Training by Feel….or by Time?
For years, the sage advice of classical dressage master Nuno Oliveira guided my daily rides. I had read a quote by him deriding the use of a watch or any kind of timepiece when schooling a horse. His philosophy was that riders needed to school by feeling and responding to the horse rather than by any kind of external measurements or parameters. I adopted this idea wholeheartedly for many years, modulating the duration of my training exercises and sessions based on how I felt the horse was, or was not, making gains from them.
Over time, however, two realities altered this approach for me. First, the more I studied exercise physiology the more I realized that certain tasks needed to be performed for a very specific amount of time in order to achieve the desired result. Second, we humans are not as focused nor aware nor consistent in our efforts from day to day as we assume. This makes the ‘training by feel’ paradigm erratically applied throughout any given week, day, or session. Today, I still ride a majority of each session by feeling and responding to the horse, but I do often use my watch.
Using a watch keeps me on track. It holds me accountable, prevents both laziness and over-working, and provides structure to any workout. Let me offer a few examples of why it is necessary to use a watch. Numerous scientific studies have shown that horses need 8-12 minutes of continuous walking at the beginning of a session to warm up and circulate their joint fluids so their joints are optimally primed. When I ask riders to adhere to this figure, most of them “feel” like they have reached the 10-minute mark when in fact only 5 minutes have passed.
As soon as my butt lands in the saddle on any given horse each day, I immediately note the time. As a trainer, I am frequently interrupted by students needing to ask questions or stopping by to say hello, and by noting the time I am able to be fairer to the horse I am schooling. On a recent day, for example, I mounted a horse at 9:52am and commenced our phase of walking around to circulate joint fluid. Within moments, one of my students walked in to the arena and interrupted me. I had to stop my horse and answer a bunch of questions.
Feeling a little annoyed and now behind schedule, I wanted to carry on with my ride and was just about to urge my horse to a trot when I checked my watch again. It was 9:58.I had definitely not satisfied my own rule of walking the horse for a full 10 minutes before trotting. Good thing I checked my watch, because my instincts were telling me to move the session in a difference direction!
The safeguards of checking my watch also applies to the actual exercises within any ride. Often, in our quests for perfection, we can spend far too much time drilling a maneuver or routine. Horses’ neuro-muscular systems respond to this kind of repetition by dulling, meaning they recruit fewer muscle fibers and at lesser force rates. In other words, there are diminishing returns on our efforts.
When I introduce gymnastic exercises to students at clinics, they sometimes experience an immediate result from their horses. After one or two repetitions of a cavalletti pattern, for example, the horses might suddenly start trotting with more rhythm and agility. However, these instant changes do not indicate deeper muscular and skeletal adaptations. I like to remind riders that any exercise needs to be practiced enough to make these more substantial and permanent changes. A single moment is insufficient. An entire half-hour is too long. How, then, do you know what timing to use?
The long answer is that each horse is different: some horses will benefit from 90 second intervals while others might need three-minute intervals. Figuring out what your horse needs requires monitoring your rides for clues about how/when your horse is in the work zone and how/when he recovers. The shorter answer is that you need a watch.
Cross-training used to be something I casually promoted. Nowadays, I support it like a zealot. In fact, I might even argue that one cannot call herself a horse trainer unless she follows a cross-training program. My increasing commitment has risen in equal parts from exercise physiology research and my hands-on training results.
Unquestionably, the most efficient way to improve a body’s mechanics and movement is through varied training stimulus.
The fact that more riders do not cross-train weekly puzzles me. And yet I recognize that maintaining this routine might seem time-consuming, daunting, or possibly even frivolous. It needs not be time-consuming, as I’ll outline below. As for it being worthwhile, consider for a moment the benefits.
First, a quick definition: I define cross-training as exercises that, through coordination or intensity or range of motion require the horse to use his body differently from his everyday workouts. For arena horses, this could mean traversing alternative terrain. For horses that ride primarily at brisk speeds, it could mean working through slow-moving, precise footwork. For horses that rarely do so, it would include negotiating obstacles.
