Cavesson: it’s all about connection

The Cavesson: it’s all about connection

Too much of a good thing, taken to its excess, usually becomes less than ideal. Such is the case with lightness. Its pursuit, or its misinterpretation, often results in horses moving without sufficient tone throughout their bodies because riders or handlers have over emphasized the goal of loose reins. The condition of loose reins is not necessarily synonymous with a horse moving in lightness.

Lightness is best defined as the equilibrium of looseness and positive tension in the horse’s body that allows him to move with flawless balance and coordination. It is always accompanied by a soft, light feeling of connection—not emptiness—to the rider’s reins or, in the case of groundwork, his line. Longe cavessons offer one of the best tools to create this state. They allow a handler to create ideal posture and alignment without pressure on the horse’s mouth from a bit or by twisting his poll as a halter will. It permits the handler to help adjust the horse’s balance without ‘fixing’ him in a frame where he may become rigid or defensive.

Happily, I’ve witnessed an increase in the use of cavessons in recent years. The best ones have a small ring over the bridge of the horse’s nose where a longe line gets attached. The value of this attachment position is its effectiveness in drawing the horse’s topline forward and outward while simultaneously helping flex the poll laterally.

(Corazon reaches forward in to my “contact” with the line)

(the cavesson allows me to organize and align Corazon’s body when there is proper positive tension between handler and horse).

Unfortunately, though, I often observe students standing in the center of a circle with their horses trotting around them on the end of a droopy line that is dragging in the dirt at the mid-point between their hands and the horse’s nose. This negates the purpose of the cavesson, which when correctly used, teaches the horse to actively stretch over the top of his body and maintain positive tension in his topline muscles. When he travels in this state, he creates a “draw” on the handler’s line or rope. The horse adopts consistency in this state by the handler in turn offering the feeling of light, elastic support on the rope.

By maintaining light connection with the rope rather than wandering around aimlessly with it sagging towards the ground beside him, the horse learns confidence towards the riders’ hands. He also consistently experiences the state of his topline remaining actively engaged, which in time gets habituated. Until this happens, the energy and propulsion of his hindquarters will not be transmitted forward over his topline and connected to his front end. In other words, he will not be capable of moving well. The two ends of his body will lack the bridge that connects them.

Remember: the quality of tension in your longe line always mirrors the tonicity in the horse’s body. Excess tension in the body makes the line heavy and tight. Too little tension leaves the line slack. A horse reaching forward through his neck supported by the right amount of tone throughout the rest of his body will fill up your line. This filling up will feel like ounces of weight, not pounds, in your line.

Try this:

  1. Begin by circling your horse around you on a 12-meter circle at a brisk walk or slow trot.
  2. By maintaining a.) a steady rhythm in the horse’s gait, b.) good geometry on your circle, and c.) holding your line at the same height, aim to keep the exact same pressure on your line every stride. (many horses will pull on the line on one side of their circle and then flatten the other halt of the circle, letting the rope drag in the dirt).
  3. When you are able to do this… now, after each revolution of your circle, jog several strides straight ahead from your standing position (jogging beside your horse while maintaining the same tension on the line)… and then make another 12-meter circle. Keep the same feeling of connection in the line.
  4. Continue shifting your circle several feet in this manner, showing the horse no matter where you travel, you are keeping the tone in the line.

Muscles: Should you ride fast or slow?

Muscles: Shall we Ride Fast or Slow?

Perhaps one of the most delightful aspects of riding is the way it steadies and focuses our human minds in those moments we sit astride. For myself, anyway, I savor the monastic contemplation of the first minutes of a ride as I consider what does this horse need? Every session originates from how I can improve the horse’s physical wellbeing, and this requires a good deal of paying attention.

It also requires a decision: to ride fast or slow? Many of us ride at a speed WE prefer, or one that the horse dictates from habit. Any given day, a horse’s individual mechanics and musculature can be improved—or not—by schooling at just the right speed. Some need to strengthen their longissimus and organize their bodies by riding briskly while others need to confirm better joint flexion and easing tension from a tight topline by trotting slowly for periods of time.

western dressage

A mare I have been working with lately has a nicely forward-going attitude; she is not lazy or dull. When moving in her default trot speed, however, she pushes her weight forward to her chest and forelegs, becomes rigid through the neck, and drags her hind feet.

In her case, I school in a slow jog rather than her preferred trot speed, because she then balances her body weight more equally over all four legs, softens her neck, and motion begins to swing through her spine. In other words, her muscle development and correctness of movement will progress much faster as a result of riding slower. The old classical master Alois Podhajsky touted the value of schooling this “pony trot” for horses like my mare.

