On the Bit… or on the Buckle?
On the Bit… or on the Buckle?
Since I advocate strongly for dressage horses to also ride trails regularly, I found myself years ago implementing a rule or mantra that applied to any time spent in either of these experiences: on the buckle OR on the bit. Essentially, this boils down to riders keeping their horses in one of these states at any given time. Whether on trail or in the arena, they would ensure their horses were either working on the bit or traveling ‘on the buckle’ on a loose rein.
It is the middle ground between these two states where horses’ bodies suffer most. When a horse is neither fully engaged and carrying himself ‘on the bit,’ as we call a rounded topline posture in dressage, nor stretched out in utmost relaxation, problems arise. When a rider carries the reins somewhat vaguely, with what I call a kinda- sorta contact, the horse pays a price. Why? He is neither engaging his musculature for healthy biomechanics nor is he on the other hand entirely at ease throughout his body.
This is when kinks in his muscle arise, when he uses the wishy-washy rein contact as a fifth leg to balance on. In the absence of clear cues and support from his rider’s seat to flex his spine and tone his ring of muscles above and below it, the horse falls forward with his weight and bumps in to the kinda-sorta rein contact. He will often become rigid through the bottom neck muscles, which in turn stiffens his jaw and poll. After a few moments, this stiffness reciprocates throughout the body. The result is system-wide rigidity, a dull mouth, and most often a hollow spine.
Am I saying, then, that horses should go down the trail in a dressage frame? I do want to clarify that, yes, by all means they can spend time traveling in this posture over the course of a trail ride. Obviously, you are not going to go out and ride for 10 or 50 miles this way. But remember, if you’re not asking the horse to be on the bit, then you’re asking him what? To be on the buckle! And this is a great way to spend many hours on the trail.
For me, riding ‘on the buckle’ is defined as offering the horse a long and loose rein to stretch his neck out and down towards the ground. Think of a cowboy/cowgirl moseying along across an open prairie with his/her reins drooping. The horse should be fully relaxed with his ribcage gently swinging from side to side as he walks. His head should be at or below the level of his chest.
For a horse to use his body productively when ridden, it is best for him to always be in one of these two states—on the bit or on the buckle. The best approach to your ride is to spend time in both of these states. Whether you are on the trail or in the arena, spend several moments riding on the bit and then ride for a period on the buckle. Continue alternating like this and you will do right by your horse. Just avoid getting stuck in that vague middle ground.
Should I Run my Horse Around the Triangle?
Should I run my horse around the triangle?
It seems to be the time of year for irony. Without planning to, yesterday I found myself setting goals for next season. I thought about individual horses, possible adventures, my personal ambitions. Setting goals makes the time with my horses clearer, more purposeful. It inspires me to think about optimizing each horse’s potential.
Students with horses still too young to be ridden often ask what or how much they should do with them. Frequently, the topic of showing them in-hand comes up. As with many strategies in the horse world, opinions differ on the value of showing in-hand. Many breeders and trainers believe it is vital to take a youngster out and get him evaluated by judges as well as teach him how to handle all the commotion. Others believe that running your horse around an arena in front of a judge does not teach him how to conduct himself at a showground.
In my own training, I have vacillated between both of these beliefs and have landed firmly on the side of believing there is enormous value in showing youngsters in-hand. While we’re on the subject of goal-setting for next season, especially if you own a young horse, let me share why.
Even if your interests lie strictly in recreational or trail riding and you have no future competitive ambitions, you will be well served to take your youngster to a show. When you present him in-hand to a judge, he needs to not only look sleek and polished but also to behave in ways that will form the foundation for your future training. He needs to be calm and attentive. He needs to let you control what his feet are doing—stand still, walk and trot obediently on cue and on a straight line. Instead of reacting to stress or excitement, he needs to keep his focus on you.
