The Blog Goes On Holidays For A Month
This will be the last blog entry for about a month. I leave in a couple of days to teach a series of clinics and won’t be home until late October. I don’t have a laptop, so I won’t be able to update this site while I am gone. It also means I will only have occasional access to the internet and e-mail. I am happy to continue to receive your questions and observations, but I won’t be able to reply until I return home. So please be patient.
I look forward to catching up with some of you on my travels and in a clinic.
I don’t have much to write about today because of time constraints. But I promise when I get back there will be a lot to talk about.
Some Spaces Available For Harry Whitney Clinics
Speaking of clinics. There are still a few spots left in the Harry Whitney clinics for Armidale NSW, Cobbity NSW and Adelaide SA. During January and February 2012.
There are far too few opportunities for most of us to ride with the best horse people in the world. Harry is in that category. There are very few that match his ability with a horse combined with the skill to teach what he knows. He doesn’t just show you what to do, but he teaches you why you do it.
The only problem with riding at one of Harry’s clinics is that at the end you feel like you want another one.
Contact the people listed on my Schedule page for details about the clinic that is closest to you. Attending one of Harry’s clinics is never regretted by people interested in the best horsemanship available.
I’ll leave you with a couple of cute items. The first is a photo Michele found on someones Facebook page. I don’t know who it is or where she found it, but she sent it to me with a note to put it on the blog. And I dare not disobey.
The kid can’t even reach the stirrups!
Then there is this Budweiser commercial from a few years back. It is cute and I really like the donkey – it’s better looking than the Clydesdales.
Back In A Month – Turn Off The Lights On Your Way Out
There have been a couple of big stories in animal welfare this week.
The first is the banning of bull fighting in Catalonia, Spain. After a 7-year campaign by local animal rights groups the local authority have finally banned bullfighting. The last event was held yesterday before a large crowd.
Nevertheless, bullfighting is still permissible in the other regions of Spain and it will probably be a long time before the ban spreads across the country. But it is a start and now that a precedent has been set, it will go a long way to forcing change in the rest of the country.
Bullfighting is a centuries old tradition in Spain and it is tradition that is given as the main reason for maintaining the sport.
But in my view, tradition is not a valid reason for perpetuating abuse of animals. There is nothing honourable about a bull that is drugged to the eyeballs and then killed in such a tormented and cruel way. I believe people forfeit the right to earn an income when it relies on the abuse of others – whether other humans or animals.
Tradition is one reason given for the other sport that I want to mention in regard to action being taken on the grounds of animal welfare. I’m talking about hurdle or jumps racing.
In Victoria and South Australia jumps racing is still legal despite several horse deaths a year. Each year around 10 or 12 horses are killed through this sport. There have been howls of protest and calls for the sport to be banned by animal welfare rights. But nothing has happened except to introduce a few new rules, which have proved totally ineffective.
Now the animal welfare organization, RSPCA, has received legal advice that there are solid legal grounds for prosecuting owners, trainer and racing bodies for the death or injury of a horse during a race. A spokesman for the RSPCA said they are looking at mounting a test case in the near future.
At first I thought this was great news because in my opinion jumps racing is a horrible and cruel sport. But then I realized the potential dangers of owners and trainers of horses being prosecuted for any cause of injury or death of a horse. I could see how this could extend to eventing, polo or show jumping – sports where horses die from time to time. Well, maybe that is not such a bad thing – yes? no? But what about if a horse has an accident in a horse trailer and needs to be put down or a horse runs through a fence and breaks its neck or breaks a leg in a rabbit hole. Could these also be cases where the law might make owners legally liable for the death of their horse?
It would seem that the tactic that the RSPCA is contemplating is a good idea on the surface, but there maybe hidden ramifications that could have the whole horse industry holding their breath. I could imagine horse sporting organizations banning young horses or stallions from events in fear of legal action. Maybe all horse shows will be cancelled except perhaps the “quietest pony” competitions.
As much as I’d like to see jumps racing banned in Australia, I do have concerns about the precedent it might set up to sue owners and trainers on the basis of animal welfare grounds.
The clinic is drawing close and I am like a little kid counting down the days :)
I have been riding Nicky a fair bit and doing lots of work with her and it is very tiring. She is great with being 'light' but not soft and it is driving me nuts. We get to a good place and the next day we start again. Uhg very frustrating. She has developed a habit of rearing in saddle when she does not like what I am asking. Sometimes I think it is because I am confusing her but other times I believe (and mostly) because I am interrupting her thought which is going back to a safe place. Currently we are having a new freeway built right next door to the agistment. Where the arena is, the horses are exposed to very large machinery and a lot of very busy work, it would be very daunting for them. I do a fair bit of work with Nicky on the ground before I get to the arena and in the arena. I believe that I get her soft which takes a great deal of time and then I get in the saddle however even though she is not out of control scarred she is quite jittery. When I ask her to go to the back of the arena she tries to spin me around to the gate or walk backwards and I have learned how to block her from doing this and get her going forward. She goes forward but tends to plod. At first I let her do it for a few strides as she is frightened but I then ask her to pick it up abit and this is where the rear comes in. This rear is now becoming a habit everytime I ask abit more of her. As the rear is quite quick I havent picked it up before she does it so I cant interupt the thought. Should I be paying more attention or is there something I can do that lets her know that rear is undesirable?
On a better note I road with Nicky into the dam. You were right as we walked in she tried to stick her nose in the water and splash around and I asked her to walk to the left and then she wanted to paw at the water so I asked her to back up then we proceeded out of the dam. We went in and out two more times and then ventured on. It was heaps of fun
I don't know what the answer is to your rearing problem. I suspect you are letting Nicky become too stuck in her idea of being where she thinks she needs to be. The longer she is allowed to hold onto that idea the stronger will the idea become. Then when you do ask her to let go of the idea to head back to the paddock the response she gives you is quite serious. Don't let Nicky get fixated on the paddock - give her more things to do - vary the routine of riding away. If she gets sticky feet instead of telling her to go forward, ask her to go left or right or left then right. Keep her occupied if you can.
You have to do your best to ensure the rearing does become habitual. Once it is in her mind that rearing is the answer to every question she doesn't like things can deteriorate very quickly. I see from the timetable that you have 2 shared sessions with me at the Macclesfield clinic. Hopefully, you will have made good progress by then, but if not please remind me to coach you on some of the things I mean.
I realized it had been a while since I've pestered you, and I believe patience is strengthened by testing, so I am doing you a favor! At least that is one way to look at it.
Things continue to progress with Tort, I bought a new saddle which fits him and me much better. I am much more secure and go figure,my jumping is getting better. I'm getting where the nerves are quiet enough that I can get back to thinking about form and function, and not just surviving. Part of that is also jumping at least a few fences every time I ride. They are tiny and Tort likes to jump but.... (you knew that was coming)
Tort is as sweet as a horse gets. But he's no robot and he is six, not sixteen. This is a bit hard to describe in this little white box, but as I get more secure, I think Tort is playing more.
He likes to jump, it's clear what the goal is, he knows what to do, and he's good at it. His little ears swivel and lock on a jump and he will literally swerve out of his way to go over a jump rather than go around.
I need to be careful though, as he can take over and rush through. And things go badly if I start doing a lot of pulling. I dealt with this the other day and went with him, and said great, let's rush to the next and the next and the next...he slowed up on his own as it started to feel a bit like work...
He was eager that day, and I laughed when I was bridling him as I always am slow and careful, ask him to drop his head, and he just wasn't in a slow and careful mood he shoved his head in the bridle and grabbed the bit. When we went out I let him have a canter, which turned into a bit of a hand gallop and he felt more settled after that.
He wasn't bad, but at times he felt like a happy teenage boy who wasn't minding his manners at the dinner table. If we were having dinner with the Queen it would be embarrassing, but she wasn't there so....
There is a bit more of this in each ride. I think it's good, but too much will not be. Do I go Gestapo on him?
I'd like to keep it fun and avoid the "YOU ARE BEING BAD".
Maybe there is no right answer. If you do have the answer perhaps Mums all over the world will be beating a path to your door!
It is difficult to be sure what is going on between you and Tort without seeing the situation first hand. But the impression I receive from your e-mail is different to what I believe you think is going on.
What you are calling "play" or behaving like a "happy teenage boy" I feel is stemming from bad feelings. It would appear from what you say that there is a failure in the area of focus with Tort's training. It is not really relevant that he is a young horse or not. He appears to be a horse that is mentally all over the place. If he were my horse I would not be making excuses for his lack of concentration and his "play." This is not Tort just having a good time. This is Tort confused and concerned about his role in the relationship between you and he.
Horses want to be in the hands of a good leader. It makes them feel safe. But if they feel that is not available they will take over and do their own thing in an effort to find a better spot. When a person tries to get in the way of their horse searching for a better spot, the horse will not be happy.
