Power in Interruption
In the following photo, Roxy demonstrates what I call the power of interruption. This describes the benefit of momentarily altering the horse’s movement patterns for the sake of improving them. Not unlike their human pals, horses generate movement through patterns held in the neuromuscular system. These patterns serve them well, allowing them to move and perform various tasks with utmost efficiency and limited active brain recruitment to move limbs. While indeed efficient, these patterns are not always optimal. For instance, Roxy has a pattern of trailing her hind legs out behind her when she trots rather than swinging them well forward underneath her body as I would prefer.
My task is to help Roxy create new patterns than the ones she knows as comfy and familiar. I would prefer her to adopt a pattern that involves a body posture that is more beneficial to her long-term wellness, or in other words one that sees her carrying more weight on her hind limbs and easing weight OFF her forelimbs. There are number of ways to go about this task, and one of my favorite ones is to interrupt a horse’s existing gait patterns.
As you can see from this photo, the exercise I’m using in this example is fairly simple. It is just a polygon shape formed with poles on the ground. With the horse on a longe line, the handler can move herself all around the polygon, directing the horse across, through, and over the poles in constantly changing ways. The horse never knows where it will be asked to enter/exit the shape. In this way, it delivers all the benefits of schooling over ground poles but eliminates the repetitive and predictable nature of sequential poles set up in single line.
Exercises like this that encourage the horse to adjust her balance, or change her speed and height of stride, briefly interrupts motor patterns. What immediately follows is a chance to develop new patterns. This might mean more awareness of stride trajectory, more flexion in hind limb joints, more precise foot placement. These kinds of exercises open the door to further improvement. They work because the horse is guided to alter his stride with minimal anxiety or tension, given that he is not receiving a lot of input or cues from a rider. The exercises are offering him the input in a very natural, easy way.
Admittedly, there is plenty of time during a horse’s schooling when we want our work to be predictable for him so he gains confidence and clarity in our expectations. When changing his physical body and gaits, though, it can be helpful to introduce a little well-timed interruption. The key is to use just a little (not so much to frustrate the horse), and that any chosen exercise has relevance to an existing pattern you hope to change. In other words, we’re not seeking to interrupt his patterns just for the sake of adding randomness or variety to his routines. The exercises need to support your specific goal in each session.
What if my Horse Gets Anxious About Ground Poles?
Occasionally while giving clinics, I encounter a horse that becomes anxious or revved up about working over ground poles or cavalletti, which are a large part of my lessons. Often frustrated or embarrassed, the rider will ask what she can do. She understands that ground pole exercises are beneficial and yet she can’t ride the horse over poles without him getting charged up.
First of all, there is no reason to become embarrassed or frustrated. Plenty of horses find their own ‘creative’ ways of negotiating pole work, including leaping sideways, bounding spastically across the poles, or standing in place snorting at them. Sometimes this is due to stress arising from past negative or forceful experiences, but other times it can be from the horse getting evasive about the task in front of him.
Fortunately, helping an anxious horse settle to a calmer approach of ground poles is usually very doable and straightforward. And it actually involves NOT crossing poles. Instead, it can be fruitful to school the horse around, between, and through poles for a while without asking him to travel over them. Once he has relaxed in to a steady rhythm and body posture during these tasks, then he transitions seamlessly to riding across the poles.
Exercises that ask him to organize his body while bending or turning around, but not over, poles help him approach the objects as just another part of his steady work routine rather than something different, exciting, or scary. Often it takes just a day or two to accomplish this, but give yourself as much time as you need. Rushing the horse in this process generally only causes his leaping or evasion of poles to persist.
If you are at a loss for patterns that are useful in this situation, try starting with the following two exercises from my new book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses.
Exercise #15, Snake Over Poles, Variation 2
Exercise #37, The Labyrinth
When you’re able to practice these two exercises without fanfare, you will be riding across cavalletti routines in no time. And then you will be reaping all the goodness they have to offer.
