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Riding the green horse: counter bending

The last article I wrote was focused on basic bending. Lateral suppleness is very important in a schooled horse. It can allow us to position the horse’s feet where we need them through bending and straightening the body. This flexibility helps improve balance, and will help get the horse soft and round and connected. Being able to comfortably bend the green horse will lead to improved performance but at this stage it is still about safety and control.

Keeping an inside bend in a green horse helps develop steering with a direct rein. It helps keep the horses head down and encourages him to yield to bit pressure. It also helps me keep a physical advantage in case things get a bit more exciting than expected. With my horse bent I can keep him in a small circle until things calm down. It is only when my horse has too much speed that turning my horse into a small circle is not a good idea. If the horse has too much momentum bending him too much into a small circle could cause him to lose his balance to the point he could fall over with me on him. This is where counter bending can be valuable.

Counter bending means bending my horse towards the rail rather than into the middle of the ring. As training progresses counter bending is a valuable tool that can help a horse accept an indirect rein and will lead to things like shoulder in and side passing. At this point it is to help build lateral flexibility and regain control at speed. If my horse gets too fast and gets scared, bending him into the rail will help him from running away with me. The rail acts as a brake by slightly blocking forward movement because the rail is always in front of the horse. That does not mean that he won’t decide to very quickly change directions on me. I try to keep him facing the rail by changing reins if he changes directions.

To teach my horse to counter bend it begins the same as basic bending in a circle. He needs to respond to a direct rein and bend in that direction. I will use my inside leg to help encourage the bend if he resists the rein aid. During the counter bend I will define inside rein and leg as the aids on the inside of the way the horse is bent not the inside or outside of the circle he is traveling on.

I want him to be able to walk a circle while bending to the left without stopping and without changing directions or drifting into the middle of the ring. To do this I will start by riding towards the rail on a 45 degree angle facing the direction I want to travel. I will shorten my inside rein (left hand) and bump with my inside leg and ask him to bend towards the rail. I need to keep enough contact in my outside rein (right hand) to make sure that he does not change directions towards the rail. I also need to keep enough leg on to keep him forward. If he stops when I bend him I will send him forward right away and ask again for the bend. I play with the amount of bend necessary, if I have too much bend he will try to turn left and he will lose his forward motion. Not enough bend and he will just be walking in a circle. I sometimes over bend him until I feel him start a turn on the forehand and then release and send him forward before he can change directions.

I will use my each hand to support the other hand, left rein to initiate the bend and right rein to prevent a change of direction and then left rein so he does not lose the bend and if he can take a step or two I will release and let him walk forward. I will continue to ask and release until I can get several comfortable steps, at that point I will change directions and repeat the whole process. It can sometimes take several days for them to get comfortable counter bending.

If I have a horse that finds it very difficult I will get off and go back to the work in hand that I have done with him in the past. I will work him through a few large turns on the forehand in each direction and then get back on and try again.

If my horse continues to have a lot of difficulty I will leave it and try again tomorrow. I do not want frustration to set in so I will take what he can give me if anything and be satisfied with that. I will maybe go back and work on basic bending and make sure that he is comfortable changing directions with a direct rein. There can sometimes just be too much going through the horses mind and he could be misinterpreting what I was asking him for. I want to make sure that I leave him with a clear understanding of the basic aids before I ask him to counter bend again. I will also evaluate whether I have been rushing the horse into learning more that he can clearly understand in one day. It is easy to do especially that the things I am teaching are getting more complicated.

As the training progresses for the green horse the expectations that we have for our horse to perform can become exponentially more difficult from day to day. It is more important to continue to encourage effort than it is to demand correctness. The horse is still in a fragile stage of his training. His knowledge has increased but as the work load increases the stress on him mentally is still enough to set him back considerably. I always try to keep in mind how much he is already dealing with and try to proceed with caution when asking for something new. Working this way helps the horse deal with a new challenge that he may or may not want to perform, if he deals with the challenges of training with confidence he will learn that he can deal with things that he does not entirely understand. We are also expecting him to respond to our aids more quickly so he has less time to think before he commits himself, this can lead to him making more mistakes. As I ask for more performance I always try to allow more time for him to try to be correct. I believe that as long as he has the confidence in himself to try to do what I ask he will face every new challenge with confidence.
© 2007 Will Clinging

