It seems quite a crowd is expected for the clinic and the 3 days look to be very busy. One participant even travelled 2 days from Minnesota and had to deal with 2 separate incidents of blown tyres on her trailer. I appreciate her making such an effort because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t go through so much trouble to ride with me.
Below are just a few questions I have about horses that I cannot find an answer. You’ve probably got your own list of things that puzzle you about them. I don’t know if I will ever get answers, but I find that knowing there are is so much that I don’t know keeps me interested.
How do two or more horses decide within seconds of meeting if they will be friend or foe?
I have wondered for a long time what is it that makes a horse decide whether or not they will get along with another horse or be mortal enemies.
Clearly there is a lot of ritual going when they first meet. But it only takes a second or two for them to make their minds up about another horse. The way they greet another horse makes me suspect that scent plays a role in the decision making, but I think it may be more complicated than simply the way another horse smells.
Why do horses that don’t get along become good friends after they have been trailered together?
I have observed many times that when two horses that don’t generally get along are travelled somewhere together they inevitably become very friendly when they arrive at their destination.
My thought about this is that they share an emotionally difficult experience and it bonds them to each other in a new tolerance of each other. I don’t have any evidence to know if this is true or not, so it leaves the question open.
How can horse A boss horse B and horse B boss horse C, but horse C also boss horse A?
It’s clear that a herd is not a simple pecking order of each horse having a set place within the herd. The position of horses can change. Some become more dominant and some lose their place of dominance. But what intrigues me is how a generally more submissive horse can dominate a generally more dominant horse.
In our own herd at home Teddy (our Shetland) is pretty bossy and can push other horses off the food. But Guy, who is easily pushed around by the other horses can push Teddy off the food. There must be a lot more going on in a herd that simply one-on-one dominance. I don’t know what it is, but I think the hierarchical nature of a herd must be more sophisticated than we understand.
What is the role does smell or smelling in communication between horses?
Smelling objects, people and other horses is a very common behaviour in horses. It almost seems that using their noses as the first form of communication. Even when two horses are the best of mates they will greet each other by sniffing. They’ll even sniff their own manure!
I’d like to know the role that smells play in communication and what information they are able to gather by smelling things.
Why is the gestational length of horses so variable?
Horses have a notoriously variable gestational length. It can vary by up to 20% from horse to horse. This is quite unusual in the animal kingdom. On first appearances it would seem to put horses at an evolutionary disadvantage to give birth to foals that are at variable stages of maturity. But it works pretty well. I’d like to know the mechanisms that allow this to happen. Is determined by placental function or development of the fetal endocrine system. Can it be affected by maternal health or nutrition status?
How does a horse that is so acutely aware of almost everything process the information without constantly suffering information overload?
This is a question that has plagued me for decades. We all know that horses are acutely aware of the surrounds. They are able to take in much more information than people. They notice the smallest changes to their environment that we filter out.
That being said and given their reasonably cognitive function, how can they absorb so much information and filter out what is important and what is unimportant? Why don’t they constantly suffer information overload? What is different about their brains that allow them to operate with so much information constantly streaming in?
These are just some questions I have that I’d like answers to. I’m sure there are others that would pop into my head if I thought about it more, but this are at the top of my thoughts. And the longer I live I believe the more questions I will have with fewer answers.
Dear Ross Jacobs,
I wonder if you might find a moment to help me either re-think or re-articulate what we are doing when we are behind the horse driving in a cart or ground driving. I think it is the word "driving" and also the fact that of necessity one is positionally located behind the horse that has me bewildered. Obviously the furthest thing from my mind is to drive the horse forward in a fight or flight mode. Can cues and signals given from any position "behind" - including I suppose in longeing or even the use of the legs behind the girth whilst riding - remain simply cues and signals if the intention of the handler or driver or rider is both pure and clear? Does a horse who is being driven in a cart alway feel as though someone is chasing him or pushing him away? My eyes and my heart tell me that this is not so, but I am having difficulty thinking this all through clearly.
Many thanks if you have time to reply and I certainly understand that you may be just too busy for this intrusion.
In the context with which I used the word "driving" in my blog, it referred to evoking a flight response in a horse - not sending a horse forward. You can certainly send a horse forward from a position behind it, as you point out when carriage driving. That's not a problem because when there is no flight response, the "drive" to go forward is a "directing" to go forward. It's all in how a horse perceives the human's signal. If a horse is running away from a rider's leg or a carriage driver's whip, there is a sense of trying to escape from the pressure. But when a horse understands the cues and is not bothered by the pressure, then the perception of the horse is that he is being signaled to go toward something in front of him, not escaping something that is behind him. It's all in how we train our horse to understand and perceive our signals. And as I said in my earlier blog, sometimes you have to "drive" a horse so that he can learn to be "directed". We are always looking to be able to direct our horses, but in a very confused or stuck horse we might need to initially put a little worry in him and drive him at first. It depends on the horse and the situation.
