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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
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TRAINING CYCLES & SCALES


Training Cycles
Usually we manage to gain some physical control of our horse.  That is until something causes his emotional level to rise.  The horse’s fear can so distract him that we lose the physical control we thought we had.  I see people before a ride lunging their horse on a line or free in a round pen for up to an hour, thinking the horse won’t buck or run away.  But all that physical exercise has not made a significant impact on the horse’s emotional level.  The horse can still get excited and run away.  Even if the horse's emotional level is not interfering, the horse cannot give his best performance until we control his mind; until we get him focusing and thinking about what we are asking.  Most horses, including highly trained ones, are not performing to their best ability because their minds are not engaged!  Using horse specific Foundation of Ground and Mounted training plans that address each horse’s needs requires understanding, using training cycles in order to keep both you and your horse progressing. The training cycles must address the Emotional, Mental and Physical aspects of each and every equine.


Emotional Cycle

Is working with your horse using exercises and developing cues around one of the Natural Survival Instincts every equine is born with; it’s flight fear mechanism!.  A low emotional level does not equal a good horse nor does a high level a bad horse.  However; how intensely they react to fear and how fearful they are will determine how long it will take to train a horse before it can be ridden safely and/or the skill set of the trainer, handler and/or the rider!.  Differing levels means a different application of horsemanship training cycles on the ground and in the saddle.  Understanding and controlling your horse’s emotional level will help you achieve maximum performance.    The main ingredients that determine the emotional level of the horse is; breeding, maturity, possibly trauma, past/present handling, past/present training and personality!  


Mental Cycle

The Mental element is very important also because it is the horse’s capacity for focus; that is, the horse’s ability to learn lessons we teach and her willingness to pay attention to us.  The emotionally state of the horse will impact the mental element.  No matter how calm a horse might be, if she is not focused or interested, then the training lesson will not be a success.  We do foundation training exercises to keep the horse focused on us.  One of the cardinal rules I have is that I never just hop on a horse to ride; particularly a strange one or a horse in training.  Groundwork is not about refreshing the horse on training cues or physically warming the horse up, although those are accomplished as side benefits.  Instead, it is a mental chick-in with the horse before you climb into the saddle and is the most important thing you can do to have a safe and successful ride.  The exercises that you do will get the horse mentally focused on you and on what you are asking.  They allow you to gauge where the horse’s emotional level may be for the day and it can differ day to day.  It gives us the chance to assess if the horse is emotionally and mentally ready to ride.  If not, we can do more groundwork, which gives us 75 to 85 carry over into the saddle.  The time frame will vary from a few minutes to thirty minutes depending on the horse.

 

Physical Cycle

It is important that we have calm and focused horses in order to be successful with the physical element of the horse’s training; the movement, direction and speed that we ask the horse to move.  In other words, the horse must lead without balking or pushing. It must walk up to; a tarp, a trailer and go right in without protest and without the use of any special aid. We must also have control of the horse under saddle, whether on the trail or in the arena. The horse must turn and stop and respond to cues when requested to do so.  To be able to communicate with a horse, you must be able to control its five body parts; the head, neck, poll, shoulders, ribs and hindquarters.  The faster the horse moves the higher the emotional level and the higher the emotional level the less focused the horse and be; the more difficult it will be to control the horse’s movements. Is the horse physically Fit?  Training involves a combination of physical conditioning and task-specific exercises.  Asking the horse to do too much, too soon, can spell trouble.  This is especially true for young horses and pasture potatoes that have had little in the way of regular exercise, and are then suddenly expected to exercise on the ground and/or in the saddle on a two-hour trail ride. Regardless of the discipline the horse is used for, they should be gradually adapted to greater workloads over time.  


Master Training Plans
It is very important that we have master Foundation of Ground & Mounted training plans because I believe a "goal without a plan is just a drearm".   The concept of cycles applies not only to individual workouts, but also to overall training plans over weeks and months. For example, for a weekly plan, Monday may be an easier day than Tuesday or Wednesday. Thursday may be the peak of the week, and Friday will be easier – similar to Monday or Tuesday. The weekend can be used as recovery time, for the body to rest and rebuild. On an even bigger scale, looking at a month or several months, the training should have cycles in which week one is easier than weeks two, three and four. By week five, you might be heading back down the scale.  Having a plan, and planning with cycles in mind, will ensure you have an aim each time you work your horse. Even if you only ride three times a week, you should use a training cycle.

 

Plan Training Sessions
From your master training plan create cue cards for each training session on the ground as well as in the saddle.  What are your goals? Are you heading out on the trail, planning for a weekend of riding, or preparing for a show? Your schedule needs to take into consideration how much time do you have to spend, your horse’s current fitness level, and your availability.  Once these questions are answered, you can begin to form a plan.  Your training schedule is going to change depending on whether your horse is just being started, or if you are preparing for an extended trail ride over a weekend, or a competition. The thing I want you to get out of this article is that no matter what your goal, there is still a cycle to the training.


Measuring Progress
What I love about colt starting is that the progress is so much more tangible and easily measured than with later, more refined training. One moment the colt has never been haltered, and then he has. One moment he has never been bridled, and the next he chews away at the bit in his mouth. When the cinch has been tightened for the first time, when you take that first step into the stirrup – each is a marker along the way to getting the colt started. When a day’s work is done, you know what you’ve accomplished.  I think it is these very tangible steps that people find attractive, but you should have planned steps in place for every horse that you ride. Whether you’re colt starting or riding the older horse, your training program should have a plan.


