Junior has an enormous walk stride. He has long, slow moving hind legs with an overstep of 24 inches. Most people are happy with an overstep of 3-4 hoof prints, but I'm blessed/cursed with 2 feet or more. He has an extended walk for a "9", but a collected walk for a "6". Why? Because rather than shortening and quickening his steps, he simply slows those huge strides down. He braces his neck and back and can become irregular if I'm not really careful. Occasionally, I've received "7's" and an "8" for the collected walk, but those were from judges that tend to love Junior in general and look past his faults.
Of course, with a big, slow moving walk, comes a big, slow moving canter. I've tried many things to get his hind legs moving more quickly with the most effective being countless canter to trot, back to canter transitions. That also improves the swing in his back and makes him quick to my aids. However, the canter pirouettes elude him to this day. I used to think it was just me and that I couldn't train the pirouette, but I can ride them on other horses and I understand the mechanics...so why can't Junior do the pirouette? We can go from medium canter to pirouette canter, but the turn is a disaster. In competition, he's a steady "5" or "6", but that's not good enough. If I try to make the turn small, he's been known to switch leads or stop and rear (that will get me a "2" of course and crush the score for submission). If I make the turn too big, the comment is "more like a circle" and I get a "5". If the judge likes Junior, it's a "6". Unfortunately, pirouettes have a double coefficient, so they absolutely must improve!!
It's very frustrating, because now that we are working on piaffe, Junior can do half steps all day long, but to attempt to come back just a bit more towards piaffe, he's doing the same thing he does in the collected walk and canter pirouette. He braces his neck and back and slows his hind legs down even more than they normally go. Everything needs to get quicker and Junior's tension makes them slower. A ground person causes major upset, work in hand doesn't work either, causing the same amount of mental turmoil. We are looking at the same predicament in all 3 gaits, the highest form of collection (collected walk, piaffe, and pirouettes) all have the same issue.
For 3 years, Pam has told me "you need to get his hind legs closer together." That's a lot of lessons over 3 years. She's given me visual ideas using her own body and demonstrated foot placement, she's given me exercises to use during my training. Get his hind legs closer together!!
Once you have an idea in your head, it's stuck there. For years, I've worked to get his hind legs closer together in the canter. Laterally. I've done countless travers in canter, I've worked half-pass to half pirouette until I was blue in the face and Junior was asleep at the wheel. I've done travers on a circle, spiraling in to pirouette and out again. Nothing changes other than sometimes he ends up crossing his legs in the pirouette and has to leap out of it so he doesn't fall down.
A couple weeks ago, I was working the piaffe. I'm aware it looks as though Junior is half-stepping on a tight rope when I do the half-steps, but his hind legs are laterally closer together, so I leave it alone. Unfortunately, I rarely have the opportunity to watch myself ride since I am usually alone when I'm training. Kelly asked if I wanted her to video me, and I gladly accepted. Since I had her there with the camera, I rode a canter pirouette in both directions as well. Get his hind legs closer together. As I watched the video, I was disappointed to see the half-steps just look like slow trot, with the hind legs moving way underneath his center (like the walk). Then came the pirouettes. Oh my gosh...lightbulb ON! I watched as Junior's inside hind leg came way forward underneath his belly. The outside hind had no place to go because his inside hind is completely unable to support his weight where he placed it. His hind legs are completely spread apart, front to back, not side to side. Get his hind legs closer together meant longitudinally, not laterally! How stupid could I have been all these years??? By watching one 10 minute video, I now understand my mental block that has wasted 3 years of training. For crying out loud!!!
I can't wait to tell Pam how foolish I've been. It was stuck in my head and I never asked the question! Even with everything she showed me, I'd let nothing work its way into my confusion. If you're not sure you understand what your trainer is saying, ask the question. Watch videos of your training sessions as much as you possibly can. A picture is worth more than a thousand words (and dollars!).