I hope clear up the confusion.
I have just purchased a horse and at viewing the horse we asked if it had any vices and they said no.
The day the horse arrived at my place it started windsucking. Could you please explain to me If windsucking is a habit that is progressively learnt over a period of time and the detrimental effects that it has on a horses health ect?
Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.
I have don't know much about windsucking. I've never owned a horse with the problem. It is clearly a behaviour that indicates stress and sometimes physical discomfort. I know many believe windsucking is a learned behaviour from other horses, but I know of cases where it appears to be a spontaneous behaviour.
Even though most cases seem to derive from emotional stress, there have been reports that it can be brought on by physical problems like ulcers.
I don't know of any cure for the behaviour. In mild cases it doesn't do much harm, but in severe cases it can cause malnutrition, severe wearing of the teeth, colic and even death. The windsucking collars don't seem to work very well except in very mild cases. Most people try to remove objects from the paddock or stall that the horse can bite into. But I have known a horse that was so committed to his behaviour that he would bite on the ground.
I think if you have a horse that is showing early signs or that has a very mild case, you could test for ulcers or other metabolic causes. Following that, provide him with plenty of mental stimulation like regular quality work, a play companion or two, good sized paddock etc.
I'm sorry I am not a lot of help. There are people with a lot more experience than me and I'm sure an internet search will yield some good info and ideas.
Some of you may remember the “Where Is Matt?” video clip from a couple of years ago. If not check it out. It’s wonderful.
As you know I don’t normally put non-horse videos up, but this is special. Here is the new instalment of Matt Harding’s travels around the world. It’s well worth watching – especially if you need cheering up.
There has been more hot weather today and I have a couple of lessons in the late afternoon. I get up at 3:30am tomorrow morning to catch a flight to San Francisco where I connect to another flight to Montana. Friday is the start of my 3 day clinic in Three Rivers Montana. I’ve not been to Montana before, so it will be all new people and new horses to work with.
I have to apologize that the email for Julie Cowell listed on the Schedule page has been wrong. People interested in the August clinic in Wagga Wagga have contacted me to let me know of the error. It’s my fault and I apologize if people have been getting their emails bounced. The correct email is now on the page and there should be no problem contacting Julie for details about the clinic.
And don’t forget I’ll be in Adelaide after the Wagga Wagga clinic for folks in SA. The contact information for Debbie is correct for that clinic, so you should have no problem getting the info you want.
A friend once said to me, “Ya know, riding use to be fun before I met you!”
At the time I was helping her through a problem with a thoroughbred filly she had acquired that would get rushy. I didn’t give it much thought because I knew there was a hint of sarcasm behind her statement due to the fact that I was making her work her tail off.
But as I am doing more clinics I see how serious people are taking their horsemanship. I see the frustration with their horse and with themselves. I see some of them wanting to give up on their horse and some even wanting to give up horses all together. I see the joy of being around a horse buried under the seriousness of learning to be good around a horse. The excitement of riding slowly turns into the challenge of riding well that slowly eats away at the enjoyment.
I am beginning to wonder what part trainers; clinicians; coaches and instructors play in the transformation of taking the fun out of riding. Of course we play a role in helping people that are riding horses that are no fun to ride find the fun again by improving the relationship with their horse. But we also spend so much time correcting every little thing with the horse and the rider that I wonder if the whole process of learning becomes a negative experience that takes some of the enjoyment away.
People who are not in trouble with their horse come to me and because they want something better than they have, my job becomes to pick away at the elements of their riding and horsemanship that could be better. When I do this they become aware of many things that were oblivious to them beforehand. Once I’ve pointed them out, many people can’t forget what has been said – it’s there for life. I might say to a client that her horse drops his penis because of the worry he has about her on the ground. When I do that I’ve suddenly changed her idea from thinking the horse was happy and relaxed to thinking her horse is stressed by her and hates her. I can’t take it back. Every time she sees her horse’s penis poking out she will get concerned that she is stressing her horse. It forever changes the whole dynamics of how she relates to her horse on the ground. Maybe the change is a good thing, but at the same time a little of her blissful ignorance has been taken away from her.
I watched the teenagers at the clinic recently in Ben Lomond, California. They were interested and keen and worked hard during their sessions with me. But outside of their clinic time they were riding their horses around the ranch having a ball cantering up the hills and chatting away, watching the sessions of others etc. They were having fun just sitting on their horses, being with their horses. And none of the horses seemed overly stressed by the experience. Many people at the clinic expressed the opinion how much fun it was to have the kids there and what a fun atmosphere they contributed to the clinic.
