Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Soft & supple

We all know our horses can bend at the poll and raise their head and neck up and down, but what about being soft and having side to side bend? That is where lateral work comes in. This is when using the rings on the sides of the surcingle helps as it exaggerates the cues a bit, making it easy for the horse to understand what you're asking for.  With green horses and sometimes with rehab horses, you want to exaggerate the cues now and then, to make it crystal clear for the horse, what you are asking them. Rehabs- may have gotten confused and just finally blew up. Green horses- are a clean slate. You want to help them move along in their training, not confuse them.

I start all of my work with softening exercises. Bending to the left, bending to the right, walking around in circles both directions to see where the horse is at, both physically and mentally. If I ask for a circle to the right with just a tug of the rein, do they readily give, bend thru the body and make the turn or are they resistant, raise their head, hollow their back and fight it? This will show both under saddle and in the lines.

If the horse raises their head, hollows out their back and stiffens up, it's not a big deal. Just push them forward with a cluck, kiss, 'walk on', raised hand or whatever you use and wait for things to smooth out. Keep them walking and talk to them as you let the horse to relax. As their head comes back down where it belongs, praise them, but keep them moving. Gently tug the rein again and ask for the turn. By roughly the third or fourth turn, the horse should get the idea that you aren't going to be yanking around on the reins and beating them up in the face when you ask them to turn. Some horses pick it up in nothing flat, others it might take a while to sink in, but as long as you are consistent, they will eventually get it.

At first I ask for large circles, with only a slight amount of bend, but as the horse warms up and starts to really soften, I ask for smaller circles, tighter turns and more bend. Sometimes the horse may be fine with the larger circles but as you tighten the circles up, you find they are stiff and not as giving. This is okay because now you know what you need to work on. You need to help the horse loosen things up which will allow them to move more freely. Once the horse is loose and relaxed, you will be able to see a big difference in the way they move and how they carry themselves.

Horses may also be one sided too. This can change by the day, since they may wake up on the wrong side of the stall, stiff on the left and cranky to boot. We have our days, they have theirs and sometimes you just have to work thru it. If the horse is stiff or sore, as they loosen up things should feel better and their mood will improve. Doesn't yours when your body gets sorted out and stops hurting?

Softening work is also a good way to warm up as well as cool out your horse. As the horse warms up and the muscles relax, they will move more freely and easily. Once the horse is done working, cooling out at a walk, working on bending and softness- the muscles stretch more easily while they are warm. Stretching after a workout helps us improve our flexibility as well as helps keep the muscles loose, so why not apply the same idea to the horses? A lot of what works for us, works for them and a lot of what works for them, works for us as well.

If your horse just doesn't seem to relax and soften up on one side or the other, or even both, go ahead and stop them. No use in making things worse with no hope of improvement. I often found my pony would be stiff on one side and sometimes he was just stiff, muscularly sore or just being a twit and didn't feel like cooperating. Whenever you can rule out pain as the main issue and the reason behind your horse not cooperating, you want to do it. If Kat is/was having a bad day and not bending to one side or the other, I would do some stretches with him to see if it was a physical block first.

Stand at your horses side and ask them to bend their neck around to that side. If they have no problem doing it or holding it there for a few seconds, it's likely they are not in pain or even really stiff, they are just being stubborn, crabby and don't feel like it today. This gives you a good indication of whether you need to be a little forgiving on that side or get after them a little and let them know you're not putting up with their behavior. If the horse is typically soft on that side and has stiffened up over a length of time, don't expect to fix it all in one day. It didn't get this way overnight, you aren't going to fix it in one shot either.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Body Language & Holding the Reins

Some people feel the need for and will use a whip for ground driving and long line work as well as simple lunging. While the whip is merely an extension of your arm, or leg depending on how you use it, you can use one if you feel the need, but you may find that with your body language, you may not need it at all. It depends on your horse and what you are doing. My horses know that I may hold one in my hand when lunging, but it won't be used on them in a way that will sting. If I need to up the ante to get their attention and respect, a good flick of the wrist, snap of the whip and all is restored without the popper ever touching them.

