Should I Run my Horse Around the Triangle?

Jec-Ballou-Trophy

Should I run my horse around the triangle?
Part 1

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.

Prime Your Horse’s Pump for Results

 

horse fitness exercises

Corrective exercises and bodywork combined lead to better results from gymnastic patterns.

Priming the Pump

 

It’s a glorious feeling, that moment when after uncoordinated attempts the exercise you’re struggling with happens without ungodly effort. Your muscles cooperate, your body figures out what you have been trying to make it do the past several minutes or maybe even days. Sometimes these little breakthroughs are fleeting and we end up flailing again after a few successes. Doubtless, you have probably observed your horse experience the same sequence, especially when trying to make him stronger for certain exercises. It’s these moments that demonstrate how dependent performance is on the nervous system.

 

Helping horses use their bodies better and gain strength does not often follow a straight path forward. Like us, horses need to recruit specific neural pathways consistently enough until a movement pattern gets habituated. Only then will he experience measurable gains in strength and balance. The good news is that this can happen pretty quickly. New movement patterns can be established within six weeks. Unfortunately, though, it ends up taking most riders a lot longer. These efforts could be accelerated by what I call priming the pump.

 

This involves showing his nervous system the pathways we want accessed prior to introducing the gymnastic exercises we plan to use. The nervous system, after all, is where patterns of movement get stored, where the force and reliability of muscle contractions originate. So, rather than go out and charge through a bunch of exercises every day in the hope of building a stronger athlete, begin by taking the time to generate the right signals in the nervous system first. Let me explain further.

 

For horses with weak stifles, well-intentioned riders head for the hills, having read or heard that riding on gradients strengthens the muscles that support the stifle. But any exercise is only as effective as the neural pathways behind it. In other words, riding good exercises doesn’t guarantee results. Like us, horses can perform all kinds of exercises without recruiting the targeted weak area and making it stronger. However, if you have first signaled that area by waking up the nervous system to input it, then you will get results.

 

In our example of weak stifles, this means using slow and controlled flexions of the stifle prior to engaging in the hill riding exercises. These could include hand-walking over poles, manually flexing the hind limb and holding it flexed for 20 seconds, backing up either in-hand or mounted, hind leg circles/stretches, butt tucks, and so on. The idea is that you coordinate some small movements of the horse’s posture around the area you’re targeting and by doing so, you wake up the nervous system to communicate with it. You prime the pump. Then, as you ride out to the hills, you will indeed receive the strengthening benefit you hoped for.

 

Simple bodywork techniques like butt tucks, tail pulls, whither wiggles, and Masterson Method in addition to calisthenics like ground work, pole patterns, and corrective exercises are beneficial for priming the pump. Remember to influence every day’s performance with the correct participation of the nervous system and you’ll find yourself steeped in that resulting glorious feeling more abundantly.

How about a Saddle Cover with that Curry Comb?

classical dressage

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: to show or not to show?

petaluma clinic 006

 

Dressage magazines often surprise me. Flipping through their pages, a reader would assume that the vast majority of students spend most of their time preparing for and attending dressage shows. Page after page offers articles about fine-tuning your performance at the next competition, tips for higher scores, and interviews with celebrity trainers gearing up for the Olympics.

 

At least by my calculations, only a tiny percentage of riders have any serious interest in showing. I can count on one hand the few I encounter amongst the hundreds of riders I meet and teach while giving clinics around the U.S. Our governing sports bodies and organizations would do well to recognize this and to offer a lot more articles and information that appeals to these hundreds of other riders. But I’ll hold off on that rant for now in favor of acknowledging why the large majority of riders pursue dressage at all if not to show.

 

Most of them are committed to dressage for the same reasons I am: its role as physical therapy for the horse. Some have made their way to dressage out of necessity to repair a horse broken by poor training; others have become besotted after witnessing how much it benefits horses of all abilities. Done correctly, dressage makes sound horses out of lame ones. It fixes gait abnormalities; it provides the horse a healthy body and a relaxed nervous system. It allows him to age with ease, alleviating joint strain, inactive muscles, or disturbed circulatory systems.

 

My optimism for the merits of dressage training owes to the evidence I have accrued over the years. As a kid, I watched my parents “fix” numerous horses who showed up at our barn. In some cases, this meant turning unsound ones in to solid riding or driving horses. In others, it meant creating calmer, focused horses from ones that were wired and skittery. My parents never waivered in their confidence that dressage training could ameliorate a range of challenges regardless if a horse’s intended job was distance trail riding, carriage driving, or all-around recreation horse.

 

Since those early years, I’ve added my own list of success stories. I have helped endurance horses with stiff backs regain mobility, watched cranky riding horses become balanced and willing about their jobs. I have helped rehabbing and aging horses maintain soundness. These results have been so gratifying that if dressage shows were to disappear from existence entirely, I have no doubt that my daily passion and focus for training would be completely unaffected. Granted, I enjoy the goal-setting and accomplishment of taking a horse that trusts me in to a dressage arena and navigating a test. But in my professional life, this is a very small side note. I have made my living, and continue to do so, from the multitude of students whose hearts and souls are directed only at helping their horses live better lives.

 

Maybe this is all boring stuff to put in the glossy magazines, or maybe not. What it does tell us, though, is that the roots of dressage—to train the horse in the best physical manner—still run deep today. The purpose of this sport has perhaps never been stronger.

Of Saddles and Forelocks

 

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My friend looked at me blank when I replied, no, I could not hand her the leash. Surfers and dog-walkers use leashes, I said. Equestrians use leadlines. Of course this was picky on my part, since I knew more or less what she meant. A few days earlier, though, she announced a commitment to buckle down and advance from an interested novice to a competent horsewoman. That included proper employment of the lingo.

 

Since I had the fortune of starting with horses young, I’ve forgotten how perplexing the name of equipment and riding maneuvers can be. It still surprises me when new riders exclaim that they were trotting on the correct lead. Or when they ask if the saddle’s belly strap thingy should be tightened before they ride. Admittedly, few pieces of horse equipment have an intuitive name. Why do we not call a browband a forehead strap? Or a cavesson a nose ring? Sure, there are some obvious ones: hoof pick, bucket, stirrup. But there are plenty more that sound like a foreign language: billet, longe, latigo, concho.

 

For those who enter the sport later in life, it means acquiring a whole new language. My empathy for these struggles remains fresh by my own foray in to sports with specialized lingo. While the vernacular of equestrians is mostly second nature to me, the terms of my bike hobby often elude me. Aside from the basics like pedal, seat post, and brakes, I usually default to calling parts “thingamajigs,” or “thingies.” Luckily, several of our friends who are bike experts can usually sort out what I mean.

 

Trepidation hits, though, when I go to the bike shop alone to describe a malfunction or broken something-or-other. It involves much gesturing with my hands, sound effects, and vocabulary that probably sounds to the bike mechanic like a six-year-old. I’ve observed similar scenes in my barn aisle when novice students describe a ride that did not go so well.

 

The saddle slipped because the belly band was loose, they’ll say. And then the horse was not listening to their squeezes (cues? aids?), and he wouldn’t gallop (canter? Trot?) on the right diagonal. And did I have an idea what his problem might have been? The first part of my job here involves getting a translation. This is where I sympathize with both my bike mechanic and students new to any sport with complicated equipment.

 

I handed my friend the leadline. She took it, and reached up to pet the horse’s face below his forelock. “This horse has nice bangs,” she said.