rider balance- get the heads up!

One thing that most of us have struggled with at some time is allowing the seat to find a good natural balance; we might find it in walk but we still have the faster gaits to master.

My current preoccupation with archery atop a horse has got me revisiting my own balance in the saddle. Imagine keeping your balance and shooting an arrow whilst the horse moves! Forget hitting the target, just letting an arrow go seems a difficult task right now and the idea of doing it all in good balance even more tricky.

I recently spent an illuminating time with Felicity Mann who is an Alexander Technique practitioner using an equine simulator to correct balance issues for riders. Again I was reminded of the intrinsic link between rider balance and horse balance.

Every month in my tips and advice at Interdressage I  give guidance on rider balance as a way to improve the horse’s balance and suppleness. I’m sure riders would like a ‘fix’ for their horse but until their own balance is better it is hard to make a case for attempting to address the balance of the horse; truly a case of putting the cart before the horse!

If you’re like me you can carry the troubles of the week in your body so it is essential to learn to let go of each area of muscles. Not floppy and over relaxed but decontracted; this release leads to the perfect muscle tone and lack of ‘holding’ tension.

Start with your head and make sure you don’t have the jutting chin tortoise look (working at a computer induced posture in the photo right below) but be careful to balance the head on top of the spine in its natural balance. Looking down can encourage a head down position so try to look down with the eyes (if you have to look down) not the whole head.

The head is ‘hinged’ at the human ‘poll’ as the spine meets the cranium. The cervical spine (neck) meets the cranium (skull) at the atlas- have a feel about in your neck and see how it corresponds to the skeleton below. The atlas allows us to nod and the axis below it plays its part in side to side action.

The human head weighs around 5kg (11lbs) and if not naturally balanced above the spine will create tension in the neck and back causing chronic pain over time.
Imagine 5kg and what a difference it makes to your balance in the saddle and therefore to your horse’s balance. I often find that when a rider is reminded of the correct head balance they free up their shoulders and neck, and as a result lots more below, allowing for more freedom of movement and the possibility to harmonise better with the horse’s movement.

Starting in front of a mirror (better still strategically placed multiple mirrors) assess your head balance taking care with this as it doesn’t always feel wrong if you have been balancing it that way for some time; look for the ears being central over the shoulders. If your chin is forwards take it back and down at the same time as lifting up from the top of your head. If your chin is up and the head tilted back (often a posture adopted by those who have been told to sit up tall and hold their shoulders back) again drop your chin and lift up from the top of your head- use a finger on the chin and the other hand cupped and sliding upwards from the base of the skull to feel this. Welcome to a world of double chins!

Put your riding hat on and check your balance again- notice where the peak sits and again adjust your head balance, many hats will add 600g in extra weight to your head which is not insignificant in itself.

If you have school mirrors the next check is easy but if not make sure to have eyes on the ground or video yourself to get a feel for that head balance once mounted. Check your head in all paces but don’t foget your balance is dynamic, don’t fix one imbalance by creating another in trying to ‘fix’ your head in one place! If you’re like me you can become fascinated by something happening with the horse and constantly look down, the first step to change is becoming aware of this and changing becomes easier once you know about it.

I can thoroughly recommend a simulator session and Alexander Technique, Pilates, Craniosacral sessions too. Be sure you get the heads up on all these awareness systems for your balance!

Next time we’ll check out shoulders.

If you would like help with your balance or your horse’s balance check out my video assessments with full feedback.

 

 

Note: if you experience any back/neck pain or headaches whether riding or not then always consult your doctor or physio.

 

Attention Balance

I have looked at too much attention and a lack of attention previously and how these manifest themselves in our training but how do we deal with these extremes and can we avoid them? Whilst I’m particularly considering positive reinforcement here I think much of the answer is equally applicable to all training.

I’ve spent the last few weeks working with my own and other’s horses trying to formulate an answer that makes the whole attention scenario simple and easy to understand. I came up with some good anecdotes and real life observations but it is, as so often, simple whilst difficult to elucidate.

The saying goes- garbage in garbage out; if we continue to allow errors of input then we will continue to get results that are unsatisfactory and these may result in over or under attention. I don’t think being error-free is particularly helpful as a goal if it is even possible. I talked before of the pressures of being perfect and it is way too stressful to want to include in any training plan. But being perfect seems to matter and it is something to bear in mind when you watch alluring videos of perfect trainers ‘dancing’ at liberty to romantic music, all the time feeling bloody inadequate yourself; or that just me?

The simple bit first- cut yourself some slack. Every horse trainer/carer is working with different scenarios, knowledge, goals, raw materials etc. Remember too that the days of social media gift us snippets of the lives of others- they are not always wholeheartedly the truth of the situation they are just snippets. Shit happens and as far as I’m aware it happens to all of us whether we are trainers, carers, experienced or inexperienced but the internet isn’t generally for sharing your shit bits it is for showing your best bits! So if your horse left your side and didn’t want to be a spectacular trick horse today, don’t go home and bin the clicker just yet.

