Think Riding is Hard? Try Teaching It

In a recent BestHorsePractices post, we wrote about Why Riding is the Hardest Thing in the World to Do. It discussed the challenges of thinking, balancing, and connecting with your equine partner.

We then heard from several clinicians who talked about the challenges of nurturing that complicated, multi-faceted horse-rider partnership and communicating effectively enough to be understood and appreciated.

West Taylor, who with Dr. Steve Peters will present at the Horse Science Seminar next month in Park City, helped articulate the challenges.

Taylor shared these thoughts:

My horse training program broken down to its simplest form is: Pressure, Release, and Seeking Relief.

  • Pressure motivates the horse to “find something.”
  • Release tells the horse “you have found the answer.”
  • Allowing the horse the time to “seek relief” after the release of pressure puts it together with a reinforcing dose of dopamine.

From the time I release pressure, that horse is the seeking relief. I don’t know how much value there would be in the release if there weren’t time for that relief. However, if at that time the horse and rider are in a getting-something-done situation, then it’s different. As horsemen, we tend to toggle between these two situations.

I focus on Timing, Balance, and Feel.

Read more about Mastering the Elements here.

There is timing with pressure, timing with release, and timing with balance.

What does the balance of pressure mean? That’s knowing for example when to put on a little pressure and when to add more.

West Taylor’s client at work with her horse

Feel is everything, right?

As in:

  • What do I feel like this horse needs right now?
  • What’s the feel in watching the horse seek relief?

I might ask a horse at liberty to walk across a tarp. The feel to me here is in the observing and reacting:

  • Do I have to step back one step, two steps, five steps?
  • What do I need to do for the horse to be able to do what I’m asking it to do?

Will I need to take two big steps away in order for it to lick and chew?

That’s the feel to me. I see a lot of clients that miss the feel. What I want my clients to find is that feel, that observation. Rather than tell them A, B, and C, I’ll ask them, ‘What did you see?

With clear communication, you will see the results. But can the clients see it?

When something happens with the horse, I like to say:

  • How did you cause that?
  • What did you not support?
  • What did you not adjust to?

From a pro-active standpoint, we need to see how we set it up or how we got in the way. How did we cause an action or behavior? I just keep asking them. Often clients just don’t know. That’s why they are here. That’s what they learn. Teaching horsemanship is the most masterful game of chess that we can play. It’s leading the horse and person to the right moves.

Dorrance Protégés Join Summit Roster

Along with powerful academic and arena presentations, the Best Horse Practices Summit, October 8-10 in Durango, Colorado, will now offer an opportunity to hear from esteemed protégés of Bill and Tom Dorrance. The brothers are widely admired as pioneers of the superior, more mindful horsemanship we see practiced nowadays.

Randy Rieman and Bryan Neubert, along with Neubert’s daughter, Kate, will join us in Durango for a very special evening, Celebrating the Dorrance Legacy. For Rieman and the Neuberts, it will be a relaxed dinnertime chat at the luxurious Strater Hotel Theater. For us listeners, it will be a night to remember where we can lean in and savor their memories.

Register now.

The BHP Summit is shaping up to be an impressive two-and-a-half days of learning to improve riding and horsemanship. For

Bryan Neubert

a limited time, the Summit organizers are offering a Bring 3, Get in Free!” incentive. When four attendees register and identify each other as part of the incentive, one will be refunded in full.

Rieman and Neubert spent many seasons with the Dorrances and attribute their successes to Bill and Tom’s tutelage. Kate Neubert was just a girl when she visited with the Dorrances, but she, too, is a product of their teachings.

Neubert and Rieman travel nationally and internationally as clinicians and colt starters. Rieman is also a master storyteller and a regular presenter at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Kate Neubert focuses on young performance horses and this year competed at the Road to the Horse event in Kentucky.

Amy Skinner, another young and talented horsewoman who will be coming to Durango, was thrilled to hear about the addition of the Dorrance Legacy evening to the program.

“The Dorrances worked on a refined feel that focused on what the horse was about to do, then either confirming or redirecting it.  That makes for a more relaxed horse, which, in turn, fosters a better relationship between the horse and rider.  It’s an approach that benefits riders of all disciplines.

