My Horse Doesn’t Care Where His Feet Are…

“My horse doesn’t care where his feet are.” I hear this from at least one student in every clinic as a reason to bow out on conditioning exercises involving ground poles. The student will explain that her horse knocks his feet against the poles rather than picking them up nicely to step over them and the rider, therefore, no longer bothers using ground poles when schooling despite my arguments in favor of their conditioning benefits.

For a few reasons, this statement does not make sense to me. First of all, as prey animals that need to hustle quickly from danger, horses care VERY MUCH where their feet are. Their evolution and survival has depended on this.

dressage training

Secondly, nearly all of the riders who decide their horses don’t mind banging their legs and feet against poles in their path of travel arrive at their diagnosis after a handful of attempts with ground poles. They might spend a total of six sessions, spread across a few years attempting poles before writing them off as unproductive.

In other words, they do not spend nearly enough time and consistency to develop the horse’s aptitude. It is akin to the impromptu gym sessions I tackled in my mid-twenties hoping to define my calf muscles. After a somewhat random amount of time and focus, I decided the exercises did not work. (much later on, I remedied my follies and found those calf muscles!).

Finally, I believe that when we decide a horse does not care where his feet are, it allows us to skip out on answering a much tougher question: WHY is he not able to step cleanly over the poles? Much as we like to believe that these big powerful animals can easily navigate up, over, and around exercise routines that seem so simple, the reality is often different. In fact, more often than not, our horses’ coordination, stabilizing muscles, and movement patterns are more compromised than we realize. Riding ground pole routines makes us address this.

Is it possible that some horses might not care at all about banging their legs and feet against objects in their path? Possibly. But it’s MORE possible that they have a weak thoracic sling; or poor proprioceptive conditioning; or deeply embedded asymmetry in the body; or a stiff neck. Basically, just because an animal (or human, for that matter) cannot perform an exercise well initially, it does not mean he does not care for what he is doing. It means he is not doing well and it is our job to improve it.

This is not an elusive idea, especially when it comes to ground poles. Over the years, of all the horses that came to my barn for training and knocked in to ground poles, not a single one went home banging them anymore. I believe horses care very much where their feet are, but that is no guarantee their fine motor control is as tuned as it could be.

The Sandwich Lope

The Sandwich Lope

When Western Dressage first established itself, we instructors struggled to describe the requirements of a “working lope” clearly enough for students. We wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the stilted gaits seen in the Western Pleasure discipline, and yet it was also not the animated jumping-across-the-ground canter of the traditional dressage world.

It should have springiness and energy, we told students, but not excessive speed. The horse should be adequately on the bit and lifting his back but maintaining the obedience and calmness seen in reining horses.

So, what exactly might that feel like? In the past year, hopefully without disparaging my classical dressage roots by foregoing high falutin’ descriptions, I have landed on a darn useful description.

When trail riding her often spirited Andalusian, a former student of mine used to praise the moments when cantering along a ridgeline she felt like everything was so smooth and calm and rhythmic that she could eat her lunch in stride.

I began to think of this as the sandwich test. If you and your horse were balanced and rhythmic enough to proceed with the reins in one hand while the other brought a sandwich to your mouth, you had a working lope. You should feel that you are decidedly traveling over the ground rather than grinding along and the horse should carry you on a softly engaged back that gives you a smooth enough ride to savor your sandwich.

Some horses are gifted with a balanced lope from the start. In my experience, though, most are not this naturally blessed, and the rider must invest a certain amount of effort to make the gait what we desire. Below are some of my tips for doing so, because as you have read in previous postings, I am a huge advocate of ample time spent cantering. It does wonderful things for the horse’s body. And while those wonders are happening, I suggest you think about your favorite kind of sandwich to put it all to the test.

Tips for improving the canter:

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.

To Read or Not Read Old Dressage Books

The Scholarship of Horse Training
… or “Is There Value in Reading Old Books?”

My conversation last month with renowned trainer and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann did not lead where I thought it would, having started with muscles but ending with books. He said he believed many of the disappointments in modern training are due to students no longer being committed to the scholarship of dressage. In addition to physical practice, he wishes for them to read and study and think deeply. But most riders don’t see the point, he lamented.

Or do they?

I personally have always devoured training books and articles. Maybe because of that I mistakenly assumed everyone did this. In any case, our conversation left me pondering just how important it is—or is not—to read the old classical dressage books.

Without doubt, studying these old texts is vital even for the most skilled among us. For one, it illuminates commonality between trainers of different disciplines. I remember riding in a clinic with reining horse pro Jack Brainard listening to him quote one of my favorite passages of Alois Podhajsky’s classical dressage manual The Complete Training of Horse and Rider. Another time I was listening to Olympian Peter Leone discuss strategies for training jumping horses when he cited timeless advice from General Decarpentry’s book Academic Equitation.

Plugging in to the histories of our respective sports through reading the fundamentals they are built upon reminds us that good training, no matter what specialized discipline you prefer, all progresses from the same foundation. If we lose sight of this, we risk becoming narrow vision and incomplete in our approach.

Secondly, reading promotes conscious engagement with subject matter that many of us professionals handle on autopilot. We deploy our skill sets without conscious effort, almost with our eyes shut. Mastery of any skills, however, relies on periodic practice where they are broken back down in to their conscious parts. Several compelling studies neuroscience have shown that in order to avoid an erosion of mastery level competence, an individual must examine her technique and execution from time to time. By revisiting the state of mind of learning something[ecwid widgets=”productbrowser search categories minicart” categories_per_row=”3″ grid=”3,3″ list=”10″ table=”20″ default_category_id=”0″ category_view=”grid” search_view=”list” minicart_layout=”MiniAttachToProductBrowser”] rather than having mastered it, our skills stay strong and flourish.

Lastly, I agree with Hueschmann that because horsemanship has such a long rich history we owe it to our horses to learn at least a little of it. Otherwise, we can be tempted to believe that the entirety of what we need to know rests in the hands of the latest celebrity trainer or on-line video. Granted, reading books is no replacement for hands-on practice. I would not suggest that any student can become proficient by books alone, nor should armchair dressage riders consider themselves educated without consistent time in the saddle.

But if too few riders revisit the classical texts on a regular basis, we will lose our compass. These deep roots that we must study over and over keep our modern training on course. They are our story for both past and present. And while nearly any reading can benefit horsemen, these early books in particular remain vital because they were written solely for education, not for marketing or profiteering. It is through them that we continue to educate ourselves wholly, lest we rely only on the ideologies du jour. We owe this to our horses and to equestrian sports in general.

These are my thoughts, but I’m curious what yours might be. Do you have books you fall back on?