FORWARDS and STRAIGHT

Many years ago I was living at an FEI-level dressage barn as the assistant hunter-jumper trainer. It was a fabulous place to watch and learn from some of the world’s best and most educated riders and clinicians who came to ride, teach and show there. I’ve learned throughout my years as a professional rider that those rare horsemen who are consistently at the top of their game in the Olympic disciplines are also the quietest. They tend not to talk a lot and have dropped the egoic bravado that comes with so many trainers who are still out to prove themselves. Getting specific information out of them isn’t always easy… more likely gained by observing and the occasional politely asked question.

One day I was watching the head trainer, a soft-spoken, elegant German master rider, schooling a working student on an upper-levels horse that had been allowed by its owner to make flying lead changes incorrectly. Every other canter stride or so the student-rider would ask for a lead change and the rangy warmblood gelding would swing his haunches well off the track to the left or right. It looked awkward, and in fact, such swaying off the track results in a relatively low score in a dressage test due to the incorrectness of the movement. It also indicates a resistance in the horse and would eventually lead to unsoundness.

The trainer spoke in German – a language I don’t understand beyond a few words – and the next time the series of flying lead changes were attempted they appeared nearly perfect.

Surprised, I asked Uli, the trainer, what he said. “I told him to keep the horse straight” was his answer.

The difference a subtle change in the ride made to this horse was such a profound lesson I wished I could have had a video camera in my hand at the time as the teaching from this one apparently simple thing was quite dramatic. However, it’s the right combination of so many elements, including the keen eye and years of experience of such a trainer, plus a student who also came from the program in Europe that made the rapid change in the horse’s form look easy.

Candillo Jr, an imported Holsteiner stallion, now owned by OSJS Sporthorses of Canada.

In the classical training method the two key words that lead to a healthy, “finished” horse are deceptively complex. If it were a simple matter to ride a horse both forwards and straight, we’d all be riding relatively problem-free horses that stay as sound as possible and carry a rider without stress or discomfort.

Unfortunately, especially in North America, there are only a handful of trainers who still follow the programs of master trainers and not too many riders who have had the opportunity to sit on a horse that has reached a perpetual state of “forwards and straight”.

Horses naturally track with their shoulders closer to the rail and haunches more to the inside due to their shape. If you look at a horse from the top view, you’ll see the width of the shoulders is narrower than the hips, so it’s just a more comfortable and natural way for them to track. It also means they naturally drop an inside shoulder as they make a turn and counter-balance by shifting their heads & necks to the outside.

Running free without a rider, this is fine for the horse, as there’s nothing to upset their balance and muscular development. The moment we humans climb aboard however, we have to undertake a proper series of exercises so the horse builds up a correct athletic form and the musculature to be able to carry a rider through all of the movement we request of them.

It’s at this convergence point of “natural” vs. “training” that we seem to have broken the smooth process of the classical training pyramid as too many horses are pushed too quickly through the levels, whether they be destined for dressage, jumpers, or other show disciplines. Very few people who have the time and money to support show horses also have the patience to wait for a horse to develop correctly through lower levels.

Depending on the breed and conformation, some horses never progress out of a basic level of training, yet should still be given the opportunity to have a genuinely correct base that instills rhythm, suppleness, and a willingness to take contact with the reins.

In the “old” classical system, a horse is never punished by being ridden in reverse – i.e. pulled on or jerked by the reins – and the standard that was taught is to “correct forwards”.

This works for both exciteable and lazier types of horses, and all breeds and disciplines. Even a good western lope has to be forwards and straight and is an art unto itself. Not all horses can achieve a good lope, even the ones bred for it. Same with an extended canter for a warmblood. Not all of them will get there.

A horse that is ridden forwards, what we refer to as the “back to front” ride will develop an increased bend in the joints of the hindquarters, allowing for more freedom of the joints, which also helps keep them lubricated and healthy, and allows for the muscles of the lower back and haunches to develop “pushing power”. This is different from rushing, as that’s a balance issue.

A good illustration of the difference is to hold a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees and hold the weights with a bent arm, fairly close to your body. You feel strong and balanced. Now lean forwards a bit and hold the weights in front of you (careful – don’t get hurt!). You’ll immediately feel the stress in your back and want to take a quick step to keep your balance. Horses experience the same thing when all of their weight is carried in the forehand and not transferred to the hindquarters.

So far as straightness goes, look at a great athlete. Skier, skater, runner, etc., and notice the body symmetry. Straightness means efficiency and optimal performance. It’s no different for horses. When you ride a horse that’s been trained to go straight it’s like the difference between driving a high-performance sports car compared to an old 3/4 ton pickup truck with manual steering. Unfortunately, finding a straight horse to ride so you can experience that difference for yourself is not always an easy thing to do.

If all riders had the opportunity to learn on this type of horse, we’d have a lot more sound, rideable schoolmasters in teaching programs than we do now. Dr. Schoen treats horses repeatedly for musculoskeletal misalignment and subsequent pain that is frequently a side-effect of incorrect training methods.

