Monday, December 22, 2008

Snow and Riding Talk

I am so sick of snow although my farm looks beautiful. I have to do something that relates to working horses even if I can't get on one. So I decided I would post something about riding. It's down underneath these snow pictures....

This picture is the pond in front of my barn and my front pasture.

This picture is the view from my back deck. See the iceciles hanging off my gutters. Some of them are down right scary.

jme over at Glenshee Equestrian Centre has done a post on bitless riding and contact Not only is it a informative post but there is a great discussion developing in the comments. If you have any interest in a softer, more responsive horse, you might give it a look.

In the theme of learning how to get that lighter, more responsive horse I want to go on past contact as jme posted about and talk about "feel." Jme said in her post it's not really about using a bit or not or finding the right bit, it is about finding that right reaction from the horse and rewarding it. We both agree this can probably best be described as "feel."

"Feel" is an illusive thing. It's difficult to explain but once you get it the "feel" of that little give by the horse that warrants a release it is magic. Developing a soft, responsive, willing horse is dependant on finding that "place" and rewarding it. And, of course, for many riders that is easier said than done.

The reason I put the word "place" in quotations is because it is not really a physical place at all. It is more a thought in the horse's mind, an intention to do something because the rider/handler is asking. With that thought comes a kind of softness, a relaxing in the horse's eye and body somewhere. Developing a "feel" for that response is a powerful tool for training.

For the rider asking a horse to go onto the bit, it is in the poll and/or jaw that will soften. The rider who feels that subtle change in her/his hands and rewards it is on the way to a soft responsive horse. It's recognizing that gesture by the horse and rewarding it that is so illusive to many riders.

I remember years ago attending a John Lyons clinic with 15 horse and rider pairs. John had all of those riders working on teaching those horses to "give" to the bit. Then they moved on to dropping their heads. I, also, remember some of those riders thought these exercises were dumb and a big waste of their time.

The riders with that attitude were the losers. Because the exercise wasn't about getting the horse's head to the rider's knee or down on the ground as much as it was about teaching those riders the "feel" of a give from the horse. The goal of the horse changing position with its head was really just something physical for the riders to wrap their minds around.

Asking riders to apply pressure to a rein and hold for a release is just too vague for some riders, I think. Certainly at this clinic the riders were lost trying to understand what they were looking for......or trying to "feel."

Most seemed to do better once they began working on trying to get the horse to drop its head. Still they were late with their releases looking for an actual physical sign the horse was going to lower its head before releasing.

But even that late release did have a give from the horse.....a bigger one that was probably necessary for the horse to learn.....but something physical as a starting point for the rider. Once the riders could grasp that give, then they could develop their awareness of it going for earlier and earlier releases resulting in softer and more responsiveness from the horse.

Some riders learned by watching others that those who were achieving their goals the quickest were releasing before the horse physically moved. Once the got that concept they were off and sailing. Before long their horses were dropping their heads easily with little if any pressure. The successful riders had learned a valuable lesson about "feel."

To be continued.............

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  1. Ahhh....the feel! I've been waiting to feel the give with Steve Holt! these past few days as we work on dropping the head. He's softening, but not giving.

    The feel can be a tricky thing, to be sure.

  2. Yes, the feel can be a tricky thing. I think it's like anything else it comes with time and exprience. An old timer once told me that I had 'soft' hands and to never lose them. At the time I really didn't know what he meant but I do now.

    We got hammered with snow yesterday. We got about 15 inches here with drifts twice that. It's also very cold and supposed to be messy Christmas Eve with freezing rain. I liked your poem!

    Merry Christmas Mikael!

  3. It is just beautiful! But I totally agree! NO horse time isn't good for me, especially saddle time! Ice still on our troughs this morning and the ice I broke off yesterday is still laying frozen in the pasture!!

  4. "feel" is definitely elusive - that is for sure! (or fo'shizzle as the kids say. ;-)

    That is what my instructor and I are working on right now. I'm learning about feel and my horse is learning to relax - he came from a dressage barn where the horses mouths were yanked on to get them in a frame!

    I'm looking forward to reading about the bitless bridle post you linked to. Ol' Rusty would do well in one of those bridles...

  5. Oh - forgot to mention that I liked what you wrote about the John Lyons clinic and some people getting impatient with the "point" of some of the exercises - very interesting!!

  6. You made our news here in Northern Nevada with all the snow you've been getting. You have my sympathies. I think this is the first day in years that I couldn't get to work because chains are required. We usually only need snow tires. It doesn't matter anyway, because I'm in bed with a cold.