Randy Rieman

“It wasn’t just about horsemanship for these men. It was about a better way of life. For those of us who want to dig a little deeper into our relationships with horses, hearing from Dorrance students will be an unbelievable opportunity.”

Skinner runs Essence Horsemanship and starts colts under Jim Thomas at the Bar T Ranch in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Dr. Steve Peters, who with Martin Black will present a BHPS session on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, said the Dorrance Legacy addition was a perfect fit for the conference.

“When Martin and I first started working on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, we looked at giving the horse enough time to ensure optimal learning and to its receiving of dopamine reinforcement.  Martin, who also worked with Tom Dorrance, would regale me with stories of Dorrance’s grasp of what we now know to be the neurochemical makeup of the horse.

Kate Neubert

“It seems Tom was a master at dialing up the horse’s arousal or dialing down its anxiety as needed.  Although I never met him, I am convinced that he was truly a great equine behavioral neurologist,” said Peters.

Register now.

2017 presenters include:

  • Wendy Williams, author of the best-selling The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, will give the keynote address.
  • Dr. Robert Bowker, former director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University.
  • Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, German veterinarian, rider, and author of the best-selling book, Tug of War: Classical versus Modern Dressage.
  • Dr. Sheryl King is a popular international presenter on equine behavior.
  • Warwick Schiller, NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) Reserve World Champion and represented Australia in reining at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. He tours internationally and has a popular video subscription.
  • Jim Thomas runs Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He has started scores of BLM wild horses and competed in multiple Extreme Mustang Makeovers.
  • Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black of Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

Additional Summit offerings:

  • Fresh, fine dining Strater Hotel meals
  • Meet-and-greet receptions
  • Autograph sessions
  • Trade Show
  • Rider Fitness workout and core fitness elective with David Stickler
  • Post-BHP Summit field trip to visit a wild horse herd in nearby Spring Creek Basin.

The Best Horse Practices Summit is a Colorado 501 (c) (3) non profit corporation with a five member board of directors and nine member steering committee. Its goal is to advance ideas to improve the horse-human connection.

See you in Durango this October!

 

Amy Skinner’s Young Horse Basics

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Meet Skinner and Thomas at the Best Horse Practices Summit!

Here, Skinner shares some notes on starting young horses.

She writes:

Starting a horse is about providing a good foundation for the rest of its life. To help prepare it, I want to make sure it’s exposed to as much as possible and to instill confidence and curiosity at a young age.  I can’t prepare it for everything it will encounter, but if I can get a good mix of curiosity and confidence overall, the colt will have what it needs to tackle new obstacles.

The Challenges

Whether it’s a future dressage horse, jumper, cutting horse, or trail horse, I believe every young horse should know how to:

  • walk, trot, and canter on a loose rein
  • ride out alone and with friends on the trail
  • move a cow

All part of the process. A young horse learns the feel of a saddle

When a young horse is getting started, it can overwhelmed with new information quickly.  It has to learn to:

  • carry a saddle,
  • wear a bridle and bit
  • carry a rider

It has to learn to interpret the scary, funny feeling in its mouth when the rider tries to direct it. And it needs to do this while managing the rider’s moving weight on its back.  It has to handle being exposed to new and scary things: different places, obstacles, scary corners in the arena, cows, and more.

I hope to provide the horse with plenty of information for it to digest and to learn in a productive and confidence-boosting way. Starting, no matter how well you go about it, can be stressful on a horse. Young horses are still learning to balance themselves and you’ll often see them move in silly, awkward ways.  Their bodies aren’t fully developed and they can experience fear or concern while carrying the extra weight of a rider.

Providing Advantages or Dealing with Handicaps

Horses raised outside in a healthy herd dynamic and exposed to varied terrain and diverse situations are invariably easier to start.  These horses have a better sense of balance and a better awareness of their surroundings.  This is a totally natural development for a horse.

