Category Archives: 2007 Articles

The Green Horse – Quality in the Trot

Pace and rhythm

In my last article Aug/07 I worked on the transition from walk to trot for the first time under saddle. Now that the horse is prepared to trot when cued I will start to spend more time developing a quality trot. By Quality I mean that the movement is forward and has rhythm, the horse maintains a calm attitude and is continuing to listen and try to be as correct as he can. For a rider that is used to riding a well schooled horse the quality will not be comparable for a while. There are still many things that will affect the quality of a green horse’s movement.
Many green horses are relatively young, therefore physically immature. That immaturity can result in uncoordinated movement that will improve with age.

Mental maturity will also affect quality. A young horse will not have an established work ethic, and have a limited attention span. He can only concentrate for so long before the work gets to be too much for him to comfortably continue. The education of a young horse can be intense in the amount of information that he has to absorb. Too much work can cause conflict in the sense that as they tire they lose concentration and will forget to respond appropriately to a cue or a correction or they can simply find evading easier than the work. In a nut shell quality is not all about the length or suspension of the stride.

The fundamental pieces of training are mostly in place and now we just assemble those pieces in different order to achieve different goals. Forward must come first, this is where I want to work on pace and rhythm. Pace is relative to the speed we are going and rhythm is relative to balance. If the pace changes erratically there is no rhythm to the movement therefore imbalance.
I will keep the horse on the rail to help with straightness and I want to be able to control and adjust his pace. Initially I want him to trot out until he is comfortable before I adjust anything. In the early days of developing the trot there will much imbalance from both horse and rider. I just want him to trot without trying to stop. I am keeping hardly any contact so I don’t contain the forward motion and I will post the trot to try and keep it going without much leg. When the horse has established a pace that is comfortable for him to maintain I will then take a little more contact and ask him to keep going forward.
It is likely that I will lose the pace when I take contact with the bit. I will try to just send him on without changing the amount of contact. This is when the work in hand done previously to teach him how to accept contact should start to pay off. He has learned to move forward with contact but because I am now riding him when I ask it might take some time for him to accept both leg and hand at the same time.

When I am working on the ground or in the saddle I try to cue the horse as correctly as I can for that particular movement. I want to prepare the horse to be as correct as he can be. I will then correct the part if any, of what I have asked for that didn’t work as well as I would have liked. When I correct one thing I expect something else to stop working as a result. I just keep working on the worst part until he can put it all together. That could take some time though so I must remember not to get too picky. He is obviously not so comfortable with what I am asking or he would get it right every time I ask. I must have a realistic understanding of what he can and can not do for me today. The specific pieces of pace and rhythm are forward and contact.

When he has accepted the contact from the bit and is still moving forward with a decent pace I will start to work on adjusting his pace within the trot. I want to encourage him to lengthen his stride and speed up or shorten his stride and slow down.
To lengthen I will ask him to reach down and lower his head and neck and go long and low. I will use my seat to push him and I will use my leg sparingly to support the aid from my seat. I do not want him racing, if he keeps building speed he will be more off balance and he could scare himself or he could start to canter. I want a comfortable forward trot to help improve balance.

To shorten his stride I will have my elbows touching my side and then arch my back and lift my shoulders. This will also cause my hands to lift slightly and should elevate his neck. It will likely not get much of a response initially but I don’t want to start pulling on him. I can increase the pressure on the bit a little but I will try just to wait until he responds. I might only get a tiny decrease in his pace but it is enough that he responds at all. I will then release and ride forward. If he breaks into a walk I will just pick up the trot again.

Rein length is an important factor. If I have too much contact (rein too short) I will be containing the movement or pulling to slow him down. If I have too little contact (rein too long) I can not ask him effectively to accept contact and raise and lower his and neck.
The contact is only to communicate with him through the bit. It is not to pull and balance on.
Although the horse has a basic understanding of what I am asking him to do he will often find it difficult. He now has to be able to put all the things he has learned to use and thinking on the job is much more difficult than learning the theory behind the task. I allow time for him to think and I will only work on one thing for a few minutes before going back to something he better understands. I want to get in, make my point and get out. Each time I come back to it he should be more capable of understanding. If I keep asking him to repeat the maneuver over and over again he will quickly get bored.

