Monday, July 2, 2012

Spin Fix #14: Eliminate Freeze Up

The problem: Horse stops all lateral movement in a spin.
Why does this problem happen?
1. If a horse in basic spin training quits (freezes up) in schooling sessions, he is being asked too much too soon.
2. If the freeze up occurs with a well-trained horse that has not quit before, he is not accepting increased mental pressure or he is hurting.
3. If a horse freezes up in competition and he is not in the habit of doing that, it is probably rider error.
Note: A true “freeze up” is when a horse simply will not move away from the outside rein but any ceasing of motion in a spin will be designated a “freeze up” even if the horse has made a mental mistake and only stops motion for a second. The first is more of a training problem; the second is probably rider error.
How to correct this problem: If the horse is not sore anywhere, the next thing I check if my horse quits is me, especially in a schooling situation. Does he need more basic training? Did I ask for more speed too soon? Did I change something about the way I am sitting? Did I move my hand too quickly?  Or too much? If none of those things have happened, the only thing to do is re-introduce the spin slowly with close attention to correctness. Heavy pressure on the outside rein can cause a horse to freeze up. E.g. In competition, the horse is not spinning as fast as I would like and I pull harder in an attempt to speed him up. (This does not work at all but under pressure, any rider might pull!)
One of the most important things to keep in mind while spinning is not to make quick movements with either hands or body because the horse may interpret that movement as a request to stop. If he stops and starts again, he will still get a ‘freeze up’ penalty. If I bring my hand in the direction of the spin to start it and want to put it back in the middle for the spin, I can’t “drop” it suddenly in the middle or he will surely stop. After all, he is looking for “whoa”. Penalty time.
A horse can get in the habit of quitting as well if it happens much. With consistent signals he will learn to stop only when I ask him to and that is crucial in the pen. I switch it up lots – sometimes only a spin or two, sometimes six or eight. He must wait for the word.
If my horse does stop spinning and I have not asked him to, I have to correct with my outside leg (a bump or kick) to get him started again. If I’m schooling, I can pick the point I want to stop with no compromises; in competition, it’s not so easy unless I want to turn the run into a schooling run, which is not a bad idea if I’ve already incurred a two-point penalty for a ‘freeze up’. On the other hand, if it wasn’t the horse’s fault but mine…
‘Freezing up’ should not happen if the horse is trained to continue spinning as long as the rider is asking as in the photo below.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Spin Fix #13: Speeding Up the Spin

The problem: Horse will not spin faster when he is asked.
Why does this problem happen? If a horse will not speed up in the spin, he is either not correct enough to feel good about trying to spin faster or he does not “believe” the rider when asked for an increase in speed.
How to correct this problem: A horse must be able to spin correctly BEFORE he is asked to spin fast. If he is not comfortable turning around, he will not be willing to spin faster. If he’s schooled well in the basic spin – body aligned, responding to reins and legs – and he will start the spin quietly and turn almost on his own, then it’s time to ask for more.
Exercise: I “cluck” to ask for more. If I don’t feel an increase in speed, I bump with my leg. As soon as I feel him pick up the pace, I say “whoa” (that’s a reward) and release all body aids, then repeat. I want to instill in him right from the beginning that if he responds to my request for a faster turn around, he is rewarded. After only a few times, he will almost for sure spin faster with only a cluck. In a class, of course, I need four spins but if I have built my horse’s confidence by not asking too much in training and if he believes the voice command, he will be happy to spin until I ask him to shut down.

Exercise: I push my horse up in the bridle in a small circle, keeping him as straight as possible, until I feel him want to ‘find’the spin. Then I lower my hands, take my legs off of him, and ask. Usually he will gladly spin because the spin is more comfortable than the exercise.

Exercise: I let my horse spin a revolution or so, then pick up my reins to hold him straight and push him straight out of the spin – aggressively – stop him, settle him, and ask for spin again. After a few times, he will always try harder.

When I start teaching a horse to speed up his spin, I don’t try to accomplish everything in the first lesson. I push him a little more each day, always rewarding for his success. One thing that happens a lot is when a horse first tries to spin faster is that he might “hop” around. (See Spin With Cadence.) If that happens, I do not stop the spin when he is hopping; instead, I slow it down until he is stepping around again, then stop. It’s important to end the spin with correct movement.

Note: I don’t overdo fast spin schooling. Once my horse complies with my request, that’s all I want. If I concentrate more on schooling correctness, the speed will be easy! A reiner with a great spinning horse once told me his horse loved to spin fast because he had it figured out that the faster he did it, the faster it was over! That's what a good spin training program inspires - a horse that wants to spin.