It has been my experience that people who are fairly new in their journey into horsemanship go through a period of questioning their right to own a horse or ever touch a horse again. They become aware of the things they don’t know and it overwhelms them. They care about their horse and they want the best for him, but feel like failures at offering him what he needs. Thankfully most people get past this point. Their goal becomes learning to be better horse people in order to give their horse a better life. But like everything in life the waters are rarely smooth and there are periods of self-doubt and depression that sometimes have us refusing to even visit with our horses because of how we feel. This is when it is hardest to find the fun in horses again.
I don’t have any answers. Being good with horses is hard. I don’t believe it is easy for anybody, even people who have natural talent. But the rewards of getting along well with a horse makes the stress and work well worthwhile when you come out the other side of the doubt and despair.
I am enjoying your web site and hope your travels are a success.
I have a 4 year old QH that does not like to stop. When I use the reins to make him stop he tries to pull them out of my hand with his nose. He can be very strong about it and if I don’t let them go he does it over and over until I do. Do you have any suggestions?
I would first consider that you check that a visit from the dentist is not overdue and also make sure your bit is a good fit. You can get a good idea if the problem is a physical one related to mouth and bit issues by riding him without a bit for a while. If he still roots the reins even after riding for an hour without the bit then you probably are dealing with a training issue.
The first thing you might think about is to not release the reins or let them slip through your fingers when he does try to pull on them. Hold firm until he stops rooting on them. When that happens release completely so there is nothing for him to pull against. You need to have your reins long enough that when you let them go even with his nose pushed out as far as possible there is still a drape in them. But when you take a feel of the reins you need to make sure there is no give or leeway for him to find comfort by trying to root them out of your hand.
If after trying this approach the issue persists over a few rides you might try another approach that requires a little more action on your part. Start by walking him forward and when you are ready to halt, rather than ask for a halt ask for a back up with no halting. In other words you go from a walk to a back up in one motion. At first this may be quite a struggle and he will offer a little argument because you shattered his preconceived ideas of what to expect when you pick up the reins. But with a few repetitions he will start to take notice and prepare to yield more readily to the reins. The timing for you to let go of the reins is when your horse makes a good step backwards – not a heavy shuffle back, but a good and semi-free step. Do as little as you can, but as much as you have to in order to make that clear to your horse. And again, when you let go of the reins make sure there is enough drape that if he pushes into them he can’t reach the end of the reins.
Also I should add that you should be riding with no contact in between the walk and back up. Make the signal between the walk (with no reins) and the back up (with reins) as clear and obvious as possible.
As your horse becomes better at yielding to the reins you can work at this at a trot to rein back. Working through this exercise will make your walk to halt transitions seem effortless.
I hope that gives you some ideas to work with and experiment to find an answer.
More horsepower is not always everything.
There has been an interesting group of horses ranging from tightly wound and green off the track thoroughbred to the quintessential Quarter Horses that has been a participant of many Harry Whitney clinics. The variety has been interesting and kept me on my toes. I stay here until Thursday when I fly to Montana for a clinic starting on Friday. The days are being filled in with some lessons and tomorrow I am being taken to Yosemite for a day of tourism.
I mentioned in my last post some of the young people in the clinic at Ben Lomond. Here are a couple of photos of Maisy and Kayla working with their horses. The photos are courtesy of Kalyla’s dad, Al - thank you very much.
There was an instance a few days ago that came up during a lesson that is perhaps worth giving my thoughts about.
A lady asked for help getting her horse’s attention. The QH mare was very distracted and could do little more than give her owner a passing glance. I asked her to show me how she goes about working with her horse. As the owner was about to move the mare the horse whinnied out to some horses moving on the hill. The owner’s immediate and instant reaction was to yank the lead rope hard and then flap her arms wildly.
When I asked her to stop and tell me why she did that her reply was to get the horse to focus on her and not the other horses. I knew why she did it but I wanted her to articulate it for everybody watching.
I talked to her for some little time about why her reaction may not have been productive in her quest to get her horse to pay attention.
When the horse called to the other horses it would probably have been of real benefit to direct the horse to go somewhere or do something rather than scare him as a punishment for being mentally somewhere else. This is one of those cases where moving the feet can help change the thought rather than asking a change of thought to move the feet as I normally talk about.
By blowing up when the horse called to the other horses the lady told her horse he was bad for doing that, but didn’t give him any reason why. She didn’t offer him an alternative to focussing on the other horses. She didn’t fill in the void left when her horse jumped and tried to flee from her attack on him. He was punished for no benefit.
You have to ask why would he pay attention to her when she did something like that?
Gail Ivey made the comment to me several days ago that when some people try to change a horse’s thought they are sometimes unsure which thought they are trying to change. I agree with this. But I would add even more importantly is that when they do get a change of thought in a horse people don’t always have another substitute thought ready to fill the void in the horse’s mind – they leave him to fill the void on his own rather than offer him a new thought.
