From the Trainer’s Perspective: Feedback after session working with an insecure horse

I know many students wonder “what it is like” when I work with a horse; this week I had a nine year old mustang that I worked with a few times and thought it would be a good example to share with you of an “alternative” perspective, my thought process, things that I asked of the horse and evaluation. 

Most people I find are surprised that I do way less than the “normal” hour of cardiac inducing workout (for both horse and rider) when working with a horse.  For me, the horse’s brain is the priority.  The horse in this case was brought in from the wild a few years back, had been a stud until late in life (had a history of trying to dominate the mares) , and had a lot of excessive “movement”- pacing, weaving, etc. when tied, in his stall, waiting for feed due to his insecurity and worry. 

When his current owner got him he was uncatchable- even in a small stall.  He has issues with the farrier, other horses (if mares are in season), etc.  No aggressive behavior towards people at all- but a LOT of excessive movement- constantly.

His current owner brought him here to the property when I re-opened it in the fall, and has been a bit shocked at the change in her horse’s personality in the past two months; just from the “energy” of a mellow facility, horses that get turned out with a laid back herd (including mares) most of the day, large stalls (single bar 24x40), and grass hay.  I actually saw him lay down and enjoy the morning sun for the first time a week ago.

The following is my feedback to the owner as she was unable to watch the last two sessions I worked with her horse… Enjoy!

On Sunday even though we had sheep move past the property in the morning (which got him a bit concerned) he seemed more focused and participative.  He was more relaxed about being saddled at the trailer, though we had to work on standing balanced- as oppose to all four legs in four different directions.  I reviewed with him in the halter on looking to his left and right without moving the rest of his body or creating a brace, being able to “relax” into quietly moving forward, sideways or backwards from light pressure directing him through use of the lead rope.  I ask him to focus on looking “around” his circle as he walked it- as oppose to careening his neck and head towards the outside of the circle.  We focused on his transitions from walk to trot on the lead rope without dramatic movement (falling in on the circle with his shoulders or leaking out of the circle with his hindquarters.)  Being able to “think forward” when I bumped the stirrup at his sides (similar to where my lower leg would be if I were sitting on him.)  Then I worked him loose.  He seemed a bit patternized and his brain was all of the place, so we worked on slowing down his gaits and getting his brain to think about what his body was doing.  My saddle has leather ties at the rear and they gently smack him on the rump as he moves- he was a bit shocked at the “goosing” he was getting.  He really wanted to think everywhere BUT where he was moving, or he just wanted to stop and come in to the center of the pen.  So we worked with me increasing and decreasing my energy until he was able to offer a fluid walk, trot, and canter with quiet upward and downward transitions.  He breathed, blew, relaxed, etc. so we called it a day.  Untacking I dangled the lead rope on my arm, as oppose to tying him, and he was really relaxed and just stood nicely by the door of the trailer.  I also noticed that night bringing him in from the pasture, he really wanted to “address me” instead of just trying to sneak into his stall.

Today even though he was turned out with all the other horses he came at a brisk walk over to be caught and dove his head into the halter.  Again we focused on “thinking” while being tacked and not just swinging his body brainlessly around.  We reviewed his “lightness” on the lead rope and then I turned him loose.  Transitions were better, so we worked longer staying within a gait (he was distracted by the fruit pickers in the orange groves next door and wanted to resort to “fleeing” mode if he stayed within a gait too long).  He couldn’t fathom that he couldn’t just creep in on me, stop, or reverse directions at his own whim.  Then he started to realize I was “going with him” with my energy and movement in the pen and started to relax.  Still a bit bothered by the leather straps flapping, but way better.  So I got up on the mounting block and he sidled right up so that I was in line with the saddle, but if I waited longer than 20 seconds, he had to move.  So we played with me “hanging out” on the block; touching him (really bothered by my hands running along his neck, touching towards his ears, lifting my hand above the saddle horn,) and then just standing, then leaning on him along his shoulder/saddle/rump, and  finally just standing, etc.  He couldn’t believe I wasn’t just going to get on.  He breathed.  Then breathed some more.  Then he finally relaxed.  Then finally let down and stretched his neck out, cocked a foot and chilled out.  Then we ended the session.  At the end I untacked him again, while he wasn’t tied, and let him loose to graze on the parking side of the property and he just stood there staring at me not really wanted to leave for the grass!

So the goal should be about first slowing his brain down, then engaging it so that his movement can slow and have some thought as oppose to his natural “reacting” all the time.  The nice part is he can very quickly let go of his worry, concern and fear.  BUT he needs to be clear on the standard asked of him; otherwise he checks out mentally and then physically starts getting busy.