Walking With Wolves

Monday, June 4, 2012

Spin Fix #12: Improving Front Leg Cross-Over

The problem: Horse hits himself when he spins or crosses behind.

Why does this problem happen?
1. The horse lacks forward motion (Yes, there is forward motion in the spin!) If he is sucking back, there is just no way he can cross over in front.
2. The horse steps directly to the side instead of stepping back.
3. The rider is pulling too much on the reins.

How to correct this problem: If my horse is hitting himself, I concentrate on getting forward motion in the spin which means pushing him out of the spin many, many times. All the basic rules for a turn around apply, of course, but I only turn maybe one turn (sit down, inside leg off, light outside rein contact against neck, wide opening inside rein, outside leg if needed). When he has completed one turn, I push him forward with both legs for a few steps, then ask for a turn around again. As soon as I feel him sucking back I push him out of it again, etc. If he has forward motion but is hitting himself because he is not bringing the inside leg back, I work on that by 'helping' him place that leg. I might have to break the spin down to a very basic level to fix it.

Splint boots are mandatory!

Note: When a horse hits himself in a spin (instead of stepping over the inside leg with the outside leg), he can hurt himself which, in turn, makes him not want to spin – kind of counter-productive! Also, he will never spin fast if he is hitting himself – he can actually get tangled up. A correct spin will begin with a step to the inside and back a bit (out of the way of the outside leg), and the outside leg crossing in front of the inside. I work on this before I worry about locking down on a pivot foot when I train the spin. If I spend time with this part of the spin, my horse is comfortable and the rest will take care of itself with time.

An example of  a horse stepping over his inside leg in a spin.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Spin Fix #11: Correcting 'Jumping' into the Spin

The problem: Horse jumps into spin instead of stepping quietly into the spin.

Why does this problem happen? When a horse jumps or ‘dives’ into a spin, it is almost certainly a training problem. Someone has spurred him to ask him to spin instead of encouraging him to calmly and quietly take a step.

How to correct this problem: It’s never good if the horse is scared and if he dives into a spin, he’s frightened. Our goal, as trainers/riders is to not let that happen but if it does, we have to get on a road back as soon as possible to establish trust and relaxation again. That means, again, going back to basics – right to the beginning of teaching the spin.
Exercise: After I have warmed up my horse – suppling, leg yielding, jogging, trotting and loping – I quietly walk him in a large circle. When he’s relaxed, I ask for a half spin to the inside of the circle – no jerking, no spurring, just asking by sitting down, opening the inside leg, and lifting the outside rein a bit and waiting. Waiting is big. At this point, one of two things might happen:
1. He doesn’t go anywhere. This is probably because his leap into the spin was in response to the spur, not outside rein and body aids. In that case, I help him with a little inside rein to direct him. If he takes one or two steps without leaping into it, I walk him out of it. If he still doesn’t move when I direct his nose with the inside rein, I bump him very softly with my outside foot or leg (not spur). Hopefully, he will take a step but if he jumps to the side, I stop him, walk him forward and try again only using a bump as a back up. It might take time to get his confidence back but it will work. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
2. He dives into the spin, probably with no style as well. As above, I will not let him continue if he jumps into the spin. I stop him, walk him forward and try again until he gets one quiet step, then reward him for that.

It’s important for the horse’s head and neck to be low before being asked for the spin. There will be two strikes against him before he starts if his head is up. So I always ask him to lower his head and neck before I ask for a spin. It may come up in the spin but at least we have started it correctly. He will be calmer with his head and neck low. What I want here is for the horse to be absolutely relaxed before I ask for the spin. Then, in response to a change in my body and a signal with outside rein that a spin is going to happen in a certain direction, I hope my horse will quietly tip his nose in the direction of the spin and quietly take that first step to the side and back. At that point, he is locked into the spin and I can ask for speed.

Note: I had a horse come to me for training once that did this. She obviously had been spurred hard into a turn around and that’s how she thought it was done. It took a few months to get it fixed but I just kept working on the beginning of the spin, not the spin itself until she relaxed and stepped. I did not continue if she didn’t step into the spin quietly. She has a fantastic spin now – starts slowly and correctly and spins a blur!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Spin Fix #10: Correct "Swapping Ends"

The problem: Horse throws hind quarters to the outside as he spins, thereby "swapping ends" instead of turning on the inside pivot foot.

Why does this problem happen? If the horse spins “like a top” (i.e. over his middle instead of his hind quarters), he’s not balanced over his pivot foot and has not been schooled enough in the basic turn around to want to do that. Probably he just wants to get around any way he can. He may be trying to hurry (or is encouraged to hurry) before he has mastered the basic maneuver.

