Monday, March 28, 2011

Basic Exercise: Leg Yielding

There are several kinds of leg yielding exercises, all resulting in the horse responding or “giving” to leg pressure from the rider, but the most basic (and the first) leg yielding exercise I want my horse to learn is giving to inside leg pressure and re-directing forward motion into forward sideways motion to the outside of the circle.

Purpose of leg yielding
• To teach the horse to give to pressure from the rider’s legs.
• To teach the horse to be unafraid of leg pressure.
• To encourage the horse to willingly give to leg pressure in combination with rein pressure.
• To continue to warm up the horse’s mind and body for more difficult exercises.

The Basic Exercise
Leg yield to the left: As you walk your horse in a large circle on the right rein, keep you left leg off of the horse, apply your right (inside) leg a little behind the cinch, pick up your right (inside) rein to encourage your horse to keep his nose slightly into the circle to maintain the arc, then slowly apply pressure with the left (outside) rein in conjunction with increased pressure from your right leg until the horse changes his forward motion to forward/sideways motion and takes a step or two. Keep your body light in the saddle to encourage forward motion; if he loses forward motion, “cluck”; if he still will not move forward, bump him with your left (outside) leg. When he responds with at least one lateral step, slowly release the reins and remove right leg pressure. Walk relaxed to a new place in the circle and repeat. As he understands the exercise and/or warms up, ask for two or three steps – no more – and walk on. As in the previous exercises, you must only ask what your horse is capable of at his level of training – if he is a two-year-old that you are just starting to ride, you will be satisfied with very little; if he is a trained reining horse, you will expect more correctness and refinement. He should perform the lateral movement, giving to the rider’s hands and legs and stepping forward and sideways, crossing both front and rear legs.

Illustration: leg yielding to left off of right leg
When your horse is responding well to the left, repeat to the right. If he is more advanced in training, repeat both directions at a jog.

The order of aids to the left: left leg off, right leg on, right rein, left rein.

Note: This is the very simplest form of leg yielding – giving to the rider’s inside leg and moving to the outside in a forward-sideways direction. When your horse is more advanced, you will want to leg yield him to the inside of the circle, leg yield directly to the side (as to open a gate) and half-pass.

• Your inside rein should be away from your horse’s neck in a straight line from your horse’s mouth to your elbow; your outside rein should be against your horse’s neck (your hand will be close to outside of the horn). The length of your reins should be such that your hands do not go behind the horn when you apply pressure. Also, your hands should be at the same level even though one is close to the horse’s neck and one is away from the horse’s neck.
• Apply rein aids slowly.
• Release rein aids slowly.

What can go wrong?
• Your horse may “lead” with his shoulder instead of true lateral movement. This is almost always because the rider does not apply enough pressure with the outside rein – that is the rein that restricts forward motion and encourages use of the hind quarters. Gradual increased pressure of the outside rein with increased inside leg pressure corrects this problem. Again – be satisfied with very little until your horse understands where the release is.
• The horse does not move sideways at all, ignoring pressure from your leg. Often this means the rider has not applied enough rein pressure to stop some of the forward motion. Slowly apply more pressure with both reins while at the same time firmly asking him to yield to your leg. If he takes a step – or even a half step – slowly release reins and legs, walk on and repeat. Ask for more when he understands.
• The horse stops or stops and backs up. Cluck and bump his side with your outside leg to ask for forward motion but do not release the rein aids until he moves forward (assuming you are not pulling too hard!) If he still does not move forward, release one rein still asking for forward motion and ask for lateral flexion in that direction (The ladder… step down a step) Walk on and repeat, correcting as necessary until he moves forward/sideways even a half step. Again – don’t ask for too much until he understands.

The Basic Exercise with Refinement
As your horse becomes more trained or if he is already trained, you should expect more correctness, refinement and willingness in his response to the aids for leg yielding. Expect more lightness in his mouth and response to more subtle cues. As in all training, when the horse is learning, cues are exaggerated and, as he becomes trained, more subtle. At this time, you need to “feel” your horse’s response, strive for correctness, feel where the problem is and correct if necessary. You may need spurs to encourage him, but use only what is needed. I apply my leg first, then the heel of my boot, and then, if he still does not move away, I gradually turn my foot so the spur is in contact and push. The next time you ask, start with the softest aid first.