When I first started doing long line work, back in the day... I couldn't for the life of me keep the horse on the rail. I remember the first horse I worked in the lines and even in the round pen- he was ALL. OVER. THE. PLACE. Mad skillz? I had none! ANY skillz??? None of those either! The red gelding dubbed Snooky (Long before he days of Jersey Shore) was confused as hell and had no clue what I wanted paired with me not having a clue what I wanted either.

Scratch that. I knew, wait, I had an idea what I wanted, I just didn't know what I was doing or how to get it. So for everyone starting out- it may not be pretty the first few times, but it does get better. We've all been there and none of us were born with the talent and grace of being good at it. That being said, a few years ago when I started Kat in harness... Honestly? I didn't really want to learn the art of ground driving or long line work. I knew he needed it, I knew I needed to DO it, but I wanted to get to the point of hitching him to the cart, I jump in and off we go. It wasn't until I was talking to another competitor and she admitted she does far more ground driving and long line work than she does actually driving with the cart, that the light bulb in my head came on.

Like everything else, the more you work on it, the more you learn it and improve your skills, the better you get, the easier it gets and the more you see things take shape creating perfection. As you improve your skills and your horses way of going changes in a positive way, it is so easy to get excited about it and you find yourself getting deeper into it. I have actually come to enjoy working horses in the lines and when I see a horse rocked back on their butt, showing some seriously BOLD forward movement, relaxed, reaching under themselves from behind and stretching out and down to the bit- That is some. wicked. cool. shit. Those are the moments you remember. That's what makes it all worth while and that my friends, is what you are working towards both on the ground and in the saddle.

When working my mares or any horse in the lines, when I am ground driving I am directly behind them. I give them about 4-8 feet of space in front of me, enough to be out of range should they decide to kick, buck or even bolt and come flying backwards. It's not a lot of room for the last one, but it's typically enough room to give me time to react and get out of the way without getting mowed down. When doing long line work or even lunging, if you stay more in line with the horses hip, you can push them forward, giving them somewhere to go, without getting in their way and inhibiting their movement or shutting them down altogether. If you keep your movement in time with theirs, you shouldn't be in a position where you find yourself in front of the horse, essentially cutting them off. To push them forward and into the bridle, I simply raise my outside hand (the one closest to the rail) straight out towards their butt. This is a reinforcement to move away from my hand and go forward. If you watch horses in the wild or even in pasture, they aren't 'talking' to each other constantly, whinnying, nickering or snorting to get their point across. Most of their language is body language- a flick of the ear, rolling an eye, tossing their head, swishing their tail- it is the nonverbal communication they use the most.

Some of you may be asking- How do I hold the lines? If anyone remembers back to the first Darby I took Kat to and Gary coming back to the trailer to straighten that out... It has changed for the better since then. I used to hold my lines coming up into my hand from the bottom, looped over my index finger and back down- out the bottom of my hand. This was so I could grip the lines with little effort and they wouldn't slide thru and out of my hand if the horse should pull. This also meant I couldn't as easily slide them thru my hands to shorten or lengthen them either.

Gary asked if I rode and if I held my reins that way when I did? Um, no? The difference of the width or thickness of the reins didn't matter and still doesn't to this day. The fact that leather is more 'slick' on one side and grips on the other- matters only a little. What matters is that with either the long lines or the driving reins is this- I couldn't slide my hands easily up or down the reins/lines, taking them up or letting them out as needed or was necessary. Somewhere in the mix, I was probably also at risk of losing a finger or two should things go south, like they sometimes do.

What I found to work the best for ground driving an long line work is simply bridging the reins. If anyone is unfamiliar with this, it is simply crossing them over each other as if making an X. The top two lines go to the bit and the bottom two lines are in your hands, but you hold both lines in both hands and it gives you a way to shorten or lengthen either or both with relatively little adjustment. The right rein comes up from the bottom and out thru the top of your right hand, in thru the top and out thru the bottom of the left hand. Left rein in thru the bottom and out thru the top of the left hand, in thru the top and out thru the bottom of the right hand.