So slack cut I’ll continue. Getting behaviour on cue; it’s easy isn’t it?

Well with some behaviours, some horses, in some contexts it’s a doddle. Remember the touching of a target? Simple wasn’t it? But hang on, was it? I’ve seen the joy in a student new to positive reinforcement when that cute nose lands on the target- ‘click’ and it’s captured; job done. I realise I’m over simplifying things here but go and test this for yourself- do you have the touch only on delivering the cue? Does your horse insist on touching the target regardless of being cued or not? Do you have the touch within very different contexts; different places and with different people? Does your horse bite the touch cones every time he passes? If you’re not fully there with your cues don’t go home and bin the clicker just yet, form a strategy to improve things.

Cut some slack, train clear cues…next?

Progress towards the bigger picture. When you start out the whole liberty mission is enticing but make your bigger picture just that- YOURS. Where do you want to be in a few years time? Pootling on Exmoor with picnic and blanket in your saddle bag? Entering liberty agility classes? Training piaffe in-hand? Riding out with friends and having a blast? The goal may change the journey or at least influence it and perhaps help avoid too many dead ends. Don’t be miserly with the end shot; frame it in your mind and then frame the junctions you plan to pass en route before breaking it all down into tiny pieces.

Exmoor lanes

Cut some slack, clear cues, set the bigger picture then progress towards it with very small steps.

Training can start with many things but one of your greatest tools is your power of observation– nothing is insignificant. Write it down, read it over regularly. Use your observations to create a plan- shape your journey to your end picture and shape your horse’s learning. Look for and record your plan and build it from the tiniest elements possible. Don’t consider inacurate responses as failures just treat them as invaluable feedback and reassess continuously.

Don’t get sucked into a system- there are many out there but you need to develop your own. Take the courses you like the look of, attend the clinics you are attracted to but see it within the framework of you and your horse. If you give up responsibility for your own training you will not progress as a trainer. Of course it’s good to share and learn new things but by adhering to a narrow system that drip feeds information you won’t see YOUR bigger picture.

Insert YOUR picture here!

These are all very general concepts:

  • cut yourself some slack
  • create clear cues
  • progress towards YOUR bigger picture
  • observe and hone your observation skills
  • take responsibility

They are not in an order of significance or importance, on any day one may rise to the top of the pile but the biggest problem I perceive is creating clear cues. Many people (and I’ll include me in that) will think they have a behaviour on cue but when we dissect that cue it is rarely what they thought it was. A simple ‘walk on’ may be thought of as being on a vocal cue but then the hand flies forwards the weight shifts onto the forward foot, our intent changes and that’s even before we uttered a word! Be strict and test yourself, video yourself and check just what cues you use and then you might understand the confusion that can so easily arise for your horse.

To create clear cues you need to have a few things to support you, these are in addition to those mentioned above and might include:

  • comprehension of the bridge and reinforcer-do they truly understand the click?
  • clarity set clear criteria, rates and schedules of reinforcement
  • contiguity (closeness of behaviour and consequence; timing)
  • consistency on all levels- timing, accuracy, withdrawing etc
  • context the circumstances or setting
  • observing emotions and keeping below thresholds
  • saliency or attractiveness of rewards
  • thresholds  of time, saliency, distance etc
  • withdrawal or progress the exercise and extend the reinforcer, create ‘chains’ of behaviour
  • food delivery clean, unstressed and consistent

For those of you already embarked on your positive reinforcement training then you will not only understand the above bullet points but you will be able to pick them apart and understand the science within. This post isn’t really for those of you who are hot on the science (except to act as a reminder) but for those starting out who may be overenthusiastic and pressing on too fast like I did, only to have to reverse the slow moving tanker to make amends. If you don’t yet understand these terms then start with my usual recommendation of Karen Pryor’s book Don’t shoot the Dog or try a Google search.

I want to pick out a couple of really important points from the list for you, saliency being one.

Fruit or cake? Not much of a dilemma and for some the cake wins every time. If you want more attention you have to make yourself more interesting to be with than any distractions; be cake not fruit. In the case of most horses your competition for attention might include the smell of another horse, the smell or availability of food (always have hay or something of low value available for them) , noises (sudden (scary) or just interesting), places to roll or scratch, another horse to play with. What one horse finds distracting may not distract another- not all of us would choose cake and even those who love cake may not choose it every day! Reinforcers compete so make yourself competitive by checking your saliency regularly.

carrots and haylage balls

So if you want to sustain attention in your planned learning sessions you have to make yourself more appealing than food, play or companionship with another and less scary than noises and novel events. Easy hey! But of course it isn’t easy even if you have lots of cake and your student loves cake there will be times when attention wanes. That’s why becoming creative in your training is important- cake isn’t enough but it can be the start; solving the problem can also be a powerful stimulator in itself. Introducing play and seeking within your training is another essential element to making yourself attractive and good to be around see more here. Repetitive work on the same behaviour without changing your criterion (the exact snapshot of the behaviour you are looking at- perhaps looking at softness, duration or with a new behaviour just being close to something novel) won’t be stimulating for most horses and understanding when to change your criterion or when not to is essential.  When you have pushed forwards too hard it can turn horses off trying, not extending an exercise can lead to anger and stress as a result.