Horses are mostly lazy animals - minimalists like me. They don't play much - after about 2 or 3 years of age. But even when they do play, it is by rules. It seems like there are some rules missing in your relationship with Tort. He will listen to you more readily if your role as leader is established. I don't mean you need to boss him around, but you do have to offer very clear boundaries - not fuzzy ones. Horses don't need people to be their friends - that has no meaning in a horse's world - they have other horses for that. But they do need to know where they stand and whether or not they can trust your decision making to keep them safe. From your description, I think you have a problem in this area.
If you put a video clip on YouTube of you and Tort together I'd be happy to be more specific in my suggestions. But without seeing you together I really can't add much more that would be helpful. Sorry.
I’d be interested to know what you guys think of this. To me, it seems a bit like the Carolyn Resnick training that I talked about a few weeks ago. I know there are some people who read this blog who are into EAL, so I’d appreciate your feedback as well as others people.
You have probably noticed that the owner of the video has removed the video clip that I put up in my last entry of the lady with the clicker trainer horse. I don’t know why it has been removed. But she has added the exact same clip to YouTube under another title with a different voice over. Here is the link.
I love your critiques of clicker training because I think they are bang on the money.
Behavioural science, where I believe the use of the clicker originates, is kind of looked down on by most scientists as "not really very sciencey" as far as I can tell.
The problem is reproducibility.
You can prove that clicker training works in a reproducible way, which makes it great for writing a science paper. "We trained the animal to touch the target with it's nose and clicker training was 47% more effective than poking it with a stick," you can say. The trouble with reproducibility is that in terms of animal training you are restricted to absolutely trivial tasks. This is precisely the area that clicker training excels. So it gets this stamp of scientific authenticity.
The problem is that most of what we do with horses is not really reproducible. Not once it gets interesting - people don't tend to cue up the transition from piaffe to passage in exactly the same way with an eye to scientific reproducibility and of course for all these real-world tasks the clicker is essentially useless. I know of a couple of people in this part of the world who have tried to build up a riding programme based entirely on clicker training. As far as I know they are still trying and perhaps they will continue to as long as their horses live. That seems a little sad to me.
For some reason it seems to get people really religious about it too, which is odd. These Pure Positive Reinforcement folk who seem to live in the best of all possible worlds, yet inexplicably have to bitterly slate anybody who doesn't sing from their hymnsheet.
My other concern about restricting oneself to this approach is that there is simply no preparation for controlling a situation if the horse gets afraid- people go to such lengths to ensure that nothing is ever bothersome to the horse that they have no preparation for what happens when something does bother the horse. I don't think I'd want to do any kind of trail riding with anyone with that mindset.
Also your opinionated discursions on equestrian topics have inspired me to start sharing my own opinionated nonsense, which I'm doing here: http://pragmatichorsemanship.co.uk
So far I can safely assure you that WordPress is easy to use...
All the best,
I think you make a very good point regarding clicker training being used for simple tasks that are easily reproduced. In my experience, CT is largely confined to tasks that require just a few steps, such as curing headshyness or loading onto a float. But when it comes to training complex tasks that are the result of a build up from a multitude of simple tasks, like half pass, there is always a need to resort to negative reinforcement techniques.
Your point about CT being impotent when control flies out the window is also an excellent observation. CT relies on the horse being highly reward orientated. This usually means the horse needs to be fixated on food above all else. But what happens when something else other than the reward of a treat becomes the horse's main priority? What happens when the prospect of a slither of carrot is just not worth staying around when a killer wombat pokes his head around a tree? I know any of my horses would tell me where I can stuff those carrots and be half way to New Zealand before I can get the clicker out of my pocket.
Further to that, CT tends to teach all or nothing results because it is very task orientated. So a horse might be taught to do a very specific exercise like stepping onto a pedestal. He learns the task and can repeat it over and over again. But the way he steps onto the pedestal or the quality with which he does it, is what he gives you. You don't get much say in how he does it. There is no ability to change how he steps onto the pedestal without re-training the task. For example, if he steps up left foot first, but you want the right foot first, you have to go through the whole training of getting onto the pedestal all over again. This is because the training is focused on achieving the end result and not on how he got there. Good horsemanship should focus on the journey that leads to the end result. If the journey is correct, the end result will be taken of.
Thanks for the link to your new blog. Unfortunately, I don't seem to be able to link to it. The page tries to load, but nothing appears. So I now have proof that WordPress does not work - you lie!
Now Im going crazy... I thought I had perhaps found a trainer that I would be happy to send Whistler to. After getting alot of positive feedback from friends and people I know, I contacted him and went and watched some of his work. I was really looking forward to it but left feeling disappointed, confused and not convinced or liking what I saw..
The lesson was teaching a horse to do a hindquarter yield from the ground. He used a long crop/whip as an extension of his arm, he held the horse short with his arm up to block her coming towards him, his first cue was to walk towards her hip, second cue was to cluck and third cue was to whip her on the bum. She ran backwards, sideways and through him, even fell over at one stage, as he chased her around whipping her, until she stepped across and did a HQ yield ??????
I have been to watch a number of horse clinics and seen other trainers work and my memories of a HQ yield have always been calm.
I know you are probably sick of explaining to people a HQ yield but could you please explain to me once again how to do a HQ yield?
I should know this but Im sorry to say I haven't been practicing..
When do you think you will be set up to take clients horses??
From what you describe the trainer you saw appears to be just like a lot of trainers that drive the horses into movement (whether it be hindquarter yields or backing up or whatever) until they get submission. It's a style that is as common as mud and practiced by even famous trainers like Pat Parelli, Monty Roberts, Clinton Anderson, John Lyons etc. It's horsemanship of a type, but not good horsemanship in my view. It's hardly any different to the old style schools of training - just different words and different equipment - but the same attitude of flooding them with pressure until the horse submits is the same.
Whistler would probably come out of it safe and going, but he would probably be a little shut down and sad. Nevertheless, he is a nice enough horse that he would still be a nice horse after.
The way I look at HQ yields is that their purpose is to use the reins or lead rope to direct a soft bend in the horse, who in response steps his HQ quietly away from the direction of the bend. Let's talk about being on the ground rather than doing them from the saddle because Whistler is not yet started.
In a mechanical sense, I might stand by the horse's shoulder and use my lead rope to draw his neck towards me. This draws the horse's thought to look in my direction as well create a flexion in his neck. The drawing of the thought should cause the HQ to cross over (the hind leg closest to me steps in front of the leg furthest from me). This is a HQ yield.
As I have said many many times, the value in any exercise is only in the quality with which you do them. There are several factors that go into making HQ yields a valuable exercise good as opposed to being a waste of time. Firstly, the feel on the lead rope should be almost weightless. A horse should not be leaning on the rope or trying to pull away from it. His neck should bend such that he is following the rope around with his thought.
Also his head should be almost perpendicular to the ground - straight up and down. His nose should not be closer to you than his ears - they should be the same. A horse that tilts his head when he bends around to look at you, has resistance in his neck and is most probably thinking in the opposite direction. Look at the two photos below. Even though they demonstrate the lateral flexion from the saddle, rather than a HQ yield, the way the head is positioned is the same in principle. The photo on the left is of Michele riding a client’s horse at a clinic. Notice how much tilt there is in the way the horse brings his head around in response to the right rein. This is a clear sign of resistance in the neck. The second photo is a friend riding her horse. The difference in the softness of the neck is obvious. The head is virtually perpendicular to the ground.
When he steps his HQ across there should be no rush - it should be quiet and relaxed. If it is tight and rushed there is a braces in the horse's body and he is evading the flexion.
The front legs should be almost turning on the spot. They may pivot or may not, but it is okay if they perform a very small circle.
I don't use my hand or a stick or anything to drive the HQ across. The HQ move only in response to the bend. I know most trainers drive, tap or push the HQ across at the same time as asking for the bend. I don't because I want my lead rope (or reins) to be directing the HQ - not my horse trying to escape from pressure I place on the HQ. This becomes very important when it comes to riding because it helps make a stronger connection between the reins and the HQ. The reins should be directing the horse's thought to direct the HQ - not the reins directing the neck while I tap or push the HQ to respond.
When the horse does a HQ yield well you'll feel his weight shift off his forehand and onto his hind end just little when the inside hind leg cross over the outside leg and lands on the ground. This means he has lightened his forehand and ready to be directed forward. If he does not shift his weight onto his hind end, he will grind his front feet into the ground and if you ask for anything else he will almost fall over with a loss of balance. You often see horses stumble out of a HQ when asked to go somewhere.
There are a couple of other things to consider, but I feel I have given you too much technical information that's impossible to imagine without a horse in front of you. The important things to keep in mind is that the bend in the neck should be soft - no leaning from the horse on the lead rope. The head should be close to being straight up and down. And the HQ should cross over quietly and softly - no rushing and no slamming his feet down. All this will happen automatically is the horse is following the lead rope with his thoughts.
I hope that helps.
Before I read your site, I used to read Trainer X blog. He often talks about the ‘underlying’ mouth of a horse and how it is the one that shows when things go bad and his mouthing system gives you the ‘airbrakes’. A long while ago, I even purchased his remouthing DVD to see the training in detail. He really likes the german martingale. I am just wondering what you think about this. After exposure to your site and what I have learnt from my horses now, I think that nothing is a guarantee with a horse except a quiet mind or the capacity to calm it down fast.
