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Equine Rushing II: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass.

Equine Rushing Part Two

By Bonnie  J. Hilton ( Horse Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine)

Whoa starts with the basics. The owners come from different backgrounds, the horses are of different breeds and training levels. In evaluations, the first time I asked them to stand still with their equine in hand, it was interesting. On the average day, I think the Energizer Bunny would be hard pressed to keep up with these people.

Now the horses have all kinds of interesting behavior in hand, from the common dance moves, to the more severe snapping out of cross ties, the occasional rear and the uglies. The uglies are trying to bite (and sometimes kick) while being groomed and tacked, which I feel is often a direct result of being rushed during early training. As readers who know my work can surmise, the first thing I did was quit the cross ties, get the horse in a good fitting halter with plain cotton lead, and have a chain shank available if I really needed it. Treats are always an option. Then I asked the horse to whoa and stand and worked with the owner until we had some semblance of slow, calm and control.

 It is amusing to me that often the owners will say that they did not know that they were rushing. They didn t know that they needed to slow down. They had never stopped and thought about it. So much for the thinking rider that we as instructors are supposedly attempting to produce. They also admitted that they needed to learn techniques of how to accomplish a slower, calmer, more controlled approach. The meaning of focus was an issue. Several clients didn t know that they were aggravating their horse and further training it to dislike anything to do with human handling. How would they, when you really think about it?

Many of my clients come out of the fast lane of life and the fast lane of instruction with limited teaching on horsemanship basics. No one has ever explained to them what they were doing and why it was not the correct way to proceed with an animal that would be trained by their handling. Once whoa is established in the owner s head, it doesn t take too many weeks for it to start to sink into the equine head as well, if there is focus and consistency.  Some horses that are rushing don t know how to trust and have been confused and hurt by inconsistent handling in the past and are truly cautious to let their guard down.

Quick body language will be enough to set off some equines that react quickly. With rushing issues, try to remember, the answer is in consistent repetition of command for required performance. In hand or under saddle, the same applies. I should note here that even the uglies will somewhat diminish over time if a handler is consistent, calm and focused on what they want for performance each and every time they come into the horse s world.

 I presently have an equine that was really ugly and have had the teeth snap close to my body, as well as hind hooves sail near, on several occasions as I worked free of cross ties during our first sessions of grooming and tacking up. Track thoroughbreds are often rushed to the point of abuse in their formative years and I think that paints enough of a picture of what the owner is dealing with. I have coined the expression, no more grumpies as we have worked through the tense moments of grooming and tacking up with this horse. When the ears start to come back, I firmly reprimand with my voice and hand, no grumpies. It has taken weeks of consistent handling, reward and reprimand when needed. To me, it is comical that now, when a tense moment occurs, I say no grumpies and the equine pricks the ears forward again and seemingly tries to regroup. Since rushing in hand had turned into rushing uglies under saddle, it has been imperative to stop the problems in hand and have the reprimand be understood and accepted so that the same will hold true under saddle for this equine.

At no time should dangerous behavior be tolerated to continue, but you have to stop and think why the behavior manifested to begin with and then work on ways to minimize it.  I do caution that any time you work with an equine that has the potential for flash  acks, which are the triggers that can cause erratic behavior to surface, you don t just allow someone else to handle, without teaching them about this horse.  Without knowing what they are doing, they may cause the horse to regress.

 I think I wrote once about the equine I trained in the state of Vermont with rushing and ugly problems. This is why I stated at the beginning of this article that you should not train without the owner. I trained this horse for several months without the owner and had success. When I put them back together, the old behavior came back in an instant and I was mortified that I had made one of the biggest mistakes a trainer can make. The horse trusted me, not the owner. The horse understood my body language, what I wanted, how I was going to react, etc., etc., in hand and under saddle. In modern terms I guess you would say, you have to get everyone on the same page! If you are going to be the primary everything, that is fine, but be cautious that the owner realizes their limitations.

Once I get the whoa worked out at a standstill, if I can produce in hand work it will help to determine if the rushing is a balance, training or fitness problem with the equine. Will the horse do some simple transitions in hand? Will the horse walk to trot to walk to halt on a simple lead? I like working with a short line and work the horse off both sides.

 Recently a boarder, at a facility I work at, commented that my work in hand resembled obedience training for canines. Train the dog to stop rushing around and teach it to focus on you and your commands. I ll admit that I do like to accomplish in hand training until the horse leads around like a really big dog on a long leash. I want them to walk with a handler, trot off when asked, come back to walk when asked and halt and remain still. Most of our breed classes are asking for in hand performance and it is a wonderful way to instill manners and calm into handlers and horses. It doesn t always work with just a simple halter and lead, any more than a simple collar and lead works with some dogs at first. Who was the English trainer, from decades ago, that used to remark good dog after they had brought the rambunctious canine to halt with several quick reprimands of the properly applied choke?

 I have had several rushing equines that it has taken weeks to instill what whoa walk means from trot and what whoa stand means from walk. I have had to shank train first and then cavesson train to develop mental focus and physically prevent them from zoning out, as they have been doing for years with erratic performance, where they have been allowed, thereby trained, to rush through commands either in hand or under saddle. I much rather try to sort out rushing issues in hand first, before I ever try to attempt to straighten them out under saddle.

