Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gentlemen: Start your Engines...Gearing up for Great Transitions

On Sunday, the roads were way to icy to take out for a ride. I was stuck with staying close to home and riding in the arena. Our arena is grass and we had about an inch of Snow fall Saturday so the footing wasn’t horrible. I would be limited to walking and with any luck, some slow trotting. With the recent holiday now well out of sight and me having been out of state for 11 days, it had been a while since JB had any riding.

Am I concerned about the conditioning he is losing? Of course, but quite frankly, there isn’t much I can do about it when the footing is treacherous. I don’t expect things to improve as we move deeper into winter with each passing day. This only adds to my concern. Spring may well be like starting over with JB’s conditioning. I will ride as often and as much as I can and that will have to suffice.

I can only hope this winter isn’t like last winter where the Spring seemed as thought it would never arrive. Two years ago, it was worse. In the Flathead, we tend to get a lot of rain mixed with snow which then freezes. Most of the roads around my place resemble ice skating rinks as a result and sometimes, it is so bad, out pasture also turns into large ice patches. One year was exceptionally horrible.. One January morning we woke up to a Pacific Storm which was feverishly depositing large amounts of wet heavy snow. By that same afternoon, it turned to rain. You can imagine by January in the North Country, our ground is quite frozen. Rain on frozen ground simply sits on the surface.

By the next afternoon, while we were away at work, the temperature has dropped again , winds picked up and it became bitterly cold. By the time we arrived home, we found the horses were out in the farthest reaches of our five acres. They were stranded on one little patch of earth that was not an ice skating rink, unwilling to move. As luck would have it, they were also about as far away from the barn and access to water as you can get on our place. With the wind howling about 30 MPH and the horses unable to move off their one patch of dirt , they were cold, stiff, hungry and thirsty. We clearly had a situation on our hands. To make a long story short, my brother come out with his sand truck and literally sand our pasture, and heavily sand one path from where they were to the corral so the horses could be to protection and water. Even with the sand, the horses didn’t realize they could move so Tom and I had to halter them one by one and coerce them along the sanded path to safety. Not exactly a yellow brick road but we were finally able to get them out of their predicament.

If this winter is anything like that, I suppose I will be hunting for an indoor arena to use once or twice a week to help maintain some sort of condition.

Getting back to what I wanted to post about, Sundays ride turned out to be better than I initially had hoped for. We were able to do about 30- 40 minutes of steady trotting along with some brisk walks. In an attempt to stave off extreme boredom of going ‘round and ‘round the arena , I worked on transitions from walk to trot , trot to walk, trot to halt, halt to trot. JB has a bit of a drag in him with his transitions so we worked on ‘responsiveness” as well as getting the engines turned on or in other words, getting him to use his hindquarters. If we were going to be stuck in the arena, I figured I may as well do something that would help keep both of us engaged. Asking for transitions and half halts helps improve engagement of the hindquarters and it keeps both of us thinking.

JB tends, as do a lot of horses, to pop his nose out and get a bit hollow back when moving to an up transition or into downward transition. Thus, getting on his forehand. It’s a lot like when you hit your brakes hard on your vehicle and the front end sinks forward? That’s pretty much what it feels like with a horse who dives onto his forehand when asking for a transition. Last year, I was concerned that JB’s hollow back and nose poking out may have been due to saddle fit but after some careful assessment, it’s not. He also had his teeth done so it wasn’t the bit. As with anything, I always try to rule out the physical first. It wasn’t the saddle and if it was his teeth, he now had that squared away. I had a training issue to work through.

Ofcourse, I can’t expect that this was only JB’s problem. I had to think about how I was asking for these transitions. I am half of the equation and it’s my job to make sure I am presenting the lesson clearly and fairly. How can I help him? Am I doing something that is causing him discomfort in how I am asking? I had to analyze my own position and aids and lucky for me I am my own worst critic. I know that I tend to get a brace in my lower back, which translates the same thing to my horse. ! I am also just barley smart enough to know that it’s pretty easy to get in my horses way with my aids without even realizing it all the time.

I want to mention also that I didn’t start this process of teaching transitions and half halts from the saddle. I started this in a halter to lay the groundwork. JB learned my voice commands and then went on to asking for transitions while on a lunge and again last winter, while training him to harness. By the time I ask from the saddle, JB understands the concept through voice commands and body language. Adding in the actual seat and legs aids once in the saddle seem to come along quicker as a result.

We have been working on this from the saddle for most of this year during our arena training sessions. As JB and I make our way around , I have go through my mental check list about my own positions and aids; Is my seat light and following JB’s movement, is my back supple? Are my hands light and following his movement? If that’s all in check, I have a marker picked out of where I am planning to be when we go into a walk. That means that I have to ask a few strides in front of that point and the timing of all that has to clear in my mind before I bother to ask.