If the lady had just walked away and expected her horse to lead well with her when she whinnied there was a chance that by directing her she would have drawn the mare’s attention away from the horse’s on the hill and formed a new thought in the mind of the horse to walk with the owner.
When you ask a horse to stop doing something you had better have a job in mind to fill in the empty space left. If you don’t, the horse will fill it in with his own idea or job, which maybe not what you want either.
I gave a lesson today to a fellow who competes in reining. By all accounts he does pretty well in the non-professional events. He brought a horse that is competing somewhere in the middle level of competition (whatever that is called). As you all know I know next to nothing about reining, but the mare is very pretty and moves really nicely. I liked her a lot.
He said that he fears he has gone as far as he can with the mare until he teaches her to lift her front end up and carry herself less on the forehand. The judges really like her but this is an ongoing problem that is hindering further advancement in competition.
I watched him ride for a while. I could see that despite an outward appearance of quietness and calmness in the mare there was an inward turmoil. She didn’t throw her head or swish her tail or excessively play with the bit, but there was anxiety bubbling away underneath the surface.
I observed some rein backs, a few “turn arounds” (similar to a spin), several stops and some walk/trot work. I directed the rider to slow down and pick up the reins to block the curling of the neck. He did a good job at blocking the neck from curling down too much, but he struggled to slow her down in her movement.
I asked to ride the horse, which he seemed glad to let me do. The mare wanted to hurry through the turn around and hurry in the rein back. I slowed her right down until it looked like her feet were in slow motion. I asked her to pick her front up slowly and step her outside front foot across her inside front foot as slow as possible then stand for a moment with her weight off her forehand. Then I let her walk forward crashing on her forehand. It was really hard for this mare to slow down. But I worked and worked on it and as she got better she was able to hold her weight off her forehand for longer.
In the rein back I also asked her to slow down a step at a time and insisted she didn’t flex at the 3rd vertebrae where she curled her chin onto her chest. I tried to keep her off her forehand with each step. Again it was a struggle for her to be able to go slow. But with a few minutes work she was lifting her back, bending more at the poll and carrying herself with more weight on her hindquarters. It was not perfect or even very good, but it was a lot better.
I talk to the rider about slowing down his mare. He said he saw how it helped her, but in his preparation for the competition he felt he needed to build in speed and cadence because judges were always looking for that.
I explained that the anxiety inside the mare comes from him hurrying her to speed up when she was not ready. The horse was not confident and comfortable with the movements at slow speed and instead of waiting and working until she got where the movements felt good to her, he was hurrying her to go faster for the competition ring. This caused her to worry and made her be incorrect by falling on her forehand so much. It was important that he goes back and treats her like she was learning to perform rein back and turn arounds for the first time. Going slow would not only help her with her anxiety, but it would give him time to address the incorrectness in the way the mare operates. If things are going fast, by the time you notice that a horse has made a wrong step or drifted onto his forehand you maybe too late to do anything about. But by going slow you might have a better chance of interrupting the incorrectness before it gets too late.
A march of a thousand miles begins with one step. The reining horse will learn to go fast and carry himself correctly only after he has learned to be comfortable at carrying himself correctly going slowly. This is true whether a campdrafting horse chasing a cow or a barrel horse making a turn around a barrel. Go slow in order to someday go fast.
I just thought you may like an update on Rosie (you called her Connie), who you broke in back in 2008. She wasn't the easiest pony to start, but she has certainly rewarded me for my loyalty to her!
Last year was our final year in Darwin and competitively she had the following results:
Member of DHPC's dressage and games team for the NT Pony Club Championships (with my daughter)
Katherine Show - Reserve Champion Pony Hack (and my daughter won the best bareback rider under 18 on her - she is 11!)
ENT Champion Sporthorse under 15hh of the Year
ENT Runner Up Show Hunter Pony of the Year
ENT Reserve Champion Pony Dressage Novice Pony of the Year
ENT Reserve Champion Novice Freestyle Horse of the Year
Darwin Royal Show - Reserve Champion Pony Club Mount of the Show (with my daughter)
Darwin Royal Show - Winner of the fancy dress competition (with my daughter)
DHPC 2012 Dressage Horse of the Year
I know you're not really into show results, but this shows her versatility and how well she has been doing with us. It hasn't been all work and no play either - bush and beach rides etc. She has had a big rest so far this year as we moved to Bungendore (near Canberra) and have just been settling in.
Do you still do breaking in, or do you just give clinics now?
I am very impressed. And I am very happy to know that Connie has done so well and she continues to be loved. I remember that she and I had our moments of disagreement, but everybody loves a Connemarra with an opinion (as if there is any other kind!). Thanks so much for the update - I really appreciate it. It's always wonderful to get good news about horses and people from the past.