Jamie - I read with interest your comments about bridging the reins to help achieve consistent contact. I have found that to create the "box" I often ride with wide hands to keep the contact consistent while pushing forward, bringing my hands closer together when the horse reaches forward and down appropriately. It keeps your hands still and creates the chute to push the horse into. (Bad grammar, sorry). Do you have thoughts on this versus bridging the reins? Is there some magic to having your hands close together and the reins bridged? Thanks! Am enjoying your blog posts on the young horse training.
Thank-you very much for your comments and question. When I am stretching a horse forward and down, I agree, I do make my hands a bit wider then I normally would, but this is to achieve stretch. If I am riding a young horse in a normal frame and the horse is moving the head and not accepting proper contact, this is when I bridge my reins.
Ingrid Klimke states "in order to keep my hands very still and avoid any temptation to use my hands to force the correct softening of the poll, I bridge the reins."
I know that I am not good enough to make my hands wide and ride a "busy" young horse forward and not try to make corrections all the time. I try to teach my horses to accept a quiet contact with the bit and it took some doing to understand that bridging the reins and waiting for the connection to come was an exercise in patience. Over time, I've discovered the horses I have micromanaged in the beginning are far less reliable in the contact than those I rode very forward and quietly with bridged reins. Remember, however, I'm not talking about every horse. This is for horses that are unreliable in the contact and do not accept the bit evenly.
I hope this helps and thank-you again for participating.
Flagg is a different character altogether (as is every horse) and falls half way between the completely laid back Spider and the ever wild Tilly. It's very interesting to work with Flagg. He's a Regazzoni out of my mother's mare, Wencke. Wheels, too, is by Regazzoni and is quick and playful in his nature...boardering on obnoxious at times. Flagg has that same type of "what ya doin'? what we gonna do? pull my finger! look there's a squirrel" type of mentality that Wheels has. Fortunately, Wencke is very quiet and somewhat sensitive, so he is very easy to say "stop it" and get a reaction that doesn't involve having him stick his tongue out at you. He's very leggy and lanky still, so he's very awkward looking. He moves well, so we're putting him back to work.
Liz took Flagg with her to Riverhouse Hanoverians last year as a 3-yr old. After she came home, I rode him some and then we turned him out for the rest of the season and through the winter to grow and continue being a horse. I brought him back in to work last week and was pleasantly surprised to find a much more mature young horse. He's put on some size (or maybe it's all the hair), but his patience and work ethic are a breath of fresh air! The first day was simple lunging with the vienna reins. These had a lovely effect on Flagg who has the same type of contact issues as Wheels (can't wait to see if Tilly is like that too, also a Regazzoni). He was a little playful, but nothing you'd expect to see from a young horse who hasn't been touched in several months.
Yesterday, I started him on the lunge and he was a bit more exuberant. There were other horses working in the arena and he fed off them a little and wanted to yee-haw around. I kept him working until he was quietly trotting and cantering on the line. It didn't take much time. The reins were quite loose, but he still has the tendency to come behind. He was really bad with side reins and would make his neck very short; the vienna reins are much better. Liz got on as he stood quietly at the mounting block and then trotted and cantered very effectively, reins bridged the entire time. He was a star!
At this point, I have no real teaching piece to share other than to maintain a nice forward pace, explore all 3 gaits, and keep quiet contact. Remember the training scale at all times...rhythm and relaxation, suppleness, contact...impulsion, straightness, collection.
As much of a handful as Tilly is, Spider is that laid back. although he is cautious of all things new, he's very easy going and wants to please and form a partnership. He's willing to let any human take the lead and is happy to follow. Because of his cautious nature, I take things very slowly and step by step. Each new thing is carefully inspected and thought about and you can watch him think things through and decide when the time is right. He's adorable.