When we start clicker training it is often so exciting that we get rather carried away. All of a sudden we have the horse’s attention on us and it seems as if we can do no wrong. This is just the time when we can get it wrong and putting it right later can become quite expensive in emotional terms. The good old target comes out and our horse smiles inside as it strides over and gets close. We think we’ve made it- finally found a way of getting the attention we crave. Click-reinforce, click-reinforce it starts to become frenzied and the ability to put behaviours on cue diminishes with each click.

Many will abandon positive reinforcement at this point- for those of you who haven’t, read on.

So it’s becoming obvious that saliency doesn’t exist on its own, it’s best friends are alongside it on that list. Yes we want saliency in our rewards- the best scratch makes your nails bleed, the best food might be carrot or it might be a long chew on a haylage ball but finding the reward that gets the best response is only the very beginning.

Scrunch yourself a haylage ball

Withdrawal is always a tough decision and especially for the newbie trainer. It should always be based on judgement after considered observation. I have been on the longest withdrawal imaginable with my cocker Coz. Indoors even at a distance our recall has been great since she was a puppy but outdoors with pheasant and other distractions it had been at best sticky. At nearly three years old I began the withdrawal of reinforcement for every recall when in a 10 acre field and we are now varying our schedule of reinforcement and criteria. I have continued to test the waters for withdrawal regularly throughout this period and have changed rewards and added in a ball or tugger (that attractive play thing again) rather than food in some situations, all of which have got me to the place we are today; a solid recall at distance in most contexts (still some work to do then!). But 3 years ago I would never have believed it might take so long and I did at times give up hope; don’t give up! If I had continued with the close up recall without withdrawing and expanding the behaviour I would have a massive attention overload. It has made a difference to the way I see withdrawal for horses and I now believe that it is the canny trainer who can distinguish between the need to withdraw and the need not to. There are mistakes along the way but if you’re struggling for attention don’t be afraid to keep at it- address the saliency and perhaps criteria until you feel safe to withdraw. On the other hand if you have too much attention and it is creating an emotion overload then maybe you didn’t withdraw and extend the behaviour soon enough.

I’ll repeat that as I feel it’s important:

If you’re struggling for attention don’t be afraid to keep at it- address the saliency and perhaps criteria until you feel safe to withdraw and extend. On the other hand if you have too much attention and it is creating an emotion overload then maybe you didn’t withdraw and extend the behaviour soon enough.

If you are unsure if your horse comprehends the bridge then test it. You may be absolutely certain that your ‘new to clicker training’ horse gets the absolute association between the offered behaviour, the bridge (click/whistle/word) and the reward; or you may not. Remove elements of the equation to discover the understanding. Remove the food bag, take your hand from the bag or pocket of food, work in a different area, get someone else to test the training…lots of possibilities but try substituting elements or removing them to discover the true associations in your training.

Keeping below thresholds is discussed much more now than it was when I first started positive reinforcement training. I saw the thresholds and did retreat from them but today I make sure I observe the horse’s emotional response much earlier. That way it is less of a retreat and more of a hesitation in going forwards further. Don’t push the boundaries, don’t test yourself when you are new to this work and certainly don’t push out of your comfort zone or you will most certainly push your horse out of his.

Think of behaviour like juggling jelly….it is constantly moving not neat little blocks that you can perfectly stack. Every question you ask and response you give will become a consequence for your horse and will wobble the jelly.

When you work with positive reinforcement your horse will experience times when you do nothing whilst waiting for the moment you want to reinforce- this can elicit an angry response but may at least confuse him. When we work with negative reinforcement a period when nothing happens becomes synonymous with things being OK, signalling carry on you’re doing good. Think about ways to tell your horse it is doing OK when training with positive reinforcement even something as simple as the way you breathe could become a ‘keep going you’re doing fine’ marker. The clicker doesn’t have to be the only communicator of correctness.

It is also helpful right from day 1 to train a stand down; time when there are no clicks on offer. Remove the rewards or at the very least change something obvious that indicates this. Have a mat or target that they learn is not reinforced, drop your rope to the ground, signal with your hand, let them go to some play things or let them munch on hay but make sure they understand that time out is part of the training; a chance to relax physically and emotionally.