By definition, cross-training differs from how the horse exercises a majority of each week. For this reason, his nervous system recruits muscle fibers with more force to accomplish the task. This is due to novelty. Much like humans, horses’ neuro-muscular systems are designed for efficiency. Over time, they recruit fewer muscle fibers, and at weaker forces, to accomplish tasks they have mastered. This allows them to become more efficient at accomplishing a task, from running 100 miles to working through dressage patterns. Unfortunately, this limits the conditioning effect those tasks can have when continually practiced.
Varied muscle recruitment through cross-training is a way to “wake up” the nervous system and stimulate fuller muscular contractions on a regular basis. This leads to a greater number of muscle fibers being recruited in addition to generating more forceful effort. This conditioning effect carries over to the horse’s normal exercises, resulting in fuller participating of the neuro-muscular system overall.
Additionally, cross-training mitigates the mental dullness that arises from repetition of routines within any discipline. Modern science has shown us that in order to continue learning or refining skills, a horse must be in a state of calm, curious mental engagement. Only then does his brain map new movement patterns. Without sufficient mental interest, training will lack a conditioning effect. By cross-training, we can select from a range of exercises to refine the chosen skills but without allowing boredom to limit our progress.
And, lastly, my own personal opinion is that you can often accomplish gains faster by stepping outside your chosen discipline. One recent example from my own training illustrated this, so I’ll share it with you here.
An athletic little mare that was quite side dominant (always drifting with her body towards the left) showed up at my barn for some lessons to help resolve this issue. To date, her rider had done everything right. She rode the mare in lots of circles trying to bend and align her spine. She practiced leg-yielding, rein-backs, and other arena exercises. But the mare just got STRONGER in her asymmetry. The fitter she got, the more solidified in her crookedness she became.
I suggested she spend a few weeks riding the mare down hills in a very slow walk. To keep her body straight while walking downhill in this controlled manner, the mare had to organize and balance her torso. She needed to use each pectoral muscle equally; she needed to flex each hind limb evenly. With each step down the hill, she needed to allow her scapulae to rotate backwards, rather than using her over-developed left shoulder to drag her along as she did in the arena.
Through this simple routine, the horse was able to change much of her existing movement pattern that had become so strong in its incorrectness. These changes then allowed her rider to accomplish more with her arena exercises and to make more progress overall. This is just one example of what I consider working smarter rather than working harder.
A variety of training stimulus allows us better access to the horse’s nervous system and muscular effort. This variety keeps the horse mentally and physically engaged better, enabling our physical conditioning to have results.
The Not-So-Scientific Training Challenge
If you have spent any time trying to train horses to accomplish physical goals, like moving more athletically, chances are good you have discovered that some individuals are more willing than others. Much as I would like to offer science-based explanations for this, I believe a lot of it owes to a less scientific trait that we’ll call ‘personal space.’
During recent clinic observations, I heard author and trainer Mary Wanless use this term to refer to a horse that was tickly in his back muscles. This made it difficult for his rider to help him travel with his back consistently engaged. The horse would offer a few quality steps followed by several unbalanced ones. His rider worked hard at getting the position of her seat and legs just right to influence him, because generally the better we improve our cues, the better our horses respond. Occasionally, though, as in the case of this horse, that equation isn’t fail-proof. As this rider sat deeper in to the saddle, the horse canted his body in ways to avoid her influence. In other words, he didn’t want her in his personal space.
So, was this particular horse being difficult? Was he confused? Or maybe even uncomfortable? In my daily life teaching horses to use their bodies more optimally, I often encounter their unique personal spaces as either an impediment or accelerant to what I’m trying to do. I define personal space here as an individual’s guardedness against contact or stimulation to his physical body.
Depending on temperament and past training or injuries, some horses have a much stronger sense of this. With these horses, training progress is often not linear. It requires more time and finesse. It can seem repetitive or frustrating to a rider, who asks herself: “Why is my horse not doing (X) today?? I thought we mastered this yesterday!” Mastery with these horses vacillates between fully owned and partially realized.
To be clear, I don’t intend the concept of personal space to give us reasons to not ask these horses to use their bodies in the ways we wish. I bring it up instead to help ridersbe more patient with the process. With most horses, physical progress is measurable daily. They respond comfortably and willingly to the tasks we undertake to make them more athletic, functional, and healthier.