The other issue that bothers me is that just about everyone I see bandages and boots horses all the time, sometimes I think more as a fashion statement. I wonder if it is necessary and just weakens the legs or traps in too much heat. Okay if a horse has an issue that needs protection fine. Thanks again
In regards to boots and bandages, you really are asking the wrong person. I never use them. The only protection I have used was many years ago was on my A grade showjumper who would sometimes overreach. By the time he was jumping B grade I decided to put bell boots on him. Other than that I have no experience with either protective or performance leg gear. I don't like float boots - especially the hind ones that reach over the hocks. But I know lots of people use this equipment and would always use them. I guess I would like to see the evidence that bandages and boots are protective. You would think somebody like Professional Choice has some legitimate research result available. I know Warwick Schiller reads this blog and he is a world class reining trainer, so if you read this Warwick would you kindly offer your experience with regard to boots and bandages.
Trainer X mouthing system is not his mouthing system. Long ago it was claimed by Jim Wilton as the Wilton mouthing system. But even before Jim there was a fellow in the 1930s who Jim probably saw using it. I've seen old reports of people in the US using the 1-rein mouthing system a hundred years ago. It's is not widely used because I think in most trainer's mind is not a very good system. I've compared mouthing systems before on this site and it comes out quite low in the quality of results. This is because it causes incorrectness in the way a horse uses both his forehand and his hindquarters during a turn. It's an incorrectness that is later hard to fix. Also, the way I've seen Trainer X use the system (on video) is quite brutal and unnecessary in my opinion. I think the method can be modified to be far less forceful and kinder to the horse. But the 1-rein mouthing is only a small part of the whole process of properly mouthing a horse.
I have experience with the German martingale and don't like them one bit. They are popular in European countries like the Netherlands and Germany, but are not used much in Australia. Trainer X is the only trainer I know who uses them a lot and recommends them to clients. Like most gadgets they are a tool used by people who have few training skills or looking for quick fixes. This is because it attempts to replace the need for elastic and soft hands from the rider. But at this it fails too.
The problem with the German martingale (when I was a kid they were called market harborough) is that its only function is to make the horse put it's head down. It's a device designed to physically cause discomfort to a horse for putting its head above where the harborough is set. But there is no way that the device can remove the pressure when the horse actually softens through its body. It's simply there to create an arched neck and true yield to the reins through the whole horse is ignored. So it teaches a horse the trick of blooping its head down to avoid the rein pressure while still being stiff and braced through its body. If you watch the photos and videos of Trainer X’s wife, you'll see a lot of evidence of horses that are stiff through their back, crashing on the forehand and necks bent behind the vertical - all symptoms of using restrictive gadgets, hard hands and incorrectness. In my view no training gadget has yet been designed to match a knowledgeable rider with good hands. The German martingale is just another attempt to circumvent the hard work that comes from proper training and replace it with quick fixes that are never really fixed.
I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything for a week. I’ve been crook for a few days and just getting back on my feet now.
I was checking the statistics of traffic to my web site. Normally visitors from Australia and the US dominate the top 2 locations for people visiting the site. There is always a huge range of nationalities like Moldova, Peru and Poland. But in the last few weeks there has been a big shift in hits. Visitors from South Africa have nearly matched those from Australia – which is a big surprise. But even more interesting is that hits from China have soared and now account for more than Australia and America combined. So fascinating.
Well welcome everybody wherever you are from and I hope you find the site helpful and entertaining.
A few days ago I received a lecture by a lady on the virtues of clicker training. I have talked about clicker trainer before and I’m sure most people know what it is. But just in case…
Clicker training involves using a cue like a clicking sound or a vocal sound like “good boy” to signal a horse he has done the right thing. He knows it is the right thing because the click sound is followed usually by a food treat like a slither of carrot or apple. With repetition a horse learns that the click is always followed by a food reward, so he searches for ways to cause the trainer to press the clicker. If the trainer is consistent the horse learns that only the requested behaviour will result in the use of the clicker and subsequent food reward. It’s a positive reinforcement technique that is widely used in training sea mammals like dolphins and seals. It has gained popularity with horse people who don’t like using negative pressure with a horse and is particularly popular when teaching tricks.
Anyway, the lady lectured me about how clicker trainer helped her cure her horse’s head shyness. She couldn’t touch her horse’s ears no matter what she did until somebody suggested clicker trainer. Voila! Within a few short sessions she could bridle horse with no problem.
Before I give my thoughts on CT, check out the video below first.
In the video the horse is not happy. He has learned not to physically push on the trainer, but mentally that is all he can think about.
What CT lacks is the ability to get a horse to think about anything but what he must do to get his reward. It not about being focused on the trainer and building a connection. CT is about teaching a horse that out pops a carrot when he does what the human asks. A strategy for getting the carrot becomes the horse’s focus, not the trainer. It is pure obedience training and nothing more.
I have told the story before, but it is worth repeating again. Many years ago I watched a demonstration by the pre-eminent CT trainers in the US. She showed how she had re-trained a horse that was a rogue to load into a trailer. She demonstrated what a quiet and polite fellow he had become after being trained using CT. He loaded without hesitation into the back of the trailer and then politely backed out by himself when asked. I had no reason to question that he was a totally improved horse from the one she started with. But I asked her if she could load the horse half way, stop him and back him out. The lady thought about it for a minute and said that she would have to re-train him to stop half way. Then she made a joke at my expense about what good is a horse that only goes half way into a trailer.
What she had done is train the horse to perform a trick. He learned a routine or job. But he didn’t learn to be attentive to the trainer and be ready for anything that might change. He just new a job and if the job was going to change he had to be trained to do the new job.
In terms of the alternative training scale of focus, clarity and softness, CT fails to deliver. It certainly lacks focus. It’s probably pretty good at offering clarity because food rewards are such strong motivators for many horses. But it fails in teaching softness because the focus is about a food reward and not the human.
I tried explaining to the lady my view, but she couldn’t see how the focus problem with CT was getting in the way of a good relationship between a horse and its trainer. I then tried to point out to her that all the time we were talking her horse was sniffing her pockets and hands. But I don’t think my observation was appreciated.
Hi Ross Thanks for your advice. Thought I'd let you know I gave it a go this weekend (had to work all week so didn't get a chance until Saturday) and it worked a treat. We just tried it at the walk, and I asked quite subtly for him to step away, then used only a slight nose bump and he moved away - not a really definitive step, where his legs crossed over, but rather the circle gradually became bigger. He spiralled out on a bigger circle as he walked around me. He continued to focus on me, and I didn't insist he move too far away lest he lose focus when he got further away than he is accustomed to. We were both quite pleased with ourselves. Look, it wasn't a dramatic performance by any means, but it worked and I was particularly happy for another reason. Recently his two paddock mates, very small and rotund Shetlands, had to be moved because they were getting too fat. So he is now in a paddock by himself, which for a horse who is a hopeless follower, is quite disconcerting. There are other horses in yards nearby, but as the weather has been shocking and they are show horses, they are being kept in a stable 24/7 (poor things). So Cooper is basically alone a lot of the time and doesn't like it. When I arrived on Saturday he was pacing, calling and standing with his head about 20-feet tall. I decided not to get him out of the paddock but to see if I could make him relax while he was still in there. Without putting a halter on him I got him to back up, yield hindquarters and forequarters, and then follow me around. I couldn't believe it worked!! He relaxed, focussed and softened. So the lunging session was short (well it was starting to rain again and by golly it's cold down here at the moment) but satisfactory. I felt great, because I left him feeling better than when I arrived. I hope that if I persist I can get him to a point where he is more confident in himself, and stop worrying so much about other horses. Thanks again, Allaana
I am very glad you made progress with Cooper. It sounds like more and more he is seeing you as a good spot rather than a troubling place to be. Well done.
Hi Ross, just wondering what you thought of this YouTube clip.
Let me know
I have seen this clip before, but thanks for giving me the chance to talk a little about it.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if the jockey could watch the clip he would see the warning signs that things were not right before the horse toppled over backwards.
The first thing that is clear is that the horse is checked out and not paying attention that the rider was about to mount. It's not that the horse was not aware of the rider getting on, it's just that it was one of those things that happen in the background of his mind and not in the foreground. A little like when Michele is talking to me while I am watching the cricket. I hear some it what she says, but don't really listen. That's the point that the jockey should not have got on the horse like he did. Then at the 5 sec mark you see the horse brace his hindquarters - just as his head straightens forward. That's point the jockey should have felt trouble and jumped off, then ask the handler to lead the horse forward. The handler was equally oblivious as the jockey. Both showed poor judgement. A good handler could have interrupted the horse's thought to rear before it happened. It's like when you hold a horse for a farrier. A good handler knows when the farrier needs to give the horse back his leg before the horse kicks the farrier across the fence.