Adjusting pace is a valuable tool that will develop softer transitions and help improve balance. It also leads to developing and maintaining awareness of your horse and from your horse. You must pay attention to him to notice small changes in pace and he must pay attention to your subtle aids to get release. When teaching this concept it is important to remember not to do too much to make the change happen. You must let it happen.
© 2007 Will Clinging

The green horse- from walk to trot

All of the things that I have written about in the past months have been taught at the walk. Before I ask a horse to trot or canter under saddle for the first time I like to make sure that all the fundamental pieces of the puzzle are in place. Once the horse starts trotting the schooling proper starts. Although he is still green he is usually ready for more correctness in what and how he performs. Remember he will be green for months or years to come depending on your definition of “green” but being a school master is still a long way off.

In preparation to transition to trot and eventually canter the horse should be comfortable with all equipment from saddle and bridle to side reins and the whip in my hand. The horse should understand the work in hand which introduced the concept of moving forward and accepting contact from the bit at the same time. I should be able to isolate the horses hind feet from his front feet and have him do a turn on the haunches and turn on the fore hand while still in hand. He should understand the contact from the bit and soften and lower his head when I apply pressure to the reins. I should be able to have him stand quietly and patiently while I mount from the ground or from a fence or mounting block. I should have a relaxed and forward walk. I should be able to establish a soft inside bend with a direct rein and at least a few strides of counter bend on the rail.
The days, weeks and months spent teaching these skills is time well spent because my horse now has most of the skills he will need to advance into higher level movement in any discipline.

When specifically asking for trot for the first time I want to be careful to prepare my horse to trot comfortably. Depending on his balance and mine, it could scare him if I chase him into it. I want him to offer it to me. To get him to do this I will encourage him to walk with as much effort as he can. When he increases the tempo of his walk I will let him slow down again. I will repeat this until there is an obvious increase and decrease in the energy he is using in the walk. Then when I have him as forward as I can I will start a trot motion with my body and hope that he follows me. I will use a little leg but not so much that he jumps into trot. The first time I do this all I might get is his head to come up and him to feel a little hectic. And back to slow walk. I will repeat each time asking for a little more forward even if it is hectic, I will also release all or any contact I may have with the bit so he does not feel trapped. Eventually he should take a step in trot, and then I will ride him at trot until he wants to stop trotting. I won’t worry about where he goes only that he goes. He will likely only take a few trot steps before breaking into a walk again. I won’t ask him to pick up the trot again right away. I want him to know that he can start trotting with me on his back and that he can stop trotting without getting scared. Each time I ask I will want only a few steps more than the last time and only when the transition to trot is smooth and comfortable will I ask him to maintain it longer than he wants to.

I won’t try to teach him anything at the trot until I can get him to maintain it comfortably. If the trot lacks rhythm I want him to find his own balance in trot before I start correcting him for anything. Without rhythm and balance I will just concentrate on the quality of the forward movement without too much contact. I will put him on the rail and just let him find his own pace. If I have to keep kicking him to keep him trotting I have already done too much trotting for the day and will end the lesson there. It is his responsibility to maintain it on his own once he understands what I want. I will encourage him to maintain it but if he will not trot for more than a few strides on his own he may not be ready to trot yet. If this is the case I will do most of my lesson at walk and only ask for a very small amount of trotting each day to build his confidence. A rule of thumb that I use to assess readiness to move up a gait whether from walk to trot or trot to canter, is that If I have to push him into it he is not ready. By “push him into it” I mean that if I have to kick him repeatedly or use a whip or spur with more than a light touch. If too much pressure is used the transition will likely be frightening to the horse and it will affect his balance and his confidence. With out balance and confidence all I have is a scared, off balance horse that can be overwhelmed and unpredictable. The faster they go the faster things can go wrong. The more established everything is at the walk the easier the transition to trot will be. Without a quality walk there is little chance for quality trot.

If I am working on improving the trot and it starts to get too quick or off balance I want to slow down and not allow things to continue to get worse. If my horse is building speed and starts to canter I will just try to stay with him and ride the canter without trying to slow him down too quickly. Once he has made the commitment to change gaits correcting him too quickly will only upset him so I will ride it out for a few strides then ask him to slow down in a relaxed manor. If he is constantly building speed in an uncomfortable manor it could be another indicator that there is no confidence in that gait and I will keep him at a slower speed for a while. If I can control the pace within the gait then he is ready to progress. In a very green horse it is the transitions up and down that are more important than how long he maintains the gait, especially in trot and canter. I think at this level it is more important to improve the understanding and confidence in the transition than building fitness. He will be fit soon enough. Each day I will ask for progressively more trot work until the quality in the trot indicates that he is ready for canter. Depending on the age and maturity of the horse both mental and physical it could be months before I try to teach a horse to canter. Asking too soon could be counterproductive if the horse does not have the strength and coordination to canter comfortably.
© 2007 Will Clinging

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