How to correct this problem: If my horse is trying to spin like a top, I go back to basics. One thing for sure – he will not get better by practicing the spin incorrectly. I have to slow it all down, paying particular attention to the outside rein, keeping his body straight and encouraging him to lock his inside hind foot to turn. I may have to support him with a little more contact with the outside rein while directing him with the inside until he learns to pivot on the inside hind. (Beginner riders may not be able to tell if their horse is on the pivot foot so it is helpful to have someone watch.)
Exercise: I drive my horse forward in to a small circle keeping him straight between the reins (he may not want to be straight!) and bumping him with my legs for forward motion (he may not want to go forward either!) until he is accepting of what I am asking. Then I change my body (sit down and open inside leg) to ask for a turn around, but continue to bump with the outside leg until he initiates a turn. When he goes into the turn I quit bumping but keep body aids on for the turn for one turn or so. Any time he loses position (does not turn on pivot foot), I go back in to the circle again. I would not ask for many spins at the beginning until his position is consistent and correct in the turn around.

Note: When a horse spins like a top, he will not score well. Also, it can be hard to ride, especially if he is spinning fast. With the center of balance in the center of the horse instead of over the pivot foot, centrifugal force can throw a rider out of balance – even off the horse!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Spin Fix #9: Preventing Forward Steps

The problem: Horse creeps forward as he spins.

Why does this problem happen? If my horse is constantly moving forward when he spins, he is too ‘flat’ and not balanced over his pivot foot and is probably 'dropping his shoulders' and becoming too 'flat'. 

How to correct this problem: If my horse creeps forward in a spin, the first thing I do is go back to basics and thoroughly review the basic turn-around, being aware of correctness – body alignment, front leg steps and pivot foot. Unlike the first turn-around lessons where I concentrated more on correct front legs crossing over, I now think more of pivot foot. Is he turning on the correct foot? Is he, in fact, turning on the hind quarters? If he is not using his hind quarters, I will stop him every half-turn but will not allow him to walk forward. Instead, I collect him and ask for another half-turn. Also, if he is not taking that first step with his front foot to the side and back, then I work on that because that’s how he gets too flat and creeps forward. If he continues to flatten out I might, as a last resort, back him up a couple of steps and then ask for a turn-around, at all times being aware of his front legs – is he crossing in front and not hitting himself? When he executes half-turns, then whole turns and stays in one spot - neither backing up nor moving forward - I ask for more. If he flattens out too much in the spin again, I might be able to correct him in the spins by lifting my hands; if not, I stop the spin, collect and try again.

Note: A horse that creeps forward up in a spin does not stay in the geographical area of the spin (thereby incurring a low maneuver score in competition) and can become too “flat” and lose correctness and/or pivot foot.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Spin Fix #8*: Prevent Backing Up in Spins

The problem: Horse backs up when he spins.

Why does this problem happen? A horse may back up in a spin if he has been backed up into the spin too much (I rarely do this – and only to correct another problem – because a spin has forward movement) or because too much rein pressure has been applied while spinning. I have also seen horses with a huge amount of ‘stop’ back a little square as they spin – one step each quarter spin – and I’m all right with that.

How to correct this problem: If my horse wants to back up too much when spinning, I turn-around once, stop him, ask him to lower his head if it is up, and walk him forward into the bridle for a couple of steps. Then I ask him to turn around once again and repeat. After several corrections like this, he might stay correct in the spin for two or three turns. If I feel him backing up again, I push him forward out of it and ask for the spin again. It may take many repetitions of this exercise to change my horse’s mind about backing up while he is spinning but, as always, consistent repetition will correct the problem.

Note: A horse that consistently backs up in a spin not only does not stay in the geographical area of the spin (thereby incurring a low maneuver score in competition) but also will probably cross behind in front and/or hit himself as he tries to cross over.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Spin Fix #7: Keeping Head Low

The problem: Horse starts a spin with head low but raises it in the spin.

Why does this problem happen? A horse raises his head during a spin because he gets out of alignment or he just wants to leave!

How to correct this problem: If my horse is just learning to spin and raises his head in the spin, I might walk him out of it, correct any body alignment problems, ask him to lower his head and neck, ask for a spin again and repeat as necessary. If he is trained and raises his head in the spin, I will ask him to lower it again while he is in the spin (assuming his body position is correct), then finish the spin with his head low. To do this, I use gentle bumps with the inside rein if I cannot see his inside eye or the outside rein if he is overbent. Consistency is everything here - if I ask him to lower his head every time he brings it up, he will eventually see the futility of doing so.

