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‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’

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Foundation Mounted






Transfer Leadership into the saddle

We Establish leadership during the foundation of ground training; then we Transfer that what we establishing on the ground into the saddle.  Taking the trust, confidence, softness and leadership from the ground into the saddle is a most critical part of our horse having a solid Foundation and our relationship with our horse.  You may become quite efficient at controlling your horse on the ground, but if you have a sensitive, afraid, spooky or over-exuberant horse, you’ll need to understand some important principles in order to move forward successfully and preserve your confidence.  Horses need leadership both on the ground and in the saddle. Leadership is essential to them in the wild; if they don’t have a leader they will become one and make all the decisions as to when to go, when to stay and when to run.  So if you don’t lead, they will because our leadership tends to be challenged in certain situations.  When everything is calm normally everything is fine!  But when a horse feels; anxious, not confident, scared, spooked, does not move of pressure or seeks to become the leader by doing what it wants to do or is allow to make most of the decisions there are some golden principles to observe. 

Commit to helping your horse be more confident

In situations where your horse suddenly speeds up, overreacts, spooks; what do you think your horse is feeling?  What should you do? No problem; if your horse has a solid Foundation of Ground Training you simply would follow the Foundation of Mounted Training Plan!  If it does not; dismount and fill the gaps in the horses foundation of ground training because long term you will not fix the behavior mounted.   Sensitive and Reactive horses who have not been prepared Emotionally, Mentally and Physically for Mounted Training are the most likely types to exhibit these behaviors.  If horses are not trained properly for mounted training other personally types may also exhibit these behaviors, so pulling back on two reins actually worsens the problem because they feel trapped.  When a horse gets scared his number one reaction is flight – run away!  They are not thinking and plotting, they are reacting!  It’s all out of self-preservation; the instinct to survive.  When horses get scared, they are going to react; bolt, run or buck.  The more you hold them back, back them up and try to stop them, the worse it gets because they need to move their feet.  The only way to try to understand what they must be going through is to put it into perspective for you.  Imagine you are walking through a graveyard with a friend and there’s a sudden noise or image that scares the life out of you!  Your instinct is to take off out of there as fast as you can, but just as you launch yourself your friend grabs you by the collar and holds you back.  At that moment you’d probably believe it was a ghost and your fear would escalate into sheer terror.  Panic is not a logical thing.  The adrenaline produced by fear kicks in well before you can rationalize what’s actually going on, because that takes a little time. This is what happens to your horse and given the horse’s hyper perceptiveness to the environment, changes, movements and sounds; he is probably reacting to things you didn’t even notice.  So, think about it from the horse’s point of view and don’t blame him for being fearful.  Commit to learning how to help your horse become more confident about himself and in your leadership and therefore less reactive.

If your horse is not Emotionally, Mentally and Physically prepared for work in the saddle your long term success will be difficult and not safe for you and your horse.  Some of us may be very good at doing the Foundation of Ground Training but transferring and establishing leadership in the saddle is the key to us having a great partnership!  Anytime a horse is resistant while riding, I strongly recommend to fix the behaviour long term do it the ground. In other words, get off the horse; practice groundwork exercises to refresh the horse's memory, fix the behaviour and re establish your position as herd leader. A number of today's training programs include simple and effective groundwork exercises. Although every trainer/clinician has her/his favourite methods, each is based on the same principle---to teach the horse to move away from both physical and emotional pressure and reward him when he complies. When you can control and regain your horse's respect on the ground, he will go forward willingly and with respect when you ride.

Lateral Flexion

When you bend a horse’s head around it disengages the hindquarters, taking the power away. When you pull on tworeins, it actually engages the hindquarters and adds power to whatever the horse is doing – positive or negative.  Worst of all, holding the reins with two hands automatically causes you to pull backward on them in almost any situation; when your horse spooks, when he surges forward or turns suddenly, when you lose your balance, when he’s not doing what you want, etc.  You feel as though you’ve got control, but in reality, your horse gets progressively worse.  Every time you prevent a horse from moving his feet he becomes more; anxious, fearful and reactive, so he keeps get himself into trouble.  When you pull back on two your horse feels trapped because you stop his feet and hold him back from moving, so the panic builds.  When you pull on one rein you turn your horse into a tiny circle but he can keep his feet moving; the panic dissipates. Allowing those feet to move is the secret, but controlling where they move is equally as important!  Don’t let them run off!  Inside cause the feet to “run away” in a small circles with the Lateral Flexion rein in extreme situations. Use the hindquarter disengaging Indirect Rein in less threatening situations. 

Lateral flexion Versus Indirect Rein

During the foundation of ground training Lateral Flexion became very natural to the horse so it should is a neutral rein position in the saddle.  Its purpose is to stop the horse’s feet when the horse is ready to stop.  It doesn’t force the feet to stop moving immediately, but it stops them from running off.  Once the horse’s emotions start to come down, the feet will stop and you can begin to calm him down further by petting him and he should start focusing on you as you praise him.