When your horse gives to your hands and gives to your legs (lateral and vertical flexion and leg yielding), it’s the whole program. Everything you do from this point on is about responding to rein and leg pressure. Some maneuvers are simply a combination of these basics. As training progresses, you will expect more refinement and a higher degree of difficulty, for example leg yielding in different way and at different gaits.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Basic Exercise: Vertical Flexion

The second warm-up exercise I ask my horses to do is vertical flexion. This exercise teaches response to the rider’s weight and direct pressure from the rider’s hands. It is also the beginning of the reining horse's hallmark maneuver - the sliding stop!

Purposes of vertical flexion:
  • To teach the horse to respond to pressure from both reins.
  • To continue to warm up his mind and body for more difficult exercises.
  • To encourage engagement of the hind quarters with vertical flexion
The Basic Exercise
After your horse responds softly to lateral flexion (Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion), ask him to walk forward on a large circle.  Walk several steps, correcting him if necessary to stay on the circle and keeping your body in the center of balance.  Then, with your hands low and reins loose, brace your body against the forward motion by pushing your feet in the stirrups, locking your hips and squaring your shoulders. Give him time to respond (count to two) and then (and only then!), SLOWLY start drawing back on the reins with firm constant pressure until he steps back one or two steps. As he steps back, SLOWLY release rein pressure until your hands are back in the original position low on his neck in front of the saddle. Bring your body back to the neutral position and let your horse stand quietly for a few seconds. The goal is for the horse to willingly stop when you brace your body and say “whoa”, then give his nose vertically to rein pressure.
Repeat several times as you walk around the circle, then reverse and repeat in the other direction. If your horse is a green two-year-old, you will be happy with that. If he is farther along in training or is a trained reining horse, do the exercise at a jog. You might be tempted to react faster at the jog if he does not respond to your weight and voice aids, but you still must apply pressure with your hands SLOWLY.

Illustration:vertical flexion 1

Illustration: vertical flexion 2
Important! After you have stopped, backed up and stood for a few seconds, always walk a few steps before jogging again. Even at this basic level, you are teaching your horse the rules of stopping. You don't want him jumping out of a stop - that's why I stand and that's why I walk out.

  • Apply rein pressure and release rein pressure slowly.
  • Keep your hands low when you ask the horse to stop (hands should not be stopping him)
  • Do not immediately ask your horse to walk forward again. Instead, reward him by allowing him to stand for a few seconds.
The Basic Exercise with Refinement
As above, walk forward with your reins loose, your hands low and your body relaxed and in the center of balance. Brace body, say “whoa” and pick up the reins to ask him to back up and give vertically to the rein pressure but now, as your horse learns, or if he is a trained reining horse, you should expect a more correct response and more sensitivity to your aids. Feel where there is resistance (right or left) and instead of adding more pressure, go back to lateral flexion. Release the rein he is NOT resisting and draw him around as in Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion. That way you are correcting only the side that is resistant.

Note: I like to compare my training program to a ladder. You start at the lowest “rung” and step-by-step climb to the highest. If there is a problem, you step back down, fix the problem, then proceed up the ladder again.

What can go wrong?
  • The horse does not give to rein pressure at all. You can’t out-pull a horse, so this is a battle you will lose. Instead, ask the exercise just as if you expect him to back away from the rein pressure. When he doesn’t, lower one hand and turn him around with the other (Lateral flexion) until his responds softly to that rein. Walk forward, ask again, and this time when he resists, turn him the opposite way until he is soft. Repeat a few times, alternating sides, and then ask him to back off both reins again. If he even takes a step, reward him by standing; if he does not, repeat the corrections. I know this works every time but the secret is not asking too many steps back at first.
  • The horse backs away but puts his head up. He is trying to escape pressure and you have to tell him it where that escape is. You cannot force his head down. Instead, raise your hands (wide apart) to stay with level of his mouth and keep constant light pressure until he puts his head where you want it. Then release. (Your shoulders may get sore waiting this out so if you can’t hold on, lower one hand and turn him around with the other as above).
  • The horse stops backing abruptly when you release the pressure. You might be quickly dropping your hands when you feel him give to rein pressure instead of slowly giving back the rein. I see this a lot because the rider is anxious to reward his horse. I call this “dumping” your hands and the horse is actually responding to that quick movement with a quick movement of his own.
  • The horse pulls his head down too much or is “behind the vertical”. Almost certainly you are hanging on to the reins too long. Try to start giving back as his head is going down. If he has been doing this for a while, you may have to ask him to pick it up, then release.
Important! You are teaching your horse where you want his head by releasing when his head is in that position.