I don't train horses for people any more. I have re-focused my business entirely towards teaching horsemanship (I'm in California doing clinics at the moment).
Glad you are up and running again.
A background to my questions. (Don't feel you have to answer them if you are under the pump!)
iMy 1/3 share ownership foal is called Lucy. She and Vance (the mother separated yesterday). They were stalled for 24 hours together then Vance went to within eyesight, in a yard . Sunshine is 12 days ahead of Lucy in the "Get with the Souter program."
I moved "Sunshine" the gelded weanling that I am getting paid "to handle/wean" next door to Lucy to keep her company. Sunshine has now been off his mum for 10 days approx. I can catch him in the roundyard and he is becoming more settled.I can get him to step his shoulder over. He had a mow you down mentality. I want to put him in a small paddock by himself to test the catching til I am happy with that, but presently he has a job babysitting! I am confident he will be ok when I do the paddock thing.
Lucy is much easier to handle than him but now she is a little disconcerted with what I have done! She has had half hearted attempts at trying to climb/rear out of the stable. Sunshine did the same only much more forceful. He actually fell back down after getting his hooves up over the top. I think he stopped doing that once he fell.
Anyway. Sunshine has a little lack of forward ( he has been haltered for vet care on his back leg and a bit of "handling" from my Dad and his owner, Bob) and roped to be gelded about 3 weeks ago.) and I am not sure how to get it happening apart from scaring the "bejesus" out of him- which is not the aim of the game...
I wanted to use the flag and I new it would not go well but I had to try. So I started with walking Sunshine towards the flag and it ended ugly a couple of times, he reared and got the rope tangled around a front leg but I hung on and eventually it came free and somehow we went again. And after he fleetingly touched the flag by my insistence, I gave up and thought a better approach might be behind his front leg. That went better. He could handle it and over the front of the leg and even up to the wither and I even got him to walk forward. (around me). But he was ready to flee, waiting for me to stuff up.
If you were here you could berate and berate me into doing the right thing. Nah Nah Nah nah nah! ............ Since you are not....
QUESTION 1: do you think I should keep going to get Sunshine like Cowboy with the flag (and improve on that) or should I work on the going forward by the rope alone? WITH the rope alone, Sunshine follows, but not to the feel of the rope. As I go along the rope gets a drag in it. I have begun to pick up on this a bit better and am trying to tell him that if there is a drag in the rope there will be an unpleasant "tug". And then I will start again.
Sunshine can handle the rope between his front legs and will move each front leg. Tomorrow I am going to work on each back leg. I want to fix the "drag on the lead" before I begin float loading. I wanted to try and fix the drag thing before I started walking him around the farm yard. I thought I should get it better in the enclosed space first.(question 1b.: What do you think??
To get him to my place we used the rope around his bum to get him into the float. (His mum was in thew float and he would not go in with her.)
:question 2: To minimise risk when socialising filly and gelding weanlings Lucy and Sunshine, I want to put them in the roundyard as I feel if they play havoc they wont get caught in wire fences. But, Sunshine, laid into my dad's weanling gelding, Cheeky, really viciously (when the mares and foals) were in the same small enclosed yard too) and so I am nervous with a smallish area for the filly to run away. Maybe a large-ish paddock would be better.........
Any words of wisdom?
Comment: Who needs to take books on a clinic tour when you have "Gone With the Wind" email sagas to read!
ps. Fantastic to see you have some younger bunnies to deal with!
A1. It doesn't matter what you do as long as you get it better. It is neither here or there if you use the flag or the rope or Tom's stinky socks. If you are worried about getting him okay with the flag, don't use it. If you are confident then go for it.
A2. I don't know because I can't judge the personality of your horse from this far away. I would be nervous about letting them into a large paddock with wire fences because they could run through the wire out of sheer exuberance. My thought might be to make 2 yards side by side out of your round pen panels and stick one in each of them for a day or three. This way they can get familiar with each other without a lot of potential damage. Then re-build your round yard and put them together in there for a day or 3 before letting them out into a bigger paddock.
You’ll have to click on the screen to be sent to YouTube for this video because the owners have put some sort of block on where it can be viewed.
So I hope that is the end of the problem and thanks to everybody for letting me know about the issue and I am sorry for the inconvenience. But it is nice to know that so many people have an interest in the blog.
Clinic in California
I arrived in California last Wednesday after a long but uneventful flight. On the Friday I began the first of my clinics.
I want to first thank Sheri Rath for such brilliant job at organizing the 4 day clinic. It was her first attempt at such a task and it ran like clockwork. Any problem with running overtime were mine because I couldn’t shut up on time and kept working when I should have stopped.
