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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Horse Religion

I have a book that I’ve been asked to review, and I’m really enjoying it. I’ll share it “officially” in a week or so, but in the meantime I wanted to share one of the ideas she mentions – the more ways a horse trainer knows how to teach a concept, the better trainer they *probably* are.

If one trainer knows 4 different ways to teach a horse to sidepass and another 6 ways, the latter is *probably* a better trainer.

If one trainer knows 2 ways to teach canter departures on the correct lead and the other knows 4….well, you get the idea.

One of the many things I appreciate about my trainer is her flexibility in teaching concepts in different ways depending on rider and horse experience/age/history.

Many times during our lessons she will make a comment that we are learning a particular concept a certain way because Farley has “history” behind her and is NOT a green, young horse. She’s an experienced, older horse who has a lot of miles.

I’d like to give you 2 examples I have in mind, but first – “why do I even bring this up at all?”

I frequent forums such as the Horse Grooming and Supplies forum with some regularity. I mostly refrain from giving advice, but sometimes, if I see someone struggling with a concept that I too struggled with, and am making progress with, then I like to offer techniques that worked for me, especially if it differs from the “standard” advice that everyone else is giving and that the person has tried (and without success).

A perfect example is picking up the correct canter lead.

When I was first cantering in my dressage lessons it was VERY difficult for Farley to pick up the left lead. Trying 20-25 times was not unusual. In my lessons, my trainer asked me try a certain technique that she stated outright that she would NOT use in a green horse, but is successful with older horses that are being retrained. When asking for the lead, you slightly COUNTER bend/flex the horse to the outside while pushing with the inside leg into a corner. This frees up the inside shoulder which can allow them to pick up the lead more easily. And after all, the lead starts in the BACK not the front, so your inside leg is what’s really asking for the lead and it doesn’t *really* matter what the front is doing.

Of course, after the horse has “learned” how to pick up the lead, you ask for the lead straighter and straighter and eventually you have a pretty nice canter departure. You don’t want to overuse the counter flexion tool, but it’s a tool nevertheless.

When I gave this particular piece of advice to a girl on HGSF who seemed to have a similar history to Farley and me, you should have seen the outcry! How DARE I counter bend the horse to teach a lead. It’s a HORRIBLE idea and will RUIN the horse. Instead, pull that head and neck around to the inside and keep on kicking! I’m here to tell you that would have never worked in my situation. Farley is not a quarter horse confirmation (or dressage confirmation for that matter!) and doesn’t have a strong hindquarter (working on that!). Weighting that inside shoulder would have made it WORSE. Like my trainer said – probably not a technique you would use on a young green horse and you certainly don’t want to over use it, but it’s nice to have a couple tricks up your sleeve to teach a concept don’t you think?

The second example is related to a concept I just *recently* have begin to use in my dressage training.

Low and Long

Does it shock you that I’ve been doing dressage for almost 8 months and have just started doing a substantial amount of long and low work?

I’ve been working Farley in a frame that resembles a 1st level frame more than a training level frame. We incorporated lots of stretching at the walk and trot, but didn’t ask for lots of long and low work. The reason for this (as explained by my trainer) is because with a horse as with as much “history” as Farley, (especially when none of that history is proper training) it’s often necessary to teach obedience and “brokenness” first. Farley had NO idea what what “yield” to the bit meant (or any other part of her body). She resisted ANY contact with her mouth at all and traveled so strung out and had traveled so many miles this way she needed a lot of support in order to start learning to carry herself “properly”.

Now Farley is comfortable with contact, has built up more proper muscle (trainer has been insuring she’s traveling through on the hind, not bracing etc – it’s not just a “frame”), is more likely to ask what I want when I apply pressure instead of throwing a hissy fit, we are ready to take a step “back” in our training. Our transition to working in a long/low frame went very well last week. Farley was calm, knew what I wanted and we “played” with connection and contact. It was fun and since we had 8 months of learning obdedience, softness, and aids it went well.

I understand “why” green horses are started long and low and the value of lots of long and low work when starting dressage. HOWEVER, I’m grateful that my trainer can individually evaluate horses and is also willing to try something “new” with a non traditional rider/horse pair. Because, let’s face it – most beginning dressage horses don’t have thousands of trail miles traveling in an inverted frame!

So even though some may frown and cringe at the thought of 8 months without a base of long and low, I think my trainer made the right choice for Farley and I – after all, that’s why I’m her student! I trust her advice, my horse (and me!) are continually improving, and the feedback from other trainers and clinicians have been very positive about where we are in our level of training and how Farley looks and is responding.

BTW – My trainer has told me to do all my schooling and warmup in long and low from now on and only bring her “up” now for lessons and shows. I LOVE long and low so I’m excited! Can’t wait to see that top line in a couple of months!


  1. Fiddle and I had to "unlock" her shoulder at the walk before we could do anything else--one of those leftover effects of being broken to harness before anyone thought she might make a riding horse.

    Counterflexing helped immensely, even if it's not a "by the book" fix.

  2. How old is Farley? How long have you owned her?

    I almost always use counterflexion to start a horse on picking up leads. Or for a horse that has difficulty picking up a lead.

    I agree. There are many, many ways to get a desired result. The best riders and trainers are flexible and open to new ideas. I have three riding horses. And I don't ride any of them the exact same way. They all need just a little something different to get them to go their best.


  3. There are a lot of "know it alls" on HGS :D LOL! I have used the counter bending technique for leads as well. It works quite well and is something my dad taught me as a kid.

    There is more than one day to do things, what works for some horses won't work for every horse. Thanks for reminding us of that!

  4. Bravo to your trainer and you for realizing that there is no one magic way to help a horse learn and perfect the skills he needs. Each horse is different - conformation, experience and temperment must be factored in, and the best riders and instructors are those who are willing (and have the knowledge) to be creative. As an instructor, I try to provide my students with the biggest possible "tool box" by helping them understand the anatomy and biomechanics of each movement so they can problem-solve and help their horses succeed.


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