Horse Training Secrets Revealed – Aromatherapy

In hindsight, I can admit that I was operating with some stereotypes. And because of this, I expected a piece of rugged insight or a training technique known only by someone with real grit, some time-tested wisdom that would only be quoted in western movies. What I did not expect from this Texas cowboy was a hippie remedy.

After struggling for a few weeks with a horse best described as a wet knot of nerves, I ran out of ideas. This hyper stallion bristled with eye-bulging angst, making him impossible to train for dressage. His owner kept asking if he had progressed at all, a question I could never answer in the affirmative. I spent every day trying to manage his ballistic energy, never mind the fineries of half halts and 10-meter circles.

Frustrating though he was, I liked this youngster and I wanted to get through to him. We took hyper walks down the driveway with him spronking on the end of my lead line, we performed ground work and round pen routines, we experimented with riding at different times during the day and night. Soon—and without results—I exhausted my skill set for this kind of horse. In the past, I had some luck with moderately spastic types, but this guy had me at the end of my resources.

Either I needed to get through to him or send him home. With a big swallow of pride, I walked over to the cowboy, who for the past year occupied the other half of the stable. Although we saw each other daily, we spent most of each day actively ignoring the other, except for any time I needed to beg for help when a student’s horse wouldn’t get in the trailer. My dressage clientele in their tight pants avoided his riders in Wranglers and jangly spurs. To be clear, he and I maintained respect for one another, but we held zero interest in respective training disciplines. We might as well have been living on separate planets even though we worked with the same animals.

Right now all that changed. In this moment, I was very keen to know what this cowboy could show me to help my spastic stallion project. I had seen Mark transform some pretty unruly cases before. So, obviously, I was hopeful he had some Cowboy magic up his sleeve for me.
It seemed like he was expecting me. I told him I needed help with the—

“–Ah, the little bay horse,” his slow drawl interrupted me. He nodded gently, hands in his vest pockets. His warm eyes held a smile that appeared confident in fixing my problem. Here was the cool cowboy full of training secrets that would answer my prayers.

“Why don’t you bring ‘im over?” he suggested, meaning lead him over from the Dressage side of the barn 200 yards away to the Western side of the barn.

“Yes, okay! Sure!” I replied. Then, trying to be more cowgirlish myself, added “Do you want the rope halter? Or I could get you some hobbles, if you want?”

Mark looked confused. Hands still in his pockets, he shook his head.

“Nah, just bring ‘im over. However ya like.”

oilI wondered if he might use some of the tactics I heard horror stories about but never witnessed, the sorts of things cowboys did when nobody watched. Maybe he would tie his head between his front legs. Or hobble him under a tree without water for 2 days. Or ride him to exhaustion. With these grim images discoloring my mind, I handed Mark the lead rope. My nerves sieged me then, necessitating an urgent visit to the restroom. I asked mark if he could wait for me to get back from the toilet before he started “working” Alfie. If he was going to use some rough Cowboy techniques, I thought to myself, I needed to be there in case it got out of hand. Again Mark looked at me confused.

“Oh. Yeah, go on.” He said, leading Alfie over towards his tack room.

When I returned five minutes later, Alfie was standing in the cross-ties next to two other horses looking half asleep. His skin—normally tight and crisscrossed with veins—looked like the relaxed coat of a teddy bear. His eyes looked alert but docile, calm. He stood quietly without jumping or spooking. In fact, he looked like a plain old well-adjusted horse.

“Oh my god, what did you DO?” I shrieked.

“Huh?” Mark puzzled. “I haven’t done anythin’ yet. I was just fixin’ to saddle ‘im.”
But wha–, but how, but….but.”

Mark pulled a little vial of Lavender essential oil from his vest pocket. “I put somma this here on ‘im, as I always do with my horses. Now we’ll have a little ride.”

Some WHAT? Had a heard that correctly? This cowboy had just tamed my wild stallion not with his bronc riding skills but with a bottle of oil from the local hippie food co-op? I stared at the horse, then back at the purple bottle of what smelled like the French countryside. Mark gave me a look that I would come to recognize frequently over the next few years of training horses together. It was the look that said: Why make things harder than they need to be? Why ride a bronc when you can gentle him with aromatherapy?

