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

Monday, December 14, 2009

Follow up to the trot question

I was very pleased today to get a follow-up email from Christine. You may recall that Christine and her mare, Jessie, were the featured guests in my last blog, writing us all the way from Canada.

Christine originally wrote me because her little mare, a former pacer, would be delighted to keep pacing under saddle. Really fast.
Christine has other ideas and fancies the idea of a nice trot, with the legs moving diagonally, as opposed to laterally, the way a pacer moves.. You can read that post on the ins-and-outs of teaching your Standardbred pacer how to trot by clicking here.

And the good news advice worked! I just love it when that happens!

Here's a bit of what Christine said:

Hi Anastasia,

Here's the update I promised. I started by walking with her on a line and just saying (like you said) walk, walk, and I'd give her a carrot after a few turns. I tried to use praise as a reward but it wasn't enough of a motivator for her. So after a few days of that I was able to take the line off after a few turns around the ring with it on. So she was just walking quietly beside me.

I tried several times on the ground to get her into the trot but wasn't successful. So not one to give up, I tried it in the saddle. I started at a few turns at a walk then said "little faster" and gave just a slight pressure with my legs. She went into "racing" mode so I did what you suggested and rather then pull back on both reins (which just made her fight the bit or stop) I pulled back on just one.

She went into what I think you called an amble. So now I had a work for a slow gait that she understood and was able to work with that command on the ground. We would start at a walk, I'd say "little faster" she would go into the amble. While after a few weeks of this she realized that work meant not a race but an amble. That she wouldn't be punished for not going fast.

So the last few days, both on a line and under saddle, she has learned to work at a calm pace. Yesterday under saddle after several turns at an amble she deiced the trot would be more comfortable, seeing as no one was pushing her to go faster she just slid into it naturally.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!

Today I went and worked her at liberty and I couldn't believe it (yes I had a tear in my eye) I picked up the whip, said walk, off she went a few turns at a walk , I said a"little faster" expecting her to go into an amble and she did it!! She went right into a lovely trot and kept it up for about 4-5 turns around the ring, all are her own.

Thanks again for you help.

Christine and Jessie (because I know she would thank you if she could)

Christine has really demonstrated one of the key components in training your Standardbred to transition from pace to trot. And that component is patience. Patience, combined with consistent work in small chunks, and a whole lot of praise can really help your horse make progress.

Good work, Christine! We are looking forward to seeing a photo of you and Jessie at the trot!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Teaching your Standardbred to Trot (and not pace)

Christine, from Quebec, astride her darling Standbred mare, Jessie. Notice Jessie is perfomring a text book "pace," with her two left legs moving in tandem.

One of the reasons I love doing this blog is that it has connected me with Standbred lovers from all over the world. I have readers who send me questions from places as far flung as Australia and as close as just down the road from our farm in beautiful Pilot Hill.

A few days ago, I received a traomomg question from All About Standardbreds reader Christine, who hails from Quebec, Canada. She is working with her 13-year-old former pacer, Jessie. Jessie had a brief racing career, and then became a brood mare for several years. Now, she comes to Crhistine green broke to saddle riding, despite her somewhat older age. Christine plans to use Jessie mostly for trail riding in English tack.

Christine's concerns? "Jessie is fantastic in the harness, but she falls apart under saddle. She has a fantastic pace when it is slow, but when she speeds up, it is impossible to sit. How can I train her to trot?"

"You mean like a normal horse?" sneer my friends who have yet to come to the Standbred side, the side of right, the side of common sense with pure athleticism. But I digress.

Christine's concerns about teaching her horse to trot have merit. But it's important to remember that the trot is, fundamentally, a natural gait to all horses. Including pacers.

Pacers are taught two things while training at the track: The first is to never, ever canter. The second is to never trot. So although the trot is natural, it has been trained out of race horses who pace. It can also be trained back in, which is what Christine now must do.

Difference between the pace and the trot As discussed in a previous post, one of the most common questions I get is "What is the different between a pacer and a trotter?"