Riding without a Saddle-Not just a brainless session

The temperatures have definitely dropped here in the Southwest and our version of winter hit; we even had ice in the water buckets over the past few mornings…

On one recent chilly day, after doing morning chores I didn’t have much time so I decided to hop on Pico with just the hackamore and ride him bareback.  I know many riders who began riding as children used to tear bareback around the field clinging to their horse or pony with sheer joy.  Later, as the ground seemed farther and harder and they had less “bounce” in them, riders rarely seem to ride without their saddles. 

I find though hopping on once in a while sans saddle can actually improve the quality of your feel, timing and understanding biomechanically of how and when your horse is moving underneath you.  Many times a rider’s tack can actually interfere with the sensitivity of the rider, along with how, when the accuracy with which they use their aids.

One of the basic exercises I ask of my students is to first learn when each hoof leaves and touches the ground at a slow walk; then you would start to get comfortable with doing the same exercise at the trot and canter/lope.  You’d be surprised at how many people have ridden for years without ever thinking about or feeling the timing of their horse’s hoof pattern.  Sometimes riders are so focused on trying to feel, it just mentally messes them up and they stop feeling anything.  So, a great time to practice at the walk “feeling” your horse’s movement is by riding bareback.

Many times lateral movements are ridden without accuracy due to several factors.  First most riders ask a movement without clearly being able to imagine where they would like to place each of the horse’s four feet in order to perform the movement accurately.  Next, the rider does not use or know how to use their body to effectively and correctly ask the horse to move a specific body part, or interfere if the horse offers an unwanted movement. 

Again, by riding at a slow walk bareback a rider can actually “play” with first sitting correctly; you’ll feel if your seat bones are “plugged in” evenly or not.  If not, you’ll continually feel like you are slipping towards the side of the horse that you are sitting “heavier” on.  The side you are more coordinated on you are more likely to slip towards, so if you’re right handed you will consistently slip to your right.

Next you can thinking about your lower leg and how you use it.  Do you find yourself “gripping” with your calf? (Is your horse constantly speeding up? If so, you’re probably trying to hold with your lower leg (from the inside of your knee to the inside of your heel.)  Instead, imagine looking at a bow legged cowboy head on; you want your leg to simulate that look. 

Take your toes and turn them towards your horse’s nose and imagine drawing your heels away from your horse’s rib cage, this way your upper leg (from the inside of your groin to the inside of your knee) will lie flat against your horse and will help reinforce your balance that began with your seat bones.

Now practice being able to apply your lower leg in multiple areas along your horse’s ribcage in order to influence his shoulder, ribs, and hindquarters.  Keep mind as you apply one leg for your horse to yield away from, your opposite leg will need to be able to move “out of the way” of whatever body part you are asking your horse to move.  At the same time that same leg that moved out of the way, will have to create an imaginary “wall” so that your horse doesn’t accidentally allow another body part to “drift” along with the one you were originally asking to move.

This brings up another topic to mention; being able to move their horse’s head, neck, shoulders, ribcage and hindquarters, independently of one another.  Too many times riders have way too much motion, without accuracy.  As you ride around bareback, have your goal be literally slow, baby steps of quality.

Play with picking a specific spot in the dirt (or snow) and being able to quietly ask your horse to move a specific body part to that spot.  This should be able to be accomplished in a calm, quiet and great way to help your horse slow down his brain and think about what you are asking before he physically moves.  It also gives you the rider, a clear intention.  This in turn allows you to truly feel your horse shifting his weight or energy in response to your aid in “real time.”   By being able to really feel what your horse is offering, you can then assess what and how you are asking for a movement and then perhaps change (literally) how much energy or where your leg is in order to get a different response in your horse. 

By riding slow, intentional and bareback can often help you start to really learn more about the physical resistance, or brace, you might be feeling when you are working your horse.  It is an opportunity to experiment with how you physically are riding your horse, and will often tell you a lot about areas of your communication that may be lacking, or where the effectiveness of your aids is diminishing. 

Plus on one of those cold winter days where you may not have time for a “regular” ride or worry about being able to cool down your horse properly, you can hop on for fifteen minutes of intentional riding that can greatly influence the quality of your future rides. 

The best part about riding bareback is it does not allow us a “false sense of security”, therefor forcing us to raise our focus, intention, timing and feel, if not motivated by the simple desire to “stay on.”

One last note, if you have never ridden your horse bareback before, don’t assume that he will be “okay” with it.  You’d be surprised how many horses are used to their saddle, but the motion of someone “sliding” around on their backs can bother them.  So you’d want to start slowly in just half way mounting and dismounting, to sitting on them, to a few steps of walk to get them used to you directly touch them with your seat and upper leg. 

Also, many “warm” winter clothes are made of textures that can sound crinkly and create static when rubbed against horse hair, so try and introduce your “loud clothing” from on the ground first, or rubbing just perhaps a “loud jacket” on your horse’s body before riding in one.