If you got to this point in one sitting- well done! It has taken lots of tweaks and I’m still convinced I could write much more. However I will look at elements of this further at a later time and within my online introduction to clicker training module.

Attention can be won or lost in the blink of an eye. Pay attention to the science but devote yourself to the application after observing your horse and his nuances.

Happy training, Trudi

 

 

drowning in attention

claire-boys

*This post follows on from the previous where I talked about attention conflict when training.

The struggle to keep attention is just one end of a broad spectrum. Those starting out with liberty work are often eager for attention from their horse but what about the possibility of too much attention? I experienced this with Moralejo when we first started positive reinforcement and I’ve experienced it with new clients.

Balance is the buzz word in everything these days but balance in terms of attention can be tricky. Not least because we humans all see things differently. How might I define balance in terms of the horse’s attention towards me? Is the perfect scenario 100% calm attention, 100% of the time, focused on me? Then the fully flawed version would be 0% attention, 0% of the time! Reality, depending on external distractions, somewhere between the two.Try giving one thing your absolute attention even for one minute, not taking your mind off that one thing. It isn’t easy without training or something exceptionally engaging to put your mind to. Luckily horses, like us, seem to manage multitasking to a degree.

The use of positive reinforcement can get a bad press in terms of over attention but is it the method or the application that fails? Haters really hate food rewarding. Most haters I meet will attach some scientific reason to their dislike but I also think there is an element of genuine concern about working with food and the stress element. If you take any training to it’s empirical formula then an element of bribery, influence or coercion is likely to be present. It works for us humans so why not for animals. The concept of an animal ‘working’ of its own free will is a great one but I don’t think they are that unlike us (excuse the anthropomorphism but I don’t feel it sits too uncomfortably here) and free will is more likely governed by complex interior and exterior controls. Of course natural play type behaviours can be spotted everywhere and sometimes pre-learned behaviours will enter that domain; it might almost appear that your horse is practising his moves ready for your next session. Personally I believe it is not only possible to use food rewards in training but to do so without causing stress.

Some horses are very motivated by food and some less so. If a horse has a poor history around food, or lack of, they need much more work in terms of food delivery and being calm around it. Perhaps more importantly we humans need to learn to work with food. Rewarding with food isn’t about pumping as much in or as often as you can (although the conundrum is that it might be at some times for some horses). For this reason I have moved towards scratching as a reward with students new to clicker training. This means we can work on timing and delivery without the extra tension of getting the hand to the food and to the horses mouth. Seemingly innocent things like having a hand in and out the food bag aside from when necessary to reward can tend to become a bit of a nervous ‘tic’ with new students and leads to horses not discerning the true bridging signal.

Timing! Well as with all horse training timing is crucial and removing food from the initial stages can be helpful for the human. It’s still positive reinforcement but without the potential of souring the relationship as the human gets to grip with the clicker and the sense of timing. The timing of moving on is also crucial; when to stop rewarding and accept that things are on cue. Non-clicker folks watching me train are somewhat puzzled when I’m not madly clicking at every step in every session. Hey, behaviour grows and our expectations should too!

Writing this post is  highlighting lots more potential problem areas that might affect attention- saliency of rewards,  context, reward schedules, ignoring the bad stuff…and so on. You then start to understand how easy it is to make mistakes at the beginning. The lovely behaviours come thick and fast but the calm button can remain hidden; over attention is your reward! When you really get to grips with clicker work you learn to keep everything pretty much below threshold but the damage has probably been done in those early stages. I’ll consider some of these in more depth in future posts along with thoughts on how to both gain attention and avoid over attention.

Too much attention is not always desirable, dealing with it post-training isn’t perfect either but is often necessary. The answer? Well try not to make too many mistakes as you go; take it slowly and understand what you’re working towards as this will help you develop and relinquish as you go. If you are new to clicker training then try starting with scratches until you see the effect of this style of training. Practice lots. Sign up with a great trainer who has lots of background across training methods and understands the link between methods and how to blend different training to individual horses. Understanding your horse is the key to any training system you use, everything they offer us is feedback.

I sometimes read how fast clicker is but I don’t think that sums it up correctly at all. Yes training single behaviours is straight forward but it can be too easy to gloss over the issues. Even at clinics for new students you will see target touching and ‘no mugging’ behaviours looking easy but it’s what comes after that counts. I’ve been called in to help when pockets have been ripped off and horses become snatchy and unhappy- it is not a panacea for the novice trainer.

I sound as if I’m underselling positive reinforcement with food but I’m being honest. It remains the most incredible source of producing behaviours, without force, that I know. It remains a fringe method in relation to mainstream horse training but don’t discount discovering it if you haven’t already.

 

 

 

attention conflict

horse3

 

Emotive word conflict! And usually we are at pains to avoid it. I hope  this short piece will be clear enough to spark an interest in, and perhaps change your perception of, the role of emotions in training.