The green horse: basic bending

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

The green horse, building basic skills

Now that I have a few rides on my horse the lessons get a bit easier to teach. The horse has already dealt with many different forms of stress in the first few weeks of the training process. These multiple forms of stress like the saddle, bridle, rider, etc are going to be constants in his riding career. The process I described in previous articles will help give the horse the skills he needs to deal with more and different forms of stress as his training progresses. The major stresses for him now will not come from new things like equipment and rider. The newness of having equipment and carrying a rider has become more routine therefore less stressful. The stress will now come from various combinations of physical pressure from the equipment and the rider as we ask for some specific movement or maneuver. He will not worry about me as a rider but he will worry about what I, as his rider, am asking him to do.

There will be a great deal of confusion on his part, he needs to figure out what form of pressure I am using and what it means and then how he should respond to it. I need to figure out how to manipulate his body into performing a maneuver without him really understanding it in order to show him where to look for release. This can be a slow and frustrating process, and it is important to remember that it is more important to teach slowly and allow the horse to learn with confidence than it is to actually accomplish the maneuver I am asking for. Correctness is inevitable when the horse can learn comfortably and confidently.

He is at the point where I can ride him without him worrying too much about me but I also haven’t asked him to do much for me while riding. Each ride will now become a bit more challenging as I ask him to respond to different aids in a specific way. I want to make sure that I do not ask for too many different things in any one lesson. I prioritize what the horse needs to know to keep me safe and him out of trouble. For example if I am riding a horse that is very forward that horse is likely to build too much speed and scare himself so he needs to know how to slow down and stop. Or a horse that is not inclined to go forward needs to become more comfortable moving his feet so teaching him to stop at this point would be counterproductive.

Steering is generally more important than brakes, if I can steer I can turn him into the fence and the fence can stop him. When I start steering I want to make it as simple as possible, direct reining, pull right = turn right, pull left = turn left. This also keeps me from pulling on his mouth with both hands, which could still scare him. If I do want him to stop I will turn him into a smaller circle or into the fence until he stops his feet.

The few rides that I have had on this horse I have basically just been a passenger. I let the horse decide where he went and I gave him a cue after he was already committed to going that way anyway. Now when he wants to turn left I will ask him to go to the right. If he wants to stop I will say go, I will challenge any decision he makes and ask him to comply with my request. If he significantly complains about my request I will not cause so much conflict that he starts to fight with me and I will let him go the way he needs to. The next time I ask him to do the same thing I will try to prepare him better so he can perform what I ask. For example if we are circling to the right on the rail it would be easier for me to steer right away from the rail than left into the rail. So initially I will ask him to go right. As he gets more confident steering in a specific direction I will ask him to steer into the rail. The preparation for this is to be several feet away from the fence so he actually has room to turn. If I am too close to the fence He will have a difficult time making the turn. I don’t want to set him up to fail so if I don’t think he can do what I ask I will not ask. Once I do ask I would like him to feel good about trying to work with me so he may need some time to figure out what I want. I’m watching for him to make a commitment, either the commitment to try or the commitment to escape. If I see no commitment he is thinking so I let him think until he makes up his mind. If he tries then I will release to reward, if he is resisting to the point that he needs to escape I am probably asking too much of him and I will try to back off before he loses it. Feel and timing are important factors that will either keep me safe or get me hurt so I am always aware of how and what I am asking for. Knowing when to hold on and wait or when to give in is an important skill that can sometimes be painful to learn.

A few lessons on steering and he will become much more comfortable and predictable to control. Often during the steering lessons he will develop brakes and a gas pedal. Partly this is because I am less worried about trouble and I start to ride him in a more relaxed way. This means that although I am specifically working on steering I will probably be asking him to stop and go without really focusing on it. These will be specific lessons later on so he can improve those basic skills.

