Monday, March 25, 2013

Stop Fix #9: Correct a Crooked Stop

The problem: The horse’s hind quarters slide to the side when he stops.
Why does this problem happen? This is an alignment problem originating in the horse's shoulder. If his shoulder bulges, his hind quarters may slide to the side when he stops because he is trying to compensate. He swings his hips off the straight line in the slide, often picking up the outside hind leg as the weight comes off of it. Also, if a horse stops crooked like this, it's going to affect the next maneuver as well – the roll back or back up. He is not in a good position to execute either one well.
A horse is more likely to be out of alignment in the stop and to stop crooked if his withers are lower than his hips, a problem often seen in immature horses i.e. three year olds. Sometimes a horse will not even try to stop if he is built like this because he is hurting!
A crooked stop can also be a confidence thing going to the fence. If the horse is worried about hitting the fence, he might come out of alignment, push his shoulder out and stop crooked.
How to correct this problem: If my horse swings his hind quarters to one side or the other when he stops (as opposed to his whole body being crooked), I check him first for soreness or alignment problems. (A good equine therapist can help me here.)
If my horse is well-schooled in all the basics, I can help him, too, by riding him straight (correcting any alignment problems) and riding him into position. The more correct my horse is in the rundown and the stop, the less likely he is to slide crooked. I want his neck to be low (because if he raises it, his back will hollow and he will not be able to use his hind quarters effectively) and every part of his body in a line (because if it isn't, the crookedness is magnified when he stops!
Exercise: I review the basic stop at a trot and lope, paying particular attention to what he does with his hind quarters. If he slides to the side, I wait until he is completely stopped and then I correct him. Example: He stops and throws his hip to the right (his shoulder may be to the left). When he has ceased all motion, I re-align his left shoulder and push his hip back to center with my left leg so he is aligned; then I rest. I must do that every time he stops and swings a hip out. This simple exercise may help the problem although it does not substitute for a perfectly aligned rundown to a perfectly aligned stop. I had a chance to test this correction many years ago. A gelding came to me who moved his hindquarters to the side every time he stopped. Every time he did, I moved the hindquarters back and rested. I knew I was winning when he stopped with his hindquarters to the side but moved back to straight before I corrected. I showed him for a few years and he never did it again.
If the problem surfaces while fencing the horse (Stop Fix #1: Straighten the Rundown), I lope back and forth to the fence many, many times until he relaxes and his hips align with the rest of his body.
The crooked stop probably starts in the rundown if the horse is "crabbing" – running straight but with a crooked body (right hind falling on left front). If he approaches a stop like this, the stop is going to be crooked.
Note: If the horse is young, he may grow out of this problem as his body matures and he grows more withers.
Example of horse stopping crooked.
Example of crooked stop. Note the right shoulder pushing out.
Example of a nice, straight sliding stop.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Stop Fix #8: Commit to the Ground