This exercise is not a backup exercise (although your horse certainly learns to back up). It's a back-and-give-to-the-bridle exercise. The purpose is to teach the horse to give to pressure from both reins at once.

In time, your horse will respond to the motion of your hands rather than pressure on his mouth. When that happens, he has developed real sensitivity.

Note: I will post a video later when I can ride in my arena!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Basic Exercise: Lateral Flexion

Other than forward motion, the first exercise I want my horse to learn and, thereafter, the first exercise I ask after I mount up, is lateral flexion. Lateral: to the side. Flex: bend. In other words, I ask my horse to bend his head and neck to the side by “giving” to pressure from each rein, one at a time.

Purposes of lateral flexion:
  • Teaches the horse to give to pressure from one direct rein.
  • Warms the muscles before more difficult exercises.
  • Warms up the horse’s mind by asking for a simple exercise first.
The Basic Exercise
Ask your horse to walk forward with your hands low. As he walks, apply slow, steady pressure to the right rein, drawing the rein back toward your hip by bending your elbow and bringing the rein back with your wrist straight. (Important! Your left hand should remain low with no pressure on the left rein.) The pull from with your right arm should come from your shoulder, not your forearm or wrist. This establishes a straight line between the horse’s mouth and your elbow.  The goal is for the horse to bring his head around and down towards his right shoulder but, if he is a colt, you will be satisfied with less – as long as he gives to the rein. He should not lift his head in the air or try to take the rein away from you. Apply pressure for four or five strides, then release for four or five strides. (As your horse becomes better trained, you can change the timing a little (four strides with rein pressure, two strides without, etc.) but always with a release. It’s important to start giving back when your horse is responding. If you release pressure when he is resisting, he is learning to resist.

Repeat the exercise until your horse responds readily with the appropriate correctness and softness for his level of training, then go to the left side and repeat until he gives to rein pressure on that side. After I have “softened” both sides, I like to alternate the lateral flexion a few times – bend to the right, release, bend to the left, release, etc. Be sure to completely release one rein before applying pressure with the other. You should feel a willingness to respond to the pressure from the rein on each side. If he is stiffer on one side (as horses often are), work that side more...until you feel a response.

  • Keep your horse walking forward.
  • Always start the exercise with your hands low.
  • Always apply pressure slowly.
  • Always release pressure slowly.
  • Do not let your hand come in contact with your body.
This video demonstrates lateral flexion. This horse had several months of riding but was far from finished.

 The Basic Exercise with Refinement
As your horse becomes more schooled, you will want to ask for more refinement in lateral flexion. If he has learned to bend, but does bring his nose down as well, you can gently "bump" (pull, release) him with the outside rein until he drops his nose. So, if you are asking him to give to the right rein and he bends around but does not bring his nose down, add the left rein with give-and-take bumps until he responds.

What can go wrong?
  • The horse pulls away his head away from you. If this happens, you may be releasing pressure too soon. To correct, apply pressure slowly and with increasing strength until he responds so he is rewarded in the lateral position. Release, but re-apply before he brings his head back straight. Also, don't expect him to bring his head completely around until he learns to give to a lesser command. Gradually expect more until he understands.
  • The horse lifts his head as he brings it around. You will have to try to find a spot when he is giving, even if it is only a stride or two into the exercise. It is important to start to release when the horse's head is dropping. If you wait too long, he may be starting to bring it up again. If you release then, you will be teaching him that the release comes when his head is high.
  • The horse gives to the presuure but, instead of walking in  a circle, he continues in a straight line with his nose bent. To corect, bump with the outside leg to encourage him to follow his nose.
When my horses have learned lateral flexion, most will not bring their heads back straight because the know I will repeat the exercise and will stay in a small 6-10 foot circle as I apply pressure with one rein, release, apply, release, etc.

