Give him his head. You know what it means in the horse racing world and what it means in the human world. I’m talking about a new, more literal, definition.
First, to catch up, you were concerned that your horse wasn’t forward. Because you know pain is almost always the reason, you had your vet out. If you’re certain your horse is sound, but you think he’s lazy, then it might be your own backside. Are you sure? That brings us to what your horse wanted me to say in the first place. It’s your elbows.
Will you be my demo horse? People always make the best demo horses because we aren’t as stoic as the real thing. I’m just going to stand next to you and hold onto your ear. Hands in your pockets, please, and trot out! Go! Cluck-cluck. Not really pushing from behind, are you? Cluck-cluck. Not much over-step, old girl. Pick up the pace. Cluck, cluck, kick. Can-ter! Can-ter! (It could be worse, you could be carrying me on your back and I could have my hand in your mouth.)
Does being my demo horse make you want to pull away. Counter-bend is very bad, so I’ll pull your ear a bit closer, like an inside rein. And now you toss your head? I’ll need to tighten my grip while pulling your ear then. With your shoulders locked in your pockets and your neck braced against me, why aren’t you forward? Enough anxiety to want to run away, why don’t you just relax? Because the more tense you get, the more I must hold tight. It’s human nature. You need to relax that poll. Maybe if I supple you with my inside rein.
Pull, twist, cluck, resist.
Soul-killing to be my demo horse? Don’t stop riding; fix your hands. And by that, I mean your elbows. Not a problem for you because you ride western? If you have rope reins and slobber straps, the weight they add to the bit means continual contact, regardless of your hands. If you ride on a slack rein, but then grab or correct, that’s not more gentle to threaten. Do you ride in a rope halter? It’s no accident those knots in the noseband are positioned over nerve bundles on your horse’s face. Is your horse’s head still because of a leverage bit? That just makes your hands even louder. Really, it’s your hands.
Here is the crazy part; if you have a problem with your hands, it’s really your seat. When a horse is moving freely forward, gliding in a fluid forward gait, his poll is relaxed, his head in a naturally good position, and his balance restored. Horses were designed to move, and over-controlling hands restrict the natural movement. It alters his balance back to front, tail to nose. You feel that, once you think bigger than me pinching your ear, right? You can feel your feet uncertain on the ground.
Now, dear demo horse, I’ll let go of your ear. Pull your hands out of your pockets. Feel your spine gently compensate for each weight shift of a step. Feel yourself naturally breathe within the stride, as your ribs massage your lungs. Is your poll softer? Let the rhythm of the stride make you stronger, feel the glide of perpetual motion. Effortless, more ground covered with less energy. Swing your arms, body moving in balance. Autonomy, while dancing with another individual.
Give him his head. Being fussy doesn’t mean he’ll run off, he needs to get air into his lungs and blood to his brain, he needs to use his poll. Literally, let him hold his own head, give him the autonomy to find his own balance. You know it’s true because when he runs in the pasture, his head position is perfect. Trying to recreate that under saddle must be done by his free movement, too. Balance can’t be gimicked with tack or hand control. It’s all in his push from his hind, and the rider staying out of the way.
Do you ever feel like you have to think of a million things at once in the saddle? Your horse has a solution. “Just think of one thing at a time.” He says, “You’re welcome.”
Start here: Warm your horse up on a neck ring. If you ride on a long rein, it’s not enough, your horse will tell you. A rein uses leverage on a weak area and a neck ring ignores the face entirely and asks the shoulder to move. Walk on, his head totally free to balance himself, warming up muscles with just one directive. One thing at a time. Just forward. Too close to the rail? Forward. Stuck in a corner or at the mounting block? Forward. Spaced-out rider? Forward and breathe.
When time has passed and you are both warmed up from walking forward without restriction and reversing and arcing in both directions, pick up your reins to a length where the neck ring connects with his shoulder before the bit does in his mouth.
We aren’t correcting anything right now, just feeling. Ride for five minutes with your elbows pressed to your waist. Look at his poll as you actually feel the grip of your upper arms on your side. What happens to your body? How does it impact your horse?
Then use your hands to catch the slack in the reins but follow the movement of his neck. Would that mean your elbows moving back slightly? Just feel it for five minutes. No corrections; listen to your body. Watch your horse.