Over the years, Mark used his oils and herbs far more frequently than his hobbles and tie-downs. It’s hard to act rugged or gritty when you’re smearing oil in your horse’s nostrils instead of throwing ropes in a round pen, but I have adopted the practice nonetheless. While it wasn’t my originally expected Texan wisdom, I decided that the use of essential oils was still authentically cowboy. Obviously, it was the part that Hollywood edited out of all its western movies.

Western Dressage Exercise – Cavalletti Climb and Stretch

Think of this week’s exercise as a tune-up of your horse’s motor, his hindquarters. This fun and challenging pattern strengthens and stretches his lower lumbar region, those muscles in his loins required to tuck his pelvis. It also increases flexion and strength of his quadriceps, which leads to more stability in stifle and hock joints. If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that when I talk about building strength, I am always talking equally about increasing suppleness, too. A balanced athlete needs both brawn and elasticity.

This exercise is one of my absolute favorites because of what it delivers to the Western Dressage horse: adjustability. Exercises like the following that require the horse to change his stride length and height always improve a horse’s body mechanics and rideability. They create a horse that is highly maneuverable and can rapidly but smoothly either collect or extend his gaits, or stop and spin, or anything else you ask. And he is able to do all this without flinging his head up for balance or tilting over sideways like a motorcycle.

cavaletti-exerciseFor most Western horses the comfortable distance between cavalletti is around 3 to 3.5 feet for jogging Adjust as necessary for longer or shorter stride horses as your starting point.

  1. You need two rows of cavalletti to make the Climb and Stretch exercise. Follow the diagram below.
  2. The first row consists of four cavalletti set approx… 4 inches shorter than your horse’s regular comfortable jog stride (for most horses, this measurement will be just under 3 feet) and raised 6-8 inches off the ground.
  3. Arrange the second row with three cavalletti resting on the ground, set far enough apart that your horse has to reach beyond his regular length of jog stride (this measurement should be between 3.5 to 4 feet).
  4. Now mount up and ride through this fun pattern.
  5. The key component is that you do NOT change tempos when going over the different spaced poles. With the poles, you are asking your horse to change stride lengths and heights but NOT SPEED.

Western Dressage Exercise – The Fan

A horse’s ability to use his hindquarters for engagement and propulsion depends not on his hind legs but on his front end. Before anyone gets quizzical about this assertion, let me remind them that the horse’s entire trunk is suspended in a hammock-like sling of muscles and connective tissue. A fine network of muscles threads between the front of the ribcage, the neck vertebrae, and the scapulae. These small but crucial muscles need to be both toned and elastic for the power of the hind-end to be optimized. Otherwise, without springy cushioned development of this region, the hindquarters will essentially be pushing energy forward into a rigid wall.

The Fan exercise increases joint range of motion in both front and hind ends. When ridden consistently, it delivers measurable changes in your horse. It is also useful if, for some reason, your horse is not in a riding program at the moment. This exercise is equally beneficial for horses being worked in-hand or ground-driving. It creates stronger stifles, supple and stronger oblique muscles (which bend the horse and support his trunk), and lighter forehand movement.

Note: this exercise is best performed with long ground poles, 8 feet minimum. 10 or 12 foot poles are optimal.

fan-diagramThe Fan

  1. Place four or five poles so they fan out and away from a central resting point on a large tub, stack of tires or similar object approximately 1.5 feet tall.
  2. Begin by riding your horse at a walk in a larger circle which includes only the outermost edge of the pole fan.
  3. Gradually decrease the size of the circle towards the center of the fan. As the circle decreases the poles become closer and higher.
  4. Be sure at this point to keep your horse’s spine bent in the direction of travel.
  5. Keep a slow, steady pace. The emphasis here is joint flexion and finely controlled limb movements; this is not a speed exercise.

If your horse becomes anxious or starts knocking poles, increase the size of the circle until he can easily cope with the pole distance and height. Be sure to work in both directions. In one direction, your horse will most likely be more difficult to keep bent. Use little leg-yielding movements towards outer edges of the pole to regain your bend. Then, resume spiraling in. Practice 5 times in each direction.