One of the most frequent conflicts I encounter  with horses is loss of attention towards me (or a.n. other ). You know, that big brick wall of copping a deaf ‘un. I see this regularly and I see how frustrating it is for the educators of these horses.

The same frustration is found in dog trainers when the amazing behaviour in the classroom is unachievable in the field. I see irritation sinking to anger when a dog refuses to obey the whistle. Is it why dog trainers might resort to the electric training collar? Horse trainers to the whip?

cos

Cosette the Cocker

Is attention conflict in animal training a bad thing?

Is it really bad?

Honestly I don’t think it is. In a simple feedback way it tells me that I am working with a real individual. Not a shut down, electric shocked introvert afraid to make a choice.

Do I want all the attention on me?

Well of course I do. My self-worth relies on it. But let’s get real – attention towards me is the goal even if there is a lot of ground between the start and end point in training that kind of behaviour.

Me and the Moo

Moo listening

Why shouldn’t we feel deflated by an attention conflict?  Any  animal allowed to express emotions is doing what comes naturally; being an animal. Ain’t that what the whole natural training concept should be based on? It comes down to the simple question: do you want an insentient horse or an animated horse?

I’ll let that question hang for a moment.

Do you want to be with a horse that behaves in a dull, turned off way; everything learned by rote?

Or do you want to hang out with a horse that is cheerfully involved with you?

My guess is the latter. If that’s the case you are going to encounter attention conflict. Maybe not every session, maybe not in every context but sometimes, and in some places, you will compete for interest. And on dark days every place and every context in everything you try to work on!

What makes the biggest difference is the way you train through attention conflict. The electric collar, the kick in the ribs for the dogs who, like my Cosette, have a great interest (inherent) in finding pheasants at this time of year will lead to a shut down, withdrawn dog. Horses who are slapped with a whip to get past something scary (or insert any other ‘won’t do’ behaviour known to irritate humans) may comply in the moment but will either shut down or become more spooky over time.

If you haven’t read or watched any of Jaak Panksepp’s work on animal emotions then Google away. He describes basic emotions using the following terms, in capitals, that he believes all emerge from our deep seated ancient brain structures (the hard wired stuff of evolution). These are the emotions that we may be in conflict or concord with during our training. I will give some ideas of what these might mean to our animals but these are by no means exhaustive.

SEEKING    anticipation of things that are rewarding eg arrival of food

RAGE   frustration eg guarding resources

FEAR    something to run away from eg plastic bag blowing around

LUST   little explanation needed here

CARE   nurture of young by mothers, in later life closeness, touch

PANIC/GRIEF   anxiety when moved away from a buddy or abandoned by a buddy.

PLAY   socialising, joyful experiences- just for the fun of it.

These emotion centres can help or hinder our holding of attention. Can we compete with FEAR? This innate (hardwired) emotion is strong, it has helped horses survive as a species for a very long time. LUST is an overwhelmingly strong emotion to counter. SEEKING can literally put the cat amongst the pigeons or, in Cosette’s case, the Cocker amongst the pheasants. Our horses may be more interested in something that activates the SEEKING emotion better than our dull old trotting round in a circle.

But we can influence attention on us by making our own training rewards at least as salient or appealing, if not more so, than the counter emotion. We can add PLAY and SEEKING to our toolkit to make ourselves more attractive to be with. We can avoid adding PANIC, RAGE or FEAR and develop coping strategies for these powerfully negative emotions. We can add CARE in the guise of stroking and scratching; good for our well-being too.

In the case of some emotions, think of SEEKING, it can work for or against us. Offer the chance of SEEKING within your training and you can gain attention and hold it. Offer insignificant rewards in training and you risk losing out to more salient offers (grass, sand to roll in). If you want to make yourself and your training attractive enough to be sought out then you have to work at it.

Emotions such as FEAR or PANIC can flatten progress in a split second but deal with them satisfactorily by working on more positive emotions like CARE, PLAY and SEEKING and they will be triggered less and less.

So how can I hold attention?

I can force it, insist on it, and deliver punishment if I don’t have it. Or I can encourage and nurture it by triggering the best emotional responses.

Back to the conundrum I left hanging.

It comes down to the simple question: do you want an insentient horse or an animated horse?

I suggested that we all wanted the latter but do we? Students often ask me why it was so much easier in the ‘old’ days before they even embarked on the road of awareness in terms of behaviour and ethology. We all want that perfect go anywhere, do anything horse of our dreams. Beach gallops, hunting cross country, winning ribbons. The calm horse that stands still, never moans, never refuses the ill-fitting saddle. Sadly always knowing that its voice will remain unheard. The insentient horse.

And that my friends is why I don’t see attention conflict as just bad.

