Blissfully Backwards by Horseback
By my instructor’s amount of hand wringing, you might have thought I had no idea how to back up my horse while mounted. To the contrary, I felt well schooled in the fine art of rein-back. But I had never backed horses up this much. Here in Portugal, it seemed like a fourth gait: walk, trot, canter, and backing up. And evidently there was a minutia of the movement that I failed to get right, although honestly I had no clue what it could be.
When our instructor Georges told us to back our horses up, which he did about a dozen times each lesson, I got my horses moving backwards no problem. Georges was still shaking his head, though, by the end of the first week. Finally, one day he asked me to get off the horse, to hope down to the ground right in the middle of what felt like a darn good rein-back.
Church bells banged in the hills around Alcainca, the warm sun fell around us, and I stood frozen in confusion. I had not been asked to get off a horse since I was a kid and riding so wretchedly that it was in kindness to my pony that an instructor plucked me off. But for flunking some hair-splitting details of a Portuguese rein-back? This seemed a bit much.
“Now, here, put your hand over mine like this,” Georges said, holding out his arm in a way that made me think briefly that we might waltz together around the arena. Then, I saw he held his fist more like the way a falconer gets his hawk to alight. Perplexed, I placed one of my hands over his sideways-turned palm.
“It’s like this. This.” Georges rocked me ever so gently back and forth on my feet by drawing my hand a fraction of an inch forward and then back. The whole time, he kept tipping his palm to keep my fingers stretching forward no matter which direction my body shifted.
“See? Like this, it’s like this.”
And suddenly it all made sense.
The horse needed to continue reaching forward with his body and energy even while he stepped backwards. That was what differentiated a really good rein-back from simply traipsing in a backwards direction. Georges guided me back and forth across the sand, my sweaty horse standing patiently near us, until I had the subtlety of movement in my body.
Since those early visits to Portugal, I have seen and ridden and experienced rein-back in entirely new light. It is a deceptively simple exercise that a rider can forever refine. And its gymnastic benefits for the horse cannot be over-stated. In addition to releasing tension from the lower back, it flexes the joints of the hind limbs—hip, stifle, hock—while toning the abdominal muscles and stretching the deep digital flexor tendon. It improves the horse a myriad of ways and makes him a far better athlete, especially when its minute nuances are accessed.
Originally appearing in Grand Prix tests from days bygone, this simple maneuver loosens the horse’s sacral region, enabling him to use his hind legs more powerfully and evenly. Ideally, the last hind hoof to step backwards is the first to move forward when motion is again initiated.
- From a square halt with the horse on the bit, ride four to six steps backwards.
- Immediately walk the horse forward four steps and halt again.
- If the horse is not square, take a few steps to square him up.
- Immediately, back up again for four to six steps.
- Repeat this sequence.
- Aim to create the feeling of a carousel horse cycling forwards-backwards, forward-backwards.
In step 2, you want him to surge forward as soon as you ask. His movements should be quick and light rather than lumbering or sluggish. If any resistance is encountered, it is best to tune up this movement from the ground off his back.
The Magic Behind the Poles
Walking Ground Poles
For years, they sat on one end of our indoor arena—five ground poles anchored by concrete blocks. With unwavering consistency, we worked our horses over them once a week, either ground driving or riding. But it was not until the winter when my mom and I watched Dr. Reiner Klimke videos over and over that I realized why our ground poles remained set up all the time.
Their purpose was not to alleviate the monotony of training sessions as I assumed but to physically improve the horse. As I sat in Mom’s office and watched the videos of Klimke’s students beginning each ride walking and trotting over poles, I realized there is really something to this. On the screen, sleek Warmbloods became looser and freer in their bodies right before my eyes. Of course it would be a couple of decades before I learned why they did; at that moment the mystery intrigued me enough to commit to keep using our own poles, no matter if I could describe why or not.
If world-class equestrians found it useful to ride over ground poles, then I thought we should, too. Various pole patterns have since formed a central part of my clinics and lessons. Most riders can feel the positive changes right away in their horses: their gaits become springier, jaws soften, cadence improves. Finally, about ten years ago, equine fitness studies caught up to some of the practices of old classical dressage masters. Now we had our why for riding poles.
Thanks to researchers and vets like Jean-Marie Denoix, Gillian Higgins, Hilary Clayton, and Andris Kaneps we have learned how successfully ground poles serve the horse’s neuromuscular coordination. They activate and release tension from his bottom line muscle chain, which in turn softens his jaw and poll, resulting in reflexive signals for relaxation throughout the body. Also, because of their fixed position on the ground, poles interrupt the horse’s habituated stride patterns. In this way, they stimulate activation between his brain and nervous system. This leads to gaits that are not only more rhythmic but also stay free from restricted ranges of motion.
Ground Poles at the Start of Your Ride
The following are my tips for benefitting from ground poles on a regular basis.
- The simplest way to use ground poles consistently is to walk back and forth over them 20 times at the beginning of your ride. You can do this every day. Do not assume there is more value in trotting them.
