Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How do I get my horse to slow down?

Whether you have a Standardbred, an Arabian, a Thoroughbred, or a Quarter Horse, some things are universal to all breeds. In particular, I'm talking about cue to slow your horse down.

This email recently came all the way from Slovenia (!!!!), where Standardbred owner Valerija Toplišek is re-training a 6-year-old Standardbred mare off the track. Valerija writes:

I m from Slovenia. I bought a 6 year-old-Standardbred mare 5 months ago. Before I bought her, she was on track. When I ride her, she always pulls. She won t accept the bit at all. And a new problem is that, in the trott, she always goes faster and I must pull reins. Then, she starts kicking with her back legs. I think she is angry that I am trying to slow her.

Please help!

Valerija Toplišek and her 6-year-old mare, Suzi

I say it a lot here in these posts, but I shall say it again: your horse must learn your language. Harness racing horses coming off the track, in particular, must learn a new way of dealing with the bit. Most of the time, their owners/drivers/trainers don't care if the horses pull. They just want them to go fast, and not break into the canter.

Therefore, it is critical that you treat your Standardbred a bit like a human baby. Children must learn how to speak your language. So must your horse.

One of the best ways to do this is to longe your horse, or work her at liberty (without halter or longe line). As she goes into each of her gates, you reinforce what she is doing by saying, "Trot, good trot. Trot." Do this at every gait, including the halt, walk, and canter. Continually reinforce with verbal cues, such as "walk, good walk." Or "canter, good canter."

Check your position: Valerija did not indicate her level of riding experience. But I might also recommend that she get a few lessons under her belt to make sure she is sitting correctly and using her body and aids correctly.
If you are telling your horse with your reins to slow--but sitting in such a way that your horse is hearing "go, go, go," you are going to end up in a mess of confusion.
Even the best riders occasionally consult a reputable trainer to get some feedback, because it is easy to fall into bad habits. Some of the most common mistakes include sitting too far back in the saddle, riding with flat hands, or having your legs to far forward.

Working on the longe or at liberty and making sure you are riding correctly can be augmented by a third--and critical--exercise...the flex.

Why flex your horse?

Flexing your horse is a top-notch way to sensitize your horse to the bit. We all want a horse that is light and responsive. In Valerija's case, her mare has learned to lean on the bit, to resist, and to pull.
Horses hate pressure. They will look for ways to find relief from pressure. Valerija's mare has obviously learned to live with the pressure of a hard hand and a stiff rein. Our job is to teach her that if she releases, all the pressure will come off.
In flexing exercises, you will first start with a rope halter and then proceed to flexing with the bit. I will discuss flexing in the bit next week.

Objective: To invite your horse to touch her nose to her stomach, right where the girth would go. Once she does this, you immediately release. Thus, your horse learns that when you ask her for something, she will be rewarded immediately with a release of pressure.
Step One:
Let's start on the horse's right side. Stand at your horse's side, slightly behind the withers. With your right hand, take hold of your lead line, leaving approximately a foot between your hand and the place where the lead line attaches to the halter.
Pull the lead line so that it is taut, and place your right hand firmly on your horse's spine, just behind the withers. (In my photo, Best Husband in the World is standing a bit too close to the shoulder--you want to make sure your right hand is behind the withers. Your left hand will be further back on the horse's spine.)
You might feel your horse pulling hard against you. Ignore it, and simply plant your right and left hands firmly on her spine. Do not pull. Instead, maintain a tight, steady hold. Do not give up.

At first, you horse may try to get away from this exercise by turning its haunches away and spinning in a circle. It is important that you do not fuss about this: simple follow all your horse's movements. Do not be worried about getting kicked: when your horse's head is turned toward you, he is a bit off balance and will be reluctant to kick from this angle. Mostly, he will be just trying to figure out what it is you want. (Caution: if your horse is a kicker, do get help with this exercise from an expert who can work with you and your horse in person.)

Step Two:
Here you can see that Skye is starting to release to Craig. When you are first working with your horse, this might be a good place to release to her. The "release" is exactly what it sounds like: you want to completely release the tension you have created by pulling on the lead line.

Once you have released, stroke your horse's neck and face, and then quickly pick up your line and do the exercise again. As your horse begins to get the idea, you can hold the line longer. Keep working on it until your horse touches her nose to her belly.'

The key: the instant that your horse touches her nose to her belly, you must release.
She will quickly learn that when she gives to you softly, she will be rewarded. This knowledge will eventually translate to working in the bit.

Do this exercise six or seven times on one side, then go to the horse's other side and do the same. Then repeat on both sides.
As top clinician Clinton Anderson is fond of saying, your horse has two sides. This means that she also has two sides to her brain. It is imperative that you work both sides of the brain, and both sides of the horse equally.

Next week: flexing your horse in the bit, on the ground and in the saddle

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