In last month’s article I wrote about developing basic steering skills. The early rides I put on a horse my only real concern is how well the horse deals with all the stress I have piled onto him. Green horses do not always need an excuse to get upset. I might think I am doing everything right and that he has no reason to misbehave but he is allowed to disagree. At this point in his training he should start to respond predictably to the longing and work in hand that I continue to do before every ride. I want to do less ground work every day but I will still do some to make sure he is in a good frame of mind. I also use it to help him mentally prepare himself for work, because that is what the riding is becoming. Remember the first few rides were not very demanding physically but stressful mentally. Now the riding is becoming both mentally and physically taxing. His understanding of what I want when I pick up the reins or bump him with my leg is minimal. Physically his balance has been upset because of me as a rider and because of the position I want him to be in so he can perform the movement I am asking for. There are now compounding factors that could still lead to disaster. My point is that just because he has taken things well to this point does not necessarily mean that he is ready to be pushed into performing correctly and or quickly. I do need to start to ride correctly and try to prepare him to be correct but effort to “try to be correct” is all that matters.
When I start my ride after preparing him from the ground I want to continue to think about what he needs to know. He has basic steering, he will walk forward and that is about it. Many of his skills will start to develop at the same time just because of the way we ride. We need to improve his steering, we need to be able to control the speed he travels, he needs to develop some lateral flexibility etc. Essentially we have just scratched the surface of what he needs to learn to be considered a schooled horse.
I like to start the lateral work very early in the training under saddle. I want him to bend and counter bend. I will define a “bend” as a bend facing the inside of the arena and “counter bend” as a bend facing to the outside. The bending helps me maintain a physical advantage. If he does get scared or spooked by something I can keep or regain control more easily if he is bent. It also helps develop the lateral flexibility that he will need later on to be ridden straight. The counter bending is my emergency brake; if he starts building speed that I can not control if I bend him into the rail the rail will block some of his forward movement. When he reaches a corner generally he will stop. If he decides just to run the other way once we reach the corner I will continue to counter bend him to let the fence slow him until he stops facing the fence. Later on counter bending leads to side passing, leg yielding, shoulder in etc. The bending exercises are lateral work in its most basic form.
To teach my horse to bend I will fall back on the longing that I have done. The way that I longe my horses they learn not to lean or pull on the contact from the longe line. I explain this method in the October 2006 issue of this magazine. The longing has encouraged the horse to accept contact from the bit, while bending slightly vertically and laterally. Basically when there is contact he should bend down and in. What I do is get a slight bend to the left and then I will fix my hand on my upper thigh. My outside rein is not active at this time so I will put my right hand on his withers to keep it out of play. The inside rein is only to establish contact and to set the size of the circle he should walk on. I will try to keep the horse moving forward walking in a circle to the left. He should just follow his nose but likely he won’t. I expect the horse to bulge his shoulder and walk to the right, he will try to straighten his neck and I will try not to let him do this but I do not want to pull on his mouth either. I must keep my hand fixed on my thigh until he figures out that he can walk forward to the left. When he does try to take the bend out of his body I will add a little inside leg, bumping with my calf, not my heel and not too hard until he bends slightly. The bend will only last a second or two and so the process repeats itself, my left hand is still fixed on my leg. It is important not to be pulling on his mouth and bumping him with my leg at the same time, keeping my hand fixed allows me to separate my aids so I do not confuse him. When he is responding to the leg and bending slightly I will release him and repeat on the other rein.
When he understands consistently that my inside rein and inside leg mean to bend his body I will repeat the same exercise with my hand no longer fixed. I want to keep my inside hand up and just to the side of his withers, not out by my knee or back at my hip. When I change directions I will lower one hand and raise the other and change supporting legs. This will continue to improve both bending and steering. I teach the counter bend in a slightly different way. That will be the next thing I will work on but not today.
© 2007 Will Clinging