  7. I'm headed north today and I'm not looking forward to the weather but you are right - snow makes some things look so beautiful!

    Great blog! I just got here through HOOFBEATS from the Houston Chronicles blogs and I've enjoyed it thus far.

    I'm a huge fan of Arabian horses and really excited to hear that we have a finalist for USEF's "Horse of the Year" award. His name is Adams Fire and he is a wonderful animal. I was just on the Web site and voted.

    It's been 50 years since we won the award! Adams Fire is very unique in heritage - There are four continents in the first four generations of his pedigree and, as you mention, he is half Arabian and half DHH (Saddlebred, Hackney). I always thought his background had a lot to do with how responsive and intelligent he is. He is what we expect from an Arabian horse but he is ALL American in his “melting pot” background and his extraordinary performance. This horse has so much merit... carrying three different riders into those National Championships.

    Good luck to him!
    You can actually vote here:

  8. Beautiful photos worthy of Christmas cards! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  9. First let me say your pictures look beautiful. I'm sure you'll agree that pretty is nice but it's cold and really makes taking care of things harder than usual.

    Second, I read jme's blog on a regular basis, she's really knowledgeable and informative. I agree with the whole 'you've got to 'feel it theory'. I also like how you noticed the participants at the J.Lyons clinic were not really getting the whole meaning behind the feel. It would be so nice for the horses if more people would understand how the whole thing works and be more patient with their horses.

  10. Great post! I am so glad you wrote this one because you’ve done a better job of describing ‘feel’ than I probably could have :-)

    I love this especially: “For the rider asking a horse to go onto the bit, it is in the poll and/or jaw that will soften. The rider who feels that subtle change in her/his hands and rewards it is on the way to a soft responsive horse. It's recognizing that gesture by the horse and rewarding it that is so illusive to many riders.”

    Exactly! It’s not about head set or degrees in front of the vertical or any of that other technical speak – it’s about the relaxation of the jaw and poll and recognizing when that happens! Of course, easier said than done...

    I’m also amazed at how little attention it gets from instructors and clinicians. Only one of my H/J trainers ever touched on it briefly, and that was after the fact to tell me I had already developed ‘feel’ (of course I didn’t know what on earth he was talking about!) and I’ve been to tons of dressage clinics and never heard it mentioned once, although it is the keystone of all good dressage (and riding in general,) and without it all of the other elements quickly fall into disarray... so kudos to john lyons for spending the time on it.

    One of the techniques I’ve been working with and using to help students reward that 'give' is a version of baucher’s ‘fixed hand’ (which sounds terrible, but isn’t.) it was so important to his later training methods that his dying words to one of his students were about it. it just means that, instead of pulling the rein backward one establishes a contact, closes the hand and keeps it stationary momentarily so that when the horse gives he releases himself instantly, and the rider feels the give immediately and s/he can soften the hand. I’ve been having a lot of success with it and when I have taught it, students seem to feel the difference immediately. Anyway, I think it’s a good exercise for developing feel.

    It was a great observation you made about some of the other riders in the clinic who didn’t see the point. I think that’s also part of the difficulty in teaching feel, because most people seem to get by just fine even if they don’t have it (with bigger bits, draw reins, etc. I mean, look at the horses winning in international dressage competitions...) so they don’t understand why it’s needed, what it does and how to get it. they don’t see the reward of putting the time and patience in to learn something they don’t understand or see the purpose of.... I’d love to see more trainers put an emphasis here.

    anyway, thanks for this post. sorry i rambled on and on, but this is a great discussion :-)

  11. ugh. that feel. When I first started riding my mare by myself, the trainer kept telling me I wasn't releasing soon enough. I was having a darned time getting that "feel." I was told some get it right away, some don't have to really work. I think I'm in the latter, but I think I'm somewhat getting it as time passes.

    And your scenery is so picture perfect!

  12. What a cold view you have. Yes those icicles look terrible chilly and dangerous!! Yikes!!!

    And feel is a wonderful thing. I had a great hunt seat trainer that taught that really well. It's a beautiful thing to work with your hose and not against it.

  13. Tracey, yes, I know that frustration. I have a young horse here that is doing the same. The softening is all that he is capable of at the moment. As he builds trust that it's OK to soften in my presence, he will be able to give more.

    Waiting for him is important to building that trust but all the time my mind is racing with all the things I want to do with this horse. So while he's working on trust, I'm working on learning more patience. LOL

    Midlife Mom, I, too, was blessed with soft hands. Learning what that meant took me a while but I was grateful I had them.