Unfortunately, many young horses are born in stalls, brought into stalls daily, and spend most of their time in small, groomed pens or sterile arenas with flat and soft footing.  This scenario offers the young horse no advantages. I’ve found these horses to be more nervous and less capable than a young horse raised outside in a more natural environment.

Horses raised in ‘positively unpredictable’ environments are also quicker learners, as they have had to adapt faster and learn to trust their instincts.  Stall-raised young horses are often shielded from unpleasant stimuli and never have to adapt to survive.  While learning to tolerate fly-spraying and blanketing may have some small benefits, humans take the more crucial adaptive abilities away from these horses, making them worse off.

If you want to have a super learner, an athlete, and a brave and curious horse, do him the favor of being outside without interference.

  • Let him deal with herd members, bugs, wind, hills, and rain.
  • Let him manage around the holes in the pasture. Horses and holes have evolved together over millennia and horses have not been wiped out yet because of them.

‘Going natural’ like this will not only make him healthier, happier, and more mentally balanced, it will make him a better learner and better athlete too.

 

Why Riding is the Hardest Thing in the World to Do

If riding simply entailed proper movements to speed up, slow down, and steer the horse, it would be elementary. Like riding a bike.

But cyclists don’t often talk about how much they are still learning 30 years after they picked up the sport. Horse riders, even those doing it professionally, DO say they’re still learning.

It’s essential to be an open-minded “learnaholic” if you’re interested in advancing your horsemanship. The reason riding is the hardest thing in the world to do? Our education has so many angles and it comes in so many forms. To note a few:

Horse movement

One must have an understanding of how the horse moves in order to ride well. Before you start talking about long trots or collection or transitions, you need to know how your horse can move and how it then moves with a rider aboard. It’s about anatomy, conditioning, muscle strength, flexibility, etc. It often helps to just watch horses in a field or paddock, especially with other horses.

Horse behavior

The more you understand what’s going on in the horse’s head, the more you’ll be able to incorporate that knowledge into better riding. For instance, it’s essential to know about prey instinct, herd instinct, and the neurochemical craving for homeostasis.

Awareness

All around the world, humans are trying their best to be more “mindful.” But in horse work, the need for awareness is amplified and multi-form:

— Body awareness

It’s essential to know what you’re doing with your body and how it is impacting your horse’s movement and behavior. Some riders go for years without realizing that they are out of balance. Others blame their horses for missteps when it has everything to do with rider position.

Generally, horses have a harder time if their riders are out of shape and inflexible. Fitness and range of motion, therefore, become essential components of good riding.

— Mental awareness

Distracted? Stressed? Nervous? Apprehensive? Angry?

Those human emotions have very real consequences when we interact with horses. Not only do horses sense them, those feelings affect how we move and react to horses’ movements.

Good riders learn to shed those mental hang-ups when they interact with horses. Some seem to walk away from daily people problems. Others develop strategies to use mid-ride, like singing when galloping or leaving the cell phone at home, to ensure a focused, mentally-healthy ride.

There’s also another level of mental awareness. It has to do with being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and faults as a human being. Clinicians often note that life’s challenges and baggage will impede horsemanship improvement. Amy Skinner explains: “Problems in our day-to-day lives carry into our riding lives. We can’t fix our riding problems without fixing our lives.”

While we work hard to shed detrimental elements of our humanness, we must nonetheless retain the smarts gained from research and experience. It’s a challenging duality unique to humans: how to be smart, savvy, mindful, and adaptable all at the same time!

Amy Skinner

This spring, renowned horseman Warwick Schiller had a “full-on epiphany.” He tried giving a horse more time to think, decide, and relax. The results astounded him:

A troubled horse laid down and napped for hours in the middle of a clinic. ‘”And I really think that horse had not had a relaxed moment in his captive life,” said Schiller of the horse, a mustang who had been rounded up, split from his herd, and sold to adopters.

With another horse, haltering was always a problem. Schiller would see his jaw tighten and turn his head away. Again, the Australian looked to make changes in the most basic elements of his horse work.

“What I’m after is so much more microscopic than I realized,” said Schiller. “When horses can’t calm down, it’s up to us to let them find it. Often it’s just slowing down and waiting.”