Granted, plenty of folks show horses in-hand without strictness to these criteria. I would argue that without strictness to these criteria, there is not much purpose to taking youngsters to shows. But if you take the outing seriously and commit the necessary months of preparation, you will have gained a big step forward for your long-term riding goals. I have shown numerous youngsters in-hand and they have all been seamless to break under saddle, to expose to new situations, and to trust me in a moment of potential panic.
As my dear friend and colleague Mark Schuerman says, You can’t expect a judge to evaluate a horse that is not standing still. This sounds deceptively simple. But think about it: if you have taught your horse to stand calmly from an early age in the midst of distractions, noise, and confusion you will have a much safer and reliable riding horse down the road. And, frankly, this kind of confidence and trustworthiness in a horse is a goal definitely worth having.
A Dressage Trainer with No Arena?
Everything about the possibility of running my dressage business from this property suited me perfectly—big pastures, access to trails, trailer parking. Or I should say everything except one glaring absence: an arena. A usable ring with good footing sat in the back of the property but in addition to being pretty tiny it was a round circle. It struck me more as an area to longe horses rather than attempt dressage workouts.
I stared at it while pondering a year without defined corners or long diagonal lines to practice trot extensions. Yet, without clear answers for how we could fare as a dressage business without a proper arena, I leapt with faith in to this facility. That initial trial year flew by, became two, and then what I’m hoping is permanent residence. Two things happened when I moved in to our lovely serene facility in Larkin Valley that has led to this hope. First, the horses became happier and healthier than ever. Second, I thrived as a dressage trainer without a dressage arena. This absence, and its unexpected benefits, has sharpened my daily focus, allowed me to fully embrace cross-training, and opened my eyes to some new ideas along the way. It’s these ideas I want to share here since I know many of you readers have also creatively overcome challenges to training environments.
First, as I became more creative using any available area (field, driveway, paddock) for schooling, I got a while lot more at ease with working with unseasoned horses outside the arena. This in turn helped me convey a better sense of confidence to them. During the previous years when I spent an intensive amount of time in the arena, I grew a little apprehensive of all the distractions and excitement outside the fenced world. That of course perpetuated me spending more and more time in the arena and less outside. Now as I viewed our entire property, not just the tiny round ring, as one big schooling area, these boundaries between the safe confines of arena and the world outside dissolved.
Next, I tractored up a 400-meter track in our front pasture. The footing is not perfect, but suitable enough for moving the horses out at speed. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with riding on that track. My dressage horses enjoyed gallops and long forward stretches of trot. Pretty soon, I realized that they were staying fresher and energetic even during hard work weeks. In dressage it can be tempting to go in the arena every day to fiddle around trying to perfect one or another skill. Between not having a formal arena, and now enjoying so much freedom of movement on the track, I was avoiding the repetitive schooling that dulls many horses. With my assorted schooling areas including trails, we were living and breathing my fondness for cross-training and for utilizing varied footing surfaces.
Another unanticipated outcome of being a dressage trainer with no arena has been entering a tight-knit horse community. My neighbor down the block allows me to ride over and use his big beautiful arena when I wish, which involves a brief warm-up jaunt down the road while planning my schooling session. Not only do I enjoy Bobby’s groomed arena, but I also savor the feeling of being connected to a wider horse community than just my own barn and always thinking about how we can help each other out. After all, our industry is more sustainable and healthier for this kind of teamwork.
And, lastly, being without a formal arena forces me to stay laser focused in my training. For instance, when I enter our small round ring with a plan to work on something specific, I get right to it and abide by a cut-off time which is usually 30 minutes. I refuse to drill horses around and around on circles or in small areas, so I give myself a time limit for each day’s formal schooling, after which I’ll ride elsewhere on the property for additional exercise but not for drilling or tinkering around with dressage maneuvers.