    Once I learned how to utilize that feel, then my riding improved quickly.

    kwdhorses, I have never seen my place look more beautiful.....and it's never been more work to care for horses.

    The only thing that would make those pictures better would be my horses out there as part of the scene. Unfortunately it's just too darn icy underneath and it's not safe. But OH how I would love to see THAT picture!

    Laura, as you get better with that feel, my guess is your horse will be able to relax. The two do really go hand in hand for many horses.

    I have seen a lot of people not understanding at clinics over the years. I think many of those people are the ones who think they now most everything they need to know so aren't really open to new things.

    Nuzzling Muzzles, sorry to hear you are't feeling well. Hope you get better soon.

    Andi Narvaez, thanks for stopping by.

    Thanks for bringing up the USEF horse of the year awards. I've voted already but meant to mention them here. There have been Arabians in that group the last couple of years. That's pretty cool!

    There were also two Arabian trainers in the group for the Equestrian of the year award. I happen to know both of those men. It will interesting to see how the voting goes.

    DJ, Thanks, I'm really enjoying the new camera for this kind of stuff. Now if I can figure out my horse pics I'll be in great shape.

    Grey Horse Matters, I did notice your presence at jme's blog....for that matter I see it on lots of blogs I read. You get around girl!

    Those people who don't get it are frustrating for me. Not that they don't get the feel, but that they don't get why they might need it. Wanting people to open their minds to new information to make things better for the horse is part of my motivation in blogging. It breaks my heart when I see a horse being abused by a "know it all" type because I know that horse has little hope of the rider learning something better.

    jme, I couldn't resist going off on this subject. There is just so darn much to say. My mind is still racing a zillion directions. LOL

    I guess it doesn't surprise me how many instructors don't devote time to feel. There are so many "successful" trainers out there who really aren't concerned about the overall welfare of the horse. Their concern is restricted to what makes them more successful. They take care of the horse in the ways that meet their goals and don't bother with the sad for those horses. That's why I prefer to train my own horses. Then I don't have to worry about those kinds of things. But I certainly had to learn that lesson the hard way and it took a lot to fix what those trainers did to my poor horses.

    I'm not familiar with baucher, other than a specific bit but I am aware of fixed hand. I find working with my young horses that sometimes that it works with particular horses to tie them around (thus creating that fixed hand) for them to understand the reward and release better. For some reason removing the element of the human hand and leaving the horse to deal with himself allows them to "get" the idea of giving better. I think it must simplify things in the horse's mind so they process what seemed threatening in the hands of a human on their back. (an here in lies another whole discussion! LOL)

    I'm with you about the bigger bits, draw reins etc. Not that there are particular horses who benefit from the use of such aids, but in most cases I think they are used to make up for limitations in the riders understanding.

    As I said to Arlene above, I find those people who don't get it frustrating. And I'm even more frustrated by trainers who are fixed on their own success instead of what is best for the horse. However, I am aware that this whole thing is all part of the human condition. We are not perfect, nor will we ever be.

    I dont' know what it's going to take to educate those kinds of trainers and/or riders or if they can be. Unfortunately the trainers who are content with their process to achieve success at the expense of the horse are in the majority. As long as that is the case, there will continue to be lots of trainers not teaching or focusing on the very things we are discussing.

    It is a great discussion. Hopefully we can keep it going and maybe touch some people in the process.

    ezra_pandora, In my opinon,the important part isn't that you get it all at once or the time it takes, it's that you care whether you do or don's and keep working at it. That is what makes things better for the horse. So hang in there, you're doing a great job.

  14. The farm looks beautiful!

    As for the feel, I notice that the riders with the least amount of feel complain the most when trying to achieve it!

    If the participants at the JL clinic would have stopped complaining and used that energy quietly trying to feel, they would have fared much better. You can't learn to feel over the noise of complaints!

  15. Lovely photos MiKael, I am glad you are getting to know your camera, practise is the only way to go and ask questions about results good or bad.

    There are so many places I want to go and visit and read on the net and I am just not finding the time but my mood and mental situation is improving well so I am hoping I am on the mend and will be able to start structuring my life better soon.

    I like this light contact style of riding so would love to read more.

  16. Andi and Mikael,

    I saw his mention here so I thought I would share.

    I was just on Facebook and discovered Adams Fire's fan page. You should join. I wonder if other horses have one of these. It's pretty neat.

    Check it out here: