By Bonnie J. Hilton (A Horse Training Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)
There are two conditions encountered with riding horses, totally opposite in manifestation, that can be difficult to deal with. Difficult because so much responsibility has to be placed on the handler/rider to help produce change. These conditions are retraining problems I am alluding to the equine that is rushing and the equine that is refusing, by any number of methods, to go forward. The obvious and not so obvious reasons why the problem of failing to go forward and , before I go any further I need to define forward, to place it into context for the problem horse and rider team. I think many of us could say we are sick of hearing the word forward.
Instructions such as, you need to ride more forward, the horse needs to work forward, the horse is not coming through and forward, you need to seek forward and down, you re stuck and need to go forward all refer to movement, but what kind of movement? I would like to define forward as progressive movement and allude to Franz Mairinger from Horses are Made to be Horses from the section on the aims and requirements of schooling. The aim in schooling is to have the horse going forward happily and freely, always alert and attentive to the rider s wishes. Throughout the horse s schooling his movement and bearing will improve. Having confidence in the bit he gradually learns the engagement of his hindquarters, to lengthen and shorten his stride and neck without restriction. With smoothness and energy he goes through the transitions from one pace to another without loss of cadence. The whole picture is one of harmony between horse and rider, the horse giving the impression of enjoying his work. He goes on to say, To achieve this ideal the rider must be self-disciplined and capable of giving his full concentration to the horse. and further, The well-schooled horse will always be a joy to ride and a pleasing picture to watch. If he is to remain so, the rider must be a joy for him to carry.
I don t often generalize, but before I list some of the reasons behind failed forward, I would like to give an overview. I really like the word progressive because it alludes to successive steps. I really think that in both rushing and failed forward, horses have not been given enough time in the successive step phases of their training. Time to understand what is being expected of them and time to develop the strength to carry out that performance. The progressive movement that will be produced by an equine in training will either be balanced and consistent or unbalanced and inconsistent. Depending on the temperament of the individual, you can get either aforementioned problem to develop.
The reason I stated the responsibility for the handler/rider is that in this retraining, progressive is again the key. This is long term retraining, for both horse and rider and as noted from Mairinger there has to be self-discipline and concentration. You look up the meaning behind these commands and then realize what the man is talking about when he says the rider must be a joy for the horse to carry. He states again when talking about dressage as training, As you can see we need much more than just to sit on a horse somehow. We have to sit in a certain way, supple and at ease within ourselves. We have to be the absolute master of our body and the better we master our body the better we will master our horse.
As always, look to yourself first for answers and be honest. Since my own body seems to be developing a mind of its own of late, I can commiserate with riders who are struggling to master their aging muscles and related structure. Failed forward can be as innocuous as the equine that is labeled lazy. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but lazy is a human adjective. The equine is a product of its breeding, environment and training. A lazy equine would be dead in the true wild. Why would a horse be lazy? Funny that some reasons are atypical of the human condition. The equine is overweight and unfit for performance outside of meandering around a small paddock. The equine may be lacking any kind of stimulus outside of four walls and the same routine day in and day out. Coupled together, these are the main reasons for the equine to be deemed lazy.
You want forward, you need to develop it by getting the equine fit to carry itself correctly in the gaits. Then it has to develop the fitness to carry a rider on its back. Trying to accomplish both fitness levels at the same time can be a major mistake if the horse has problems with pain. You also need to be aware that some equines will get sour and belligerent with the same work day in and day out. Try to vary your training program. As to the weight issue, I have human clients who have recently shed the 10 to 20 pounds called for from their MD and they are expounding on how well they feel, more energy, better range of motion, etc., etc. Is the equine really any different as far as a living organism with internal skeleton, muscle, tendon and ligament? I have equines that have recently shed the 100 to 200 pounds in fat, gained muscle and greet me with a yes attitude, where several months ago all I got was resistance. One word of caution here though, if you develop the fitness and the new mental attitude for forward in your equine, you had better be able to ride it. I have met far too many owners who complain about their fat, lazy equines but really don t have the fitness or knowledge to ride anything different themselves.
Then there is the problem of the equine that is of a breed more prone to slow than go and unfortunately we try to make it into something it is not. Has anyone heard the phrases lighten up or refined used in the current trend to cross any of the old working or draftbreeds with a more forward and lighter breed? I can t see the purpose in breeding a St. Bernard with a greyhound but I suppose they exist. (Please no offense to either dog breed, I just thought it was an absurd cross.) Yes, we get the best of both breeds in some crosses but does anyone ever stop to think that you could get the worst of both?
We also don t often take into account the diet that the breed is accustomed to and we try to force change. Is it any wonder we now see more information about specific diets for European breeds to protect against joint problems. I am not a purist and I like a lot of the crosses, but I also like the true breeds for what they were. We need to be cautious in removing the slow and steady attributes, that which made some breeds of value and worth on the family farm where it was in harness in front of plow or cart during the week and being used as a show horse on the weekend. I think we need to remember what placid temperament means and not fault the equine for not being as forward as we would like them to be or the show ring is dictating.