It was wonderful to see a few friends from past years. But an added bonus was all the young people who attended and brought their horses. There were 5 young’uns from 12 to 20 years of age and they were great. Anyone who knows me knows that I love giving the young ones a hard time and stirring them up and this was a super bunch. They all worked hard and took my stirring with huge smiles and a generous spirit. I think everybody loved having them around and seeing the grins on their faces.
But everyone was fun to work with. The levels ranged from pretty new to horses to a professional trainer with 20 years experience. I wish I had some photos to show you, but unfortunately my camera missed the flight with me.
One subject that came up again and again at the clinic was the rider’s position in the saddle. Almost exclusively it was most obvious with the young people. At first I was perplexed why so many of them seemed to sit behind the point of balance and had a very strong habit of gripping with their legs to the sides of their horses. Then it dawned on me that they all rode their horses bareback a lot.
I’ve talk about the problems caused by bareback riding before on my blog. But it never hurts to repeat it again and again until it starts to penetrate the consciousness of people.
The photos below show two different types of bareback riding. One was very typical of what I saw at the clinic and the other was less typical.
When somebody rides a horse bareback there is an overwhelming need for most riders to sit on their bum or jean pockets. This encourages them to lean back. Most people don’t just tilt their pelvis so they can sit on the fat of their behind, but instead lean back from the shoulders in order to tilt the pelvis. They do this because it is relatively more comfortable to bounce on their bums than on their seat bones. So leaning back is a protective mechanism to make riding more comfortable. It doesn’t take long before leaning back feels a normal way to ride and sitting straight feels like leaning forward and tipping on in the front of the saddle. So when the rider shifts to sitting in a saddle that tries to balance them the habit persists to sit leaning back rather than be balanced with their shoulders, hip and legs lined up.
Leaning back in order to sit on your bum puts you behind the movement of the horse. The job of the rider is to offer the least amount of hindrance on the horse to move in whichever way we ask. This means that the rider’s balance needs to be as closely aligned to the centre of gravity of the horses. When riding on the flat this means being straight with the shoulders, hip and legs lined up. When going up a hill it means the rider should lean forward slightly. When riding down a hill it means leaning back a fraction. When riding a sidepass it means a little shift of the rider’s weight to the seat bone that’s closest to the direction the horse is moving.
When we are out of kilter with the horse’s centre of balance we become a drag on our horses and make it harder for him to get his own balance. The more out of kilter we are the more we get in the way of our horse. I often tell people to imagine how much harder it is to walk forward when you piggy-back a person who is leaning back and how much easier it is when they align their body as closely as possible with your body.
The second way in which bareback riding promotes poor riding habits is in the way most riders use their legs. For most people there is a natural tendency to grip with their legs to the sides of the horse in order help them keep balance and not slide off the side. This is natural and virtually everybody does it, especially at the start. But it doesn’t take long for this to become a habit that persists even when they are using a saddle.
Gripping the rider’s legs against the side of a horse creates two problems. It’s a fact that tension in one part of a rider’s body translates to tension in others parts. Gripping with the legs equates to muscle tension in the legs. Inevitably this causes tension in the pelvis and lower back of most riders and can even makes it way to the arms and neck too. It’s almost impossible to isolate the tension to just the legs alone. Tension in the legs will cause tension in other areas, which will interfere with communication, and relaxation in the horse.
Furthermore, closing a rider’s legs against a horse to maintain balance will also hinder the horse’s ability to get super responsive to a rider’s legs too. If you ride with 0.5kg of tension against the horse just for balance, it means that when you want to your horse to make a change in response to your legs you will need to apply pressure greater than 0.5kg. You won’t be able to get him to listen to 0.5kg or 0.4kg or 0.3kg of pressure because you have already taught him that 0.5kg means don’t respond to that level of pressure. So you are dulling your horse to the meaning of the legs.
It was really clear on the weekend how strongly these habits were entrenched in the people who rode bareback quite a bit. I am not worried about riding bareback once and while. The occasional ride without a saddle probably won’t be enough to ingrain hard to change habits. But riding a lot (and a lot might only be 10-30% of the time) can set up a rider with habits that have riding coaches yelling at them about for years to come.
I also want to add that not all riders will pick up the habit of leaning back and gripping with their legs. But most will. So if you are going to ride bareback the onus is on your to ensure you continue to work on your seat and avoid falling into the poor riding habits that bareback riding tends to encourage.
Nothing more needs to be said except to watch the clip.
I hope many of you in the US and England who have been following my blog and have written to me from time to time will come along to a clinic and say hi.
I’ll be carrying my laptop with me and I plan to post from time to time while I am away and keep you up to date of my adventures overseas.
Here is a video of a Dutch trainer, Gert van den Hof. He is very well known in Europe and used widely by some of the biggest names in the business.