For rushing evaluation in hand, I think it is wise to do the initial work without full tack. Work with just head control. If that stage goes along well, there are no rushing issues or behavior that you feel needs to be addressed, then go to full equipment, assuming that the horse is already in full equipment.

Can the same in hand performance be produced in full equipment? Is the horse comfortable in bridle, bit and saddle? Now this is a good place to put the brakes on in your thinking because you can convince yourself that the answer is going to be in another bit or another saddle. (If rushing issues just seemed to develop over night with a horse that has always been sane, sound and sensible, I would definitely assess equipment and rule out a physical problem producing pain.) The answer may just be that the horse was never given enough time to become comfortable and trained to tolerate the equipment.  Then you put a rider up and it is even worse. Think about it. They had equipment put on, they reacted to it, but were rushed to accept it, often with more force and the equipment itself becomes the trigger of the rushing issues.

I hate to see the uglies when I go to mount a new horse I am evaluating, but it often tells me what has been the previous training. We know that youngsters should be allowed to become accustomed to wearing equipment over several months of slow methodical handling. With some horses, short cuts work fine and trainers get away with them. Then there is the equine that won t accept the methods and problems develop.  If you can bring the equine out, get whoa and stand, tack up and work in hand off bridle, off a lead to the bit or off a cavesson over the bridle and the horse will perform close in hand work without a problem, I would go to the next stage slowly. Please note that word slowly.

I have written more about longing than any other. An equine running around uncontrolled on the end of a line is not longeing. The misuse, or force longeing and overlongeing of a horse into some form of compliance, as noted in the hunter ranks, is not longeing either. Here again, comes the physical and mental brake job. This may be a good time to reflect on what is actually going on with the ultimate focus of the client, the horse, the training and the actual ability of all parties involved. It is hard for me to understand that some people learn to ride in the show ring and never have participated much outside of its stylized world. I will admit that as a trainer, who is also an instructor, I have had that unique relationship with several of my clients over the years and it has worked well. I produce the in hand work, the range of motion, the gymnastics and the focus that I want on the end of the lines. I attempt to teach all the owners at least some of the techniques, but reality often puts the lines back into my hands. In conversation I have made disparaging remarks about one of my past instructors, who seemed to always be longeing and long reining some of their clients horses, sometimes just before the client came to ride. I was ignorant back then and have to admit that now I know why they were conducting the fitness work and pre-ride warm-up, since I have become that instructor myself. Savvy business sense is one reason. This kind of working partnership is fine, as long as the client can ride at the level of expectation and can, if needed, handle the situation from the ground. Don t use the relationship to develop a false sense of control! That in my mind is wrong.

Once you get whoa established in hand from standstill, to just leading around and developing that all important bond between the owner/handler and equine, you increase the line radius from the horse to them. If all you can do is walk, you walk. The horse I am handling learned to whoa, without throwing its head up in the air and bracing against the bit, what a miracle! In the process of doing this in hand work, the full equipment has not been something to be upset about anymore and the bit is better accepted.

Circles were introduced in our walks, which started around and around the safe confines of the indoor and outdoor ring. Transitions, transitions, transitions. I can t say it enough or stress enough that you work for slow and calm, no rushing with the handler, no rushing for the equine. I can t give you a time table. How many days a week can the handler put some quality time into working with the equine? If the rushing issue is due to balance, fitness and aid confusion, as was the problem with the green cold blood that started this article, you have to be honest in that you have some months of work ahead. The owner of this equine changed their goals and expectations, learned how to handle the longe, brought the equine up in fitness and developed much better balance for both upward and downward transitions. The rushing issues have gone. The equine and owner have developed a bond, they have been mutually educated in expectations and limitations and it has been a slow process. No, they are not show ring bound at present, but have travel goals on the horizon. What may shock some readers is that all the work under saddle is still at walk and trot with the owner and canter is just starting to show balance on the longe and under saddle with another rider.

Relaxation versus tension has always been a big topic of discussion in dressage. Well, we need to face the reality that some horses are more tense than others and if they are already under saddle when you purchase them, trying to get them to relax and perform when the tension has been imprinted will be a challenge. Yes, I believe tension can be imprinted! If you combine the equine problem with a tense rider, rushing may well be the result. Such was the case with equine and rider that started this article and my encounter with Jack Meagher.

In the mid 80s when I first met Sally Swift, author of Centered Riding she told a story about riding a nervous equine and her ability to have it perform without rushing. The reason she gave for her success was breathing. I would suggest that riders with rushing equines review this work and any related material on body awareness and get their minds back to basics and then take their equines there. We don t work on rider warm-up as much as we should and developing methods of maintaining free range of motion. The equine warm-up is equally important as I have stressed in the past. I don t need to prove the effects of breathing and body awareness, as methods to work through tension problems with equines. Owners I have taught are getting success with the methods. As I stated in the beginning of this article, if you have a handler that will not embrace this approach you will be setting yourself up for frustration. I presently have a student from the fast lane of life who I continuously have to attempt to rein in. They can talk the talk about taking it slow and methodical but they are always pushing the envelope and when the tension starts with the equine they are riding they often lose their temper and try to force performance.

It is wonderful that this type of student is often reading all kinds of books and keeping up on magazine articles and taking outside lessons with other instructors and horses, but at some point they have to understand that just maybe, their equine is not cut out for the level of performance they are aspiring for and the rushing issues are due to lack of relaxation on their part as well.

I have come to learn that rushing equines, with mouth issues, don t always breathe well. That is why as a trainer, I often take the bit out of the mouth and resort to an English or western side pull. All the mouth noise is just restricting the breathing and putting some horses in an endorphin high, if not a hypoxic state. They are rushing around, boring, bolting and being belligerent while not even on the same planet as the rider! Try chopping and tongue rolling on an imaginary bit in agitation and see how much concentration it takes to breathe in a normal, relaxed way. Now try to walk, jog and run while doing it!!!! Some of us can think ourselves into doing it, but I think you would agree it is a lot easier to breathe and gently mouth the bit without agitation. Time and time again I have seen the proof that the bit contact produced the tension and the rushing issues.

This is not something for the average owner to attempt without instruction and training on how to work with the equipment in hand first, getting the equine used to feel and function and making sure that it will not cause further problems and then how to proceed under saddle. If you have all the rushing issues solved on the ground and you are struggling with a mouth issue under saddle, it may be an alternative route to take in order to construct the bridge between the in hand work, to the under saddle performance.

I should interject here that the idea that a stronger bit will not solve a rushing problem is sometimes not true, if you are working with a strong, opinionated, keen equine that truly knows what whoa means, but just gets carried away in competition. I ll work with the mildest snaffle that I feel is needed for home school. With retraining clients, I often work with the true French snaffle, in either egg-butt or loose ring design. If in company we run into some strong attitude and company training doesn t seem to help, I will resort to a stronger snaffle or go into the curbs. You really have to know the rider as well, and be careful that they are addressing their nerves, the ridden half-halt and what they may be communicating to the equine. One very important key to bitting that we need to remember is that we train to the bits, both the horse and the rider and when we don t need the stronger control, we shouldn t have them on.

 I presently have a student who has just started riding their strong minded equine in a medium weight slow twist egg-butt when out in the open. This was at another trainer s suggestion and I am not against it, but I need to remind this owner that when they are schooling in the home ring and indoor they don t need the added mouth reprimand. I don t want sheer laziness of not changing the bit or setting up two bridles, to keep this equine working in a strong bit that it only needs on occasion. Some readers may wonder if I had tried a flash or true drop noseband for added control with the milder snaffles. The drops will help prevent a rushing issue when there is mouth gaping involved and when you need the added restraint to ride a strong half-halt. If the horse is really bulling on the forehand, rushing its gaits and then getting out of control under saddle, yet in evaluation, everything is physically and mentally fine with in hand work and the rider is experienced, I would start looking at other equipment options.

 A quick note of caution here with the other equipment options. Know what you are using, how to use it and why to use it and don t put equipment on a horse and ride first. If you are attaching anything to the bit, back off the severity of the bit to the mildest, since the training aid of choice will increase the severity of the bit and that includes even a running martingale or a training fork! 

If you can work the horse in hand and have the new suggestion of control demonstrated and accepted, you may save yourself from having force issues. As a trainer I will ride with running and draw reins, but I don t expect some of the owners I am working for to attempt it. The alternative equipment is there for control and to help with training issues, it is not there to force compliance.

Further understanding of relaxation versus tension must be applied to actual training sessions and trying to get clients to understand that each and every time they work with the equine they have an opportunity to produce change. Some critics may say that with an older equine this is not true. I feel that if you stay in the same rut, it will only get deeper and deeper! Take the time to learn how to break the training regime presently in place and see what happens.

 I have had clients come to me with rushing equines who had no problems manifest in hand or on the longe. The problems were all under saddle and nothing was wrong with equipment and it wasn t a sore back issue. I learned in conversation that the owners always ride with an agenda of, getting it all in. They have trained their horses into rush mode under saddle, or we could call it anticipation, work sour, ring sour or anything else that fits. I have had so called dressage horses come into my life that have not worked outside of a ring for years. They anticipated every aid like a tense spring. What is supposed to be the focus of dressage?

Well, what do you do? Honestly, you embrace cross training or you don t. Go back to the blueprint given by Thelwall and the first two stages of calmness and free forward movement. You embrace going back to basics or you don t. Where is the rushing starting? Can you at least get on your equine and walk around without a problem. Can you ride on the buckle? Are you able to ride another horse the same way you are attempting to ride your own without any problems developing? Can someone else ride your horse and the rushing problems vanish? Don t get down on yourself when this happens. When was the last time you had your riding evaluated as to whether or not you are rushing? Do you really know how to achieve a personal half-halt, as well as the half-halt for the equine?

Sometimes, as noted at the beginning of this article, the mental and physical brake job only applies to the rider. That is why I finish this article, the same place I started, evaluate yourself first and then go about seeing what you can do to retrain the horse.

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