My horses’ training has progressed at a pleasing rate, which shows me all those years of fixated schooling for hours at a time inside an arena could have been trimmed to save the horse from repetitive movement. So, how about you? I’m interested to hear what kinds of insights you may have had in regards to your schooling environments as dictated by weather, facility limitations, or anything else. Perhaps you have experienced similar insights? Or maybe you have additional ones to share?
How about a Saddle Cover with that Curry Comb?
Not only did it look raggedy but it was also the wrong size. I frowned at the mohair western cinch and listed my options. I could borrow a student’s, or I could go buy a new one at the tack store in time for the show in a few days. Show preparations often remind me how insignificantly we trainers prioritize gear and apparel ownership. And it might not be our wimpy finances that explain this minimalism. It might instead owe to a shade of cynicism that arises after participating in something for a considerable length of time. Veterans of any sport seem to arrive eventually at the bare essentials of what they need to do the sport well.
When I first entered the horse world professionally, I was concerned that in terms of equipment and apparatus I had operated on too much of a shoestring. Many of my students owned nearly double the number of splint boots, saddle pads, and snazzy grooming tools. I couldn’t help feeling a little panicked that perhaps I, too, should have this much—or more– stuff even though I never identified any actual need. It relieved me to find my colleagues’ tack rooms stocked with only a handful of brushes, decades old saddles, reins repaired with duct tape. I looked fondly on their shelves with a single Betadine bottle, the lone pair of polo wraps used on every horse in the barn.
At the beginning of any committed hobby, it’s natural—and fun—to rush out and accumulate gear that is nicer than actually needed. In fact, it’s tempting to acquire stuff at a rate that might seem commensurate with your advancement in a sport. Heck, I’ve done it. Before I learned to roll my mountain bike over a log properly, I bought not one but two pairs of new padded shorts. Before I learned to handle a corner or brake correctly, I owned a $35 accessory that promised to dampen the noise of my chain jangling against the bike frame as I descended steep trails I did not yet have the skills to ride. Acquiring these little bits of gear gave me a sense of causality: buy supplies and the skills will follow.
Newbies and amateurs are often the early adopters of new gadgets and training devices, the ones subconsciously believing the magazine ads (Buy this brand of collapsible bucket and watch your riding improve! Own this rain sheet and your horse will be easier to train!) and bolstering any hobby’s economics. And then, cruelly, the years roll past leaving us all with a pile of gear that measures much taller than our pile of technique and expertise. A few more years tick by, and now you notice yourself relying on just a few pieces of gear while everything else collects dust.
And, yes, eventually, you become a little cynical about anyone’s real need for most of the products available today. You flip through catalogues rolling your eyes and wondering who could possibly need all this stuff. Was the sheepskin cinch so much better than the cotton string one? Would your horse honestly notice the Zebra stripes on his new bell boots? Did the electric waterer in his stall actually help him drink more water?
This cynicism endures until you find yourself, like me, prepping for a show which usually results in discovering you lack one or another snazzy tools or tack items. This means tracking down an amateur or newbie who will most assuredly own the item, and chances are good it will still be in its original wrapper, unused until now. After I borrowed the cinch from a student for our upcoming show, I spent five minutes as I often do wondering if I should go out and buy myself one like it. No, I admitted, there was no daily need for one. The minimalist in me maintains an oath to accumulate only the gear that measurably improves me, or my horse, on a daily basis. Perhaps to a fault, my priorities have fixed on keeping the skills/expertise pile taller than the gear/gadgets pile.
Probably my mountain biking foray has only increased this focus. After my initial year of mountain biking, I noticed I stopped going to bike shops. I conceded that I didn’t actually need the $80 padded shorts. What I DID need was more skills. I finally just upgraded to a newer mountain bike several weeks ago. My new ride is fast and lightweight and, no, it did not come with an accessory to dampen chain noise. And this time, I’m not going to go out and buy one. I hope to be tearing down rocky trails like a hellion with my chain tap-tap-tapping the frame as I unleash all the skills I can muster.
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?