But I also know that every day people all over the world people mount horses that are just as tuned out and just as bracey (or worse) than the horse in the video, yet nothing bad happens. I have certainly swung a leg over a horse and sat in the saddle to suddenly realize this was a bad idea and that I was sitting on a volcano ready to explode. So mistakes happen.
One thing I would say though is that if I was that jockey and was going to ride that horse again, I would put in plenty of practice on safely dismounting beforehand. He was lucky not to have been killed because he bungled his escape badly.
After that clip of the horse rearing backwards, here is a short video of a horse being trained to rear under saddle. I think the potential danger of this sort of training is very clear from the video. Don’t try this at home without adult supervision – even adults.
We have discussed focus and clarity; it’s time to talk about softness.
Softness is the culmination of good quality focus and good quality clarity. If you don’t have a high enough quality of focus AND clarity, softness is not possible. Both are needed and both must be good. They don’t have to be perfect. Perfection is something you will strive towards for the rest of a horse’s life as you try to improve on the level of softness.
Many people confuse softness in a horse with lightness. They are two different things. But you can’t have softness without lightness. Yet you can have lightness without having softness. In fact, many people have light horses that aren’t soft.
Softness is a response that is both mental and physical. A soft horse is very responsive to a rider. But in addition to being responsive, he has a quiet mind. I’ve talked before about a quiet mind being alert, but calm and relaxed. A quiet mind is clear, ready but unstressed. A quiet mind is an essential element of a soft horse. If a horse has a busy mind, an anxious mind, a distracted mind, he can’t be soft. Therefore, a soft horse is one that is relaxed, yet alert and responsive.
This is different from a light horse in that lightness refers to a horse being responsive to the rider’s aids and nothing more. There is no requirement for the horse to be relaxed or have a quiet mind. A horse can be bouncing around like a balloon in a storm and still be light.
Since I proposed that an alternative training scale of focus, clarity and softness replace the established German training scale of rhythm, relaxation, straightness, impulsion, contact and collection. Let’s examine how this might work to both the trainer and horse’s benefit.
Relaxation: Since softness refers to mental softness or relaxation if you like, there is a concomitant physical relaxation that accompanies softness. A horse that is truly soft tends to work with correctness. They don’t favour working one part of their body harder than they should (except when there is a physical problem like an injury) or being stiffer on one side more than the other.
Rhythm: Rhythm is when a horse is keeping an even tempo – there is no rushing or slow up that is not initiated by the rider. As I have already said, softness is both a mental and physical relaxation. The nature of a quiet mind is that the horse’s mind is relatively unstressed but alert and listening to the rider. This comes from the focus the horse has on his rider, which in turns encourages the horse to be tuned into the energy and muscle tone of the rider. In a soft horse, the rider’s energy and muscle tone of his body offers a clear meaning as what the rider expects from the horse. This is a major factor in a horse being able to maintain a rhythm. The amount of energy a horse feels coming from a rider’s position and seat will transfer into the amount of energy a horse puts out in his movement. There is no need to be working on rhythm, if softness is already well established.
Straightness: The natural result of softness is that horses carry themselves with straightness because there is very little mental resistance that normally causes the physical resistance associated with crookedness (again this assumes no physical impairment to a horse’s movement). Most crookedness in a horse comes from a mental resistance to the rider’s seat, legs and reins. It’s based in how a horse feels about the work. A horse can only be soft when he feels okay inside because as I said, a large part of softness is mental relaxation. So get a horse soft and most straightness issue disappear.
Impulsion: Impulsion is the effort a horse puts into movement. It is not related to forwardness or how quickly he moves. It relates to effort. Even a horse at a slow walk can have good impulsion if the slow walk is under the rider’s direction. Just like rhythm, impulsion comes from a horse having a quiet mind and being responsive to the aids. When a horse is soft in mind and body, impulsion from a horse is available.
Contact: This one always gets me into trouble with dressage riders. Most people think of contact as the amount of rein pressure a rider offers a horse. But in my view, contact is the amount of rein pressure required to get a change in a horse’s thought. A good contact is the least amount of rein needed to cause the horse to make a change. In some horses you need kilograms of rein pressure to get a change and other horses require a feel of little more than the weight of the reins. Both are contact. If you don’t cause a horse to make a change, you don’t have contact.
But of course, the contact we should strive towards is when the least amount of input from the reins creates the required change in a horse’s thought. In my opinion, if you can get a horse to respond to the most imperceptible change in feel of the reins, you are better than the next bloke. But this is where you can see how people confuse softness with lightness. If you only get a change in a horse’s feet, you have lightness. But if you can get a change in thought, then you have softness.
Collection: I won’t go into what collection is because this essay is already running too long. Let me just say that according to the German training scale, collection is the end product of rhythm, relaxation, straightness, impulsion and contact. It’s what can be achieve when all those 5 others elements are in place. If any are missing or are not to a high enough quality, collection becomes elusive.
But as I have just shown if you have softness, your horse already has the 5 elements of the German training scale in place. The ability to achieve collection in a horse is already available in a horse that exhibits softness. In fact, I will say that true collection is not possible without softness. There are lots of horses and some even performing at a high level, that exhibit faux collection because softness is lacking.
Conclusions: I hope I have not made it sound like training or achieving focus, clarity and softness are easy. It’s bloody hard. It takes hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours to accomplish a level of these things that are worth showing people. Nothing is black and white. Every element is somewhere on the scale between totally wrong to the best that could be. When softness is lacking, look back at your horse’s focus and/or your clarity. But most importantly don’t forget that even though a horse’s movement comes from his physical side, the quality of the movement comes from his mental and emotional side.
Hi again Ross,
I just wanted to get any tips from you regarding something that happened yesterday. Gretel and I took our horses for a walk along our road yesterday. Along the way we decreased pace, increased pace, did some lunging etc to see how they were listening to us. All was going okay – until – I thought I would test out how Toby responded when Gretel continued on with Tequila and we turned and walked away from them, as this it problematic in the saddle. Needless to say the whole thing went a bit pair shaped – but I was pleased it did because I got to work on Toby in a very different situation. He is normally pretty good doing the ground work in the round yard, up the drive and on the road when it is just him and me. So what I did was asked him to lung around me – he was so predictable – as soon as he came around the turn heading for Tequila the lunging all went out of the circle towards her and when I asked for forward I got sideways and no forward and a bit of up in the air. I put on pressure and kept up the lunging until he went past that ‘spot’ without too much interference from me. I know he was still thinking ‘Tequila’ but it did get less ugly. I had 2 thoughts about this – 1st was that I was thrilled to have experienced this on the ground given he is normally so good and I could actually deal with it quite confidently, the 2nd thought was any wonder I sh_t myself when in the saddle when he starts to carry on – his focus was so strong on getting back to Tequila. It made me realize once again how important it is to get your horse listening on the ground and I feel very lucky to have Gretel to be able to experience these things with. So, my question is, do you have any further tips on what I should do – Gretel and I intend to do this again tomorrow and I would like to make the most of having this opportunity to work on Toby in a way that may make a difference in the future. What other things should I do apart from lunging him and walking the other way? I think it is going to take a long time to get any progress here but I’m hopeful.
It sounds like you are on the right path and did fine. One thing I would keep in mind is to be sure that you don't throw Toby into the deep end. It is often best to gauge where the line is from a little worry to real trouble. Avoid separating Toby from the other horse to the point that you cross the line into real trouble. You want to separate them to the point of stretching Toby's comfort zone and then letting them come together again. Don't separate them to the point where Toby's behaviour is beyond your ability to help him recover. This is different for every person and every horse and it's always a judgement call. Do your groundwork like you would in the arena, but try to make sure that Toby's worry about Tequila does not overwhelm him to the point that he can't possibly give you any attention. Also always make sure that in every exercise you get some change in Toby's feelings. Don't just do the exercise - they are not what is important. It's the changes in the feelings that allow Toby to make the changes in his thoughts about whether being with you is better than being with Tequila.
I took Sally out on a trail ride this week and whilst it was an enjoyable ride, I realised during the ride that she really was just following along. So throughout the ride I was asking for different things, such as step up onto that bank, walk around that tree, go on this path instead of following the other horse. And I had to work on her at times to get these things happening. Toward the end of the ride I asked Sally to go first, she didn’t think that was such a good idea and stopped, refused to go forwards at all. I used my legs on her, flapping mostly, until my legs ached and I couldn’t keep it up. I did get her to move a little, a step at a time. I also got her to zig zag along the track as well. I picked a small twig of leaves and used this to flap to help me to get ‘bigger’ or more determined. She did get better at least in covering some ground but she really didn’t think it a very good idea. The only physical thing she did about it was to stop and bork on moving.
I have some thoughts on this that I would like to discuss with you. We have spoken before about sally’s lack of trust, or confidence in me to keep her safe. You have said to me that she doesn’t really believe that I’m offering her a better deal. I am thinking that this is what is going on here. I’m asking her to step way outside what she knows and what we have done before, it’s all very knew to her and it’s a big scary world out there.