  • The Indirect Rein stops the horse from running forward and
  • Lateral Flexion asks the horse’s hind feet to keep moving while the front feet virtually pivot. It’s an active rein. In both cases the horse crosses his hind legs as he moves and the constant turning triggers the left brain to become active. In other words, it gives the horse time to start thinking again.

The difference between the two is that one is Control (Lateral Flexion) and the other is Leadership (Indirect Rein).  

When to What, When & Why

So:

  • Use Lateral Flexion in situations where the horse wants to run, buck, rear in more serious situations.  The goal is to save your life and your confidence by stopping the horse from taking off, but at the same time dissipating the panic in the horse. It also gives you the opportunity to jump off on the same side as your horse is bent which gets more dangerous to do as he gains momentum when running off!  I’ve become very good at this because the moment I feel the horse starting to run and I can’t bend him to a stop (because I’m riding bridle less), I’m off with the first out-of-control step.  When you’re bending your horse to get control, think this: I don’t blame you; I know you need to move your feet, but let’s run off in this tight circle rather than for half a mile or more!  
  • Use the Indirect Rein in situations of mild spook, when the horse gets a little high -headed or you feel his attention drift away from you. Simply reach down and turn him in circles, yielding the hindquarters for as many revolutions as it takes before your horse can do them calmly. I say this because the first turn or two (or more) could be a bit rushed. All the while think these thoughts: What I’m asking you is more important than what you think is scary.

When Riding Around, Use Casual Rein

The Casual Rein is held in one hand, close to the mane, elbow somewhat straight.  The reins are loose and you have the opportunity to quickly reach down with the other hand and bend your horse to control him with lateral flexion or hindquarter disengagement. The opposite is holding the reins close to your body or in two hands.  It’s a good idea to set yourself up for success, which means avoiding situations that would automatically cause you to do the wrong thing. The worst of these is holding the reins in two hands because it becomes an automatic reaction to pull back on both. It’s actually very hard to just take one rein. Holding the reins in the Casual Rein position can be so difficult to do when you don’t feel safe, but you need to really ‘get’ that you are riding a prey animal and it’s not about you!  In order for you to survive you have to help your prey animal survive; that’s your job as leader. Most importantly, if you don’t feel safe using a Casual Rein position you shouldn’t be on your horse in this situation.  Holding your horse with two reins is a sure sign of your distrust or lack of confidence in a certain situation, unless you’re doing it for backing up, going sideways or for collection.

If You Can't Ride your horse on a Loose Rein, Should you be riding that horse?

This is the hardest thing to recognize, especially if you are building your self-confidence!  I believe that if I have shorter reins I can react more quickly.  And maybe I can, but the underlying truth is that if we really don’t trust our horse enough to give him full rein.  The ride can be peppered with moments of tension and spooking and fits of exuberance like leaping in the air and we just tolerate it because it’s “not that bad”.  The point is if we think it’s no big deal or that we’re minimizing the effect; we’re wrong.  Unattended behaviors tend to worsen over time so everything we do should be directed at getting things to be better.  So if your horse keeps spooking, keeps leaping in the air or bucking even if not scared, you need to reevaluate what you’re doing.  Be committed to riding on a Casual Rein on trails, during riding exercises – actually it’s a good test in any situation because you can immediately tell when the situation is not safe. The moment you feel like shortening up the reins you have a decision to make that is to; bend and disengage to a stop (Lateral Flexion), disengage the hindquarters but keep them moving or get off and help your horse become focused again using emergency ground exercises. 

What usually makes you feel like shortening the reins is the feeling of tension in your horse, so instead of trying to live through it, think about actually doing something to change your horse’s behavior.  For example, as soon as your horse looks off at something or tenses up, do three or more hindquarter disengagements (Indirect Rein) and then move on.  The secret is to do as many as it takes until you feel your horse relax his body and stop rushing or bracing through any part of it. Then you can turn his head loose and carry on, still being ready at any moment to reach down and repeat.  The worst thing you can do is ignore it and think everything will be okay. You might be fooled this time but in the days, weeks and months to come, things will get worse. You don’t want to wind up saying, “All of a sudden for no reason at all, my horse totally flipped out, turned into a scared maniac and now is afraid of everything!” These things build up in a horse. You need to know the early warning signs, read your horse so you can deal with them and never have to go there! 