Note: It is extremely important to end the spin with the horse’s head low. Otherwise he may think putting his head up is the way to get rewarded! If I absolutely cannot convince him to lower his head in the spin, I end the spin then ask him to lower his head...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spin Fix #6: Start with Head Low

The problem: Horse steps into spin with his head and neck high.

If he does not start into the spin with his head low, the presentation is not as good as it could be and he may not ever lower it in the spin. A horse cannot spin well with his head and neck high. In this position, his back will be hollow and he will not be able to reach under with his pivoting hind leg.

Why does this problem happen? A horse raises his head when asked to spin for one of three reasons:
1. He has not learned to lower his head in response to rider aids
2. The rider does not ask him to lower his head
3. He is evading the request because he does not know what the rider is asking or he is scared.
If my horse raises his head instead of lowering it when I ask him to spin, I have not schooled the basics enough, especially a basic turn-around.

How to correct this problem: If I want my horse to step into the spin with his head low, I need to have the tools to ask that. If I have schooled basics well, I will be able to lower his head with a combination of rein and leg pressure and, with two hands on the reins, position him into the first step as described in previous post.
As training is refined, I want to be able to lower his head with leg pressure only like this: With two hands on the rein at first (later, with one), I slowly squeeze my legs around his barrel. At first, he will try to move forward, so I raise my hands just enough to stop him but keep squeezing. When he lowers his head just a little first, I lower my hands and reward. With repetition, I can encourage him to continue lower his head as far as I wish with almost no rein contact. When his head and neck are low, I lift my reins to ask for a spin. If he raises his head, I repeat – lower head, release rein pressure if I have applied any, ask for spin. I want him to start the spin correctly with his head low so if he doesn’t do that, I correct and repeat.

This exercise is very useful in the reining pen when my horse’s attention may be on something else just before I want to spin. By lowering his head and neck before I start into the spin, I have re-focused his attention on me and he is also in a perfect position for that first step into the spin.

Note: I see many, many riders ask for a spin when their horse is not in a good position to spin. I teach my students to take the time to prepare – lower the horse’s head and give him a chance to do the job well!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Spin Fix #5: 'Find' the Spin

The problem: Horse will not start into spin.

Why does this problem happen? If a horse will not even start into a spin, he has either not been schooled to spin or he has learned to hate it.

How to correct this problem: I go right back to the beginning to ‘fix’ a horse that freezes when I ask him to spin. One of the best ways is to let him “find” the spin like this: I walk him forward and lift the inside rein lightly (not strong contact at all, just enough to let him know something is happening). He may fuss a little, especially if he has some bad memories, but eventually he will drop his nose and turn into the rein. At this point it is absolutely imperative to lower my hand to reward him for complying. I use very little outside rein for this exercise (if he is really resistant, I use none…) and only enough inside until he figures out for himself how to release that little bit of pressure. If I pull hard, he will almost surely pull back so the trick is to just lift the inside rein to take the slack out.

When he relaxes into half turns, I ask for more until he regains confidence. At that point, I can begin to add other corrections - like straightening or speed or pivot foot. I need that first step or two to be willing to be able to advance training.

Note: I can feel very easily the spot where my horse relaxes into the turn - he softens, lowers his head and 'melts' into it. I build on that!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Spin Fix #4: Pivot on the Inside Hind

The Problem: Horse uses outside hind foot for pivot instead of inside hind foot. (Example: In a spin to the right, he pivots off of left hind foot.)

Why does this problem happen? As in the last post, Spin Fix #3, too much inside rein and too little outside rein can cause the horse to throw his weight to the outside in an effort to regain balance. Then his weight is on the outside hip and foot. If he has been spinning like this for a long time, he probably thinks that’s the way it’s done (and can be really good at it!) and it can be quite difficult to correct.

Example: Horse trying to spin on outside hind foot.
Example: Horse spinning on inside hind foot.

How to correct this problem:
First let me say this: Spinning the horse faster to try to get him to use his inside foot for pivot almost never works – he usually gets better and stronger at spinning incorrectly!
I slow things down to fix the problem (right back to a half-turn) and I exaggerate the correction – a half-turn, then a leg yield in the direction of the spin. Example: In a turn to the right, I ask him to spin to the right with a slight change in my body (to stop most of the forward motion), lift my left rein along his neck, pull-release with my right rein. At the half-turn, I change his head direction to the left with a wider left rein and leg yield him to the right. This will transfer his weight back to the right pivot foot. I do this many, many times before asking him for a full turn, then a leg-yield. The important thing now is to never allow him to continue turning on the outside foot so every time I feel him transfer to the outside, I change the spin to a leg yield.