As the marker approaches; I would simply stop the rein from moving in harmony with his movements. I apply a gently squeeze of the rein. This is different than pulling back. At the same time, while sitting the trot, I will close my knees and thighs a bit more against the saddle, and tighten the stomach muscles. What this does is to somewhat block JB from continuing to move quite as freely. I am getting in his way just a little bit with my seat and legs. He is receiving this message through his back and along the reins via my seat and hands. It is crucially important that I mention that while I am sitting the trot, I don’t GRIND DOWN into the saddle onto JB’s back and I don’t lean back with my upper body, a common mistake. Instead I think of a down transition as shifting my center of balance away from my core and up into my chest, tucking my pelvis much like what the horse would do as he is stopping and tucking his hindquarters, (although this is a very subtle thing) and growing up tall and lengthening down in your legs. My seat will actually lighten and soften in this process, allowing my seat to accept JB’s rounded back but resisting just enough to stop the forward momentum. As soon as I feel JB slow, my back and legs and seat go back to a more neutral position, while remaining in a balanced and quiet position. JB can now walk freely. This is his reward.

Sometimes a horse can also be a bit unruly with transitions, especially downward transitions, which seem to be more difficult to keep a horse in a rounded frame.. It’s been my experience that there is more resistance to using their hind quarters for downward transition. They hollow their back and the hindquarters are out there flopping around behind him. If I find this to be the case with JB, I will often use my hands as described earlier but I will add a little more leg to encourage him to step through more deeply with the hind legs.

It’s hard work for them to stay in a frame, especially when they are just learning. It also takes time to develop the strength and muscling to hold a frame. Keeping that in mind, there are times JB is just plain feeling unruly and has a case of the “I don’t wanna’s” . I am sure he would rather chase a cow or a mare any given day. Frankly so would I but these sort of exercises will benefit both of us long term so we must prevail!

I have found that as I have worked with a horse long enough, like JB, I usually have a sense of the difference between when JB is truly not understanding what is it I am asking for and when he is simply trying to evade the work.

In the case of the I don’t wanna’s, I might shift my focus and try to just get a couple of try’s as opposed to working on these exercises for the duration of the lesson.

I would again begin with all the same aids as described above beginning with the blocking with my hands. It’s important once again that I mention that this isn’t a pulling back; I am stopping my hands from following along with JB’s momentum. He is still moving but my hands have stopped. As soon JB softens in his jaw the slightest bit, I give him a release or soften the rein, but I don’t throw him away either. I just retain soft contact. Timing is crucial of course. I can usually tell at the moment before it happens , when JB is about to soften. My timing can therefore be in sync and he gets the reward at the correct time. If I am finding that JB continues his resistance by lean on the bit and getting heavier on the forehand, then at this point I will hold a while longer on the rein, which translates sometimes to taking a step or two backwards, until I feel him shift his weight to his haunches and his front end lighten . It’s okay if they take a step back because what I want is for him to move onto his haunches . If he needs to back up in order to achieve that and find the release , that ‘s fine. I know he is going to hunt for a release from that pressure. I hold long enough until I feel him soften in the jaw and neck and back, Once he does his nose will no longer be poking out and his back won’t be hollow. You will feel yourself raise up in the saddle as his backs fills underneath you and rounds. I am basically allowing him to find his own release when he gets on his hind quarters and softens through his body. A lot of times, a horse can really brace when asking this with both reins. It’s important to point out that when I hold and wait for JB to find his own release, I will ask with one rein just a bit shorter than the other to get him to pivot at his Atlas. If a horses head is slightly turned at the atlas, they can’t brace. I think Deb Bennett has a good article out there somewhere on this. As soon as JB shifts his onto the haunches and the heaviness of his front end lighten, he gets his release because my hands are not continually pulling back, they are holding in one spot. Then I would ask for him to walk out in a big walk. I would say at this point may be the lesson would be done.

I really try very hard not to drill these exercises as it can just lead to frustration for both horse and rider . Get a couple good ones as I mentioned, and then maybe go work on something else, like dragging a log or a tarp. Or go herd up the geldings for fun! If Tom’s around, we might shoot the bow for a bit or throw spears at one of the fake warrior men in my arena. My best advice is to constantly change up the program to keep it interesting. Barb horses seem to be brighter than average creatures and seem to need a little more stimulation than maybe a Quarter Horse ( no offense to QH lovers out there, just my own personal observations!).

In time, what all of this translates to is that the final result of a good transition begins with a half halt which requires a horse to be able to coil his loins. All of this rides on the riders aids and the responsiveness of the horse to those aids.

Eventually all I will have to do is I just put a squeeze on that rein, soften through my back and seat, and JB will hear me say.. “OK, pause to prepare yourself, I am going to ask you for a change” ;

JB will prepare by shifting his weight back onto his haunches, which allows him to be ready to do what ever task I ask of him and he will say in response to me,

“ I am ready, where can I take you next?”

..........and we will ride off in harmony having the loveliest of conversations.

A couple of words from the great Meistro- Nuno Oliveira

"This is the exact same principle as Neindorff's "The hand stands still, and yet it moves."

"The hands have to be like concrete when the horse resists and like butter when he yields."

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