Other horses, those with a strong personal space, can only be measured month to month. They initially wiggle away from, rather than respond to, our cues. They fidget in the postures that should bring them relaxation and ease. They tighten their bodies against any kind of stimulus rather than gain better alignment. My own horse, Corazon, has been my most convincing case for personal space and its influence on training.
As a breed, Andalusians tend to freeze up their backs rather than allow movement to swing through them. On top of that, Corazon is clever and sensitive and very adept at taking care of himself, which translates to not always offering up his body to be shaped as I’m trying to. Some days are harmonious, easy, and successful. Other days, though, feel like a constant negotiation with me reminding and convincing him that engaging his back really IS good for him. This can get frustrating.
When I feel that frustration, however, I remind myself that this trait, this protection of his personal space, is what makes Corazon such a strong horse and what keeps him not prone to injury. He is incredibly sure-footed and aware of his surroundings, he adapts quickly to situations that could otherwise escalate and cause harm. One time, I found him rubbing on a strand of barbed wire that I didn’t realize was in his pasture and saw him begin to get tangled up in it. Immediately, he paused, adjusted his neck motions, and carefully removed himself from harm. I stood there amazed, knowing most other horses would have started scrambling and cut themselves badly.
I remind myself of these instances when I struggle with Corazon’s personal space. This helps me see that, rather than be a struggle, his self-preservation is actually a gift to both of us. I cannot get caught up thinking his training will be as sequential as the timelines offered in books and training manuals. As I navigate his personal space, our progress can seem circuitous, lurching, or just plain halted. And that’s okay. In fact if there is any truth in the notion our horses mirror us, I have to admit that my own personal space is pretty big, too.
Round Pens: training for good posture…or bad?
Believe me when I tell you that I love freedom as much as anyone. I love trimming away boundaries, living widely in each moment. And, yes, I love to watch a beautiful horse running free across a meadow with his legs surging and his expression content. That, to me, is a wonderful sight. On the other hand, a horse careening around a round pen with his neck twisted sideways and his body misaligned disgruntles me.
The reason it disgruntles me is that this practice forms—and strengthens—poor movement mechanics that can have pretty significant consequences. Primarily, when a horse travels around the round pen with his head turned slightly to the outside of the circle, he ends up catching his balance every stride by planting his inside foreleg harder. This tightens and strengthens his shoulder girdle on that side, embeds crookedness in addition to limited range of motion in the scapula.
When a horse has spent a fair amount of time in this incorrect balance, a few of the results can include: chronically cross-cantering, balky behavior under saddle, stiffness and lack of responsiveness to the rider’s leg cues when ridden. The problem is that the undesirably tight scapula muscles contributing to these problems have been made stronger by the round pen work.
I absolutely believe that round pen work has a valuable place in every horse’s training life. Much of the value comes from body alignment. The round pen is not a place to chase around a loose horse while ingraining poor habits. Unless you can 100-percent affirm that your horse’s ENTIRE spine (head to tail) follows the curve of the circle prescribed by your round pen, then you are far better off to have a line attached to his halter/cavesson/bridle.
Any exercise undertaken without a complete inwards arc of the horse’s spine to match his line of travel creates postural imbalances that become stronger each session. These imbalances are manmade and easily avoided.
Somewhere along the way, many of us have become besotted with liberty work, or exercising the horse without any reins, longe lines, etc. Liberty work IS a delightful concept, but it often comes with irony. The irony appears when students wish to change a particular movement pattern (i.e. fix a canter lead, solve a persistent crookedness) without realizing that their liberty work has contributed greatly to the problem they wish to resolve.
When it comes with the outcome of developing comfortable and functional posture for your horse, attaching a line is a gift we can offer him. It allows you to guide the horse to correct posture inside the round pen, enabling his inside scapula to rotate upwards and back each stride, which in turn allows his topline to lift and swing.
Sure, there are a small percentage of horses with fine training and balance that are able to work at liberty in a round pen while maintaining correct posture and bend. In these wonderful cases, there may be no need whatsoever to have the horse on a line. But let’s not be overly generous in our self-assessments. Far fewer of us are in this camp than we might wish to accept. A closer look at most round pens reveals the horse’s head turned slightly outside the circle, and to that I say put on a line. Allow your horse to experience his freedom in other ways, but not at the expense of solidifying poor balance.
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.