Note: Equipment for this exercise should be appropriate for the level of training. My two-year-olds or horses just beginning training are bitted with a snaffle bit. I usually school trained reiners with a long-shanked snaffle. With the trained reining horses, I want them to be comfortable performing all basic exercises as well as advanced ones in the bit they will be competing with.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Rider Aids: Tools to Teach

The way a horse learns is really quite simple. It's the rider’s responsibility to keep it simple. The simpler you can keep your schooling program the better. It all comes down to a few simple teaching tools and how you use them.

The horse learns and performs through aids from his rider. Every basic exercise is taught with these aids; every reining maneuver is executed with these aids.

What are the natural aids?
• Hands
• Legs
• Voice
• Seat or weight

Applying aids and the order with which you apply them is important. Different maneuvers require the rider to apply the aids in a different order for the desired result. Sometimes aids are applied as a progressively more demanding signal if the horse is not responding. I ask; I demand; I correct; and I always release when my horse gives me a response.

Ask. Demand. Correct. (Then release)
The first aid you apply to ask your horse to do something should be soft (ask); the next one you apply (but only if he does not respond to the first!) is more intense (demand); the third one should leave no doubt in the mind of your horse (correct). Then release all aids when the horse responds.

Example 1: You want your horse to move forward from a standstill. First, "lighten" your body in the saddle and move your hand forward a little. If he does not walk, say “walk”; if he still does not walk, bump with your legs. Ask. Demand. Correct. (Order of aids here is body/hands, voice, legs where legs are the correction). Release all aids when your horse walks forward (don’t keep saying “walk” or kicking).

Example 2: You want your horse to come down from a jog to a walk. Without lifting your hands to pull on the reins, change your body position by stepping into your stirrups, locking your hips and squaring your shoulders (ask); if he does not respond, say “walk” keeping your body in the “behind the center of balance” position; if he still does not respond, slowly apply rein pressure. Ask. Demand. Correct. (Order of aids is body, voice, hands and the hands are the correction). When your horse has stopped, release all aids (release rein pressure and bring your legs and body back in the center of balance).

Example 3: You want your horse to spin to the left. Assuming nothing in your body language is telling him to move forward, raise your hand in the direction of your left shoulder without pulling; if he does not step into the spin, bump him with your right leg; if he still does not move, bump him harder. Ask. Demand. Correct. When he is spinning, do not keep right leg pressure on him; if you do, soon your “correction” with a leg will not mean a thing!

Example 4: You want your horse to stop. Without lifting your hand (your rein hand is low, isn’t it?), change your body from forward motion to a position behind the center of balance (more about that later) as in example 1; say “whoa”; if he does not stop or is not getting into the ground as he should, slowly apply rein pressure. Ask. Demand. Correct. Keep your position until he has completed the stop, then release your aids. (Order of aids is body, voice, hands and the hands are the correction). In a reining pattern, there may be another maneuver such as a rollback or backup after the stop. If so, you will still release your aids and apply aids for the new maneuver.

Very important! In both these cases, the next time you ask for a response, use the softest aid first, etc. When the horse responds to the first signal (ask), you do not need the others. Consistent repetition of the aids is the key to consistent response.

If you train your horse this way, everything you do will mean something to him and he will perform with almost imperceptible cues. I've often been told that it doesn't look like I am doing anything to ask my horse (of course I am!) to perform, My answer is: "Good. That's what it's supposed to look like!" That can only happen if my horse believes I will correct him with stronger aids if he does not respond to the soft one.

I initiate all the reining maneuvers – circles, lead changes, spins stops, rollbacks and backing up – with rider aids. I ask for the maneuver with the softest aid first for the prettiest picture, and hope my horse responds because he understands (from the many schooling hours on a consistent program) that I will back up what I asked with a more demanding aid if he doesn’t. If I have made a believer out of him, he does!