So if this is what is happening, how do I gauge how much to face her with? I was pretty certain that if I got off her and lead her she would have walked along side me. Is every ride I have on her , her just going along with me but not really trusting that my ideas are OK?
By me exposing her to more rides out she will obviously be gaining more experience but I want this to be the best I can give her and help her to feel better about these rides. Do you have any advice for us in how to approach this and is what I did with her this week OK or did I over face her?
It’s really interesting that she is such a bold mare in so many ways, but on her terms. She has no problem walking up onto our back deck, into the back of our workshop shed, over fibreglass roofing, these things just come to mind as things she has chosen to do at home. At the clinics we have done with you she will walk over the bridge, over the tarp, and this doesn’t seem to faze her, but to walk along a bush track without another horse in front of her was too hard.
So do you think that I’m on the right track here? Are there strategies that I should be putting I into place that I’m missing (I’m sure there will be)
I’m booked in for a lesson with Manolo this Saturday, I’ll let you know how we get on. She’s being very rushy at home at the moment, too much grass already this spring, so may be a different lesson this time.
I’ve also heard back from Des Miller and I am booked in for her clinic on both days too.
Hope you are keeping those snakes at bay, and getting those fences done. You always said to me that having your own place will keep you busy, and it sounds like it is.
Say hi to Michèle for me
Bye for now
As you might expect me to say, it's hard to give specific advice without being there on the day.
I have some questions for you to consider.
1. How many other horses were your riding with?
2. If the other horse(s) went ahead, could you stop Sally and watch them leave without her getting upset?
3. What would happen if the lead horse(s) turned and went behind Sally while you continued riding ahead?
The issue probably comes down to her trust and willingness to try an idea when it is your idea. As you say Sally is not a particularly fearful horse by nature. But it can be very different when it is her idea to walk into the shed versus your idea for her to walk into the shed. To be honest, what you describe sounds very much like the symptoms of other things you have struggled with for awhile now. I strongly suspect it is one part of the whole picture. I believe there is a leadership question at the heart of your problem.
I really doubt she suffers real life threatening and paralyzing fear about being leader of the herd on a ride. My thoughts are that you need to get her better with riding with no company. Riding with other horses just makes it easier for her to disconnect from you because she has buddies to draw her focus. There is no question that you sometimes equivocate over how much you should do versus how little you should do and sometimes accept the appearance of change in Sally instead of hanging in to wait for a real change. It's something we all struggle with in our journey. But I think until you clear up this idea in your head, Sally and you will bounce from good to bad days and back.
I look forward to hearing how your lesson with Manolo was, and especially look forward to seeing you in October.
Thanks for your reply, I did expect you to say that. But that’s OK, I think it helps me just to write it all down too. I’ve just read your blog on clarity, makes a lot of sense as the one on focus did too. I can see that this is where I am losing her, the focus stage still. That’s the problem though, I can understand it on paper so to speak, but not so much in the saddle. Even on the ground the focus is better than in the saddle.
I didn’t try all the things that you suggested, but I was riding with only one other horse. I did try hanging back at one point and the other horse got out of site around a corner, we were going through a very boggy patch, only one horse at a time, and Sally did not like it at all. I don’t know the answer to the 3rd question, but I think she would have stopped.
I agree with your thoughts on this, but as usual I am lacking the ability to make this change in myself, I don't think I really get it, that is what it is I have to do to help sally and myself. I think that at some point I am trying to force the change rather than letting her make that choice, so it’s not coming from her idea to be with me , but from my insistence that it happen.
I’d love to be able to have all this fixed by the time I see you next, but I think we are still going to be at the same point that we were the last time I saw you, I’m sorry for you about that because you are always so patient and kind to me even when you have taught me the same thing over and over. For this I am very grateful.
OK, so if it’s a leadership issue, is it right to think that no matter how much time I spend with her riding alone, that unless I get the leadership part right, nothing will change? What I mean is, that it’s not just experience and exposure alone that will make things better, I have to get the change in her everytime.
I’ve really just answered my own question haven’t I? But by riding on my own she is forced to search for the answer I want and hopefully find that I can support her?
All sounds so doable in writing, I’ll keep trying.
Thanks Ross, see you soon
How did your lesson go with Manolo?
You don't have to worry about testing my patience - Michele has you beat on that every day. As long as you are trying, you won't stop me from trying to help you. If you want to get rid of me, stop trying to work it out with Sally.
You are right that leadership is the piece of the jigsaw that you are finding it hard to put together. It is never easy. And you are also right that even riding Sally alone won't fix the problem. But it does make working on it easier because she won't have other horses to draw her attention. But it is not a fix in itself. By riding a horse out over and over they do become better to ride out on that trail. But their sense of security is tied into the familiarity of the trail they know so well. Take her to a strange place with different distractions and you find yourself back at square one if you haven't improved your leadership.
I wish I could give you the leadership that eludes you. I wish I could make it happen for you. Sally is a challenge for anybody and I'm very glad she has you to care so much. At least when I see you in October we won't be scratching our heads about what we could work on.
What Makes a Horse Do This?
Warning: This clip might distress some people as it shows a horse attacking a brutal handler.
How bad must life be to have caused a horse to be so violent? The guy escaped with minor damage and I don’t know what happened to the horse after it headed for the hills. But I think this guy needs to read my essay on an alternative training scale.
Meat Eating Horses?
Some of you know that my book, “Old Men and Horses: A Gift of Horsemanship” is published by the Long Rider’s Guild.
The head honcho of the LRG is CulCuhllaine O’Reilley who has just published a book called “Deadly Equines: The Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating and Murderous Horses.”
He recently gave an interview to Rick Lamb and you can listen to it here. Just click on the microphone icon for the date 9/10/2011. You need to do this in the next couple weeks before Rick adds the interview to the archives for his show. If it is added to the archives, you can only listen to the show by becoming a member of the The Horse Show.
In any case, CulChullaine tries to make the case that horses are capable of being predators and flesh eaters. He uses anecdotal evidence and hearsay stories to support the notion that horses have been trained to eat meat and can eat meat spontaneously. He states that this is knowledge that has been known for thousands of years, but has been lost in modern times.
At no point does CulChullaine present any facts or evidence. His arguments stem entirely from ancient reports with ambiguous meaning or from hearsay stories. He has never seen a horse eat meat. But he states categorically that he has received e-mails from people who have.
He chooses to ignore the fact that in all the 1000s of scientific papers that have been published on horse behaviour, horse nutrition and wild horse studies, none report behaviours of flesh eating in horses. He ignores the fact that horses do not have correct dentition for being flesh eaters. He likewise stubbornly sets aside the fact that the equine gastrointestinal system and liver function are not equipped for a diet of meat.
His whole premise is akin to stories of UFO sightings or fake moonlandings, in my view.
I am embarrassed to be associated with the LRG and especially CulChullaine and his wife Basha. They have a history of ridiculous behaviour. Several months ago I reported their claim that a planned trek around the world stumbled before it even got started because they claim a horse trainer sabotaged their horses. They launched a campaign in England to pass a law banning people from training horses who they considered bad trainers.
I doubt CulChullaine’s book would ever have been published if he didn’t do it himself. I eagerly look forward to February 2013 when my contract with them expires. It just goes to show that it takes all types.
As promised, I’ll give a brief outline of what clarity means to me in the context of training a horse.
Obviously, clarity refers to the accuracy with which the brain of the horse interprets our signals. The closer our intent is to the way the horse sees it, the clearer we are being. But when our intent is unclear confusion reigns and the horse’s response can be significantly different from what we wanted.
A lack of clarity is a stress to a horse. Imagine learning to drive and the instructor says, “Ya got this wheel thing that turns the car. The pedal thing makes it go and the other pedal thing makes it stop. Oh yeah and this pedal thing and stick thing together allow you to change gears. See driving is easy. Now off you go and drive to the shops and back.” That would be a pretty stressful experience.
Actually, now I think about it that’s how dad did teach me to drive.
Several variables go into making a person’s signals clear.
Firstly, you have to have a horse’s soft focus. He must be listening and calm. If a horse is upset and his insides are vibrating with tension, it’s hard for him to hear your signals no matter how clear you think you are making them. I’ve talked about the importance of a quiet mind before and it is part of creating clarity.
Secondly your signals must be very consistent. You can’t be pulling on your left rein to go left today, but tomorrow you pull on the right rein to go left. You have to be using the same signals in the same way; otherwise your horse will get confused. But the caveat to that is that you have to be prepared to change how you present your idea if the way you are presenting it is not working. Don’t be stuck with doing something the same way just for the sake of consistency. You should be consistent, but only with the things that work for the horse – not the things that don’t.
Thirdly, part of creating clarity is to break things into bite size pieces that a horse can handle. For example, if you want to teach a horse to back up 100 steps, you start with rewarding him when he shifts his weight back. When that is clear to him, then go to rewarding when he takes a step back. As that gets clear in his mind, then try backing 2 steps before rewarding. Then 5 steps and 10 steps. Keep building until you have him backing 100 steps. Don’t ask him to back 100 steps the first time because for sure he will get to maybe 5 or 6 steps before wondering what the hell he has to do to get you to stop pulling on the reins.
