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.