I’m barely even scratching the surface here on the concept of “forwards” and “straight” as the training techniques and level of experience required to get a horse there would take up volumes of books and many years of study. Yet, out of compassion for our horses and knowing how beneficial a correctly trained horse is to the equine world, isn’t that kind of worth the time and trouble it takes to learn?

Advertisements

Joy to the (Horse) World!

Image

Silver

Our recent discussion about the Principles of Compassionate Equitation © turned to thoughts regarding “joy” and how all the seriousness of training and competition sometimes leads us to forget about what it means to be joyful.

Principle #10 in The Compassionate Equestrian states “the Principles accelerate the evolution of joy and respect between humans and horses and allow for a more expansive, conscious interaction between humans and our equine companions.”

Dr. Schoen and I both know that by practicing compassion, one does become happier overall, as you learn to keep your heart open and accepting.  It’s not necessarily easy to do, especially in the situations that frequently arise in our microcosm of the world that exists within every barn.  Tension can come from the management, the trainers, grooms, other riders, or even the horses themselves as they will also react to a stressful atmosphere by acting out in ways that may not be too much fun for us.

As we discussed the need for joy in our lives, I thought of one very special horse who brought joy to everyone who rode him, and always made me smile every time I looked at him.

The trainer I worked for at the time was looking for a horse for a young male student and we got word that a large Quarter Horse gelding was available on a feed lien.  His owner had abandoned him and he had been basically stall-bound for several months, so the barn had the legal right to sell him for board that was owing.

Not expecting much, we went to look at him and it took about 2 minutes to make the decision to purchase the big white gelding.  His name was Silver.

He was obviously happy to be let out of his stall as we inspected his conformation, jogged him for soundness, and tacked him up for a trial ride.  He was over 16 hands… quite tall for his breed.  His head was less than classic, with a bit of a Roman nose.  He had good bone though and while he wouldn’t win a conformation class, he was attractive enough that anyone could look good on him.

Not only was Silver impeccably trained, but he was the calmest horse one could hope for.  As we watched a young rider from the barn put him through his paces, Tim, the trainer, tossed a hat right in front of Silver’s nose as he jogged by.  The horse didn’t flinch.  Sold!  This was a beginner’s dream horse.

Back at our own barn Silver settled in immediately.  He got along with every other horse, and we rode him a few more times before having Tim’s student come to try him out.  Excited for the meeting of the two, who we thought would be a perfect match, the day finally came that Silver was to meet his potential new owner.

It didn’t go quite as planned.  At least not according to our plans.  Silver apparently had something else in mind.

He literally quivered on the crossties when the boy and his mother came to meet him.  Wondering what was going on, we thought perhaps they could bond in the round pen, with the big Quarter Horse roaming freely so he, the mom & her son could just “hang out” and study each other’s personalities.

Silver seemed highly suspicious of the two and was not his typical friendly self.  Tim and I had no particular answer as this seemed out of character for the horse even though we’d only known him a short time.  Finally, the boy’s mom said “I don’t think he likes us”.

Well, that’s not the way to sell a horse!  The pair left the barn and I put Silver back in the crossties to finish up with his grooming.  If a horse could look smug, I would say Silver definitely had a smug little grin on his face.  That’s when I looked straight at him and said “you want to be OUR horse, don’t you?”  Oh yes, the ears pricked right up and if he was a cartoon horse you’d have seen the little hearts circling his head and eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.

Tim agreed that Silver seemed to want to stay at the barn and be a lesson horse on our own string, and so it was.

I couldn’t even tell you how many kids that big guy packed around, adjusting himself to whatever level of rider climbed on his back.  Once we knew he was staying I tested him over jumps and he did that just right too.  I secretly always wanted to ditch the off-track training projects and just have some fun on Silver, who could give a thoroughbred a good run around the pasture when he felt like it.

He would memorize an obstacle course if I led him through it once, making a little 6-year-old girl feel like an accomplished rider.  He had a special “tranter” gait for youngsters just learning to canter… the front end would trot and the back end would canter, giving riders confidence until they could move him up into a true canter.  He was very happy in his job, and brought happiness and confidence to everyone who rode and showed him.

In all the seriousness of training, the stress of hauling horses and students to shows, and the everyday physical demands of working around a barn, I could only wish for everyone to have the chance, even once in a lifetime to have a horse like Silver who never failed to approach life with joyful abandon and an unsurpassed generosity.  Perhaps he was like most rescued and previously abandoned animals, as they always seem particularly grateful and eager to return the compassion that was shown to them.

Compassion takes practice, especially when we are faced with adverse conditions and situations that may make it more difficult to think about the suffering of others.  This is why I love rescued animals, and “recovered” humans, as they know how to come, literally, “from the bottom of their heart” – and with that, comes real and lasting joy.

Wishing a Happy, Joyous, New Year to All!