To widen your hands, simply hold onto the reins and relax your grip on the excess as you slide them apart. To take up the reins, grip the excess and relax the grip on the reins, slide your hands apart and draw yourself in closer to the horse. Changing reins or direction of the horse traveling is similar and just as easy. It's a matter of taking a hold of both the rein and excess with one hand- the direction you want the horse to go, pulling gently on that rein and letting things slide thru the other hand, until the horse is in the position you want and need to use the other hand to keep them on the rail. You might want to make a few turns at the walk to begin training yourself how to do it while also letting your hands feel how it will feel later on.

Keep your hands low and wide, when you pull your horse into a turn, simply bring your hand back to your hip, just as if you were in the saddle. You might also find yourself turning your body with the horse. Their shoulders moving with your shoulders as if you were riding them. You should also be pulling gently and consistently on one rein and when the horse makes the turn, relax your hands and let them go forward again. Cluck, kiss or make whatever sounds you make to encourage them to go forward and let them. When the horse has turned and is again moving forward in whatever gait, praise them for their turn. You asked and they gave it to you. Reward them for it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Let's talk about this

What is happening with your hands?

Lately it seems like the comments on all of my dressage tests say my hands are too tense, Kat is fussy in the bridle, gaping in the mouth, etc. etc. etc. They tell me different ways and methods of how to let him go. This is my plan for the next dressage test we do. He's always good at home, but in the ring he can be a total ass and our test is often a fight from start to finish. Judges have told me to 'breathe thru your arms and the reins....' Ok but I had the feeling that we were about to exit the arena at any moment doing mach 9.

In talking to the dressage judge after the days events at the last ADT, she was impressed by all of the drivers and her main question was "How do you get them to do that without the use of your seat, your weight, your legs...???" We talked about how when driving Kat and his epic meltdown, I kept thinking how I would fix it if I were riding him and how finally I had to tell that part of my brain to "SHUT UP! already because You're NOT riding him!" We both had a laugh over it and she was intrigued by the whole process of having to reach the point of 'These are my options, what do I do from here?'

She had mentioned that she has a third level mare at home that she's riding and they have hit a block in their training and can't seem to get past it. I told her I have hit many of them and am finding lately that "I ride to sort out the driving, I drive to sort out the riding and if all else fails, go back to the ground and fix the horse from there." She tipped her head in curiosity and thought and said, "Huh? I really haven't ground driven her much, but I will have to try that. That's a good idea. Interesting... " She is an 'I' rated ridden dressage judge, but it goes to show, you never know what you're going to learn, from whom or where.

Back in the day, I was complimented on my hands while riding, that they were the softest, quietest hands that trainer had seen in a long time. I had always worried about my hands bouncing around at the trot and banging the horses mouth when I posted, so this was a major Win for me. Then this same trainer pointed out the issue I have about letting go while turning and used the bicycle handlebars visual to help me fix it. Somewhere along the way and over the years, it seems like it all went south. What happened, I have no idea. For a while ALL I heard was "Drop your hands" or at least it felt that way. Now it seems like all I hear is You're bracing against him, he's bracing against you, you need to relax your arms and several other variations of "Let go and drop your damn hands!"

Which is kind of funny and ironic in a way, because when I am ground driving, my hands are fine. They are light, low, relaxed and quiet. When driving Kat out on the trails and working him in between events, I have contact but it is soft, following and Kat is not braced, tight in the jaw or resistant in any way. But hook up the cart, throw us in the dressage ring and it all goes right out the window. It's game on and a war from start to finish during our test. Is it any wonder?