Two Reins for Communication 

Even when handling two reins, think about it as communication rather than control.  For example, even when you are going sideways or backward your reins need to move with the horse’s front feet.  Whatever you want your horse to do, you need to do in your body first.  Your horse’s front legs are your arms and hands.  You need to have a little motion in them to indicate what you want your horse to do.  The moment you use those reins for holding back an emotional horse, you’re in trouble.  Learn to feel the tension and bracing in your horse. Look and feel for signs such as the head going up, a tense jaw, working the bit, bracing of the ribs, quickening of step. At this moment, activate one rein and disengage your horse until you feel his body relax.  Pet him and continue being ready at any time to deal with his emotions as they come up.  It’s so important to realize there are three elements to your horse; the mental, emotional and physical horse. No matter what you are doing, when the emotional horse surfaces, you have to deal with that.  It is easy to say but learn to focus and forget everything else and take care of it. If you don’t, it will come back to haunt you.

Don't Wait for the fire - Deal with the Spark

Do less sooner so you don’t have to do more later.  It’s much easier to put out a spark than to deal with a wall of flames. The moment you feel your horse get tense do something.  If all you did was simply disengage him, moving his hindquarters until you felt his attention turn to you instead of whatever he thought was the problem, you’d be way ahead. Pretty soon your horse will get used to paying attention to his leader all the time and that spooky or distracted behavior will diminish. No matter how advanced you think you or your horse is this is something you can never neglect.  If that annoys you or you are not confident you may want to consider getting a calmer horse!  If you want all the pleasures horses can offer, you have to take responsibility for doing your part in the partnership.

When you have gotten a good foundation on the ground you then apply the same principles to riding with fabulous results!  Ground training a horse is great for teaching and reinforcing manners on the ground that will transfer to riding.  Ground training exercises responsiveness, respect and suppleness, they build trust, communication and establish you as the leader.  The better your foundation of ground training, the better your communication in riding sessions will be.  This allows the horse to understand and learn riding cues before he carries the rider.  It becomes much easier for him to understand cues given from the rider when he is started under saddle.  Use a progressive step by step mounted training plan and do not push your horse too fast, too hard nor too early in the saddle.  After all, what is an extra 30 or 60 days to really develop a trustworthy, confident, responsive horse in light of the next twenty years of enjoyable riding?  You can spend lots of time trying to fix problems later or take the time in the beginning to do it right.

Responsiveness, Rhythm & Relaxation

Though the idea of learning about training and/or riding your horse can seem daunting, you will be greatly enriched by becoming more aware of it over time.  Start small on the Ground and then in the saddle.  If you have issues such as; respect, accepting pressure and leadership you will have to deal with those issues first before you can succeed with training mounted.  This is not normal behaviour; horses by nature are adaptable, they are also quiet, low key, which allows them to conserve their energy for real danger when they must take off into flight.  Here are the three exercises, mindsets, necessary to achieving trust, confidence, bravery and safety with our horse.  These exercises will help you achieve the level of trust your horse needs in order to feel safe with you.  You need to become more important than what your horse is worried about; both in relationship and leadership.  You don’t stop working with your horse until you and your horse achieve the 3 “R’s”:

 

·     Responsiveness - Regardless of your horse’s training level it is important that every time you handle your horse, any horse, that you ask him to be responsive to the cue, any cue, that you give him, especially cues with the lead rope or the rein.

·     Rhythm – Working from the ground, the exercises we do with the horse and our rhythmic movement sets the patterns and feelings that become familiar to the horse.  This familiarity helps the horse relax he knows what to expect and develops a rhythm along with lightness.  When we ask a green horse for these familiar patterns under saddle for the first time, their familiarity helps the horse assimilate the new feeling of someone on his back.  Later on in his training, as we begin asking the horse to push from his hindquarters with greater energy into our guiding hand, rhythmic patterning helps him work with elastic, 'relaxed', muscular tension rather than with tight, bunchy muscles.

·    Relaxation & Rhythm create an endless information loop that is the basis of everything else we do with our horses, either as trainers or riders. You need both to communicate clearly with your horse and you cannot have one without the other.  Think about how this combination feels in your body as you ride.  Relaxation makes it easier to set rhythm, and rhythm makes it easier to relax. On the flip side, tension in either horse or rider disrupts rhythm.  Our responsibility as riders and trainers is to learn to lead this dance rather than merely following along with whatever the horse offers.

 

So What Now?

I find that the most import thing is to commit to being more confident so we can help our horse to be more confident.  Everything you do with your horse will depend on our and horse’s maturity; training and ability to handle emotional, mental and physical situations.  I have learned over the years that knowing when to give our horses a break is as important as asking them to move of pressure and to praise them is important to the relationship.  Sometime during training and/or riding a horse will ho hum us and depending on the confidence of the horse they could very well suddenly overreact by spooking, bucking or simply refusing to do what we ask of them, I’ll lay odds on it.  It may happen in a day, a month or years but it will happen and the first thing to do if it happens in the saddle is stay calm and defuse the situation as stated earlier in this article.   


Recommended reading  TRAINING Anxiety Confidence Leadership and TRAINING PROGRAM