In October, you’ll have a great chance to learn more from Schiller and fellow world renowned presenters. Check out the Best Horse Practices Summit roster.

Warwick Schiller will be at the BHP Summit

Extra reading:

Juliana Zunde on testing your harmony.

Check out HorseHead: Brain Science to improve your horse work

Rider Fitness articles

Read more on Balance

Multi-tasking as good horsemanship

His Rearing was the Tip of the Iceberg

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a frequent guest columnist for NickerNews and BestHorsePractices. She works with Jim Thomas at Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, NC, and runs Essence Horsemanship. Here, she writes Part One of an ongoing project with the beautiful horse, Bellus.

Skinner writes:

Bellus, a 10-year old Lusitano gelding, came to the Bar T Ranch for training in January with a rearing problem.  He was schooling 3rd level dressage (which involves advanced lateral movements, flying changes, and extended gaits – movements requiring balance, rhythm and self carriage) and his trainers were fed up with him.

“Everything else was fine,” they said, except when Bellus decided he was done he would stop and rear.  Bellus was brought to us so we could “fix up that one little problem,” then he could go back to schooling.  He was expected to start getting good scores in shows and then he could be sold.

Yet everything else was not fine. In the short time that Bellus was in training, the poor horse was exposed to quite a different world than he was used to:

— Bellus was used to going in a stall.  As a stallion late to being gelded and having been isolated in his earlier years, his social skills were underdeveloped and he was kept separately from other horses.

— He came off the trailer wearing shipping boots and a fleece-lined halter. He snorted at the cows over the fence and the cows snorted back at him.

— At the Bar T, he did not live in a stall, but in a private paddock next to five other horses.

— His clipped coat stood on end when the wind picked up or when it rained. Because of this ill-advised and prior grooming, I needed to blanket him when the weather was bad.

At first, Bellus struggled to adjust.

I rode him out on the trails, through water, with the cows, and I did very little dressage.  I wanted to avoid dressage because the gelding had been drilled half to death with the movements which were a) not done correctly and b) had no meaning or value in his life.

Dressage can help a horse with balance and relaxation. The way it was presented had made him backward and resentful. I thought it’d be better for him mentally to avoid schooling in the arena and learn a different type of balance. 

But the gelding had so little confidence on the trail that he shook with trepidation and could not will himself to go forward.

With the cows, he trembled and tried to whirl around or stop and rear when he saw them.  His response to everything he didn’t understand or thought he couldn’t do was to shut down. In doing this, he’d sull up. He’d slam on the front end hard, refuse to move, and then come up in the front end.

Bellus had no idea how to use his body properly as he had always been pushed into a false “collected” frame.  He had always been ridden on a tight rein, spurred, and whipped into the contact as he continually lost his forward momentum. Shutting down became the only option he could summon.

With me riding him on a loose rein, he tripped, stumbled, rushed, and jolted to a stop. He did not know how to handle not being held up by someone’s reins and driven into them.  He had no balance of his own, and without being confined by the reins, he fell forward on his front end heavily.  He felt unbalanced and often panicked.  He did not have any of the fundamental qualities that a well-started horse should have: confidence, try, balance, ability to go forward, and relaxation.  In my mind, without these qualities, Bellus had no business competing at 3rd level dressage.

After a month in training here, Bellus made marked improvements.  He would walk, trot, and canter in a forward manner on a loose rein.  He would ride out on the trails, and I had many beautiful long trots with him where he loosened and lowered his scrunched-up neck and lifted his back, extending his stride over the hilly fields.

In the minds of his owners/trainers, however, Bellus was still a long way from where they wanted him. I suspect his owners had been strung along by many trainers trying to do the right thing, and after years of spending on trainers who had only muddled him up worse, they were at the end of their rope.  They asked me to take him. I was glad to.

My first order of business was to improve his physical and mental well being. I pulled his shoes and to turn him out onto a field with my three-ear old filly.  He was pretty tender footed after having worn shoes for his entire riding life.  As for his living situation, I think Bellus must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.

Bellus returns to the arena with more relaxation

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