Not ALL horses benefit from riding so slowly, though. For horses that have become restricted in the lower back and hips from draw reins or aggressive bits, or horse entirely lacking conditioning, it is more useful to ride in a faster tempo. At a faster trot, the back muscles have to become more tensioned to balance the exaggerated motion of diagonal pairs of legs swinging.

Every horse is unique, and so is the speed that most suits his workouts. So how to you tell which is best for your horse, fast or slow? Ask yourself at which speed does the horse’s back feel more springy and soft? Then, have someone knowledgeable observe you from the ground and note these three measurements when riding in different speeds:

If you are still unsure which speed suits your horse most, ride the following two figures at both speeds to get clearer. Ride a large figure of 8 in both slow and fast trots. And then ride a large square in both slow and fast trots. At what speed was your horse less wobbly on his line of travel and steadier in his topline posture?

Wobbling to Better Movement

(periods of instability can lead to better proprioception, even in Terriers!)

Wobbling to Better Movement

Out of necessity my horses have become lighter and balanced in their movement over the past two years since moving to a new facility. I say out of necessity because this facility, while ideal in almost every way, lacks an ideal arena. What this means is that we do our schooling in a variety of places: the field, a track, the small sand arena, trails. This variety, plus less than perfect surfaces translates to the horses needing to recruit their stabilizing and postural muscles more than if they worked solely in groomed arenas.

This appreciation of mine for varied surfaces is not new; you’ve read it before in my posts. For those without access to so much variety, or with horses aboard which they prefer not to wander around outside, I’ve become increasingly compelled lately by a useful tool in the form of a squishy mat. Basically, the mat provides a slightly unstable surface that when stood upon the horse needs to fire up his postural muscles.

Now, I am not one for gimmicky toys and definitely would not suggest anyone is going to get ‘fit’ by wobbling around a foam mat for five minutes a day. But plenty of athletic outcomes do seem to come as a result of this tool, again especially for those that do not have regular access to naturally unstable surfaces (trails/hills, mud, cavalletti patterns, and so on).

I have repeatedly observed horses becoming incredibly relaxed as soon as they stop swaying from side to side on the mat, which is usually within 90 seconds. Some yawn and get sleepy, others lick and chew a lot; unanimously they appear very content. What this owes to, as I see it, is the large gymnastic muscles relaxing as their small postural muscles engage to find balance on the mat.

As the tension and tightness held in these big surface muscles releases, it turns down the level of involvement of a horse’s sympathetic nervous system. This system controls flight-or-fight response, heart rate, and tone in large locomotion muscles. When this quiets down, an animal’s parasympathetic system can play a larger role. This is often called the rest-and-digest system. Placing horses on mats or similarly unstable surfaces appears to trigger this system.

(As the sympathetic nervous system relaxes, a mental-physical state of calm moves in, as demonstrated by Turbo.)

A horse in this state can gain quick access to his postural muscles, which, like his human companions, are often the weak links in his performance. When his gymnastic muscles are for the most part turned off and he is asked to make small movements, or to simply stand and find his balance amidst the wobbling, he engages those smaller muscles. The more frequently they are engaged, the more they become habitual.

Some trainers attest to seeing completely different movement as soon as the horse leaves the mat. I have not observed that myself, but I can report that most horses do FEEL differently to ride when they have stood immediately beforehand on the mat. I also ask them to do some small calisthenics on the mat, which for reasons of brevity, I won’t go in to with this post. Basically, I ask them to make small achievable movements that cause them to engage the trunk and hip stabilizers.

Again, these movements are not necessarily ones that could not be replicated by calisthenics with cavalletti poles, or varied riding surfaces. For riders without access to those tools, though, something like a big foam mat might be a useful alternative, so I wanted to share my experience and feedback with it. You can buy fancy horse-specific mats and pads on-line, or you can make your own semblance of one with a big piece of foam, a futon, etc. I am currently using a children’s gymnastic tumbling mat that works well.

Have fun!

Shoulder-in…a.k.a “Abdominal Therapy”

Believing that I was offering some insightful coaching, I nearly assaulted my student with picky corrections about her leg-yield. Make him straighter, I urged. No, now get him bent more. He needs more energy. Wait, not too much—now LESS energy. She rode a few more attempts and I kept picking them apart.

Finally Kay stopped, put down her reins, and gave me a wise smile. “You need to realize that I am happy just to be going sideways at all,” she admitted. Sure, all those other details sounded like worthy goals, but for now the plain act of getting her horse to move sideways when she asked seemed pretty great.