I saw him many years ago starting horses under saddle with his 5 day program.
You can see that he goes about working with horses by simply imposing himself on them. There is no attempt on his part to get a horse ready and prepared for each stage of the journey. Gert manages to stay with the horse, whether on the ground or in the saddle, irrespective of how troubled the horse feels about it. In the end the horse is subdued by learning that fighting is futile because Gert does not go away. Nothing Gert does attempts to help the horse feel there is no need to fight; he just teaches that fighting is useless. The horse accepts his helplessness.
It is a pretty sad affair and akin to the old style of breaking in horses of bucking them out. When I saw Gert in person many years ago, none of the horses were settled or had good steering or brakes. Everything he did was an argument, until the horse gave up the fight. By the fifth day when he was going to hand the horses back to their owners, not one horse was going well. Each one was tight, frightened and jumpy. I remember in one case, the arena door had to be blocked because the horse was cantering sideways out of the arena even though his head was bent around to almost the rider’s knee. Another horse was still bucking when the saddle was girthed by the fifth day. From the video, it would seem that things have no changed since those days.
It perplexes me that this fellow is so popular in Europe. It confirms to me the stories I hear about how bad is the horsemanship in Europe. But what bothers me even more is that he is being brought to Australia to train horses for a well-known dressage trainer and her clients. I can’t imagine who would let this fellow near their horse. We have enough many good trainers in Australia and many bad ones too. I don’t see the need to import a poor trainer when we have enough here. Is this a case of cultural cringe – if it’s European, it must be better than Australian? If you want a bad trainer to start your horse, I say support the local industry and buy Australia.
I’m going to show you 2 short video clips. They are both by Marijka de Jong who is a Dutch dressage trainer. I think Marijka has a lot of really good things working for her in her training. But I also see some negative things too. I have posted examples of both before.
What I want you to see is the change in the horse over time. The first video was posted in August 2011
I think it is a good example of young horse being worked in a way that keeps him soft and relaxed, but maintaining the try. He is not dulled out to the work and he is not stressing about the demands Marijka makes on him. There are good feelings between them and Marijka does a good job of letting him make mistakes and giving him plenty of breaks – all things that will encourage the try in her horse.
Now look at the same horse in a video posted a few days ago.
In this video he doesn’t look to be the same horse to me. His attitude has changed. It seems that the spark that was there in August last year, is hardly evident. He is much further along in his education, but there is some loss of the horse that was inside. He is much more robotic and disinterested in the work. He gives much less of himself to the task and there is only a flicker of the try he had in the first video.
If I hadn’t seen the first video I might have thought the second one was okay. But I am saddened by the loss of the horse inside the horse.
It is so easy for us to do this in our training. We become so goal orientated that we lose track of the essence of the horse we are working with. Training becomes about the obedience to the task and accuracy of execution of the movements. It’s hard to avoid this pitfall and I suspect we all do it to some extent. Marijka is a good horse person and if she is guilty of the crime, then the rest of us probably are too.
For those that have enjoyed Tom’s books you might be interested in listening to an interview with him on a radio station in the US. If you click on the links below you’ll be taken to a web site where you can find the interview.
Go to the left hand bottom of the page to “Horseman’s Corner”. Under the title “Weekends Edition of Horseman’s Corner” click on Listen button for parts 1 & 2.
I’m not sure how long they will keep the interview on the page, so don’t hesitate if you want to listen to this master horse journalist and author.
They run for about 25 mins total.
It also seems to me that you really have to like horses, if not love them. Being good with horses takes too much time and a great deal of effort and I can’t see anybody sacrificing so much for an animal they don’t care about.
I think most people accept these features as a given in any good horse person.
But there are a few features that I have been thinking about that go into being exceptional with horses that I’m not sure get mentioned very much.
(i) I think it is a huge help if a person is fairly easy going by nature. Somebody who is a “can do” type of personality can really struggle letting go of the idea that sometimes things should go slowly. The classic “type A” personality generally starts with an agenda and when things don’t go according to plan they often have an emotional reaction. Horses don’t always do well under such people. Often in their haste to get something done, things get missed and the person overlooks the early signs of trouble in a horse. If people can teach themselves to slow down and let go of their agenda to work with the horse in front of them rather than the horse they have in their head, improvements will happen quickly.
(ii) I think the exceptional horse person probably has above average intelligence. I think of the people that I have feel are great horse people and they all are very bright. They are not necessarily well educated or academic, but they are smart. Being intelligent gives a person the advantage of thinking outside of the square. They don’t have to rely on a bag of methods for solving issues because they can invent their own methods on the spot. They can improvise easily because they have an understanding of why things are falling apart and why things need to change and how they need to change.