 

next time: attention overload- drowning in your horses

 

further Panksepp reading: http://discovermagazine.com/2012/may/11-jaak-panksepp-rat-tickler-found-humans-7-primal-emotions

 

The Pain of Perfection

As I sit down to type I feel the usual surge of emotion. It isn’t debilitating but I sense it none the less. The need to be perfect is something that controls my life and probably many other lives too. I deal with it and think I mostly overcome it but it is still there inside me.
Today I will post this draft immediately which is quite a departure for me; usually I will leave it as a draft for some time and tinker many times until it reads right. It won’t be perfect but I will hit post anyway.
Why share this morcel on my horse training blog? Because it doesn’t switch off when I train my horse or for that matter my dog and unsurprisingly it was the same home-schooling my child.
This morning while walking the dog (which brought all this to the front of my mind) I met two other dog walkers; I sensed that both felt the pain of perfection.
The first had two dogs that woofed at mine- not agressively but it drew attention to her and them; the handler overtly told the dogs off in a way that I could hardly miss. Only vocal but for two tiny lap dogs a little over the top. The second walker moved their dogs into a gap to let me pass and fed them copious amounts of treats to distract them as I did.

Why does perfection matter? Why does it matter what others think of us and our family (either human or animal) and why do some appear not to give a hoot?

I always tell students to cut themselves some slack yet I struggle to do this for myself. I need to promote my business but often I feel crippled by the pain of perfection and end up not bothering.

And the point of this post regarding horses? (see there I started with ‘And’ but today I don’t care)
Well I think one of my horses is acutely aware of the pain of perfection. Lately I have met a number of other horses who I think probably do too. Anthropomorphism is alive and well; that said the sense/result is the same. Some horses are happier to make mistakes and some less so- it corresponds with the pain of perfection.
The stress of doing regular things like walking in-hand, moving a shoulder or sometimes even just knowing how to be around a human is just much more tricky for some horses.
Today I will cut myself some slack and I will play some more with Chapiro who, undoubtedly, shares my pain of perfection.
I am going to hit publish and go to work- perhaps later I will read this armed with a glass of something fizzy and realise that part of beating involves letting go; on the other hand I may just squeam with embarassment!

Feel

It doesn’t matter what area of horsemanship you work within the idea of feel is discussed regularly. In dressage we might feel for the inside hind stepping under, the shoulder blocking. In agility we might ask through a feel in the rope and listen through our feel for a response. In behavioural terms we might be feeling the moment to reward or the moment a horse resists. In general terms we are always trying to feel what it might be like for our horse so that we might develop a better relationship.

in-hand clinic 1

Feel- from the Cambridge dictionary is a natural understanding or ability, especially in a subject or activity.

I rarely cross reference horsemanship terms with the regular dictionary but I think in the case of feel it is quite acceptable as a starting point- if we re-write feel as being a natural understanding or ability within horsemanship it makes sense. However it also falls short of the mark as it is not just a general ability but a quite specific sense that is in part innate.

Is feel a totally innate aptitude? Can we learn feel? If we can learn feel how and where can we learn it?

Is it perhaps like dressage where some horses are more prepared for this by their genes- they have a cadenced trot, an air of elegant self-carriage- before the training even begins? If so, then just as every horse can learn dressage then every horseperson can learn feel.

There is a risk today of feel being over-shadowed by charisma; many of us find ourselves absorbed by charming trainers. Feel is something you can develop with your horse; not just through a glossy training programme. Gaining feel is hard work, it hurts as you ride the rollercoaster of self-belief and doubt. Even those blessed with natural, innate feel have to work at it.

If your feel abandons you then take a step (or a hundred) back until you can find the place you lost it. We all have it but we can all lose it. If you can’t feel a hindleg in ridden work then there is no point in going forwards, take a step back and identify the things you can feel- progress will be much quicker if you get the first feel right.

Feel is personal- we can never perfectly cross-reference feel. Develop your feel but also the confidence to know and love your own feel!

Correlation in Equine Learning

Years ago, in an effort to help him deal with his unease around some novel objects, I taught Chapiro to touch a target around apparently scary things. I didn’t force him but over a period of several months I clicker trained a touch response such that he would approach a novel area by touching my hand en route.
It was a fairly powerful tool even as far back as our days in France where he once marched up to a pile of ‘scary’ rugs when grazing in the field and touched them with his nose whilst looking at me as if to ask for the reward!
This week we have had sunshine and on Saturday it threw some pretty patterns onto the sand. I felt him backing off along the long side of the school but assumed it was something the other side of the end wall as this is a regular ‘scare spot’ where naughty humans appear from nowhere with mowers and tractors.
So to ease the approach I uttered my usual ‘go touch, it’s safe’ expecting him to approach and touch the wall but instead he dived his nose down to the sand and sniffed the sunlight.
I guess I lead a fairly dull life as this made my day!