- Make a place on your farm where you can LEAVE them set up. If you have to set them up each time to use them, you will not stick to a consistent plan.
- There is no exact formula for how many poles you should set up. Just use what you have. Typically, four to six poles in a row works for most riders/horses. You do not need a fancy type of poles.
- Take note of what changes in your horse as he works over poles. Does he stretch his neck lower? Have more energy? Does his back feel any different under you?
- For walking, space the poles approx. 2’8” apart.
- Do not micro-manage your horse if he stumbles or trips. Try to stay out of his way and let the poles do their work. They WILL do the work.
Dressage in Lightness: a frog in the pan?
One story told often during my early dressage education stuck with me partly because it was amusing but also because it became a cornerstone. And lately with observations of modern dressage, it has become a refuge. As the tale went, an older gentleman who was quite a master of dressage liked to show how light his horse’s rein contact was. To demonstrate (and –who knows–probably to show off to friends) he would buckle the ends of his reins behind the buttons of his vest and proceed to ride several dressage movements hands-free.
I learned to ride with my instructors reminding me of this ideal, wondering if I would ever embody this image as eccentric as it seemed. Aboard my wiley pony Sheba, it felt like it would take a lifetime. My feisty mare would have ripped off every button on my vest had I attempted such a thing. Nonetheless, this lightness of contact became an ideal illustrated by stories about and writing by other dressage masters. A rider’s reins should never hold pounds of weight. Even as a kid with unsuccessful achievement of the goal, I understood this to be an inarguable cornerstone of dressage.
Much as I love the vest button story, it has been eclipsed lately by the parable of the frog in the pan. This is the premise that if a live frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out. But if it is placed in cold water that is then brought to a boil slowly, the frog will not perceive the changes and will be cooked to death. It illustrates how things can change permanently at an imperceptible rate.
It seems to me that we dressage riders have gradually accepted the disappearance of achieving lightness. Several years ago, I audited a clinician who taught the necessity of a brief period around Fourth Level during which the horse makes a heavier contact while he is sorting out the demands for increased impulsion. But that phase should definitely end within a few months, she said.
I was not entirely sure I believed there should be ANY phase of heaviness (were we not always striving to help our horses move with lightness and ease?), but I was willing to at least consider the clinician’s point for a moment. At a recent clinic, however, I could not allow so much. As I watched the satisfied clinician and riders, many who appeared to hold ten pounds on each rein, I could only think that some of our classical ideals have been excused so often that they have disappeared. Lightness became the frog in the pan. We have a new norm.
The horses I watched were indeed talented, fancy, exquisite in many ways. They were all FEI horses working on skills like tempi changes and refining their half-passes, which were already pretty dramatic. They displayed confidence in their riders. But what about lightness? As the horses criss-crossed the arena, their neck muscles bulging against the reins, their mouths gaped open, a few ground their teeth. Riders’ arms became sweaty with effort. Some of the riders acknowledged the heaviness, others seemed to not care. Truthfully, I doubt the excessive rein contact affected their scores at dressage competitions. But what I found most peculiar was that the clinician never mentioned the rein tension, the horses pulling against the bit.
I left the clinic disheartened, but mostly perplexed. How and when did this new norm establish itself? Was I too keen on keeping alive my childhood stories of classical masters with vest buttons to see how irrevocably dressage ideals were shifting around me? I was puzzled whether the instructor kept quiet because 1.) he genuinely did not notice or care, or 2.) he cared deeply, but did not want to ruffle any feathers. I thought of my own students, and how it becomes difficult to instill in them the values of lightness when everyone around them is gripped on to the reins as if being towed by the horse’s mouth.
To be clear, it is not my intent to whine or lament or point fingers. I bring up my concern for the new norm because I have faith. I have faith in us riders to pedal the norm backwards, back to training that creates a horse moving with such balance and symmetry that he does not lean against the reins. I have faith that we can restore the crumbly cornerstone of our sport so that we do not even tolerate a “phase” of heaviness.
Sure, I’ll concede that this task can require obsessive perseverance, skill, and resilience. But it’s the right thing for the horse’s body. It’s the right thing for our sport. Let’s take the frog out of the pan while we can. Let’s ride like our buttons demand it. Who’s with me?
What Did You Call My Horse?
What Did You Call My Horse?
Our barn visitor offered her comments good-naturedly, but still I bristled. She had chuckled at one or another of Corazon’s antics and then called him a male diva. A what? I didn’t share her chuckle, puzzled as I was that anyone could see this leggy Andalusian as anything but majestic and regal, maybe even brawny.
Her description was meant to be warm, not rude. And yet it rang around my ears as just plain inaccurate, borderline insulting. At the same time, I noticed that I was over-reacting, and this worried me. I have worked with horses long enough to know that most equestrians will at some point succumb to Barn Blindness, or a condition of losing objective perspective about their own horses. Now maybe it had happened to me.