Note: Correcting this problem can vary from a few times if the horse is just learning to spin to a very long time if he has been spinning on the outside foot for a long time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spin Fix #2: See The Inside Eye

Problem: Horse looks away from the turn

Why does this problem happen? If my horse turns his head or nose to the outside when he spins, I may have too much contact with the outside rein (very tempting to do with one hand on the reins!), which creates a counter-bend or his body is out of alignment (inside shoulder pushing into the turn) and he is turning his head to balance his body.

An example of horse turning head away from spin

How to correct this problem: Again, no use practicing spin incorrectly because the horse will just get better at spinning incorrectly and he’s not going to correct the problem without a little help. I review basic exercises (give to the rein, give to the leg) so I am confident I have control of his body. Then, with two hands on the reins, I ask him to spin with a light outside rein on his neck. When he takes his head to the outside, I pull-release the inside rein to ask him to look into the turn. A horse can be over-bent (another problem) so I want to remind him where his nose should be but not hold it there. It’s very important not to lose sight of his inside eye but at the same time not to maintain steady contact with the inside rein! Pull-release. Pull-release.

Example of horse spinning correctly - head low and turned a bit into spin.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spin Fix #1: Step With Cadence

Problem: Horse hops or bounces when he spins instead of stepping around.

Why does this problem happen? Usually the horse has not been well enough schooled in basics but the reason might also be that the rider is concentrating too much on the pivot foot and, in a effort to encourage the horse to ‘plant’ the inside hind foot, restricts the horse with rein pressure.

How to correct this problem: If my horse wants to hop instead of stepping around in a spin, I go back to basics for a while. There’s no use practicing something wrong. I spend lots of time encouraging the horse to cross his outside front leg over the inside front with half-turns, paying particular attention to my rider aids (soft outside asking rein, give-and-take inside rein) and where he places his front feet. The first step with the inside should be to the side and back. If it isn’t, it will be in the way when he tries to step over it with his outside. When he can turn slowly and correctly, I gradually increase the speed.

Note: I am mindful of the fact that a horse may “hop” the first times he is asked in training to increase speed in a turn-around, a reaction to the increased pressure. It’s very important at this stage not to reward him for hopping by ending the spin when he is hopping. Instead, I allow him to slow down until he is stepping around again and then say “whoa”. I always finish with correct turn-arounds.

Running With Wolves "stepping" into a spin. Notice inside front leg stepping to the side and back.
I've always said a book could be written about spins alone because there are so many things that can go wrong. This post is the first in a series about some my "fixes" for spin problems.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rules to Train By

I try to keep my approach to training simple. Simple translates to a few ‘simple’ rules.

1. I choose a positive approach. I believe the best and it will probably happen. Why? Because my horse takes his cue from me. If I choose positive over negative, I have a better chance of positive. If I believe the worst of my horse, he will probably give me his worst. If he senses I am anticipating bad behaviour he may oblige.

2. I have a plan. It’s time better spent and more productive to spend 45 minutes thinking about what you are going to do and 15 minutes riding, than muddling around for an hour without a plan.   

3. I put my horse on a program. The first rides of a horse’s life set the tone of the training program, one of the reasons I still start my own colts. I believe the first six to eight rides may be the most important rides of a young horse's life to send him down a path of least resistance - followed by a step-by-step training program, of course.

4. I deliver the same message, the same way, every time. A horse learns by repetition, consistent repetition. If I repeat the same message, the same way every time I ask, the horse will learn the skill.

5. I use the ladder approach. My training program is like a ladder. The first step is the easiest exercise, the first rung; the second a little harder and so on. If a step is too difficult and the horse exhibits a problem, “stepping back down” to a lower “rung” and spending more time on a basic maneuver will almost always fix the problem. For example, if the horse will not change leads, he will only get better at missing the lead if he “practices” not changing. If I spend more time on basic leg yielding and body control at a walk and jog, nine times out of ten the problem vanishes when he returns to loping and changing leads. By climbing that ladder slowly, and never missing steps, the horse’s training will be solid for life.

6. I teach my horses to give to my hands and give to my legs. If my horse gives to the pressure from my hands by giving to the bit and moves away from pressure from my legs, I can teach him almost anything. With combinations of bit and leg pressure at different speeds, I can teach him different maneuvers.

7. I ask, then demand, then correct. If I “ask” my horse to respond to my aid and he does not, I “demand” by applying a slightly stronger aid. If he still does not respond, I “correct” by applying a stronger aid still. For example, if I ask him to move laterally off of my leg, I first squeeze with my leg. If he does not respond, I turn my foot to use my heel. If he still does not respond, I bump him with my foot, touch him with the spur. The next time I ask, I will ask with the softest aid first, my leg. By repeating the request this way every time, the horse will always learn to respond to the softest aid and I can eliminate the “demand, correct”.