Spider is very big, so I am also taking things very slowly in order to preserve his legs and not make him lose his balance and confidence. Like Tilly, he's starting to learn lunging with a halter. Within a couple days, he was easily walking, trotting and halting on a large circle without any trouble. I began with the circle very small so I could demonstrate to him I wanted him on a circle around me. Initially, he was concerned, but as soon as he began to lick and chew, I let the circle grow bigger and bigger. It was also a new experience for me to have a young horse willing to quietly work in walk. Usually, the first couple of days seem like lessons in water skiing, but not with this boy.
I'll continue on in this fashion, mostly walking and halting, with trotting in between, changing directions regularly, for around 20 minutes. I'll add canter in the next day or two. He's getting his teeth floated and wolf teeth removed on Friday (Tilly's were done a couple months ago). Once his mouth is healed and comfortable, I'll add a bridle under the halter and a surcingle. It will be fun to keep updates on how the youngsters' training progresses with all of you. I don't work them every day as a 3-yr old, but Flagg will begin working 4-5 days each week, either under saddle or on the lunge. Both Liz and I will work him. At this point, only I will handle Tilly (for safety sake) and Spider (for his sake...he needs quiet consistency).
I have always enjoyed training young horses. Currently, I have 3 of my own either started under saddle or about to be. I always begin my horses in the spring of their 3-yr old year. I begin with teaching them basic lunging with a halter. How I go about doing this depends on the horse's personality.
Tilly is a pistol. With her, I find it's best to just let her find her own rhythm around me on the line. As long as she maintains the circle, I let her choose the gait (for now). If I try to choose whether she's in walk, trot or canter, she does exactly what I don't want...so I compromise. If you circle, not kick at me or launch 27 feet in the air and spin around, you can choose how you want to proceed. Slowly, but surely, she's beginning to understand there's more to life than just running around like an idiot and is beginning to follow some of my suggestions. I certainly don't consider myself a "softy", but Tilly is a special case and a partnership needs to be developed. I firmly believe that if I try to dominate her, things will go very bad. Instead, I treat her with respect and expect the same from her. She's terribly smart, so I think we'll come to an understanding sooner rather than later.
The other day, I brought her in to work. She was very good on the cross-ties and during our lunging session. That, in and of itself is a bit odd. After we were done working, I returned her to the barn to groom, reblanket and put back outside. All hell broke loose! Why?? Who knows. Regardless, I found myself losing patience and becoming very angry. She, too, was angry at me, despite the fact I was simply trying to finish the session. I had no idea why she was so upset and it appeared she wanted to dominate me rather than be my partner. I didn't want to "train with emotion" and so I thought I'd try something rather drastic. (For those of you who know Tilly and her history, this has been close to a three year battle, so I didn't feel I was out of line.)
Here's what I chose to do. Reiner Klimke's book "Training the Young Horse" spoke of tying yearlings to a wall and letting them struggle until they figured out they needed to stand still. His daughter, Ingrid, wrote the new version and talked about this point. She stated they no longer practice this method and no horse should have this done due to risking injury to the neck. I agree! However, drastic measures are sometimes needed and both Tilly and I were trying to train each other through emotions. I decided to be the bigger person.
She thought it was a good idea to violently cow kick at me when I tried to brush her legs. I tried reprimanding the kicking, but we began to fight. She'd kick, I'd slap, she'd kick at the slap and on and on. Instead, I removed the break away ties from the cross ties and fixed them to her nylon halter. I shortened the ties so that she couldn't move left or right and only a couple of feet forward or backward. I walked out of the barn and closed the doors, leaving only a peek hole to watch her through.
Oh my goodness, was she maaaaaaaaddddddd!!!!! She proceeded to paw, strike, stomp, whinny and poop like there was no tomorrow. I watched her throw a temper tantrum for close to 2 hours before she stood quietly wondering where everyone had disappeared. Once she was quiet, I walked in the barn, brushed her legs, gave her a carrot and put her out. Why did it have to come to this extreme?? However, it was a good exercise in patience for both me and Tilly and I believe we came to an understanding.