Even when ground driving or doing long line work, it is important to have light, soft, following contact. Sometimes you need to take a hold of the inside rein with contact to support the horse, but they need to feel it without you being in their face about it. You want the horse to accept the bit and reach for it, rather than evade it. Keeping your hands low when ground driving is good practice for when you are riding or driving them later on. Now if I can just put that to use in the ring later on.... maybe my scores will improve. In the cones and hazards we aren't too bad, but I am pushing him along, not holding him back- so obviously there's something to that. DUH!

I have also realized that maybe a part of our problem is that Kat rarely sees the inside of a dressage arena, unless we are at an event. Otherwise it is arena fencing, pasture fencing or wide open spaces. Looks like I am going to be buying some PVC piping and setting up a dressage arena to practice in.... Npthing involving horses is cheap.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Getting started

When starting a horse in long lines for the first time, I like to start them off with a little bit of lunging without anything on them.  I get a feel for the horse and they get a feel for me. I don't like the horse to be racing around all crazy and if that happens, I will quietly step out towards the front of them and turn them around.  It won't take long for the horse to relax and realize they can and should slow down.

When I worked with Cindy and her horse Trax over the weekend, I had her show me how she works with her horse. Her energy level is different than mine and the way each of us does things is also going to be different. If you are looking for a trainer, this is something to consider. Do they expect you to change everything about how you work with your horse, or are they willing to see how it is going and help you build on things from there?  Sure some things will Need to change, but if it wasn't broke- why did you call them to help you fix it?

Now horses will respond differently to each of us and Trax is no exception. Knowing his deep rooted issues with ropes in from his past, my main goal for the day was not to let him get himself into a mess and not give him the option of losing his mind. I started him out with the lines through the lowest rings on the sides of the surcingle. My reasoning behind this was plenty.

1) it is much easier for the horse to understand the concept of bending when you are basically asking them in a lateral way. You can also use your inside line to push the inside hip to the outside, which will give the front end only one way to go which is Into the turn you're asking them for. It makes things crystal clear for them, making life easier on both of you.
2) it would give me leverage in turning Trax into the rail to slow him down if things started to go a little wonky. Let's face it. I cannot and will not ever be able to out muscle a horse. Ever. I may be able to outmaneuver one, but I will never out muscle one. I might be strong, but I'm not That strong.
3) by ground driving them at the beginning, it is also much easier for the horse to understand the concept of forward if you can use the lines on either side of them to move them forward and only forward. They have one way to go and that's straight ahead. If your hands are nice and wide apart, if the horse were to step off to the side one way or the other, it is easy to tug the opposite rein to correct them and straighten them out. As long as they go forward, there is no rein pressure from either side.

Trax picked this idea up in no time and we were soon walking around the pen without issue. At the end of the first video on Cindy's blog, you can see Trax start to hesitate. "Do I stop or do I keep going? Mom is there by the gate, can I go back to her?"  A tug on the inside rein, cluck, cluck, "Walk on" spoken gently to him, he was sorted out and moving on again. When he moved forward and was relaxed doing it- lots of verbal praise. Tell them how good they are, how proud you are, how awesome things are going... Let them know that THIS is what you WANT. This makes you happy.

The way Trax looked in the end of the first video is what he looked like when we started. He just wasn't sure what was expected, what was being asked or what he was supposed to do. With the young horses and horses like Trax that have legitimate fear issues, I like to start them with their head pointed towards the rail of the round pen and them close enough to get a couple of steps before they are actually 'on' the rail and have 'freedom' lying ahead of them.

He took one step forward and stopped. I praised him for it, clucked to him, gently tugged on the outside rein and we got another step. Again, praise, ask, tug on the other rein and this time two steps, praise, ask and before long he was walking quietly and confidently around the round pen. If he tried to turn one way or the other, he was met with a tug on the opposite rein to keep him straight and his only real option was forward. As long as he was moving forward, I let the reins droop a little and he could have his head. No pressure, give him his release and lots of praise, because this is what you want. You can always build from here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

In the beginning...