(iii) Thirdly, I believe the best horse people have a really impressive ability to notice everything. They are the sort of people that you see in spy movies where they walk into a crowded restaurant and notice everyone in the room, where they are sitting, what they are wearing and who they are talking to. From the book I’m reading it seems Tom Dorrance had amazing powers of observation and incredibly good recall. Harry Whitney has an ability to notice incredible detail. Ray Hunt had that ability too. I think the power to notice the smallest thing is an essential part of being brilliant with horses. It allows you to notice a small amount of bother in a horse at the earliest sign before it turns into trouble.
(iv) Great horse people can’t look at a horse and not be looking for where the trouble lies. They can’t go for a ride and not be working on something. It gets under their skin to sit on a horse or watch a horse that is not right inside. It’s a passion to help any horse feel better.
(v) Lastly, the most important aspect of being around a horse is how they feel. This takes precedence over competition wins or social rides with friends. The best horse people I have ever known do not compete. I don’t know if I’m right, but the more experience I get the more I am coming to believe that it is not possible to be a successful competitor and a great horse person at the same time. I know that might cause some people to bristle - and as I said, I don’t know for sure that I’m right – but I feel a mounting body of anecdotal evidence is strongly suggesting that to be a serious competitor will cause a person to lose an essential element of what it takes to be a great horse person.
I have listed some characteristics that I think I see in all the best horse people I know. But that does not mean that the rest of us who don’t posses all those features can’t be damn good horse people. It just means we have to work harder at the things we find difficult. I think we have a responsibility to our horses to do that – they need it from us.
Hi Ross and Michelle
Glad to hear Michelle is much better. That video of the walking horses is disgraceful, people do these things for monetry gain and in my opinion he should be fined an amount that adds up to what he has earnt being cruel to these horses and he should be banned from being allowed to work with any animal ever again. How do these people think???
I agree Gretel, it is a disgrace. But it has been going on for a long time and there is a certain element where such practices are entrenched. In my experience this is no less true in some racing stables, jumping barns, western pleasure facilities and I'm sure many more.
It's hard for me to believe people who impose such cruelty on horses really like horses. And if you don't like them, why be in the business? Horses are too much work for too little financial return to be working with them and not love it.
I hope the winter is being kind down in Gippsland.
All is progressing well with Deisha whom I am starting to ride with a string around his neck. I still have his halter on too, but I find this a great way to challenge firmly entrenched habits and also to help me break down my aids into miniscule pieces. As you said in the 'finger pointing blog' your body has already set it up - I want to know what sets up what.
Anyway, I have another query with my mare Claudie. For a long time now (few years) she is snappy when I saddle her, put rugs on etc. Ears back, nose crinkled, occasional nip. If distracted, she not as bad, ie saddled in a strange place. Have had back done (numerous times) saddle is fitted regularly etc etc and she doesn't move like a horse in pain. In other words, I've done everything I can think of including smacks, temper tantrums, even stooped to bribery with carrots (Does that have to go in the blog??) I tried negotiation and mediation. She has just come in from a spell and is probably worse.
You made a comment at the Wandin clinic about someone else with a similar issue and so I'm hoping you can help us too. I have commented in another email that she is a particularly 'unfocussed on me horse' and I am working on that now. Her circles to the right have improved considerably, incidently, but she still gets heavy and keeping her focus is damn hard work!!
I struggle with keeping her challenged without using pressure. In the bid to keep her focussed I resort to old habits - thank goodness for Deisha who is showing us the way, although nibbling is his new game especially after a session of exploring new stuff. New thought - I am probably not focussed on him but am mulling over what we have been doing.
Ross, I'm more than happy to buy some video time regarding this issue. If you would prefer I do that, let m e know and I'll get it organised.
Just a word of caution about riding a horse without reins. Before you do that I'd like to think my horse was really good on the reins and knew how to get a soft and accurate bend before throwing the reins away and using just my seat or a neck rope. And when you do ride with a neck rope, try to make sure your horse can still be soft and accurate in his bends. Many horses ridden without reins are often stiff and sometimes counter bent. I see no advantage to riding without reins if a horse is going to be incorrect.
As for the snitchiness of your mare, don't make a big deal about. I'd say from what you describe it is a long standing habit and it will take time to change. Concentrate on keeping her focus and developing softness in everything you do. This means interrupting her thought when she is inattentive and resistant. If you work on changing that resistance into softness, she will eventually stop being snitchy. It comes from her expectations that things are going to be a bad deal and getting in the way of what she is already thinking. In time it will go away if you focus on improving her attention and softness. Don't work on stopping her from pinning her ears, just work on getting her soft and feeling better.
Let me know how you get on.
After watching this video I realized what a great motivator it could be for my clinic participants to have me ride around with a pistol aimed at their heads. Anybody silly enough to come to a clinic was sure to improve. And if they didn’t learn quickly we could just call it natural selection!