt like I was just repeting stuff like a cockatoo. And this winter I was flooded with questions - What am I? Where am I? There were many late nights mucking out with the pitchfork in my hand and thoughts in my head. I had lost myself in all that new. Why am I doing this? Why do I have horses? What goals do I have, it is my goal or other´s goals? What relationship do I have to horses? What relationship do I want to have? What dreams do I have? Why am I an unhappy horse owner, I love horses!

Luckily winter is followed by spring and with that the opportunity to see life in a different light. I have a friend who I learned to know just a few years ago and although it is far from often we meet I see her as a good friend. We can discuss high and low and enjoy a good laugh together. This good friend sent a text message and invited me for a ride, and (holy moly!) I could say yes.

She had chosen Mustang to be my companion for the day. Mustang is a 18 year old North Swedish draught horse stallion who has been with her for 17 years. He has been trained in all sorts of riding styles, from ordinary "riding school riding" via western to academic riding and now he is trained in accordance with what is called "power creating riding". He has been involved in almost everything other words.

For me however it was the first time I rode with double reins - it took me a while to get the reins organised in my hands and finally being able to find Mustang out there in bit end of the reins. Before we rode out, I was informed that Mustang could give me a swift trot, but it was just for me to hang along.

So when trotting was introduced it was in a rather healthy pace. But not only that, he put a little pressure to the bit as he asked a question and he waited for my reply. I replied.

He asked again. I replied.

He asked again and now with some power. I again gave the same answer.

My answer was accepted, and with it, he allowed me to ride him (he laid great emphasis on my reply, had I given the wrong answer, he had taken me for a ride ...)

My answer was no release, nor any increased pressure on my behalf or correction or demand that he would ease off. I only promised that I would carry myself - and then he carried me.

We had a wonderful canter on the way home. He came into a calm and healthy canter, and we left the party behind us. Mustang rolled on with carriage and rhythm, and when the road was bare, I gave him more space and he lenghtened his stride. It felt really wonderful to give before it was time for me to take back.

I got credit for riding Mustang so well and it pleased me of course. But Mustangs praise is more valuable, I cleared his quality assurance system! Although the dialogue was between Mustang and me, my promise to him is a promise to all horses - I carry myself.

Thanks Mustang for taking me from winter dwelling to canter euphoria! Now I feel a longing for horseback riding and I've got Mustangs blessing.

"Riding is very much like nuts and bolts - if the rider is nuts, the horse bolts."

Friday, 20 April 2012

Classical riding

Last week I took Yeats with me to the first clinic of this year in ”Ecole de Légèreté”. 

The first day I showed that all his foundation is still there after the very long winter break:
  1. Yeats is calm, attentive and can focus on the task at hand
  2. Yeats is light in the hand and to the legs
  3. Yeats is giving his mouth
  4. Flexions a) high, b) to the right and to the left, c) neck extension d) of the poll

Lightness to the hand
Being light to the hand means the horse neither leans on the bit, nor withdraws from the contact. This lightness should be present when the horse is in a high position, in neck extension, in a lateral flexion or flexing the poll.

Lightness to the legs
Lightness to the legs means the horse is responding with forward motion from a very light touch from the leg. Think “draught of the boot”. Lightness to the legs also means the horse continues with whatever gait and tempo I have asked for on his own without constant use of my legs.

Specially for Yeats
Since Yeats has a long back and since his croup is higher than his withers, neck extension is important for him. He should be comfortable in neck extension in all gaits as well as in upward transitions and changes of direction. “Important” in this case does not mean I only ride in neck extension. I also raise the neck with or without flexion of the poll, but I should always be able to ask Yeats to return to neck extension at any moment.

One new exercise for me and Yeats was a 10 m volte in canter with an outside bend. This exercise was difficult for Yeats so I had to really ask for it. Since my small hand and weight aids were not enough to convince him to do a 10 m volte I had to be clearer by opening the left rein wider and tapping with the whip on the right shoulder. Yeats responded nicely, but in order to be able to do the smaller volte he raised his head and neck so he could use the wonderful balancing pole that the neck and head is. This is of course perfectly fine. I will continue to allow him to raise his neck until he is strong enough and coordinated enough so he doesn't have to use the neck and head to stay on the 10 m volte in canter. At this point I can ask him to stay round in the neck with flexion of the jaw and the poll.

Yielding of the jaw
Yeats is yielding the jaw, i.e. he is moving the lower jaw now and then. He could do this more often, so this is one of the things I should improve upon. If you have ever felt the difference between riding a horse with a soft, yielding jaw and one that does not have it you know why it is so important. Suppleness and lightness to the hand start with the yielding of the jaw!

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

Thursday, 12 April 2012

To perceive what's really there

Most horse magazines have instructive articles in order to educate their readers - and I think that's ok. But if the intention is to educate then I think editors have to raise the standard for the pictures they present in the articles!

The picture goes over the center of the magazine so the thigh and hand disappears in the folding but it is still possible to see what I am going to point put.

First we have the rider. She is collapsing in her right side, keeps her eyes on the horse's ear, her wrist is turned in such a way that she puts pressure on the bit, her hip joint is locked and that results in a raised knee and heel.