8. I am aware of the height of my hand. Always, I strive to give clear signals to my horse. A confused horse will not learn, so the more consistent and concise my program is, the better it is for both of us. I am very strict with myself when it comes to the height of my rein hand. It’s simple – when I am happy with what my horse is doing, my hand is down; when I want anything (correction, change of maneuver) I raise my hand. If I am loping a circle and he is staying on the circle at a consistent speed, my hand is down. If he falls into the circle, I lift my hand to correct. If I stop and don’t want him to move, my hand is down; if I stop and want him to roll back, I pick up my hand. When he is trained, movement of my hand may be subtle, but it is always there and he knows. The reason he knows is because he has been trained that way from the beginning.

9. I raise and lower my hands slowly. When I lift my hand and apply pressure to my horse’s mouth, I am careful to apply the pressure slowly. There are two reasons for this. If I raise my hand and pull abruptly, my horse does not have a chance to react before he feels the increased pressure; if he is not responding to the bit, abrupt pressure will probably cause him to throw her head up. My horse can accept pressure if applied slowly.

10. I keep my signals soft. Tenseness and impatience have no place in horse training but, when I am frustrated, difficult to remember. It is amazing to me how much difference it can make if the muscles in my rein arm are soft – not surprising when I think of where that rein goes – into my horse’s mouth! I constantly remind myself to soften my forearms; when I do, I have much better results.

11. I listen to the horse’s side of the story. If I really pay attention, a horse will tell me his own story. I know most history of my own horses, of course, but when a new horse comes to my barn for training, especially one that has been handled a lot or ridden, I rely on what the horse tells me. For example, if I raise my hands and the horse raises his head, I know the rider has released pressure when the horse’s head is up. I will have to re-program him.

By keeping these simple rules in mind as I work (and play!) with my horses, training progresses at a steady pace with the end result a calm, responsive partner for not only reining, but any horse activity I choose.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Biggest Little Word

There are a few words I hope my horse learns as I train him – walk, jog, lope, easy, whoa. There’s also a few words I say to myself and the biggest ‘little’ word in my horse training vocabulary is “wait”. Here’s why…

It’s so easy to get in a hurry and to rush my horse into a maneuver, especially in competition but, without exception, that maneuver will be prettier if I wait for my horse to respond and act. When I stop and think about how many steps there are between my first signal and the execution of the maneuver, it makes perfect sense.
  • My brain thinks about what I am going to ask my horse to do
  • I ask for the maneuver with rider aids for that maneuver
  • My horse feels my rider aids (leg pressure, rein pressure, etc)
  • My horse receives the message in his brain from his body
  • My horse recognizes what I ask
  • My horse sends a message to his body to perform the maneuver
  • My horse performs the maneuver
Pretty incredible!

Spin: If I want my horse to spin to the right, I signal him by bracing my body (tells him to stay on the spot), adding a little weight in a stirrup (gives him the first clue as to the direction of the spin) and picking up my rein hand (tells him which way I want to go).  Then I wait. A trained horse will start to flow to the right. If I am impatient and pull on the bit or kick,  it could disturb his concentration and the spin may be trashed. Worse than that, it may not have been necessary. When training, of course, I may need to back up a request, but the “wait rule” still applies.

Lead change: I signal my horse to change leads by changing my hand and body and then I wait for the lead change. Wait for the horse to respond. If I get excited and pull on him, I could force his body out of alignment so it will be more difficult to change leads. (Of course if I'm running a pattern in a competition and he doesn't change leads I have to try something!) This works very well training my horse to change leads too if I have enough room for a long straight line. I ask for the change and wait for it to happen. Often it does...

Stop: I have prepared my horse to stop in the rundown, I have accelerated into the stop. When I reach the point where I want him to “bury his butt”, I just sit down and wait. If he is trained, he most certainly will try to stop; if he is not fully trained yet, he may make mistakes. In either case, any correction has to be after he has had a chance to respond on his own. If he is doing everything right and I apply rein pressure before he has had a chance to perform on his own, he will be thinking about that a little and the stop will not be as pretty!

Wildwood Champagne stopping with my hand down.
It’s tempting to panic a little in a class if I ask my horse to spin and he just stands there. Two seconds can seem like a minute when all eyes are on me and I used to start pulling right away. Now I give my horse time to think it through and do it on his own before I use stronger aids. I “wait” for the maneuver instead of forcing it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Teaching the Sliding Stop

National Reining Horse Association defines the sliding stop as “the act of slowing a horse from a lope to a stop position by bringing the hind legs under the horse in a locked position sliding on the hind feet. The horse should enter the stop position by bending the back, bringing the hind legs under the body while maintaining forward motion and ground contact and cadence with front legs. Throughout the stop the horse should continue in a straight line while maintaining contact with the hind feet.”