Breaking Down the Training Cycle.
Consider a training schedule I used for one of my horses, Blaze. Each workout consisted of cycles – a warm-up period, stressing (working) muscles, rest/recovery, and a cooling down phase. These are the components of each workout routine. If was planning a long routine, the stress and rest periods will repeat multiple times.  For example, I would warm up with a walk and jog and by doing some bending exercises and moving Blaze's hips. Next, I would lope some circles, working on steering and speed control – the first stress cycle of the routine. Then we would stand and walk to cool out. Then I might work on Blaze's spins – the second stress cycle, followed by cooling down. Blaze was in shape and I use him during my clinics as well as in my demonstrations. He needed multiple stress cycles in his workout routines Intermediate and Advanced Levels. The routine for a young or out-of-shape horse will often have fewer stress cycles, such as Foundation of Ground Training Level 1 followed by light to moderate riding The Essentials Level 1.


Mix It Up
You might be asking, “How do training cycles apply to me?” Well let me ask you a question – has your training flat-lined? Is your routine the same every day? Consistency is good, but we need to remember to challenge our horses, emotionally, physically and mentally.  I often hear horses are like kids – if you don’t keep them busy, they will keep you busy. And that may mean doing something like bucking or generally giving you a hard time.  A horse that is ridden several times a week, with a routine that never changes, will often become more difficult because he has reached a plateau of fitness and is not being challenged either physically or mentally.  Your horse’s basic natural survival instincts dictate training cycles that it will easily accept, learn and understand.  For the first 3 sessions or so depending on the horse’s flight/fear level it is critical that the training cycles consist of doing something mentally easy, emotionally easy and physically easy basically at the walk or easy trot.  As your horse’s education progresses and its’ flight/fear level decreases the cycles will become more challenging Emotionally, Mentally & Physically.

 

When to Add a New exercise

I normally start each training session with at least five exercises and will be a mixture of old and new; after four times on your horse’s left side do 6 on its right side add then another and so for a total of five [remember the left side is the thinking side and the right side is the flight/fear side]!  Later on you can do any ground exercise that you feel will be the most valuable that day or for what is needed most at the time.  End on a good note that means the horse has learned something new! Start and end with grooming also end the session with a treat in the bucket in an enclosed area or tied up.  Duration of each daily session should be approximately 1 hour to 1:15:

 

Scales of Training

In addition to training cycles consider the scales of training because they are the building blocks to any training system, sometimes referred to as the 'pyramid of training'. To train a horse correctly up the levels, it is important to establish the basics before moving on to higher level work. However, there is some overlapping and interdependence so each building block shouldn't be considered in complete isolation, and even with a horse working at an Advanced level, you should revisit the basic stages regularly to check that your training is correct. Sometimes the 'Scales of Training' are referred to as a 'pyramid'. 

 




Relaxation/suppleness/looseness

These are prerequisites for all further training and along with rhythm, must be achieved during the Foundation of Ground Training. Relaxation refers to physical as well as mental aspects: the horse needs to be physically and mentally free from tension so that it can work with looseness and use itself fully. The horse's joints should bend and straighten equally on each side of its body and with each step or stride, and the horse should give the impression that it is putting its whole mind and body into its work. When the horse is loose and relaxed it will stretch its head and neck forwards and downwards in all three gaits.

Rhythm

The term "rhythm" refers to the regularity of the steps or strides in each gait: Each stride should cover equal distance and be of equal duration. In trot, each diagonal should be the same. The rhythm should be maintained through transitions and turns as well as on straight lines. Rhythm must not be confused with 'tempo', which refers to the speed of the rhythm. The tempo can be correct, too fast or too slow, whilst the rhythm per se can only be regular (correct) or irregular.

 

Contact

Contact is the soft, steady connection between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth. The horse should work rhythmically forward from the rider's leg and seat into the contact. A correct, steady contact allows the horse to find its balance under the rider and find a rhythm in each of the gaits. The poll should always be the highest point of the neck, except when the horse is being ridden forwards and downwards. The contact should never be achieved through a backward action of the hands; it should result from the horse working through from behind with a driving hindleg. Contact is not just about the mouth, but involves the whole horse working forwards into the bridle : the term 'connection' is sometimes more useful.

Impulsion

A horse is said to have impulsion when the energy created by the hind legs is being transmitted into the forward movement. A horse can be said to be working with impulsion when it pushes off energetically from the ground and swings its feet well forward. Impulsion is created by training and is sometimes referred to as 'contained energy'. Impulsion is not the same as speed: if the horse is pushed too fast so that it quickens its steps, the moment of suspension is shortened because it puts its feet down sooner. Even if the rhythm is maintained, if the tempo is too fast, the impulsion will suffer as a result. We need to begin working lunging focusing on relaxation and a slower tempo allow horses energy to develop into impulsion. This will result in a more noticeable moment of suspension.

 

Straightness

Is achieved when the horse'sforehand is in line with its hindquarters, whether that is on a straight line or curve (circle). Straightness is necessary in order for the horse's weight to be evenly distributed over the two halves of the body. It is developed through systematically training and suppling both sides of the body equally. Most horses start off crooked, just as people are right or left-handed. In training, the aim is to get achieve straightness. This not only makes the work easier for the horse, but will also contribute towards soundness and longevity.

Collection

Collection refers to the increased weight carrying capacity of the hindquarters. By systematic training and correct muscle development, the horse is able to increase the flexion of the hind legs, and step under with more engagement. As a consequence, the forehand is lightened and the neck raised. The horse is then in a position to move in balance and self-carriage in all three gaits.