Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Standardbred leans on my hands: using the one-rein stop to soften

I love my readers! They ask really great questions, usually ones that every other Standardbred owner can relate to.

This week's letter comes from Shari in Spokane:

"I've seen your posts about flexing, and that has really helped my 8-year-old Standardbred gelding soften up a lot. However, when he starts trotting, he can really pull on my hands. It feels like he's leaning on my hands when I ask him to slow down or go from the trot to the walk. I don't want to put a stronger bit on him. I want him to listen to me in the snaffle. Can you give me any suggestions?"

Thanks, Shari, for the question. And the smartest thing you said is that you don't want to put a stronger bit on him. You are right. It will solve your problem to some extent. But at the bottom of it all is the fact that your horse is not soft to the bit. A stronger bit will not lighten him up. It will only strong-arm him into slowing down. We want to use a different strategy.

You also said, "it feels like he's leaning on my hands." He is--and you will never win. At least not if you are trying to stop him using both reins. Now, for the more advanced horse, there is something called the half-halt, which I've used in both dressage and in the hunter ring to lighten a horse, as well as help him collect and balance himself. This is a two-handed move, but it is exectued with the speed of a lightening strike. Not with the power, however. More on that in another post...

Shari rides Western and also has a green horse. She needs to focus on basics.

Why two reins create problems When a rider asks a horse to slow or transition down by pulling on both reins at the same time, the horse can often feel trapped, and old instincts will kick in. Your horse's neck and head were originally designed to be able to resist the weight of moutain lion or other predator. When you pull back with both reins, his natural reaction is to say, "Oh no, you don't." And he will stick his nose out, lean on you, and do whatever else he can to resist you.

It's a battle you will never win, simply by virture of the fact that his conformation makes him so very much stronger than you.

A quick fix is the one-rein stop. But first you should work on getting your horse to be light on the ground. To learn about flexing on the ground, please click here.

Once you have learned to flex your horse from the ground, you are ready to move on to flexing in the saddle. Using a plain snaffle that fits correctly, here is the basic idea: while your horse is standing still and you are mounted up, shorten the right rein and bring it to your right pocket (make sure the left rein is loose so your horse can easily turn his head to the right).

When your horse softens to the point where his nose is on your boot, release the rein and reward him by stroking his neck and offering verbal praise. Of course, his greatest reward is that you have let go of the rein. The pressure comes off (and the reward comes out) when he does what you asked.

Now do the same thing on the left. Shorten the left rein, draw you hand to your pcket. When your horse's nose is on your boot, release the rein.

When you are first teaching this, stay with one rein at a time, putting in three or four nose-to-boot efforts on the right before switching to the other rein. As you progress, you can ask your horse to flex from side to side, one nose-to-boot effort at a time.

I do this exercise over and over and over and over. And I do it every time I get on, no matter how schooled the horse is. It warms up the neck muscles, helps your horse maintain suppleness, AND it keeps him light to your hand.

HELPFUL HINT: If, when you start this exercise, you horse tries to get out of the work by turning in a small circle, just hold onto the rein until he stops moving his feet. He will, eventually, stop moving his feet. I promise.) As soon as he puts his nose to your boot while standing quietly, release the rein.

The One-Rein Stop
The one-rein stop is actually very easy to do and is similar to what you did in the flexing exercise. Let's imagine you ask your horse to trot or canter. Although you are looking for a nice, controled rhythm, your horse has decided what you really mean is, "Go as fast as you can."

The instant that you feel him starting to speed up and lean on your hands, immeidately shut him down by pulling back on the outside rein. If you are on the trail, use either rein, but NEVER both together. By pulling only on one rein, he has nothng to fight against. He will not want to continue moving forward and will quickly learn to stop and submit to your hand.