I have 2 more young horses...Spider is the same age as Tilly and as different from her as you can imagine. Flagg, Liz's 4 -yr old, was started last year and then turned out for the winter. He's about to go into full training. I will talk about them in the next couple of days.
Did you read Courtney King-Dye's article in the March issue of Dressage Today? It was a fantastic article about riding without emotion. Her description of her own frustration while riding a young horse and then asking Steffen Peters to help really made me consider my own training. She described how Steffen got on this particular horse and the horse did everything in its power to not do what Steffen was asking. She said he never got upset, frustrated or angry, but simply sat there, not removing the aids and waited for the temper tantrum to cease.
It made me think back to a ride I had on Wheels last week. I asked him to take a little extra weight on his right hind by asking him to step slightly sideways from my right leg along the wall. His reaction was to immediately kick the wall with such force it punched a hole. My reaction?...You miserable horse, don't ever do that to me!! as I kicked him hard with both legs and chased him around the ring.
Was that the right response on my part? Heck no! Wheels was not kicking at me directly, he was responding to pressure, plain and simple. By me getting angry and chasing him around the ring, I lost a moment to train what the real issue was about...not accepting enough weight on the right hind leg. Instead, he galloped around with his hips to the right, balancing over his left hind. I don't believe for even a moment he connected my correction with his kicking the wall. It only made me feel "better."
What should I have done? First, not allow my emotions to overtake me and assume I'm being assaulted by my horse. Second, insisted he take the weight over the right hind by riding strongly down the wall in slight leg-yield position. Instead, I turned the incident into an argument and the moment was lost.
From this day forward, I will not ride with emotion during training. Horses are only reacting to pressure and outside stimulus. They are being horses and doing what they do. It's my job to show them the way and not be bothered by their incorrect reactions or reactions to what's happening around them. I'll "put blinkers" on myself so I'm not seeing things that I might make the horse react to and I'll keep my chin up and eyes forward from this day on. That's my promise to my horses.
The other day, I was running really behind getting barn chores finished. I knew I wouldn't have enough time to get horses ridden and was stressing about Wheels not being exercised. A friend volunteered to work him for me and I accepted. She had never ridden Wheels and had not seen him go much prior to this ride. I didn't have time to teach her while she rode, but gave her the basic information about picking up your reins, keeping the bit quiet while he wiggled around, go forward and wait for things to come together.
Remember, Wheels has a lot of difficulty finding a consistent contact in the beginning of the ride. You need to always keep the training scale in mind when training horses...rhythm and relaxation, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection. I believe many people think suppleness has to do with bending the neck and pay very close attention to their horses heads and necks. They forget about riding the body. Wheels was all over the place. Unfortunately, it was very difficult for the rider to understand that the bit needed to be still; instead, if Wheels wiggled right, she'd correct him left, if he wiggled left, she'd then correct him right and so on. If he'd hit the bit in the slightest, she'd completely release. If she suppled and he softened, she'd release as a reward, but then he'd begin to wiggle again. All of this movement, of course, caused him to come on his forehand and remain behind her leg for the duration of the ride. Fortunately, this provides a really good learning opportunity...
The next day was a bit windy and the horses were all being silly. Wheels was WILD! He was leaping in the air just trying to walk over to the indoor. Nonetheless, I jumped aboard and proceed to leap in the air with joy. He was also being quite resistant by spooking at the dumbest things (such as the big white wall that I cleaned the night before). What fun.
At first, he would turn his head to look at something and wind himself up more, so I'd bend him away and try to go forward. This went on for a couple treks around the arena before I realized I was becoming my own worse enemy. Bridge your reins and ride forward. Create a channel for the energy to flow between both legs to the quiet bit. Just find peace with the bridle and go forward. I produced a "box" between my legs and hands, packaged him up comfortably and set off in a forward trot and canter with no more issues.
Once you establish this straightness and quiet contact, then you begin working on movements and suppling exercises. Remember, the training scale does not mean you can only move to the next tier if you've mastered the one below, they all work hand in hand, together!