When there is a break down in clarity it is never a bad idea to go back a stage or two to something the horse already understands well. Break it down into the earlier steps and start building on those again in smaller increments. Don’t go to the next stage until the present stage is well understood by your horse. For example, don’t try to teach flying changes to your horse until you can consistently get your horse to choose the canter lead of your choice.
In my view, one of the problems with a lot of modern training is that the lessons that came before are rarely clearly understood well enough to allow the horse to be ready for the next lesson. Modern horses have become tremendous athletes, which means that can physically perform at a high level even though they are physically incorrect. So a horse like Totilas can produce record scores in a dressage test despite being jammed up and lacking engagement of the hindquarters. The temptation is to push such horses faster than they are mentally prepared because they have the physical capability. But the resistance is still there due to a lack of clarity in the training. It’s just that their athletic ability allows them to move impressively despite the resistance. There are multitudes of good horses wasted each year because they are messed up by a lack of clear training.
It’s important to keep in mind that clarity and a lack of clarity affect the horse only through his mind. The muscles and skin of the horse have no concept of clarity and therefore when we speak of clarity we speak of the horse’s brain. Training is for the most part about the horse’s mind – not his body. What the body is doing is secondary to what the brain is thinking.
If we have a horse’s focus, it gives us the opportunity to converse with him. Without focus there is no conversation, there is no clarity. Focus gives us the chance to offer clarity. But together with focus and clarity we get softness. We can’t have softness without focus and clarity and next time I will expand on the concept of softness.
Worries With Water
Hi Ross Just read the blog. I enjoy when you place clips to look at as I don't really get a chance to look at different clips. I loved watching the dressage clip with the riders performing a lot of the old moves. I found the last clip on today's blog very disturbing. I can't believe someone would do that to a horse let alone post it on YouTube. O thought it started off pretty ordinary but it got do ugly I felt sick. How could she go from rubbing and patting her horse to belting on it when she was the major cause of confusion. I couldn't understand half the time what she wanted, that poor horse must have been doubly confused.
I have brought Nicky down to the agistment near home so I can work abut with her. I have not done much with her except the odd weekend due to all the wet ground we have had in nearly seven months so I am back to walking and standing around as she is a ball of nerves and just wants to trot or jog. I did have a couple of good days so I road her down to the dam to see if I could get her to just put her two front feet in. That did not happen, she would get right to the edge and plant her feet. She would try to turn right and I would block her, she would try to turn left and I would block her. I then tap gently but annoyingly with my legs and she would spin around on her hind to face the other way. I would turn her around and ask again. Again we would get right to the edge and stop there. This went on for abit but we got nowhere and I knew that I was not going to win the argument. I am now looking for your words of wisdom. I really want to do snake island in march and everyone says don't worry when all the horses get going she'll go in but I want her to go in because she feels comfortable not bullied. Interesting fact, I found Nicky's breeders. Her mum was an Appaloosa stockhorse and her dad a pure Clydie. They stopped using the dad because most of the foals were very nervy. They said the mum was not like that at all and was very level headed but that the dads genes must have been too strong. They sold Nicky as a yearling so had hoped that her temperament was like her mum but I had to disappoint them and say this was not the case. Looking forward to the clinic, see you soon.
I hope you make it to the clinic.
I'm glad you are enjoying the blog and the videos.
With regard to Nicky and the water situation, it's hard to know what to do without being there. My first thought is that I would have out waited her. If it took 3hrs for her to step a foot into the water I would not have worried. The other possibility was to get off and lead her into the water. Maybe even mount her again while she was standing in water and ride her in the water, out again and back in the water.
As I say I wasn't there and can't be sure what I would have done, but I hope I hav given you a couple of things to think about. Maybe you can come up with other ideas.
I decided to give it ago on the ground with Nicky. She reared and carried on for a few minutes because she felt like she had no way to get out and eventually decided to take a step into the dam. Once she got her front feet in she sniffed and drank the water and decided it was ok to get further in. Then she started to play and splash with it and I had to stop her because she was about to have a roll. I would have let her but it was getting late and I didn't think she would dry off in time. Now I just have to wait for a warm day so we can ride in together. Photos to follow. Irena
Thanks for the photos. It looks like you made a good start.
Once Nicky is in the water and checked it out, be careful not to let her get fixated on playing in the water. This is where you can get into trouble because she has mentally shut you out in place of the water. When she is in the water, give her a moment to be okay and get use to it, then give her a job to do. Maybe do a little ground work while she is in the water. Try to become the centre of her focus again.
My old horse, LJ, loves to play in the water. He still goes into the dam every day and splashes and rolls. But in the early days this became a problem when I use to ride him into water. His need to splash and roll would try to take over the riding. So put your swimsuit on and take Nicky down to the water some more.
I managed to get the link to the August archive working in the calendar box. If you click n the AUG box, it should take you to the blog entries for last month.
Clinic Positions Still Available In Macclesfield
I got an e-mail from Des Miller today indicating there were still a few spots available for my 2 day clinic in Macclesfield on October 22-23.
The 3 days of lessons at Garfield are filled up, so the Macclesfield clinic is the last opportunity for folks in the Melbourne region to get to attend a clinic with me this year.
If you are interested in attending or want to know more, contact Des whose details are listed on the Schedule page.
Focus, Clarity and Softness – What Do They Mean?
I’ve had a lot of e-mails regarding the training scale I proposed to replace or at least add to the German Training Scale. Nearly all the responses have been very positive – which is what you’d expect from folks who read this site regularly. But there have been a couple of e-mails expressing confusion about the elements of focus, clarity and softness and asking for some expansion on those concepts.
Firstly, let me say that they are all encompassing in everything we do with a horse. They are not confined to the dressage arena or even just to riding. When the horsemanship is good, focus, clarity and softness becomes part of everything we do with a horse from the way we catch it to the way we ride the most difficult movements of any discipline.
The reason I say this is because when we have a high degree of focus, clarity and softness the everyday problems we face in handling and riding our horses melt away. As an example consider my own horses. All my horses load onto a float really well, tie up with no problem, stand quietly for the farrier, are comfortable riding in a group or on their own, can be ridden at the front or the rear or middle of a large group of horses, don’t suffer from separation anxiety or are home bound on rides. Yet, I have not spent anytime working specifically on any of those issues. Any problems in those areas are taken care of because I am always trying to improve the focus, clarity and softness of my horses. Most people have to train their horse to go into a float. This is because the focus, clarity and softness they have put into their work is not yet good enough to make float loading a non-issue.
I’m not saying my horses don’t have problems – they have plenty for me to work on. But those problems will only be truly a thing of the past forever if I improve the level of focus, clarity and softness in everything I present to my horses. If I don’t make improvement in those training elements, the problems will continue to rear their head every time the level of difficulty in the work is ramped up a notch.
So even if you strictly adhere to the GTS, the benefit will only be felt if you are working on focus, clarity and softness. Without it, your horse is just going through the motions of being submissive. The quality of the performance will suffer because it depends on your ability to maintain the submissiveness without killing the spirit of the horse.
So what do I mean by focus, clarity and softness? Today I will just talk about focus and the next couple of blogs I will give some detail about clarity and softness.
Focus at first appears to have an obvious meaning, but to me in the context of good horsemanship focus embraces several concepts. Firstly, a horse needs to be attentive to the rider/handler. But no horse will give 100% attention – he can’t. He must have some focus on the world around him to be sure that the lion behind the tree doesn’t kill him or even that he sees the tree before he crashes into it. I want my horse to be aware of his surrounds and what is going on around him.
I want my horse to have a calm and relaxed focus on me rather than a concentration that comes from not daring to check out anything else in case the world caves in on him. I don’t want him to be afraid of me or afraid to look elsewhere. I want his attentiveness to be an interest in me rather than wariness. When I present an idea to him I want it to be important to him. It should matter to him that I have changed something. I shouldn’t be interrupting him in any big way when I speak to my horse.
But just as important as my horse being attentive to me is that I can direct his focus elsewhere. I would like to be able to get him to think about going forward and send his thought forward first for his feet to catch up. By being able to send his thought forward it means that when he goes forward he is not fleeing from what’s behind him. When you kick a horse that won’t go and he suddenly starts moving forward, he is running away from your pressure. But when you send his thought forward first he is running to something. There is far more freedom in his forwardness when this happens than when he is escaping from something.
So focus means having a horse calm and quiet attention and being able to direct his attention too.
Like most everything else, focus is never an all or nothing. You get degrees of focus. The level of focus you might need from a horse for something simple like brushing his tail, may not be enough when you want to control his speed around a cross country course or ask for one time flying changes. The greater the demands you place on a horse, the harder his brain should be working, the more focus you require. Sometimes you start with only 10% of a horse’s attention, say at his first competition. But you are always working to build that up to 20%, then 50%, and 70% and maybe one day you’ll get 90%.