Again it reinforced for me that he wasn’t just responding to the cue to touch any old thing but that he singled out what was scary and intentionally touched it- seemingly he has correlated this with the fear and my safe cue. Horses are just incredible when you encourage them to be.

Video is really dull but here it is anyway:

Take a seat please

carl hestercharlotte du JLouise asked…could you do something on the riders seat please? In pictures you see the classical male rider with a very arched back, even Carl Hester, but then you look at Charlotte Dujardin and she has a very straight seat and back! Confused.

To fully cover the seat a book is required but it is an interesting point that Louise raises and one that  bears a little investigation and discussion- not least to discover what implications, if any, it may have for us regular dressage riders.

First a disclaimer- as most who know me are aware I am not a major fan of top-level competitive dressage these days but I am in no way nit-picking these two talented riders who are at the top of their sport- they are purely helpful to us in illustrating the seat and its differences.

I think the two screen shots above support Louise’s observations. On the left we have a typical male rider with an anterior (top edge tipping forwards) tilt to the pelvis and on the right a much less (but still tilted) anterior tilt in a female rider. Even though I tried to grab shots (same horse) at a similar part of the stride it is not entirely the same ‘moment in time’ that is captured- although both are in passage I think the moment of collection on the left is more defined and so the seat may be working differently. You can watch many videos on Youtube and decide for yourself if the arch is greater.

If, like me, you have a more typical female posture and shorter limbs then you will be heartened by Charlotte’s posture in spite of what I see as my ‘faults’. If you crave arms long enough to always keep the elbows to your sides and your legs draped with ease around the horse then you will envy Carl and his lengthy limbs.

Much of the spine is able to move (aside 9 elements in the very lower part) but you get what you are given and some people are just more flexible in their spines than others. You can work on your flexibility but there will always be a ‘break point’ that stops any further flexibility.

Today’s modern competitive riders tend to be behind the movement with a ‘driving’ seat which is not something I admire but it is a very typical sight around the world’s dressage arenas. It can prevent the seatbones, hips and pelvis from functioning in the most absorbent manner (each side independently) and will, I imagine, cause undue strain on the back over a lifetime.

Although some female riders have long limbs and arched backs it is usually the males who dominate this style. The pelvis of a woman is quite different to that of a man in order to accommodate childbirth and so what a man feels sat in a saddle can be quite different to what a woman feels…see the image below curtesy of trailwisesaddles.com

 

trailwise saddles

 

Men were designed to walk we were designed to have babies! Most classical male teachers/coaches will talk of sitting on the ‘bum’ whereas I see benefits in referencing the pubic arch (not of course sitting on it as a fork seat but knowing where it is). The male pubic arch is narrower and more acute in angle so I imagine far less comfortable to reference! The picture below curtesy of radiologypics.com shows this difference.

pelvis 1

 

Many women like a dressage saddle with a decent twist  (see this blog post from Trailwise here http://www.trailwisesaddles.com/wordpress/?p=661) and anatomically this makes sense. The way we ride as women (OK generalisations but most women)  makes use of our natural thigh position (turning in slightly to the knee) and balance in the saddle- students often hear me talk of our thighs as our ‘secret’ weapon with their ability to absorb movement and support our seats.

I think the advice has to be to cater for your own needs and ride within your own abilities dependant on your sex, age and flexibility -of course if you are ‘loaded’ you could spend a fortune on custom made saddles because surely this route has to be the most comfortable for horse AND rider. For those of us more financially challenged it becomes incumbent upon us to ride in the best balance that we possibly can so that we are less burdensome for our horse.

Ride in lightness ladies; with those secret weapons (and those few gents that might happen by this place- continue to drape yourselves with grace and ease)!

Changing the Shoulder Balance

 

 

I watched and judged, or gave feedback on, over 60 dressage tests this month at Interdressage.com  and  one  repeated piece of advice is to try to place the balance into the outside shoulder.

Horses are never symmetrical and on one rein the inside shoulder may be heavier (take more weight and fall in on that shoulder) than on the other rein; this is not abnormal and is one of the  reasons we work at our dressage! To build up a balance between both shoulders, both hinds (one pushing one more able to flex and take the weight), from front to back and diagonally is the whole essence/raison d’etre of dressage.

Often the rider compounds the problem because they are told to bend to the inside. On the rein that the weight is already heavily placed to the inside shoulder the act of bending can put even more weight onto the  encumbered shoulder and drop the horse completely on the forehand as well as the inside shoulder.

A very simple solution is to focus on your shoulder balance in training- first in walk and later in all paces. The video below shows how simply you can readjust the balance by lightly using the outside rein. In this video I am using nothing aside from the reins and evidently only one rein at a time. Of course Moralejo is relatively confirmed in his balance- he is croup high and so easy to put onto his forehand but the act of putting him into the outside rein transfers weight into the outside shoulder so that I can then return to true bend with a little inside rein flexion. As soon as the balance is lost and weight returns to the inside shoulder then it is simple to return to the outside rein feel to rebalance again. In time you sense the loss almost before it occurs and adjust without even realising it- the gentle art of rein use can be developed from these small beginnings.