Then there's the horse. The neck is over bent with the third cervical vertebra as the highest point, the rider's "contact" via the reins pulls the bit out of the mouth and it both pinches the lower jaw and deforms the corner of the mouth (if it is a regular snaffle, it has folded in the horse's mouth and is pressing on the palate), the glands in the junction between cheek and troath is badly crushed, the airways are restricted and the tongue is coming out of his mouth.

We humans are visually oriented creatures, what we see shapes our perception of reality and thus our perception of what is right and normal. That is why pictures are so important (good pictures that is!) which leaves us with good role models and educates us to see and recognize quality in both our own and others riding.

"A horse can lend its rider the speed and strength he or she lacks - and if the rider is wise it is never forgotten that it is just a loan."

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The least amount of wrong, or as much right as possible?

I've done it again, I've upset the apple-cart, I talked about the rider's hand. And, as usual, I was told that I should not ride with the hand but with my seat, and that the seat is a much more important aid then the hand. I can agree for two reasons:
  1. The schooled horse can be ridden with only the seat and not need the hand. The question is, how to school a horse so it can become finished? And an even more interesting question is, how to school a poorly conformed horse to a high degree of collection and suppleness? What is “a schooled horse” anyway?
  2. The hand impacts the horse through the bit on very sensitive body parts, the bars and the tongue. If the hand is used badly it can damage the horse both physically and/or mentally. Therefore, only a rider with a good seat can use the hand to school a horse. Making a mistake with your seat doesn’t have nearly the same negative impact on the horse as a mistake made with the hand.

The least amount of wrong
The widespread idea in modern riding that the hand should be kept low and still in every situation originated in the early 19th century when the cavalry needed a model for the quick education of soldiers. The hand low and fixed in all situations is the “average least bad” option. Such a hand will neither make motion easier for the horse nor school the horse, but at least the horse knows where the hand is and can adjust to this constant problem. This way of using the hand was never intended to be used to school horses, its purpose was to educate riders quickly to a low but, for the cavalry, acceptable standard of riding. The officers in the cavalry received a longer and much more extensive training including a more effective, refined technique for using the hand, suitable for schooling horses.

When writing this blog, teaching or giving lectures, I always strive to pinpoint why I see something as better or not. Just to say that something is “bad” or “good” without offering an explanation is not helpful for myself or the reader, student or listeners. By expressing in words, a mental readiness is created in our minds. This is the reason I stubbornly continue to talk about the hand and its affect on the horse.

In my way of thinking, the idea of low hands that should remain low no matter what the horse does is a way of riding where the rider strives to do the least amount of wrong. In certain circumstances this is all we can strive for. But if my aspiration is to do as much right as possible, then I need to try to understand how to use the hand to school the horse.

The most amount of right
In the Swedish translation of The Principles of Riding (Complete Riding & Driving System) (2003) you can read as follows:
”The rider has to be aware that man by nature always uses his hand to facilitate or prevent all kind of results. In riding you instead have to strive to give more and more refined signals with the hand as the weight and leg aids work better and better.” (page 73, my translation).

I agree. The hand can be used to facilitate or prevent all kinds of results. Maria has explained why in a previous blog entry: ”Thehand has access to a large part of the brain's motor and sensorycapabilities.”

The way I understand The Principles of Riding, the hand can only be used less when the weight and legs function “better”. As I see it the interesting question then is to ask what makes the weight and legs aids work, and also what makes them work better? In my experience the horse is thought to carry itself in such a balance by the proper use of the hand so that the weight and leg aids can work. The hand is the primary aid for schooling the horse. Not the weight or the legs.

To do the most amount of right with the hand is not the same thing as keeping it low no matter what the horse does. To do the most amount of right means that you are aware of the quality of the contact with the horse's mouth through the reins all the time. The contact with the horse's mouth is good when I have the weight of the rein in my hands, no more, and through the rein I can feel the gentle play of the horse's mouth as the horse softly mobilises his tongue and lower jaw in a relaxed way. These sensations are best transmitted through smooth leather reins. No special reins with “good grip” should ever be used.

Maria continues in her blog entry: “It [the hand] has all the potential in the world to be receptive, sensitive, subtle and well-coordinated, all we as riders need to do is to train it.” To educate the hand is to create in oneself a mental readiness to perceive the quality of the touch in the rein. One way of creating this mental readiness is to talk about a subject, to seek words that can describe what our hands can feel.

To have the horse light in hand is the beginning and end of all horse training. That is the core of the concept of the hand as the primary aid. Seeing the hand as the primary aid means you school the horse to respond to the bit neither by leaning nor pushing on it, and above all the horse should not fear the bit.

To see the hand as the primary aid means the rider has to be schooled 1) to follow the horse's mouth without interfering, in all gaits, 2) to refine the control of the movement of his own fingers, hand and arms in order to be able to give signals to the horse 3) to influence the horse's balance and posture through the position of the horse's neck and head.

A well schooled horse carries itself in such a balance that it can maintain a light contact with the bit in all gaits. Such a horse can be ridden with the use of the seat by a well schooled rider as long as the horse remains light in the hand.

The father of classical equitation, François Robichon de la Guérinière (,1688-1751), wrote in his book “Ecole de Cavalerie” that: “The hand ought always to begin the effect, the legs to accompany it: for it is a general principle in all the paces, as well natural as artificial, that the head and shoulders of the horse must go first ”.

What do you choose? To do the least amount of wrong, or as much right as possible?

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