Without a good degree of focus, clarity and softness are not possible. These things are interdependent any results you achieve with a horse will depend on all three elements being of sufficient quality to perform at the level you require.
Just about everything in this clip is wrong in terms of the training scale.
There is something wrong with the link to the August archive. I can’t yet work out why the calendar box is not linking to the folder. I will spend some time on the problem as soon as possible. In the meantime you should be able to read the August archive by clicking here.
Jean Luc Cornille
Have a look at this clip.
The trainer is a well-known dressage trainer in Florida, USA. About the only thing to recommend Jean Luc Cornille is that he can sit pretty well on vertical horses. He claims the horse was developing a hoof abscess and the pain made it rear. Yet, I see no sign of lameness or unevenness in the horse’s movement. I have never come across a horse showing such extreme behaviour because of an abscess without some kind of lameness. And if you search through other videos of the same horse and same trainer, you’ll find other examples of rearing behaviour. Does the horse have chronic hoof abscess problems?
I think the cause of the rearing behaviour is more likely to be seen in this next video.
Se you can see how unfocused the horse is. He looks outside the circle constantly when being lunged. Even when he approaches the jump quietly, he is not checking in the either the jump or Jean Luc. The horse is like this because he hates his training
Notice the behaviour after the jump and how Jean Luc is oblivious to the fact the horse is doing it’s own thing – which is to express his feelings about Jean Luc and being made to jump the poles. He is not a happy horse. Jean Luc is completely unaware of the horse’s feelings about the exercise. He seems to make the stupid assumption that the important part is how the horse approaches the jump and misses entirely the part about what goes on after the jump.
To me this screams loud and clear than Jean Luc is a trick trainer, not a dressage master, as he would like us to believe. He is misses the part where what goes on inside a horse is more important than the outside. His horse rears because of what is going on inside. Yet, Jean Luc prefers to blame the mysterious and multiple hoof abscesses for the rearing! His training is about teaching movement or tricks and when that does not go well he teaches rearing behaviour, which he obviously does well.
Jean Luc is like so many trainers. If you read his web site, it makes for a good read. He makes lots of statements that are hard to argue with. He produces physiological facts that support of his concepts. He makes appropriate references to past master that back up his ideas. He makes a lot of the right noises. But when you see him working with his horses, you realize he has nothing but words to offer his horses. It becomes clear he doesn’t even understand his own concepts. It’s just white noise. What he says and what he does have very little relation to each other.
So my question is, how do people like this get a following? Another mystery I will die never knowing the answer to.
You’ve See Bad, Now Some Good Dressage Training
Just to prove to you that not all dressage is bad, here is a clip of a young horse being schooled in basic dressage. Marijke is working her horse mainly off the cavesson noseband and the bit is only supporting the flexion. But what I most like about this video is how Marijke corrects the horse and then leaves him alone. He makes lots of mistakes, Marijke uses the reins and seat to explain to him his mistake and then allows him the freedom to explore if that worked for him or not. This is in total contrast to most dressage I see where the horse is held in a frame and box by the rider’s reins and legs and the horse cannot explore outside that box and learn to be responsible for how to carry himself.
I think the video shows a pretty contented horse despite the difficulties he is having understanding the movements. I also like Marijke’s taste in music – I think it’s Dave McKenna – if anybody knows differently please let me know.
Hi Ross Just wanted to let you know that I love your alternative training scale, for two reasons. First of all, I don't have to be performing piaffe to reach the heights of your training scale, I could just be riding in the paddock, but I know if I get that wonderful feeling of softness from my horse then I am doing the best thing possible at that moment. And secondly, your scale indicates not just what I want from the horse, but what I have to offer him. You got me thinking about the term "clarity" and I think it's fabulous, because it encompasses so much. If I want to offer my horse clarity, then I need to be consistent and purposeful and calm and confident, all of which are things I struggle with - so it's a great word to have in mind when I'm with my horse. Now to my question - and it's a really basic one. When I am lunging Cooper he tends to stay too close to me. I can push him out onto a larger circle with my body, but that involves me walking in a larger circle to maintain that size. So, to get him moving on a large circle while I remain closer to the centre, is it just a matter of scaring the bejeesus out of him so he'll stay away? Or is there a more dignified method? And how important is it that I can get him to maintain a certain distance from me? Thanks again for your advice and insight, Allaana
Thanks very much for your thoughts on the training scale. I agree with you regarding clarity. But I think if you take the time to think about focus, clarity and softness, you'll discover deeper layers to each that will have relevance to your horse work. There are many facets to each of them. I also think the order of focus, then clarity, then softness is important. I don't know if I emphasized that enough in my post, but I think that not only does relates to the other, but prioritizing the order of each opens the way to expanding the training to a much greater degree.
Your questions about lunging Cooper is very common. There are lots of different approaches you can take with teaching him to stay on the perimeter of the circle. I'm going to suggest a relatively easy way, but you will have to experiment and maybe adjust things to suit Cooper. I could talk about Cooper's thought and why he is cutting in on the circle, but let's just get to making that idea a bad idea in his mind.
The thing I would suggest is that you learn to slow his feet down when he is being lunged. That is, can you get Cooper to go from a trot to a halt in a stride or two by wiggling the lunge line or lead rope? This is important. You need to be able to slow his forward down almost instantaneously while still keeping on the circle. I usually teach this from bumping the lead rope until he slows.
Now to keep him from falling in on the circle, ask him to lunge around you with a whip or stick in your free (or trailing) hand - so if he is on the left circle, the whip is in your right hand. As you begin to notice him cutting the circle, walk slightly towards his shoulder (don't charge) and wave the whip or stick across the ground towards his shoulder too. At the same time he will try to escape by going forward faster, use your lead rope bumping to slow Cooper down. Don't let him go forward until you see him try to take a step sideways away from you. Stop wiggling the rope and walking towards him and allow him to go forward on the circle. Repeat it every time you feel him falling in even slightly. Put pressure on his shoulder to go away from you by stepping towards it, waving the whip at the shoulder on the ground, and slowing his forward so that instead of going faster to escape the pressure he goes sideways to escape the pressure. It normally takes very little repetition for a horse to learn to give it up. Remember not to let him escape by going faster. He needs to take that same energy and go sideways. Don't release the pressure until he makes a side step or an attempt at one. As I use to tell my friend Harry "it's a matter of vectors."
Examples Of Classical Dressage
Since I seem to have a strong dressage bent in this post, I thought I’d finish with some examples of dressage movements that are rarely seen anywhere in the world.
Some of the movements shown are still used in competition like the passage and one time flying changes. But most of the movements are no longer practiced by competition riders and only found among few classical schools. The canter to the rear, terre-a-terre and pesade shown in the clip are among the best examples I have ever seen.
I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome to spring. I have moved the August blog to the archives and you can access it by clicking on the AUG box in the sidebar. There is also a new chapter in the Satts saga on the Story page, which I hope you enjoy.
A Couple Of Issue Regarding Starting A Horse
I’ve been tossing up whether or not to write about this topic because it has the potential to get me into hot water with a particular well-known trainer and his followers. But I think there are some important lessons to be learned from the subject, so I’m going say something.
There are a zillion things to talk about with regard to breaking in horses. But a couple of them have come to mind recently that I’d like to mention.
The first concerns a comment regarding another trainer by one of his clients. The person was recommending the trainer to another person with the comment, “He’s really good. He does most of his riding on the road, so they’re really quiet to ride in traffic.”
There was a trainer that lived near me in Victoria too that people use to recommend almost entirely because he did most of his riding on the road too. People seem to think this is a good thing. I guess it’s because some folks get nervous about riding a green horse on the road or trail and feel reassured that the breaker has worked a lot on that issue.
I don’t do a lot of trail or roadwork before sending a horse home. I do some. But most horses get between 2 and 6 rides out before they are ready to go home. Most of my work is done in the round yard, arena and paddock.
Well, it comes back to my alternate training scale – focus, clarity and softness. These are the things that I spend most of my time working on a horse. When I have a half decent handle on these basic things for the green horse, I never have any issues with riding them out on the road. They never get anxious from separation anxiety. They rarely shy except at the occasional thing that surprises them (like a deer in the bush). They never bolt and cars hardly ever bother them. The issues that people worry about with riding their green horse out on the road don’t really become a problem if the horse has focus, clarity and softness.
My concern with trainers who ride out a lot is that most of them are doing nothing more than being passengers trying to get the horse accustomed to being ridden out. They use the familiarity that comes with being ridden on roads a lot as a substitute for training. To me, training is more of a mental exercise than a physical one. I am training the horse’s brain to accept me and accept being directed by me. I don’t have to do miles and miles if I am connecting to the mind of the horse. But if I’m not making that connection I had better do lots and lots of miles to at least get the horse use to things.
I’m not bagging riding on trails or the road. A lot of good work can be achieved out there. But most people don’t put in the good work. They simply ride in an effort to get the horse use to being ridden away from home. But I don’t find it very necessary. The horses I start are generally pretty good on the trail because of the work done at home.
