Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Keeping the Dressage Horse's Energy Centered

We all know what a nicely moving dressage horse looks like moving nicely forward with a light contact on the reins. The light contact is the key. If there is no contact with the horse, it is really hard to have the horse hear any of your rein aids that tell him what is coming next. If there is too much contact and it feels like the horse is dragging you out of the saddle, you are not going to be able to communicate well either. There are also horses that alternate between no contact and heavy contact. The first order of business in this situation is to have a steady outside rein for your horse to use as a guide. If the horse is able to pull your rein out of position or you as a rider accidently move it too much then the horse has no outside rein to guide him on the best place to be. I frequently place a leather strap or even twine string from one D ring to the other on the front of a dressage saddle so the rider can hold the outside rein and the strap at the same time. This teaches the rider who accidently moves their outside rein to keep it steady. This also helps the rider not be pulled forward if the horse is pulling on them. One of the worst things you can do is see saw your reins. Becuase if your horse is heavy in the rein, he will either brace into the see saw or he will go completely light and have no contact with the bit. Neither of these options makes your horse easier to ride or more correct. The energy of the horse should feel like it is centered under the saddle and the horse has his balance. To make this happen, there must be a light feel in the rein. For the horse that is emptying the rein contact steadying the outside rein (even if you need to hold onto a strap with your outside hand) gives them a steady rein they can trust. Then gently push the horse forward into the contact. Some horses will go from no contact to heavy contact. That is o.k. if the contact gets heavy, flex the horse with your inside rein to encourage the horse to drop their head and neck and relax into the reins. The steady contact is really important as it will show the horse where to go. No contact means you need to push your horse forward to the bridle. Then there are the horses which pull and are really hard to ride as they try to out muscle the rider. Oddly the same steady outside rein helps. The steady outside rein that holds the strap makes the outside rein secure. Then flex the horse's head and neck to the inside while you push him forward. Repeatedly reward forward and soft. This kind of horse uses bracing and blocking to make his job easier hoping his rider will give up. Instead the rider is going to push him actively into the bridle with a until he takes a softer contact and give this horse frequent breaks. If it is hard to get a softer contact, think mini lengthenings whenever you do not feel like you have enough effort. This horse gets physical breaks following a short period of nice forward work with a soft following neck and topline. In this way you can teach your bracing horse to go forward and soft.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Training Process For Independent Riders

In Western WI there are two kinds of students I routinely help. The first kind is the independent kind that wants to do the training themselves and the second kind is the kind who would like more interactive help but cannot afford it. It really makes no difference to me if the owner wants to or needs to do it themselves. The result is the same. I have to create a normal feel to show them how to train their horses. I learned that BJ Ragatz was one of the best equine dentists through the school of hard knocks. I have had probably 10 different float people over the last 30 years and no one can even come close to his skill level. When he floats a horse, the rider gets a normal mouth feel and that will help them in their training. Saddle fitting I have learned over the last 30 years by the school of hard knocks as well. Saddle fitters are a useful tool but you have to be very aware of your horses preferences. For Pete's sake, I now have several different makes and models of saddles at the barn and it really does help. Making a horse comfortable with its saddle creates a normal feel for the rider as well. Lameness or gait irregularity was learned along the way but pounded into my head in the L program or the learner judges training program. This was a year long program that focused on how to numerically score the horse. If I scored a horse in my test with a numerical score higher than a 5 which had any gait irregularity, I was going to fail the course. My instrucors were mainly Janet Foy (Olympic judge) and Thomas Poulin, (Grand Prix judge). It was not good enough to say irregular or unlevel steps, you had to say if the irregularity originated in the front or the back. You were asked publicly to state your ideas and defend them. The pressure to be sure was immense - so I studied like a crazy fool. I could not afford to flush the money I paid for the program down the drain - I wanted to make the most of the education and to pass. Heck I even went and sat with Marilyn Heath, another Grand Prix judge/instructor who was sometimes a bit abrupt but very bright, because her strength was one of my weaknesses. Riding and training a horse is a personal journey. I get that as there are some horses that I have had for extended personal journeys. But there is a system that governs the personal journey and makes it work. The L Program helped me understand dressage as a system which needed to be personaized to each horse and rider but was still a system non the less. My system for helping independent riders is as follows: 1. Make the horse completely comfortable and that means teeth, saddle, feet and Chiropractic (no exceptions!) At that point the rider who is learning to train will be able to feel that horse's normal. (Otherwise all the rider feels are the blocks that have not been solved) This step may have to be revisited from time to time especially in the saddle fitting area or in the soundness area if the rider increases the intensity of the work for the horse. For example, shoes may be needed as the work load of the horse increases. 2. Teach the basics step by step and help the rider develop the proper feel. At this stage the rider gets to do a lot of fun things and has a variety of things to work on and think about. 3. Help the rider develop a deeper understanding of how movements are connected to each other and what they do for the horse. This is when the rider is able to move up the levels successfully. Oddly, if there is a disagreement between the trainer and the student it usually is in reference to step one. I am not sure how step one - making the horse comfortable can be a stressy thing. The only thing I can think is that people are offended if it is pointed out that they inadvertantly made their horse uncomfortable. We all have had to learn the subtle signs of discomfort over the years and it is not a perfect science. Give yourself a break, solve the comfort piece and move on and enjoy your horses!