Dressage Principles that Sound Like Zen Riddles
It sounded like one of those Zen riddles intended to puzzle my brain until it staggered upon some flicker of enlightenment. Forward does not mean faster, my dressage instructor annunciated, her exasperation rising. And then with the next breath she waggled her longe whip towards me to assist in creating a forward-but-not-faster movement.
My Welsh pony surged ahead in a bone-rattling trot as our speed ticked up, and I gleaned from my instructor’s grimace that I was failing her proverb. As I understood it, I needed to get my pony’s hind legs moving with more activity and energy. But how was I supposed to do that without changing her speed? For as simple as it was in theory, I found out the concept of riding a horse correctly “forward” was surprisingly elusive in practice.
I’ve observed numerous dressage riders banging their legs on their horses’ sides to get the horse moving more ‘forward’ until they are charging around the arena in a state of tension or frenzy. Just as often, I see riders who are unwilling to ride this way plodding around on a horse that appears disinterested and utterly disengaged with the work he is doing. Neither scenario is ideal. Nor are they the correct interpretation of riding a horse “forward.”
What IS the correct interpretation? A Western trainer I admire named Tom Pierson defined it best, and I think he did so without even realizing he was talking about dressage. He said working with a horse is like constantly checking in with the temperature gauge on your car. When the car is running right, the needle on your gauge should be directly in the middle of the spectrum between too hot and too cold. Think of your horse’s attention and focus being this way, he explained. You do not want him so hyper alert and fired up that the needle on your gauge tips one way. Nor do you want him so tuned out and sleepy that it tips the other way. You want it in the middle. Always.
Lately, I have begun to adopt the Western terminology of “readiness” in favor of the word “forward” that we dressage riders have relied on. No matter whether I am mid-stride in an extended trot, a halt, or a canter transition my horse needs to be fully ready and responsive for the next cue I give. When he is in this state, he travels with the activity and engagement in his limbs that we pursue as evidence that he is correctly moving ‘forward.’ In other words, nobody needs to chase after me waggling a longe whip to create a desirable amount of engagement. And I do not need to keep my horse in a state of chomping edginess masquerading as liveliness and energy.
Of course, even the term “readiness” would have been murky for a 13-year-old to solve so it still might have taken me years to arrive at the understanding that good, classical dressage requires a horse to be alert but not frenzied. If I could offer one tip for how to keep your horse in a state of readiness without chasing him unnecessarily faster, it would be the following.
At various moments during your ride, no matter what you are doing (or not doing), ask yourself: does it feel like I could instantly and immediately extend my horse’s stride right now? Does it feel just as likely that I could stop him on a dime without encountering resistance? If these answers are yes, chances are good that you’ve done well keeping him in a state of readiness. If the answer if no—and be honest with yourself—it would be a good idea to prioritize spending a week or so of your training working solely on this.
Operating with the above question in mind as you ride will inform your training considerably. The next time you are riding around practicing elusive dressage ideals and you think to yourself I think this trot is pretty good…but is it good enough?, ask yourself the readiness question and you will have your answer.
How to Place Ground Poles for Gaited Horses
It’s no secret that I rely a lot on cavalletti routines in clinics and training. Riders of gaited horses, though, occasionally feel left out since much of the information about how to arrange ground pole exercises is based on the average distance of trot strides. I myself have been guilty of writing articles that refer only to how to set up poles for walk, trot, and canter. Riders of non-trotting horses are left with the impression that cavalletti routines are not for them. To the contrary, gaited horses benefit enormously from the spinal stabilizing effects of these exercises.
As gaited breeds gain popularity among adult amateur riders, I have noted the paucity of information available to them about modifying our most useful exercises to meet their particular needs. To this end, I wanted to share some quick advice on setting up ground poles in a helpful way for gaited breeds. This is just one exercise among dozens of possibilities, but it’s a simple and quick one. And the benefit for clinicians is that the distance between poles in this example can work for both trotting and non-trotting breeds, allowing a group of riders to work together without anyone feeling left out.