Here is a clip by Warwick Schiller. He is answering a question about separation anxiety in horses. His answer directly relates to the subject about the need to do lots of riding on the road or trail when breaking a horse in.
My second concern is regarding the importance of obedience in training. I was browsing a book at the library the other day. It was one of Andrew McLean’s books (I can’t remember the title) where he discusses learning theory. Learning theory is a term coined by him to describe his idea of how training can be applied to a horse in accord with how he believes horses learn. My interpretation of his views is that horses should be taught to obey commands from a handler or ride and that every problem stems from a break down in obedience to those commands. For example, the rider applies the leg aid to ask the horse to go. If the horse does not go, the leg aid is applied firmer or for longer until the horse goes forward. That’s it – no questions ask. Now this may seem reasonable at the start. But consider how Andrew applies this principle. He has stated in the past (I think it was in an article in The Horse Magazine) that if a horse spooks at an object the rider should direct the horse towards the object until the horse sniffs it. If the horse does not approach the object it is a failure of the go command and the horse is demonstrating disobedience to the rider’s leg. In this case the solution would be reinforce obedience to the rider’s leg through further training.
I refer to Andrew’s work only because his booked reminded me of why I don’t like it. But there are lots of trainers who approach training in the same way. For them, training is about teaching obedience and disobedience is a lack of training to the aids.
But in my view what these trainers don’t appreciate is that probably most disobedience is an emotional decision for a horse. Most of the time (but, not always) when a horse says “no” is stems from a concern for his safety or anxiety caused by confusion or lack of confidence. Rarely does a horse say “no” from belligerence. It mostly comes from an emotional concern. But rather than address the emotional concern, they treat the horse as if his disobedience is a considered decision derived from a bad attitude.
If a trainer does not appreciate the emotional component of disobedience and works in way that is only concerned with blind obedience, there is no reason for a horse to ever have confidence or trust in anything a trainer may ask. If the human shows the horse he does not care if the horse lives or dies by demanding he sniff the scary object, what does that do for the relationship?
Check out this video clip. It’s Andrew’s son, Warwick working with a young breaker. You might notice that Warwick does nothing that actually helps the horse do better. He just tests to see what the horse will do. But the focus, clarity and softness are exactly the same at the end of the clip as they are at the start. This exactly my experience with training horses for obedience.
Sensitive vs Unflappable Horses
Hi again Ross,
Saw the Annie Oakely clip. Bags not being the photographer. Hopefully the sheds, floats, fences and audience aren’t full of holes from the less competent competitors. I thought the horse and lady made a good team. Both knew what they had to do and did it well. Can see that as a good demo at pony club!
What I wanted to comment about was your blog and how much the sensitive gelding so describes my horse. In the early days when I was in a bad place with my horse, I wondered if a very sensitive horse could ever really be a ‘safe’ horse and one a mum should ride, even with training. Despite that I decided to push on and see where I ended but first with groundwork. Funnily enough, I found once I made a connection with horse, I feel less worried about fact he is sensitive. With that connection, he was less afraid of everything, not so over reactive and will listen and steady now if he is worried. His desire to please when he is really trying is lovely as is the way he moves. Out on the trail now, he is mostly very relaxed and tolerates completely different areas now without too many problems. In the last training sessions he has not done more than head up and alert, then will drop his head and relax on my cue if something bothers him. I’m running out of neighbour’s houses to visit now without walking miles and miles. But I really look forward to exposing him to as much as I can.
My old TB that I told you about was a scaredy cat but I always felt safe with him and connected to him. We always rode alone out bush. The key was the relationship. I’ll keep working on it with horse. I want to get to a place where I will feel my horse and I are ready for that first ride. I am following my gut feelings about him. Ultimately I don’t want to put someone else on first to confuse or worry him then have a ride myself. I want to have him so connected to me before this that the first ride is not a big issue, just another process. I remember watching him with a trainer and he was anxious and kept looking over in my direction. Probably thinking what’s going on here! First you confuse me then hand me over to someone I don’t even know or trust to confuse me and worry me!
I have reflected on your comments about shut down seemingly safe bomb proof horses and how people can be lulled into a false sense of security about their safety. That story you mentioned a while back about the lady whose horse bolted in a blind panic, went through a fence and flipped over comes to mind. My first question is what kind of relationship did she have with her horse and what did she miss in his body language leading up to that event.
Anyway thanks again for some interesting thoughts
In my blog I tried to make the point that most of us find it easy to do basic stuff with dull horses and hard with sensitive horses. But the sensitive horse is often capable of giving much more in the longer term because they have such a strong motivation to avoid pressure. They are always looking for what will work better for them. I enjoy this type of horse much more than the ones I am constantly try to motivate to search for answers. The stoic horses are the ones that I think I struggle much more with. I think I do a better job on the Arabs and TB than I do on the draft horses. Of course, a horse that is somewhere in the middle of both types is preferred. That middle spot between the two is where I am trying to get every horse to be. The sensitive horses start from one side of that middle spot and the dull horses start from the opposite side - but for each horse I am trying to head them to that middle spot. In the end I want them both to look like the same horse under saddle. Of course, they won't be. But the better job that I do the fewer people will see that.
I was reading your blog on sensitive vs. unflappable horses. I have another category to add, apparently I have a sensitive unflappable horse.
Things went beyond fabulous in the last month. In a week or two Megan and her working students restored Tort's confidence. They trained him initially and in fact he was the one who taught one of her working students to jump. It helps a lot that they adore him. A Big difference is a consistent focus on positive. Lots of attaboys for doinng things well, rather than constant reprimands for what was done wrong.
Then we got to work on me. It wasn't hard, trust the horse, grab the jumping strap and stand up as it's hard to ride defensively when you are forward and LET GO OF HIS FACE.
It also didn't hurt for an advanced level rider to tell me my horse knows what he is doing, trust him. So I did.
We got third in our first horse trial last Sunday, but more importantly, I have started looking forward to cross country rather than dreading it. I've learned when Tort gets bothered, it's because he thinks he's in trouble, and dropping the reins and giving him a reassuring pat is usually all that needs to be done. He is a sweet unflappable horse, but it's actually quite easy to hurt his feelings and make him feel insecure.
Megan is too far for me to keep Tort with her, although I would dearly love to. My concern now is to make sure I don't regress. Megan's advice it to HAVE FUN. I am not trying to find a solution to world hunger, I just need to ride my horse. She said to jump, jump, jump, I think perhaps no formal lessons for a while, especially nit-picky dressage lessons where we are wrong, wrong, wrong, no, no. no. Bad, bad, bad.
We (ok I,, there was never a thing wrong with Tort) made a big change. Do you have any advice on how not to slip back to old habits? I do want to work on dressage and details but Tort needs to understand he's not in trouble if he isn't perfect. For the time being, I am just not going to go there.
Any thoughts welcome.
I'm very glad to hear that your trainer has been a big help in getting you on the path you have been looking for.
The idea that Tort is a sensitive horse who shows unflappable qualities is exactly what we should be training towards. In my reply to Maryanne, I mention that the sensitive horse and the stoic horse are at opposite ends of the scale. But our job is to help each make a shift towards the middle of the scale, so the sensitive horse becomes more settled and less reactive and the stoic horse becomes more responsive and softer. It sounds like that is the shift you are seeing with Tort.
Don't be too quick to abandon the dressage. Dressage is the basis of all training and is even more important in a jumping horse than most people appreciate. However, the approach to dressage that Tort has been exposed to needs to be re-thought. Clearly, his earlier training was not for him and he needs a approach more tailored to his emotional needs. Nevertheless, some horses need a break from the arena - especially if the arena work has been hard on him. The flat work can still be part of his jumping sessions.
With regard to avoiding falling back into bad habits, I just think you need help from a sympathetic trainer. When things are not going well, it's never a bad idea to go back to basics. Work on his focus and rhythm. Keep the contact loose. Don't be bothered about head carriage or frames. Focus more on riding lines - straight lines, curves lines, zig-zag lines, squiggly lines. Keep his thought and his feet on the lines. Give him a purpose to why you are riding him. Ride to the gate, open it and then close it again. Pretend you are chasing a slow cow in the arena or paddock. Keep him busy, but don't hassle him.
Don't know if you saw this one, but I'm willing to bet it will make you as angry as it makes me: http://www.horseandhound.co.uk/news/397/309300.html
I can sort of see a potential use for a dummy once you had a horse working in getting a horse accustomed to people falling off it, which might be necessary if you were working with kids ponies or in other cases where frequent falls are fairly probable, but that doesn't seem to be what the creators of that particular tool have in mind. It's depressingly representative of the state of horse training here.
I live in a country where the state of horsemanship is so lamentable that this is considered acceptable and, indeed, a good idea.
Thanks Ben. It looks alot like the dummy Monty Roberts use to use in his colt starting demonstrations. It leaves me wondering why somebody who would want to use something like that is even thinking about starting a horse. There are so many things wrong with that concept. What idiot thinks that breaking in a horse is about teaching a horse to ignore a dummy flopping around on his back? What relevance does that have to teaching him to be a good riding horse?