I am still trying to keep lessons short and not too stressful with each lesson getting slightly more challenging for the horse. By that I mean I will want quicker responses, more movement, and he will have to work for longer periods of time. The pressure I am using should decrease as his skills develop. My goal is to start light and work on getting lighter. Speed and correctness are not yet important. Every day he should become slightly more responsive and a little more correct.
© 2007 Will Clinging

the second Ride

Since June I have been writing about the process I use to get a young horses started for under saddle work. This process is to help a horse learn how to accept and deal with stressful situations. Now I am at the second ride and all that work will start paying off. If everything has gone as planned I am not really worried about him being afraid to let me get on and off him. When he is no longer worried about me as a rider we are ready to move on to the next stage of training. The horse is officially started and now he is a “green horse”. For those of you that have ridden green horses before you will agree with me that they are not like riding a “broke” or “schooled” horse. There are different stages of “green” as well and this horse is as green as it gets. He does not steer, or stop; he has no lateral movement, and almost no forward movement. He does not know what a leg cue is or an aid from my seat or even a rein aid. There is still a degree of caution and discretion that is essential to continue progressing is a safe confidant manor.

To proceed from this point I am careful to continue to prepare my horse as best I can before I try to teach any particular exercise or movement. I want to build on the fundamentals that the horse already has. I want to make sure I do not confuse him any more that necessary and help him out when he is not able to overcome his confusion.
I try to remember that when he responds to something I do he is responding the way he “thinks” I want him to. If he is not correct I will help him in any way I can until he is more correct. Effort is everything at this point, and he will be going through a period where he will mix up the lessons he already knows. This is when his practical theory will become on the job training. He has a basic understanding of steering and stopping and moving forward etc from the ground but he will have less time to think before he acts and therefore he will be wrong a lot of the time. It will take a little time for him to adapt what he already knows into the new situation of being ridden. It is important that I do not ask too much and then over correct him. This will hurt his confidence and cause him to become frustrated and this is what I really want to avoid. This frustration will put him too close to the edge of unpredictability where he could get stressed enough to need to remove himself from the situation. This could mean that I have just been involuntarily removed from the saddle.

What I try to do is keep things as simple as I can. I try to separate my aids as much as possible. I am either using legs or hands but not legs and hands at the same time. If I am using my hands I am using one hand or the other but not both hands at the same time. Separation of aids allows him to concentrate on one thing at a time. As his confidence grows then I can combine my aids or use supporting aids with much less confusion on his part.

The first thing I need is forward movement. I will gently bump him with both legs until he moves his feet. I am not kicking him just a rhythmical bump with my calves. Any movement and I will stop bumping and give him a pet. If he has grown roots and will not move his feet I will shorten one rein and fix it and my hand on my leg causing him to bend his neck. I want my hand fixed in one place so I do not bump his mouth. I will hold him in this position, not pulling on him until he moves his feet. I will then release, pet him and repeat until he will take a few more steps each time. If he pulls on the rein to straighten his neck I don’t want to get into a tug of war I will just hold and wait. Eventually his neck will get tired and he will move his feet. If I have to bend him to move him when he stops moving I will alternate between my legs and bending him to try to help him respond to a leg cue. I don’t want him to over react so slow and quiet movement is all I want. Once he starts moving I don’t care where he goes. I will generally have one rein slightly shorter than the other so I am guiding him in a general direction but if he decides he wants to go the other way I will not argue with him. I don’t want any conflict so if he wants to go straight I will ask to go straight; if he wants to go left then I will ask him to go left. If he stops I will say whoa and pet him. I will only ride for a few minutes before I get off. I will have several of these short rides during a session and when things are going well I will get off and call it a good day. I will only ask him to walk and not to trot or canter. If he offers to trot or canter then I will go with what he is doing and not try to stop him. When the walk is forward and comfortable I will encourage him to speed up but I try to listen to him judging how comfortable he is at a lower speed before I ask for a faster one. As a rule if I can encourage him faster and he is willing to speed up then he is ready. If I have to push him to speed up he is not ready and I will try again another time or another day. Discretion is the better part of valor.
© 2007 Will Clinging

The first ride

The first ride I put on any un started horse is likely the most important ride of his life. It will set the stage for his future as a saddle horse. If I screw it up I could turn an honest young horse with the potential to be a wonderful partner into an unreliable, dangerous problem horse. The first ride itself will not entirely accomplish this but it will start a pattern of behavior. If I scare the horse on his first ride he could become violent in his effort to save himself. Bucking, rearing or bolting are instincts that can very quickly take control of any horse and are a very real wreck waiting to happen. If something like this does happen it will cause the horse to anticipate the same thing happening the next time I get on. This anticipation will cause him to become instinctively defensive faster each time he feels stressed. Eventually this anticipation leads to habit. The horse may get over the fear but has learned that explosive behavior is expected and therefore form a pattern. The horse will think “you expect me to blow up so I won’t disappoint you and I will blow up”.