This definition is a correct stop – no more, no less. Forget stops that slide thirty feet but with “skips” in the tracks; forget stops where the horse’s front legs are not active; forget stops that are not straight. A correct stop is when the horse goes to the ground and stays in the ground – body straight and front legs trotting. For me, the stop doesn’t have to be long to be correct – if he goes six feet correct, I’m a lot happier than if he slides thirty feet but picks a hind leg up or slides crooked. I train for a correct stop. The rest will take care of itself.

The sliding stop is the hallmark maneuver of the reining horse. It's music to my ears to hear the szzzzzst… of a long, correct slide when I ask my horse to stop! But a stop like that doesn’t happen overnight – it’s the result of two things: a horse bred to do the job and months and months of training.

  • I don’t try to teach a horse to stop that’s not bred or built for the job.
  • I much prefer to teach a horse that wants to stop. I have probably figured that out long before I ride him. Does he naturally use his hind quarters? Does he stop (and maybe even slide) just for fun? My good mare Tamarac used to run up and down the arena directly at the fence and stop squarely into the fence instead of turning. She naturally locked her hind legs and slid (slid really well on ice!).
The part that I can’t know for sure is his mental attitude to training and that will make the difference. However, a step-by-step method of training will go a long way to instill confidence, which in turn will allow my horse to relax and therefore learn. A confused or scared horse is not going to be a willing partner in one of those long, melt-in-the-ground stops.

My horses are learning the stop almost from the first ride. The basic exercise, Vertical Flexion, teaches, from my rider aids, how to stop and instills in them a willingness as well. They must know this exercise first.

Note: I almost always end each schooling session with this exercise because the stop is so important that I want it to be the last thing my horse remembers from the session and also because I can “fix” any problems that have arose during the session.

As training progresses, (through all previous exercises in this blog), I incorporate the stop in to almost every exercise so that he is always reminded... I have still not done any specific sliding stop work and he probably does not have sliding plates on yet.

Note: Sliding plates are flat shoesfor the reining horse’s hind feet that support him in the slide and enable him to slide without friction. I do not stop any horse hard without sliding plates!

The Exercise
To take the stop training to the next level, I ask my horse to trot (strong posting trot, not a jog) in a straight line anywhere in the arena.  I want him to be straight and to give to the bridle should I ask but my hands will always before I ask for a stop. All the previous exercises I have done  should make this easy to do but if he resists in any way, I try to correct as I trot. If he won’t correct, I drop back down to correct the problem. When he is trotting in a straight line, I ask him to stop with exactly the same signals I used in Vertical Flexion – hands down, change my body, say “whoa”. He’ll probably make an attempt to stop. If he stops very well, I rest him. If he does something I don’t like, I will not rest him but I won’t punish him either. There are several things I can do if I don’t like his stop (after he had come to a complete stop):
  1. Turn him off of one rein until he is soft and giving, then walk, then trot him off in a straight line again and repeat.
  2. Back him up until he gives to rein pressure. Then walk forward, trot off in a straight line and repeat.
  3. Correct the part of his body that is stiff e.g If he threw his hip to the right, I push it back inline or even exaggerate the correction!  
I do a lot of trot stops before I advance to a lope. The reasons for this are to keep his front end active and to perfect his body position.

Everyone who starts to rein can’t wait to experience the sliding stop – and with good reason! But, like the horse, the maneuver should be performed at a basic level at the beginning and advance slowly and gradually to that run-down-the-arena-as-fast-as-the-horse-can-go slide. That can take time but it's well worth the effort!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Finding the Postion of Comfort: Exercise Three

I have already talked about the importance of my horse responding to the outside rein – the “neck” rein. Although I do a major portion of early training with two hands on the reins, I never lose sight of the ultimate goal – a horse that is comfortable and can be guided with one hand. This exercise is another step toward that goal – it refines signals from the outside rein while continuing to tap into the horse’s comfort zone, thereby encouraging him to work for me.

My horse must already be thoroughly schooled in basic exercises and must be willing to be schooled before I introduce him to this exercise. The object is to ride a small square with square corners, the size of the square determined by the level of training of the horse. Beginner riders and green horses may have to ride a larger square just to give them time to accomplish each step.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Counter Canter to Lead Change

Definition of Lead: A lope is a three-beat gait. When the horse is loping in the right lead, the footfall pattern is left hind (beat one), right hind and left fore almost simultaneously (beat two), right fore (beat three). The right legs will be reaching the farthest forward and the horse is loping in the right lead.

