Some horses have been taught to stop with a look down. The horse in the video below is especially wired to the “look down” cue. This is causing issues with his progress in relaxation and balance while lunging.
Firstly, he is anxiously awaiting the look down cue so that he can stop. This causes him to not relax into a rhythm.
Secondly, turning suddenly causes the horse to fall in on the inside shoulder. It is much better for his balance to stop on the circle line (without turning off the circle).
Here is a tip for reprogramming a horse that has been trained to do the turn in and stop manoeuvre. When teaching a new horse to lunge, this method of walking in to meet them is also a good way to get the horse to understand to stay on the circle to stop.
Although there has been plenty written about the Dressage Training Scale, I’d like to offer some thought on the “Why do we need a scale?” question and how creatively interpreting the sections can aid our training.
The most commonly used scale is the German Training Scale, shown in pictures and English + German terms to the left.
When we start development of the horse, we begin with rhythm, followed (to some extent or at the same time) with relaxation or suppleness.
It is useful to follow this progressive scale at the beginning since it advocates that we do not need to achieve contact right away. This is because we can upset the attempts by the horse to find stability and evenness in their strides by initiating too much contact. At this stage, less is more. The horse will need work on their horizontal (head to tail), lateral (side to side), and vertical (hoof to spine) stability to carry a rider well. At the later stages of the training scale, when these dimensions of balance are refined, this is referred to as “Straightness”.
The first and most important foundation to achieve is rhythm and relaxation.
Rhythm allows the horse to be even in the amount of energy that they transfer from each hind leg. As the horse begins to relax and supple, they will also reduce the amount of pushing with the hind legs, which is an important step in achieving balance.
Push must be translated into spring so that the hind legs are able to come more under the horse in order to balance while at a slower rhythm. The slower and more manoeuvrable horse will be able to shift their weight backwards to the center of mass (rather than on the forehand which requires speed to keep themselves from tipping over).
In my mind the training scale is more like a house. Not all of the middle section is absolutely required to be completed in order and may be completed as a set of exercises, but the foundation is always the first step, to which omission or improper attention will cause disintegration at the next stages.
The Training Scale – Middle Section
I have noticed that contact in some disciplines is of utmost importance, take dressage for example. However, you can train a very well balanced horse without any contact in the reins. In those cases the seat and body position become the aids to the horse. Therefore, we could interpret the “Contact” training phase as not applying only to the reins and bit, and with a more open interpretation to the training scale, be progressing in conjunction with impulsion and straightness.
Manolo Mendez is a highly skilled classical trainer who advocates using different speeds in the gait to develop the horse. This will improve both suppleness, which needs elasticity, and impulsion, which needs spring.
Although impulsion is defined as energy and thrust in the training scale diagram above, I use the word spring as it conveys a slightly more comprehensive imagery for envisioning a horse that is developing collection. The horse must go upwards in order to collect, and therefore the time for each hoof above the ground in suspension is lengthened. Thrust and energy in some cases can be misinterpreted for push. An anxious horse pushing into forward movement is an incorrect way to view impulsion.
Since the classical masters viewed impulsion as two steps below collection, this most certainly should not be confused with forward speed and push, which horses do not need a high level of skilled training in dressage to be able to sustain.
Nuno Oliviera says that “If your horse goes from walk to trot without changing the head and neck position, the walk had good impulsion.” This is useful to remember as the walk is a difficult gait to judge impulsion since it does not have the pronounced suspension of trot and canter.
Pushing into the movement of the gait instead of using a controlled and elastic thrust is also evident in the contact, showing either resistance or heaviness into the riders hand. This is most obvious when horses do not have body stability at the gait, and cannot maintain balance (straightness) without speed or leaning on the rider.
So, in my view those three middle sections of the training scale are interconnected whereby one can help achieve the other, but all must be at a refined level in order to develop a state of collection.