In its simplest terms, a trotter moves its legs in a diagonal fashion. For example, when the horse's right front is extended forward, its left hind will move forward in tandem.

By contrast, a pacer moves laterally. This mean when her left front leg is extended forward, her left hind is also moving forward.

Ridden at a normal, non-racing speed, a Standardbred's pace can be smooth as glass, much like the feeling riders get astride gaited horses like Tennessee Walkers. However, if you are working with a retired race horse who still has n't gotten the word that its' time to slow down, you can find yourself nearly unseated by a full-out pace.

In recent years, pacers have also been discouraged from performing their gaited amble because some experts consider it unsafe. On a narrow track trail, a horse traveling in a lateral trot can become unbalanced. Accrding to the nay-sayers, this puts the rider at risk for the horse falling over. I have personally never seen this--and never had anything but sure-footed performance from my pacer/trail horse. Having said that, I can understand the logic behind the argument that pacers are not safe trail horses. As I always say, "It is good to have a healthy fear and to respect that riding is inherently dangerous. Make the safest choises you can at all times."

Given that Christine has already expressed concern about her mare tripping, it is my advice that she start to train Jessie to do it the old fashioned way--just trot.

How to start In my recent posts about teaching your Standardbred to canter, I discussed at length the idea of teaching your horse your language. Getting your horse to understand the connection between your word, "trot," and his gait is critical.

The Steps in Brief

1) Hopefully, you have a round pen. If not, working on the longe line is also fine. I was recently asked "Why do you always promote the round pen so much?" Simple: The round pen offers a place where the horse can travel in a consistent direction at liberty. The round pen works better than a ring with corners. I also like working the horse at liberty without a halter, so he leans to make decisions on his own. It builds confidence in a young horse--or an older one who is still green broke.

At any rate, let your horse run lose to play and get his jollies out. After he gets all his friskiness out, he will be more inclined to settle down into his work. For Christine, who is working on a longe line, I suggested that she first let her mare run loose to kick and play. After she is done with that, Christine can then put the halter and longe line on, clearly signaling to Jessie that "It's time to work now."

2) Tools: you will want to have a longe line, flag, or other took that you use to drive you horse forward and away from you. I prefer halters and longe lines that are rope. This light-weight creations make the horse feel less confined. Also, a proper rope halter is constructed so that pressure points on the poll and nose help the horse to learn more quickly.

3) Saying the word, "trot," ask your horse to trot by getting behind her drive line and putting pressure on her with the whip or flag. The minute she starts to pace, bring her back to the walk. Say the word, "Walk" as you bring her down. If you are working at liberty, you can help her transition down by position your body slightly in front of her shoulder, saying, "walk."

If you are working with a longe line, you will want to give a gentle tug on the longe, along with the command to "walk." If she won't walk, step in front of her shoulder while tugging the line slightly. She will start to get the connection.

4) Try again. Ask for the trot, use your vocal commands and combine them with pressure behind her drive line. If your mare trots, even a couple steps, praise her lavishly and add the words, "Trot, trot, good trot, good trot."

5) Stick with it. In teaching a Standardbred to trot, the most important key to success will be your patience. You are teaching her to do something she was taught to never, ever do. Now you are giving her permission. It can be confusing.

Always start with your ground work. Your mare already feels uncertain and unbalanced. Allowing her to learn the trot at liberty wil make your work much easier when you get into the saddle.

A word about goals Keep your goals realistic as you work with your horse. Don't expect her to get it within the first few sessions. My beautiful mare, Cordealia, is now doing fantastic second level dressage work. She also loves to trot on the trails for hours. But when I first got her, she was a natural pacer. It took several months to train her pace out of her. Even now, she will slip into it every once in a while when breaking from the center. But mst of the time, you would never know of her former days as a winning pacer. She is proof that you can train a pacer to trot--brilliantly so!

Keep us posted on your progress with Jessie, Christine!

In my next post, I will address teaching the trot while in the saddle.