Any ground pole exercise for gaited horses has the goal of improving or clarifying the rhythm of their particular gait. We never wish to arrange poles just for the sake of challenging their coordination or seeing how high they might lift their limbs. Instead, we want to use exercises that confirm the power and steadiness of their unique footfall patterns that often become disrupted or irregular when a gaited horse does not use his body correctly. Never practice cavalletti exercises that interrupt the smoothness of their stride or cause them to struggle to maintaing gait. Bear this in mind as you scan articles and books for routines that are relevant to your Icelandic, Missouri Foxtrotter, Tennessee Walker, and others.
Meantime, you can use the following arrangement regularly in your training to help gaited breeds flex their hind limbs and find stability through their trunk.
Simple Ground Pole Set-up for Gaited Breeds
- Set four or five ground poles parallel to each other in a line (so that you can ride straight across them). Space the poles at a distance of 8 feet* apart.
- Now develop your working gait (Tolt, Foxtrot, Running Walk, etc.)
- Ride straight across the poles.
- You should count TWO steps from your horse between each pole. For instance, each front foot should take a step in the space between the poles before crossing over the next pole.
- Your rhythm should feel like this: CROSS the pole, One-Two, CROSS the pole, One-Two, CROSS the pole, and so on… Feel for those beats and aim to keep them consistent each time you ride over the poles.
- Repeat the pattern at least 12 times.
**this is an average spacing for a horse about 15.2 hands tall. If you ride a horse with a shorter stride, you will modify the spacing suggestion by 2-3 inches.
Riders are the Best Training Aids
The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place. I have watched a couple of my colleagues step away from riding and training for just this reason, causing me to question my own participation.
I continue to believe that nearly every horse can be made better by a rider. To be clear, that rider needs to be skilled and patient, mindful and committed, and a keen observer. But having witnessed the value of dressage applied to all kinds of horses over the years, I believe a horse can have a better life through riding than without it. The physically transformative influence of the rider’s educated seat upon the horse guides him to a better version of himself– balanced and symmetrical, strong and noble, elegant, and confident through his partnership with a patient leader. I have witnessed dozens of horses ‘fixed’, or given more comfortable lives, because of the therapeutic training through dressage.
Last week, I was sorting through some videos and articles about vertebral crowding (aka “Kissing Spine syndrome”) among performance horses and several of the x-ray images showed such evidence of discomfort that I thought briefly maybe we have no business riding these poor animals. If we are pinching their vertebrae and bruising their mouths and causing imbalanced muscular development, then maybe we should just leave them alone. Probably this is a quandary many trainers wrestle with, but might feel ridiculous voicing.
When I went to the barn the following day, the x-ray images were still lingering in my mind especially as I saddled up my first horse of the morning. I paused and looked around my training facility. I noted the once anxious mare that has blossomed through training in to a serene and confident animal. I noted the big gelding that used to get stuck in place out in the middle of the field because his stifles locked up from lack of fitness. I watched the two senior Icelandics (one is 24 years old, the other 26) that remain healthy, sturdy, and energetic because of the consistent exercise program they’re in. All of these horses would currently lead lives quite a bit less comfy and content were it not for regular riding.
A rider’s seat can accomplish magical things. It can guide a horse to use his own body in ways that are far more functional and therapeutic. In this way, it is one of our most valuable training assets. Sure, many folks can accomplish– and enjoy– playing with horses from the ground only without riding. I don’t mean to infer that this has no value; it clearly does. I just wish to sing the praises of riding because I have seen it deliver such wellness to so many horses. And, yes, probably just as equally poor riding delivers deleterious effects, which we could rant on and on about here. In the spirit of remaining positive for the best interest of our noble steeds, though, I prefer to focus on the good we can achieve. For me, this means riding them.
The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more clear it becomes just how good we need to become as riders.