The problem: The horse does not "commit" to the stop (ground). He’s tentative about locking his hind legs in a stop position, sliding, and staying in the slide.
Why does this problem happen? A horse may not commit to the ground for any one (or all) of the following reasons:
  1. He does not have the conformation to stop.
  2. He is sore.
  3. He is not confident.
 How to correct this problem: This problem is similar to, but not the same as Stop Fix #4: Instill the Desire to Stop, which deals with the horse that shows no interest in stopping. In this case, though, the horse tries to stop but is not committed and therefore the slightest thing can cause him to come out of the slide. If I am training a horse with this problem, I consider the following factors:
  1. Is the horse built to do the job? (See notes on conformation in Stop Fix #4: Instill the Desire to Stop). If he is not, it will be hard for him and in fact may hurt him. I do not try to make a reiner out of this horse and ask for only easy stops from slow gaits.
  2. Is the horse sore? If he is, then I know why he won’t commit himself to a hard stop – because it hurts! I postpone schooling until he is sound.
  3. Is the horse frightened in some way – a bad stop (Example: Hind quarters sliding out of control on ground that is too slick) or an abusive rider. Maybe he is just not "brave". If either of these two issues is the problem, I can help him a great deal by establishing trust and confidence.
It’s absolutely necessary to return to basic training with a horse like this. He needs a slow, step-by-step program to relax, re-focus and trust. Every basic exercise – lateral and vertical flexion, leg yielding and collection at all gaits – will increase his confidence just because he relaxes. I review these exercises thoroughly, at all times building relaxation and confidence in the program. Then I re-introduce the stop.
The two elements of success if I am to “fix” a horse that does not commit to the ground are:
  1. Good sliding ground (See notes in Stop Fix #4: Instill the Desire to Stop)
  2. Keeping the horse’s confidence at a high level.
Exercise 1: I start right at the beginning of stop training with trot/stop as in Stop Fix #5: Stop Without Rein Contact with one exception. After he tries to stop, however badly, I back him up a few steps, thereby transferring his weight over his hind legs. After many repetitions, he will think he's going to be backed up and will begin to back voluntarily, which transfers his weight over his hind quarters putting him in a great position to for stops. So much of this problem is mental (he does not trust himself to lock those hind legs and stay there for whatever reason) that schooling exercises must be under the guidance of a wise and patient trainer. It’s more about the training program than anything else (providing he has the conformation and is not sore). With some horses, especially young ones, one incident can destroy confidence and it can be a long time getting it back.

Exercise 2: Fencing (See Stop Fix #1: Straighten the Rundown) Although fencing is primarily a rundown exercise, it can be useful to help a horse break at the loins and stop deeper. For the exercise to be effective, I lope as "long" as I possibly can to the fence, building speed, so the fence stops him. A word of caution though. If the horse's confidence is at low level, he may not be comfortable going in to the fence OR he may be more comfortable with no pressure from the rider.  It's up to me to make the right decision for schooling.
It’s vitally important to be super consistent with my aids if I am to help this horse commit to the ground, to be confident in my program (so he will be!) and to be assertive (but never aggressive) with my hands. If he is scared, I will only be reinforcing what he believes already – that he does not want to commit to the ground.
Note: I don’t underestimate the value of positive thinking as well. As a rider, I can certainly help him with his problem. I want to ride to the stop with confidence, and then sit down like I believe he is going to. Chances are, if we have done our homework, he will drop his butt in the ground and commit!

Example of horse fully committed to the ground.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Stop Fix #7: Keep Front Legs Active

The problem: The horse braces with his front legs when he stops instead of trotting in the front, creating a rough, unattractive stop.
Why does this problem happen? The reason a horse does not keep his front end active when he stops is either because he has not learned to stop that way or he has just not had enough basic training before being asked for big stops. If he is not soft in the bridle (See Stay Soft in Bridle in Rundown and Stay Soft in Bridle in Stop), he may open his mouth and brace everything in his body – front legs, neck, shoulders and back. He straightens his front legs instead of allowing himself to stay loose and trot while the hind quarters are sliding. This may also happen if the rider does not allow the horse much, if any, forward motion in the stop by pulling him down hard or if the horse is scared.
How to correct this problem: If the horse has been frightened, he must regain confidence to perform. He is probably also not soft and giving in the bridle and basic, consistent, kind training is the only tool to establish relaxation and trust and begin the long road back to mental health. The surest way to trash good stops are to scare the horse.
If the horse is not worried about stopping but still jars his rider with straight, stiff front legs, he can learn a better way but the problem cannot be fixed at speed. Because the front legs are actually trotting when the hind quarters are sliding, re-schooling should begin at a trot to encourage the horse to allow himself to trot in to and through the slide.
Exercise: All the preparation rules apply – a straight, soft-in-the-bridle approach to the stop. If he is not straight or giving to my hands or legs, then I must correct that first with basic exercises before I school the stop.
I trot my horse off in a straight line anywhere in the arena and ask him to stop in the usual way – first with body aid, then voice aid – but then, with one rein, I bend him in a circle (basic lateral flexion), until he is soft and giving. I settle him, trot off again and repeat the exercise but this time I turn him in the opposite direction. I repeat several times, alternating reins every time. Finally, I just ask him to stop. If his front legs keep trotting, I rest him; if he stops with stiff front legs, I turn him with one rein. When he’s consistent and relaxed trotting to the stop and through the stop, I repeat the exercise at a lope and finally with speed.
Note: I am not concerned with a slide at this point, especially at a trot.
The rider can help free up his horse's front end considerably by:
1. Allowing forward motion (not pulling).
2. Looking up and way beyond the point he wants to stop in the rundown.
3. “Fixing” any straightness or softness problems in the rundown.
An excellent example of a horse staying active in front.
Note: I do not throw my body back to stop, which will surely cause a sudden reaction and possibly stiff front legs. Instead, I step into the stirrups, sit down rather than back, and “square” my shoulders. In this way, I can keep riding my horse’s hind quarters into the stop, which allows his front end to keep moving.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Stop Fix #6: Stay Soft in Bridle in Stop