There are a lot of people who use ground driving and long line work for starting their young horses. It is a good way to get them moving properly and comfortably with tack on, teaching them to balance themselves with the saddle on their back, what the reins and the bit are for and what cues and body language mean to them when we ask for different things. It also gives us a visual idea of how the horse is actually moving, since we don't get to watch ourselves ride and it is sometimes rare to get pictures, let alone quality video.

Lately in Bloggerland there are a lot of us finding ourselves, out of the saddle and back on the ground trying to fix things that seem to be coming unraveled... *Raises hand, Been there, done that.*  It seems when I get ON the horse, there is so much for me to think about, so much I am trying to do, things I am trying to remember, focus on, DO, Don't do, work on, let slide and it can get overwhelming. There's too much going on between the ears up there and Unless there is a drastic change in how things FEEL? Forget it. Driving, ground driving and long line work? Take away the legs, the weight, the seat and you take away a lot of the things we as riders may think about when we are on our horse.

So where to start?

First off you need some decent lines to work with. A bridle which you probably already have and either a surcingle or a saddle will do. You'll want to use a snaffle bit as it works on the corners of the horses mouth, is not a leverage bit and therefore more mild. You want something your horse can accept calmly, rather than too much bit, which will show in their reluctance to move forward. You can also use a lunging type whip too if you need something to help motivate your horse to move forward.

My lines are made of the polyester braided rope found at most hardware stores. The 100 foot length will give you 2 lines 35 feet long for working the horse and another 30 foot line for lunging. Snaps and all, you're looking at around $15-$20 out the door. Heavier rope can be used and will give a little different feel to both you and your horse, but keep in mind that the snaps and the knot holding them on, may not go through the rings on the surcingle if you use one.

Surcingles are also another fairly cheap tool to acquire. I bought mine online from one of the many companies  I get catalogs from- Jeffers Equine, Valley Vet, SmartPak, Stateline, Big Dee's, Dover Schneiders... Shopping around you can find them on sale for anywhere around $15-$25 for the basic model, synthetic, lots of big rings, comes with the girth, blah, blah, blah. This will fit a large variety of horses in different sizes.  Mine fits a standard Arabian or QH, up to (barely) fitting my WB mare.

The thing I like about surcingles and why I prefer them to saddles for ground driving /long line (GD/LL) work, is because you have options as to where to put your reins thru them. Saddles you are either stuck with just the stirrups or the rings on a breastcollar. Running the lines thru the rings on the breastcollar works, but it can be uncomfortable to the horse. Any time you have to pull or tug on the lines, it's either going with the hair as you pull or against the hair as you release. Sooner or later the horse is going to become a bit irritated because it will be sore.

Running the lines thru the stirrups on either an English or western saddle, you need to secure them underneath to limit the 'swing' and keep the stirrups closer to the horses side. Baling twine works well for this, but putting it on a green horse or a re-hab horse, can be a little hairy if they aren't used to or don't like things going under their belly.  Depending on how long or short your legs are- the stirrups will put the lines going down and whenever you take up contact, the pressure will be coming from down, not up where your hands will be when you are riding. Saddles will still work, but I prefer a surcingle if available or even a driving harness saddle.  The harness saddle will allow you to run the lines thru the tugs for more lateral work or the turrets for regular work.

I have also seen the terms Ground Diving and Long Lining thrown around almost as if they are interchangeable. There are differences in the two and you can go from ground driving to long lining and back again. Ground driving is basically driving the horse forward, from the ground. You are behind them much as if you were sitting on a cart and you follow them around the arena or round pen, wherever you are working. Long line work is different as they are further out towards the ends of the lines. You can ask for a jog, trot, lope or canter and still control things as they go around you on a circle much like lunging.

For a young horse just starting out or even an older horse going thru re-hab, I like to start out in a round pen. If they are to freak out and lose their mind- they have a place to run and you can quietly wait them out. They aren't really going anywhere even if they happen to pull the lines thru your hands and take off. If they spin around to face you and end up wound up in the lines?  Again, there's not a lot of options for them if their 'flight mode' kicks in.