In the centuries upon centuries that humans have interacted with horses, we have come around in our thinking, progressing further with ethical treatment and understanding of the abilities and attributes of horses.
Our interactions in terms of partnership can be seen across a continuum of flavours. The representation above, shows three simple categories. We might say that a racehorse would be in the leftmost category for the most part of their interactions with humans, having one option and no choice in their activities (debate could uphold that horses inherently like to race – in which case would move the partnership towards the middle category where they are conditioned to make this choice).
Many pleasure horse activities operate in the middle ground, where the horse is not given a free choice in the matter, but will receive training to motivate them to choose the activities that we would like them to do. Even liberty work will often involve pressure, bribery, or some kind of influence over the horse to act in a particular way that the human wants.
Motivating a horse to choose from limited options is founded specifically on one premise – disrupting the horse and then allowing the horse to seek comfort. In this context we cannot systematically judge a positive reward as kinder than a pressure based motivator. Once conditioned to a positive reward system, the horse knows that they cannot get the food (the source of their comfort) until they have pleased you. Therefore, their normal patterns of accessing food when they choose have been disrupted and the horse will have some level of anxiety until rewarded. This is why nibbling, impatience, and nickering often come into play during positive reward sessions. Those behaviours can also be managed, but as soon as we shut-down a behaviour, we are not empowering the horse in interacting with us which is something to keep in the back of ones mind.
Not everyone aspires to a pure partnership. Humans are invariably, a controlling species. However, we can add doses of empowered interaction into our typical “dictated” or “controlled choice” partnership.
For ideas, Elsa Sinclair is the guru in this area. Here are some of my tips for creating interactions where the horse can feel empowered:
Greet your horse in the paddock with no human agenda, carefully observing their body language as you move in closer, allowing them to accept you (or reject you) within their personal space. When you are close, hold out an outstretched hand, allowing them to sniff you as long as needed.
Allow your horse to be curious. If you are in the middle of something, give them a bit of time to check out something, sniff some poop, or look at something far away.
Let them decompress now and again. Recognise that whatever you are asking of them, no matter how low pressure or positively reinforced, produces anxiety as they are not fully empowered to do as they please.
A waiting break (count out 20 to 60 seconds), gives the horse a chance to let out some tension. Don’t interrupt their calming signals – give them a chance to process things on their own time.
Encourage them to roll, find some relaxing pressure points on their body, or just stand beside them taking deep breaths and listening to the sounds of wherever you may be.
Once you have established a bond of mutuality, your horse might be willing to initiate play with you. A game that I have played with my horse is to move in reaction to their movement. It could be in sync or opposite, away or toward, lift an arm, or any type of non-threatening action. When the horse does the same action, repeat the same reaction (this can be a time consuming activity!). When the horse realises that they are controlling your actions, they are often quite relieved and show a release of tension.
Building these little empowering interactions into your sessions with your horse will make you more pleasant as someone to hang out with and you may start to find more free choice and playful coordination appearing in your encounters.
What does it feel like to achieve harmony with a horse? The horse going with lightness and balance, and our body moving along in synchronisation – this is the most profound and beautiful outcome of many, many, many (did I say many enough times?) hours of patient and diligent training.
After some time of concentrated practice, we might flirt with fleeting moments of harmony; still what a thrill! Our understanding will compound as we go through layer and layer of learning, revealing such treasures about our sensitive equine companions.
Developing ourselves is an activity within the stretch zone. We must take steps to get out of our comfort area and to see with fresh eyes. It is both physically and mentally testing. In the process, with attentiveness, we can also recognise the habits and triggering thoughts of the past in order to discard and improve as we forge new ground.
The horse, also, is conditioned as they have been. We need to accept them and equip them to rise to the challenges that we present them in our human environment. We need to teach our equine partners the skills to carry us lightly and willingly without a struggle to maintain their balance.
Starting from 12th of January 2020, we will be on tour in the central north island running Working Equitation Introductory 2 hour group sessions. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info or to sign up for a clinic.