The problem: The horse stiffens his jaw going in to and throughout the stop.
Why does this problem happen? The horse is not soft in the bridle while stopping because he has not learned to respect the bridle or he braces because he is scared.
How to correct this problem: A horse can be stiff in the jaw whether the rider has contact with his mouth or not. Either way, it affects the stop – negatively. When he is not soft and giving in the bridle, his poll, neck, shoulders and front end are stiff as well, which results in hollowing the back so he cannot use his loins, stifles and hocks to stop. It can look quite ugly and will not score well.
The first thing I would check if my horse is not soft in the bridle is the bit. Is it too much bit and he is scared? I might change bits for a while, even go back to a snaffle to help him get his confidence back. If it is a matter of respecting the bit and the training program, I will have to school, beginning at a basic level and working my up.
Staying soft in the bridle in the stop begins in the rundown. If the horse is bracey in the rundown (See Stop Fix #2: Stay Soft in Bridle in Rundown), he will still be that way when he stops. Even if there’s no contact with his mouth, the stiffness in his body will result in a heavy, bouncy stop. The heaviness that begins in his mouth runs all the way back. He won’t be able to use his back, loins, stifles or hocks to achieve an effortless, smooth stop. If it’s necessary to apply rein pressure to help him stop, the problem gets worse because he will have something to brace against.
The only way to fix this problem is to re-school basics, concentrating on establishing true lateral and vertical flexion and collection in circles and straight lines and establishing confidence (the horse’s) at those levels. I break it right down to one rein (lateral flexion), checking that my horse is truly ‘giving’ to rein pressure and that I am releasing that rein pressure when he gives – very important! I can do this at a walk and at a jog until I am confident that he is willing and relaxed. Then I can ask for vertical flexion (both reins) and collection at a jog, trot and lope. At first I do this exercise in a circle, then straight lines, repeatedly asking my horse to collect, first with leg pressure then rein pressure. My responsibility is to reward him when he complies – with release of pressure. Soon he will be soft in the bridle and I can go back to rundowns and stops. If he has a déjà vous moment in the rundown or stop (and he probably will!), I may have to re-enforce the lesson. When I school though, it is important that I always fix the problem when it happens. If that means dropping back down to basic level, then that’s what I will do. Eventually he will understand that he needs to stay soft all the time – warm-ups, rundowns and stops – if I am consistent with my corrections.
Example of horse soft in bridle without contact
Example horse soft in bridle with contact
When a horse goes in to a stop with his jaw relaxed (soft in the bridle) with no rein contact, he presents a pretty picture to the judge. If the rider must pick up the reins (because of deep ground or other) to finish the stop and the horse stays soft in the bridle, there is no harm done at all. He still presents that pretty picture.