If you have a horse with a long-standing habit of running away with you or pulling against your reins, this may take a week or more of very consistent work, at least 30 minutes a day. But what will happen is that your horse will quickly learn: "Every time I start to go really fast, she stops me. Every time I stick my nose out and try to lean on the reins, she uses that one rein and stops me. And since she's doing it with one rein, I might end up with my nose looking at my tail. Boy, it's hard to run off when I'm in that position. So maybe I'll just stop. It seems easier to just go slow."

When you first start practicing this, you might find that your horse turns in the direction of the one rein you hve used to stop him. Don't get too upset about this, even if it means you end up facing the opposite direction. Keep your leg on the girth, on the same side as the rein you are using, to encourage your horse to move forward. But straightness can come later. If he turns, just quietly turn him back in the direction you want to go. After you've gotten your horse to lighten up, you can work on straightness. Stop first, straightness later.

My husband had a wonderful Quarter Horse mare he used for search and rescue. When she came to us, Lady's mouth was so locked up, riding her was like dealing with a ton of rocks. She could pull against her rider like nobody's business. You could never, ever take your hands off the reins or she was off like a rocket ship. The one-rein stop changed this mare's life (and ours, because our arms didn't ache anymore!). I hope it will help you, too.

Be patient, make lightness you only mission for the next couple weeks, and see if this helps.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Catching your horse in the act of "doing it right"

This darling, exhausted little fellow is Harley, the newest addition to my family of (now) two Golden Retrievers, four horses, three kids (all off at college), and Best Husband in the World.

Harley started his training the day he came to live with us, at eight weeks of age. He is now 13 weeks and knows how to come, sit, take food without leaping into the air in spins worthy of Superman, and to walk politely on a leash. "Stay" may take a little longer.

Much of my training program revolves around catching Harley in the act of doing a behavior on his own that I would like him to do on my command.

For example, as we morphed from "sit" to "down," I looked for times when Harley had decided, on his own, that it was time rest his, uh, er, "dogs," also known as legs.

If I saw Harley in the down position, I began to lavish crazy praise on him, saying, "down, good down," over and over while rubbing enthusiastically on his chest.

This has proven extremely effective in terms of chewing. If I see him chewing something that's a no-no, like, say, our dining room table, I promptly put an approved chew toy in his mouth. The minute he takes the toy, I praise him. If he's just hanging out, playing with one of his toys, I also praise him.

By catching Harley in the act, he has learned much faster and I have had absolutely no frustration.

As you are training your Standardbred to transition from harness racer to saddle horse, catching her in the act of behaviors you want her to learn is a very good way to help your four-legged friend learn faster.

I got an opportunity to put this into action yesterday. My wonderful mare, Cordealia, has been on stall rest for several months now. She has, at last, been given the green light to return to work. Yesterday, the first day I put her back into the round pen at liberty, all she wanted to do was canter.

And pace. Grrrr.

Cordealia (aka "Cori") has been off the track for almost four years now. She has had extensive saddle training and, before stall rest came along, was working very well in some upper level dressage moves. She rides both English and Western. She is light and responsive. She does not pace.

Yet, there she was, full of vinegar. And pacing. Did I already say "Grrrr?"

My reaction was to prohibit her from pacing by forcing her into the canter every time she paced. However, I couldn't just let her canter forever, because it was her first day out. I didn't need to re-injure herself. But neither did I want her to think that the pace was a good thing.

My plan of attack, then, was to ignore the pace. Every time she paced, I stood very quietly. I did not give her any reason to go faster. In fact, I kind of acted like I was trying to be invisible.

As I knew it would, there came a moment, about four minutes into a pacing episode, when she broke into a trot. At that moment, I applied the "Harley Rules." I lavished her with praise, singing out to her, "Trot, yes, good trot, good trot." Over and over and over.

This method of "catching her in the act" will help Cordealia get back into trotting mode very quickly.

If you are trying to teach your pacer to become a trotter, think about catching your horse in the act and then rewarding that behavior lavishly. The "Harley Rule" applies for anything you are trying to teach your horse. Catch her in the act, then reward, making sure to identify the behavior specifically with "good trot" or "canter, good canter."