Over the next several days, I allowed a very narrow sliver of concession. Maybe our visitor had observed Corazon in a light I had become blind to. I noted his chronic preening for attention, his dramatic flinging of enormous mane and forelock. I clocked his luxuriant flat-on-the-ground naps at no shorter than one hour. I admitted that he will stand motionless for hours on end so long as someone—anyone—brushes his coat and coos at him. His eyelids fall shut, lower lip droops open with a threat of drool dangling. On the rare occasion that something spooks him, he turns a mild reaction in to a large, dancing affair.
I had to admit that he seemed most wildly satisfied when he was the center of attention. Did that make him a diva? Maybe or maybe not. I was, however, seeing him in new light, accepting that he was in fact not 100% brawn and courage. There was actually considerable neediness under his large physical exterior. He was prone to occasional episodes of drama and, yes, probably a little in love with himself. This confession may or may not change my approach to training him every day, but it’s useful to have in the background. We all need these reality checks from outside voices.
Without them, we all too easily lose touch with reality. We trick ourselves in to believing our horses are more broke, more beautiful, more sound than they probably are. Detaching from reality never bears good results. Our delusion will trickle over to setting goals, or our lack of them. Or it sometimes creates a narrow bubble in which we deal with our horses. In some cases, it leads to assuming our horses like or trust us a whole lot more than they do. Staying grounded in the facts will always prove more fruitful, and sometimes this means opening up to an outsider’s perspective.
It took a couple of months, but now I’m pretty fond of Corazon’s description. It takes nothing away from his majestic, muscled status. It actually summarizes that quirky edge that makes him special. So, I’m taking off my barn blinders and owning it. Yes, my lovely Andalusian is a male diva. There. I said it.
Now I challenge you: what description of your horse from an outsider have you bristled against that might actually be true?
Happy Horse by the Numbers
200 steps chasing neighbor’s black cat around pasture; 50 prances along perimeter fence next to a mule deer; 150 relaxed ambles moving from one nap spot to the next; 2,000 strides hunting/nibbling the ideal blade of grass all afternoon.
If Corazon wore a Fitbit, or other daily activity tracker that have become popular devices for people aiming to more active lifestyles, I imagine this is how it might read. Sometimes when I am schooling another horse in the arena visible from his pasture, I catch him making all kinds of goofy moves and self-entertainments. It brings me so much joy that I want to record them all, because I am plain grateful to keep my horses in a facility with so much room to roam. With so much space available to them 24/7, this past year became one of verifying statistics. Whether taken lightly, dogmatically, or amusingly, these stats shift the concept of helping horses’ bodies.
Statistic one: horses in their natural state roam… a lot. Some figures I’ve read in magazines put the estimate as high as 20 miles a day, though most agree more conservatively on at least six. But most domesticated horses I’ve observed who receive daily turnout in paddocks tend to stand around the gate waiting to come back to their stalls. They might spend the first five to ten minutes rolling and steaming around the pen, but then they do a lot of stationary waiting and watching.
These observations made me dubious about the roaming statistics I read. But then when I observed horses who lived outside 24/7, rather than ones who were turned out for a few hours a day, the data suddenly got valid. This does not necessarily mean they are fit, because most of their movement happens in short bursts rather than continuous sustained efforts. But it does mean their joints and connective tissues and blood receive the regular spurts of motion so critical to a healthy body.
Statistic two: progress can be made by schooling dressage for no longer than thirty minutes a day. Sessions that run longer than that on a regular basis end up taxing the horse mentally and adding lots of repetitive strain to his musculoskeletal system. When a horse begins his daily work session stiff or amped up (or both), though, riders end up needing to school them a fairly long time just to reach the point at which anything productive starts to happen. And this unfortunately means lots of repetitive movement and subpar muscular recruitment. Whereas, when a horse can begin his workout relaxed and loose—as is often the case with horses living in roomy areas—schooling routines can be immediately focused, productive, and briefer. This translates to a mentally and physically fresher horse throughout his career.
Statistic three: natural postural habits DO change. But a horse needs to be allowed the space and terrain for that to happen. When he lives out in nature, not boxed in and on padded floors, he adapts to the physical changes introduced in his training. I’ve been able to observe proprioceptive improvements in my horses moving around on their own in the fields. The way they carry themselves on their own has improved and so has their knowledge and control of what their feet are doing, their agility and balance. This result is always the hope among us dressage trainers. But I will argue that these changes don’t often happen unless horses are allowed lots of time to move around and feel their bodies, integrating new neural pathways and sensory feedback well beyond the time their schooling session ends. Otherwise, when a schooling session ends and they return to a small enclosure for day’s remainder, their nervous system returns to a full resting—almost dormant—state. In this case, it can take much longer to create or change movement patterns.
Sometimes when I see Corazon menacing the cows across the fence, I shake my head at his goofiness. Or I’ll yell at him to quit charging the neighbor’s cat. But of all this activity I am always thankful. It makes my job as a trainer so much easier when a horse’s living arrangements complement my goals for his body: range of motion, joint freedom, nerve stimulation. Often, progress in training is not limited by the right formula of schooling exercises but more so by the challenges arising from a horse’s care and custody.