Definition of Lead Change: A horse changes leads when he changes from one lead to the other lead between two strides in the air at a lope. That is, from right lead to left lead or vice-versa.

The counter canter is an excellent tool for teaching a horse to change leads because, again, I take advantage of his desire to be comfortable. He already knows how to lope in the lead of my choice but the counter canter is not as comfortable – a lead change will put him the lead that is most comfortable on a circle. Note: I do not practice counter canter forever and ever or he may learn it so well that he becomes too comfortable and doesn’t want to change!)

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Counter Canter

Definition: A counter canter is a lope in the outside lead. That is, I ask my horse to lope in the right lead if we are in a left circle.

Although almost all reining trainers now use the counter canter as a training tool, I remember a time when almost no one did. And, though most trainers now use the counter canter to school lead changes, there was a time when many trainers didn’t school lead changes at all – they just rode horses that naturally changed. Fortunately for me, I never was of that mind set and my mentor, Vern Sapergia, taught me how to train a horse to change leads.

“Those reiners have the option of picking another futurity prospect if a horse is not a natural lead changer,” he said. “We don’t. We may have only one or two in our barn so we better have a lead change program.” That's when I started counter cantering my horses.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Finding the Position of Comfort: Exercise Two

This exercise is actually a continuation of the last exercise but if my horse is just learning I may not advance for a few rides.  If he is thoroughly schooled in basic exercises, he is usually mentally and physically ready for this step up very quickly – I let him “tell” me, to a great extent. But I don't walk into the arena and start here. I will have already jogged my horse around the arena, half-passing him to the outside, releasing and letting him find the comfort zone in both directions (See Finding the Position of Comfort: Exercise One). Then I take same exercise up a notch – to the lope!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Finding the Position of Comfort: Exercise One

In the last post, I talked about promoting a comfortable body position for my horse because he is happiest and can perform best when he is comfortable. But horses often don’t figure that out without a little help from the rider. Here is a non-stressful basic exercise that will encourage a horse to find the “comfort zone”:

The Exercise
I jog my horse in straight lines down the sides of the arena (but 15 feet from the walls because I rarely work a reining horse on the rail - reining patterns require rundowns to be off the fence) and around the ends. As he jogs, I half-pass him to the outside i.e. push his hindquarters to the outside with his nose to the outside. After a few steps, I release rein and leg aids, jog a few steps and repeat. Staying on a track in a straight line down one side, around the end, down the other side and around the end, I repeat this simple exercise several times.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Comfort Connection

A horse will always strive to be comfortable. If we, as trainers/riders remember that, we will have accessed a valuable “teaching” tool! I call it the “comfort connection”.

It’s really quite simple. I’ve already talked about releasing aids (hands, legs, body) when my horse is doing what I ask but if I think one step further and think about tapping in to my horse’s “comfort”, I am limited only by his talent and what I wish to “teach” him because he, in fact, is teaching himself. He wants to be comfortable; therefore he will try to be comfortable. If I take advantage of that, the whole training process is easier.

Example 1: A horse’s spine is aligned best if his neck (not just his head!) is low. He instinctively knows this but, with someone on his back asking him to respond to something he doesn’t know yet, he may resist to pressure on the reins, stiffen,  and put his head up. He is not comfortable with his head in that position so, as I walk, jog and lope, I encourage him to lower his neck with leg pressure. When he does (and is rewarded with release of pressure), he becomes comfortable again. My horses understand this very quickly. (I can almost see the “light bulb” go on…). Then they are happy to respond the next time… because they are comfortable. As always, it’s important to reward for even the slightest response at first. It’s amazing how fast a horse will learn when he is finding a comfortable position.

Example 2: A horse is most comfortable spinning if his body is in correct alignment. It will be easy to turn around if his neck is low, his shoulders are “up” and his barrel and hips aligned. In fact, spinning is so much easier that he will float around with the help of centrifugal force. If his head is up, his back is hollowing; then it is difficult for him to place a pivot leg under himself; if he is resisting rein pressure on one side and his shoulder is “stuck out”, it will be difficult for him to cross over in front.

Example 3:  A horse will stop best if his body is aligned. Again, he will be more comfortable that way and therefore he will be more willing to stop and will perform the stop much better. This starts in the rundown. If my horse does not feel or act comfortable in the rundown, I will often go back a step or two and correct that – by encouraging him to find the comfortable position again.

A horse will perform any maneuver better if he is correct and he will only stay correct if he is comfortable. A horse will seek out the comfortable position once he is shown where it is. That’s the “comfort connection”.