On the other hand if the ride is short and quiet and comfortable then the reverse is true. He can learn that he does not need to be afraid. If he is not afraid there is no need to become defensive so he will not buck or bolt. He will learn that I am there to comfort him not to scare him and he will let me quietly get off. The horse can then anticipate the next ride to be just as comfortable and rewarding. I, as a rider, will also get more comfortable with the idea of getting back on with no fear of getting hurt. The confidence of horse and rider are increasing together and it won’t be long until the horse has no fear of a rider and I can ask more and more of him.

These two scenarios are something I keep myself aware of when I am riding or about to ride a young horse. If I am aware of what I am asking and how the horse is responding then I can adjust or end my session so it was successful. The most difficult thing about riding young horses is estimating how much they will tolerate. I try to err on the side of caution and ask less than I think he can cope with. Occasionally I will misjudge this and the horse will show signs of increased stress. That is my warning to either back off or get put off. I can’t just get off when he becomes afraid or I will teach the horse to become afraid in order to have me get off, but I can reduce the intensity of whatever I am doing to keep him from becoming overwhelmed by what I am doing. It is constant give and take.

The articles I have written for the past months have described the process to teach a horse the necessary skills to deal with being ridden. Although it has taken months to write about the time span can be from a few days to a few weeks depending on the horse. I like to teach things slowly to ensure the horse has learned each lesson. The better each lesson is understood the easier my horse will learn and accept the next lesson.

The horse is ready to be ridden; I have already sat on the horse while holding on to the fence. He accepts and understands what bit pressure is and how to yield to it. He is not afraid of the saddle and the stirrups bouncing so my legs shouldn’t scare him. He has accepted my authority and started to trust me and his confidence in me and himself are developing through understanding and awareness of expectations that have already been established. At this point I will basically just get on. And then I will get off again.

I prefer to mount for the first time from the ground even though he will park at the fence for me. This is because at the fence I have not allowed him to walk off. He expects to have to stand still and I have corrected him for not standing still. I do not want to cause conflict on the first ride. On subsequent rides the fence or mounting block will be a non issue when it comes to mounting and then walking off when asked. But when I get on the first few times I want him to know he can move. This is my personal preference and if you have a horse that you will have difficulty getting on from the ground then mount from the fence or mounting block.

When I am getting ready to mount I will be on the horses left side, my left rein will be shorter than the right rein. If he walks off before I am on, slightly pulling on the shorter left rein will turn him a small circle around me. I do not want to proceed if he is walking away. When he is standing quietly I will put the toe of my left foot in the stirrup I don’t want my whole foot in the stirrup in case he walks off before I am ready I don’t want to get hung up. I will then stand up in the stirrup and lean over the saddle. I will pet and talk to him to let him know I am there and that I am not hurting him. I will then step down and repeat this a few times

If he walks off I will hold on for a moment to evaluate the level of stress he is feeling. If he keeps walking or trots a little I will hang on and try to stay balanced keeping my left rein taut so he stays in the circle. When he stops I quickly step down to reward him for stopping. If he becomes explosive I will step down immediately and try to evaluate what went wrong before I get back up. It was likely just the surprise of him moving with the extra weight putting him off balance or him seeing my legs sticking out from his side and not knowing what to do. I will calm him down and try again.

I am looking for one of two things; either he walk off quietly and then stops by himself or he stands patiently in a semi relaxed state. If he does one or both of these things while I am leaning over him I have a pretty good idea that his response will be the same when I sit on him so I will then swing my leg over and sit quietly on him. I will just pet him and then step off again.

I will get on and off this way several times each time paying attention to how well he is handling things. If he is relaxing I will then ask him to walk in small circle. When he stops I will get off, remount and repeat. I can then change the direction of the circle and get off and then repeat. When I have done this a few times I will put him away and consider it a successful first ride.

If he is still having a hard time with me getting on and off I will end the lesson at that point. I am just planting seeds and they will need time to germinate. If he is not comfortable with me getting on he won’t be more comfortable if I ask for more from him.

The rule of thumb that I use to help me decide when to quit is this. When I want to try “just one more thing” I stop. I will leave that “one more thing” for tomorrow.
© 2007 Will Clinging