What a good reminder. Exercises like lateral work can be so complicated and nuanced to master that for many learners it feels good to be doing any semblance of them. I remember that stage of tackling the complexities of shoulder-in. Heck, some days, I feel like I am still IN that stage. Like my student, I remember being grateful to have my horse sort of bent, mostly trotting, and kind of moving laterally up the track. Whether or not it was anywhere near exquisite mattered much less.

Today of course I am fixated on nuances and standards of shoulder-in. As I have learned to appreciate its gymnastic effect on the horse, I am grateful for these high standards. Often called ‘abdominal therapy’ by therapists, shoulder-in is not just a classical dressage tool whereby a horse’s balance is elevated and tested. It also served to equalize muscle tonicity on both sides of his body, engages his abdominals, and strengthens adduction muscles in the fore- and hindquarters.

A few days ago, I found myself bouncing through my checklist while riding shoulder-in. It went like this: angle of horse’s body, rhythm, my own posture, poll flexion, line of travel, my position again, frame of horse, angle of his body again. This all happened in about 7 seconds and even though I mostly passed the checklist sufficiently, I broke out in laughter. I could feel my forehead very pinched in concentration, my lips squeezed in a tight line. I was on quality control overload.

I wished momentarily that I could return to that feeling of raw bliss when my horse was doing what felt to me like something unfamiliar and therefore probably a shoulder-in but my instructor was barking: not quite it, not quite it! After indulging in the recollection of that learning curve, I recalibrated my present schooling. I relaxed my forehead and mouth, remembered to be less uptight.

Wherever you fall in the journey of mastering shoulder-in, here are some of my best tips:

  1. Shoulder-in can be equally effective for your horse when schooled in-hand from the ground and ridden under saddle.
  2. When riding, keep your hips parallel with the horse’s hips and your shoulders parallel with his shoulders.
  3. Nine times out of ten, you need to refresh your horse’s energy immediately following a shoulder-in. Think about stepping on the accelerator as you ride forward from the shoulder-in.
  4. Some horses’ improve their lateral movement and freedom when the rider posts the trot as opposed to sitting it. Try both to find out.
  5. Do not over-school shoulder-in with a young or unfit horse. It taxes the stifle, which then strains the lumbar region.

Here We Go Galloping

Here We Go Galloping

Gulp. I tried to work up the nerve to let the reins out another inch or two as we cantered around, but I was having a really hard time doing it. First of all, my horse might run off. Second, if I got lucky and she did not run off, she would definitely fall on the forehand and careen about like an untrained plodder.

A conversation with Dr. Gerd Heuschmann kept playing through my mind, during which he insisted on the value of galloping dressage horses while riding in a light seat with long reins. He referenced several research studies that showed the full, powerful contraction-relaxation cycle of the horse’s longissimus dorsi muscle when galloping. This muscular effort along the back resolves tension and bunching that builds up from the demands of schooling. It also stimulates relaxation in the gluteal muscle group, which has a reflexive effect on the rest of the extensor chain.

In other words, it does a lot of positive things.

“It keeps the canter pure,” Heuschmann said, conviction filling every word. “The back is released, and the beat becomes regular.”

I certainly knew what he hinted at in terms of the challenges we all face with irregularity of rhythm in the gaits. We have all ridden—and tried to fix—walks, trots, and canters that are rough, varying in speed, and generally unbalanced. It is frustrating work. And maybe the task had been taking me longer than it needed to given that I wasn’t using this all-important tool of galloping?

Dr. Heuschmann raised his palms in the air like he planned to sweep dust particles forward.

“Ba-da-buhm. Ba-da-buhm,” he repeated, emphasizing the precision of three clear beats. His point: the horse’s back must be relaxed and rounded for the gaits to move through with purity. Galloping does this. “One-two-three. One-two-three.”

Finally I did ease the reins out a bit more, and surprisingly nothing awful happened. I let them go a little longer. The horse moved bigger, but far better, across the ground. Instead of throttling me around, her back softened and I was able to sink down in to it. Her beat became so clear that I could hear it with every bounding stride. Ba-da-buhm. Ba-da-buhm.

All the other horses since have responded just as well. Needless to concede, I’ve become a convert to the merits of galloping. I’ve adopted that same wistful expression that I saw as Dr. Heuschmann urged any rider who would listen that we must all go gallop our horses.

So, now I urge you: try to keep a weekly practice of galloping for a few minutes. It does not need to be a white knuckled, racing speed. Galloping is defined simply as a strong canter with an emphasized moment of suspension when all the feet are off the ground. Think of it as a moderately brisk canter, one where you cover a good amount of ground each stride. Let the horse stretch his neck out, move your elbows forward and backwards like a jockey. Lighten your seat, look up. Oh, and have fun.