Work those shoulders in balance!

 

 

 

halt²

blog halt 1 blog halt 2

 

Left- Realigning the shoulders

 

Right- Leg Yield

 

 

 

 

 

There is a first time for all things and this is the first time that I have dedicated a blog entry to a student, Maggie this is for you.

It crosses my mind when I’m teaching that I can be a bit ‘loose’ when it comes to describing exercises. It’s not that I feel they don’t require thoughtful study; more that I don’t want to embed a powerful image of the exercise but rather encourage the student to ‘feel’ their way around the resistances the horse has and come to their own conclusions (Maggie is very good at this).

After every lesson I write a brief outline of the session so the student can refer back- this week we were looking at the walk/halt transition and I thought it might be helpful for others to read the feedback, so here we are.

Every month I watch dozens of dressage tests online and the most unloved and untrained element is very often the halt. Of course in the true French tradition of teaching balance/lightness the halt is the whole thing, the big deal, the full monty.

In the beginning the halt and walk on are just stop/start (see this post) – nothing fancy just the lightest of cues and the lightest of responses. As we progress we start to add finesse and the expectation of straight and square halts. Why is straight/square important? Because it shows the balance you have created in both sides of the horse so that the strength, push, support and power of each hind leg is roughly equal.

This video of Chapiro shows us breaking the cues down in-hand and proved to me that I can and do often throw every aid at once when I only need (sometimes) the slightest thought to stop and start him. Become aware of what you do in-hand and ridden so that your communication can be more powerful- yet another less is more situation.

After training a responsive stop/start cue the next step in finding perfect balance in the halt is to look at the rider- first remove any blocking with hand, seat or leg because the horse is a great detective when it comes to finding an unintended block. If you are sure that you aren’t holding on for longer with one hand or one seat bone etc then you can look at the horse and his own blockages. It is worth revisiting this regularly because our own tensions change on a daily basis and often the detective equine can help us find our own true balance- a win/win situation- IF we do something to change it. Turn detective yourself and become familiar with the feeling when one leg is left out behind- the leg standing up and under will usually be easy to find as it tends to push up your seat bone on that side.

Something I will mention in passing is the idea of making room for a hind leg with the seat- this is purely as a means of avoiding blocking his movement; as you begin to halt almost feel as if the seat bone on the side that is usually left out is attached to his hind leg on that side and can bring the foot into place squarely.

Getting back to the horse- his natural asymmetry means that he is unequal from side to side- unless he is one of the extraordinary horses that is balanced from birth- not even sure they exist- and our goal is to even things up. Always treating both sides is important- neglecting the side that we struggle with will never improve things but overdoing the difficult side is just as unhelpful.

All of the ‘straightening’ work that we use in our everyday training will help- circles, turns, moving turns on the forehand and so forth- that is the reasoning behind our early objectives of bending and suppling- the ultimate straightening of the horse. One of the simplest aids to strengthening and suppling is a simple turn directly out of halt- open the inside hand a little (raise it if the horse tends to fall on the inside shoulder too quickly) and step the forehand around as you turn and hey presto the inside hind learns to halt in good balance to make the turn easier.

This week with Maggie and Ben we particularly looked at  some exercises that I consider to be more ‘baroque’ in style- to a degree they have been fashioned in my own way. The first is mapped in the figure on the left above- if you are not yet riding shoulder fore/in ride it on a circle with inside bend for a similar effect.

step action
1 Riding on the right rein
2 Bring the shoulder fore/in
3 Check the balance
4 Ride directly to halt
5 Sometimes add a step back
6 Continue in walk
7 Check the halt on a straight line
8 Repeat on the left rein

The second is mapped in the figure to the right above- work on the flow of these exercises so that you are very much ‘within’ the balance rather than disrupting it.

step action
1 Riding on the left rein (off  track)
2 Leg yield (with bend) to left
3 Halt
4 Reinback
5 Continue on right rein
6 Leg yield (with bend) to right
7 Halt and reinback
8 Repeat and check balance

Of course one of the most simple exercises to help the balance through the halt is the reinback. First you need a reinback that steps lightly back, highly responsive and away from the hand. If the hand needs to act then it should be upwards and never backwards- I will write more of this in another entry. In stepping back lightly for a step or two then the horse tends to shift his balance towards the haunches (highly desirable) and tends to be inclined to take equal weight in both hindlegs in the halt so as to be prepared for whatever comes next. As always it is about change- change the context (where, when, how long) and/or change the balance for the best results and the path to straighter/squarer halts.

Practice the responsive cue- groundwork and ridden and then work on the balance, never the other way round, and you will soon improve your halt² !