Riding a different way means cross training which is getting a lot of press lately. Cross training is not a new approach, it is just common horse sense from the past, packaged for a new generation. My answer is simple. Get out of the ring!. I would like riders to also think about what has been happening to their ability to ride, if they have been ring riding for years as well. I have to get riders unstuck and working forward as well. Although forward is not fast, I often have to get owners to ride outside of their comfort zone produced by the artificial environment of the ring. I hear it all the time, the horse starts to actually stretch out its stride and track up and under itself and the rider reacts by saying that the horse is going too fast.
We need to teach more about what true collection is, it isn t slowing a horse down. True collection is the balance and containment of forward. It exists in all shapes and sizes of equines from the small pony to the huge draft.
Then again, sometimes when you develop the muscles correctly, the mind of the equine will follow. Sometimes if you can convince the rider to work themselves on other horses to get their ability level back up for riding forward, their mind will follow as well.
Is there special equipment that helps? Although next to impossible to find, I like the Velcro breakaway side reins to use for under saddle work in bringing an equine that is refusing to go forward, to step up under itself and into the outside rein. For the obvious safety aspect, the breakaway is great. Donuts are the next choice and put a swivel snap on the strap end so you can have easy on and off on both ends. I don t advise any under saddle work with a solid side attached unless you are working with supervision. The horse has to be able to longe with control, so therefore it may take several weeks of cavesson work just to get that stage accomplished. Then, as surprising as it may seem, you go to working off the bit, mild single or French link snaffle, egg butt or loose ring with full drop or flash to discourage any avoidance of the bit action. The outside side rein will be the only one in use, the inside line will be the longe. The outside rein will be attached low to the girth and you will have to find some kind of system to produce this because it will eventually have to be applied with the rider up as well. I like to work with short billets and long girths but we improvise for western and long billet dressage. The outside side rein will attach to the forward buckle of the girth, make sure that the girth is even on both sides.
There is a big difference between pulling a horse down and asking a horse down and any other gimmick is not going to engage the hindquarter, so don t even think of some type of tie down. A sliding side rein will work in some instances but for the tough cases, a single strap side is your best direction into the outside hand. I start with the outside rein long enough to encourage forward and down but still keeping the head and neck straight so that the outside shoulder can be somewhat contained. This success of this longe work will depend on how well the handler can read the horse s body and notice when the inside hind is coming up under and when the shoulders are tracking the bend. Here again, working lateral into the outside rein against the wall is a good exercise to teach the equine to engage.
Progressive movement, forward is the key. As the horse gains confidence at the walk, and that may take a few training sessions in itself, you have the option to put a rider up and work the same program. Only at the walk. Remember that you are developing new muscles and usage and eliminating bad development. It does not happen in a few sessions. If you push and the horse reverts, you are only defeating your own training. I know, I have been there far too many times to even want to remember. Spend a couple of weeks in walk and then progress to trot with the rider up, assuming that you have a nice forward working trot produced on the longe already. I don t even think about canter with the rider up until the horse has really got the new muscle developed and obvious balance to carry itself on the longe in good form. If you don t have it on the longe, don t expect it under saddle. I know that some people are going to say that you can ride through a forward problem. I think it works very well when it is more a rider problem, but if the horse has actually developed bad muscle structure and a bad attitude I can t overlook the obvious risk to the rider.
This may seem really fanciful to some readers and some may think I am supporting blacksmiths, but please remember where Ilive. I work with many horses that are turned out in what would be called dry lot or semi-dry lot conditions which are often rock strewn and cement hard. In evaluation I find many equines with front shoes and no hind. I don t like this practice, even though I used to do it at my own facility, with some of the school horses. I want the horse to engage from the hind, to move forward from the rear and I put traction on the front only? I have the horse protected in the front but not in the rear from stone bruise? How many hind soles have I seen bruised? Do they hurt? If I stand around all day on a cement floor can I expect my hips or back to bother me? Is there any truth to the blacksmith comments that the hooves are extremely dry and this condition may be causing concussion problems up the leg? Why did the old timers from my distant past always say, soak the feet.
In order for the equine to push off the ground and lift its bulk with ease it not only needs the willingness, fitness and balance to do so, but it also has to be free from pain. No shoes, shoes all around, pads, no pads, wedge lift, etc., etc., I am not going to get into an argument about it. Consider it and put the expense, time and effort into eliminating the possibility of there being a problem with the feet. I have owners that are convinced that angle changes and joint supplementation have made all the difference in the world with their equines forward attitude and performance. I will not argue since a blacksmith recently changed hind leg angles with the application of wedge pads to help support the aging structure of an older gelding who I had evaluated. The same horse is on joint supplementation. Maybe it is just imagination, but the horse is doing much better.
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