Check in with your hands. Are your wrists kinked in some weird way? Straighten them, thumbs up.
Now position your elbows slightly in front, just above the point of your pelvic bone. So, your hands would be in front of your saddle. This time watch your horse’s poll and allow your hands to float forward with his poll. Almost as if your hands could push his neck to be longer. Five minutes, please.
Check in with your hands. Do they feel ignored? Perfect.
Did you notice that the movement in his neck is a different rhythm than his footfalls? Were there moments in the stride when the reins slacked and tightened? That’s what your horse doesn’t like about your elbows. Were there moments when he reached farther with his stride because your elbows extended in a way that encouraged him forward?
Contact should feel like a long rein to the horse. Contact must follow the natural movement in his spine, encouraging him forward, requiring our contact to be elastic and giving. But hands are not elastic, your horse will be the first to tell you. Rather than raising your horse’s anxiety, use your own self-awareness to understand his needs. Light elastic contact starts in your elbows.
The prairie rings with strange voices, this Wolf Moon
is owned by coyotes, less visible by day in dry winter
grass but the pond ice is covered with tracks come
morning. No lanky solo song, mating season means
the frozen air is wild with prairie carolers who wail a
primal scale of notes, yip the flats and sharps all night,
a challenge dance on glare ice, as horses watch safe
behind fences. Inside the house, my dog hears the
coyote call from deep slumber, launching into mid-air,
his legs scrambling before his eyes are open, crashing
the door jam, toenails screaming on linoleum until the
dog door slams. Then stock still, bark silent, he lifts
his nose to the night air. Is it something sacred that he can’t quite recollect? Walking back slowly, he curls into a soft fleece bed under the desk, watching me as his eyes close, that’s right, we’re house dogs now.
Forward, having a ground-covering fluid gait, is the foundation of balance and comfort for a horse, mentally and physically. Horses gotta move.
Forward is also one of those concept words. There is a literal meaning, and then the meaning out-beyond, where ideas are more dynamic than words and the faint-at-heart quake. Forward is a way of movement but it’s also bright intention and positive attitude. It’s as mental as it is physical. True forward is the absence of stress or negative energy in the horse. He glides, he soars, he floats.
You know when you don’t see it: A gait that scurries, tight and short, with a tense poll and braced neck, is not forward. It’s energy but it isn’t free.
Or you still don’t see it: A gait that drags its toes, lead in front, with some stumbling, his nose might push out, he needs to toss his head, his front end pulls instead of a push from behind. It’s energy even less free.
To some degree, all horses are flip-floppers, different in the high noon sun than on a foggy crisp morning, or in a new place with strange horses than at home in the same old routine. Then there’s a bit of quirkiness for no reason you can know. That said, if a horse is not forward, the first thought should always be pain or lameness. Don’t take it for granted, really check him out.
Reluctantly, you believe your horse is sound and not forward. You push him, but he doesn’t want to go. You’ve been told more leg, so now you nag, pounding on his sides, bearing down with your seat, and yakking to anyone you meet about your lazy hay-burner.
Be careful, the names you call your horse…
The second thought, if a horse isn’t forward, has to be the rider. To use your own indelicate term, are you lazy? Is your energy low? Your body restrictive or uncommunicative? Does your energy tend toward frustration rather than enthusiasm? Are you the one who’s not forward?
In the beginning, we are all taught to sit still in the saddle. Decent information for novice riders, especially horse-crazy girls so excited they bounce. Is there a time when that stillness in the saddle works against us? Groundwork is no different, are our feet the ones filled with lead? Over time, has that quiet body become sedentary, even a bit like a cinderblock?
Think of it this way: In order to partner with a horse, we need to become physically connected with his movement but also mentally forward. We need to be the energy he needs in that moment. Instead of reacting to what just happened, we want to be thinking ahead to better forward.
About now, you get a training aid, maybe spurs or a whip, and you use them to manipulate the conversation, to have your way. To be clear, I have no issue with the correct use of either aid, but they were never intended for use by lazy riders.
If the horse is quick, tense, and hollow, the rider must adjust her energy to embody quiet confidence and safety, soft sit bones and lots of exhaling to cue relaxation. Make simple, steady transitions that are easily rewarded, show him the way back to forward balance and rhythm.
If the horse is heavy and slow, the rider must adjust her energy again; check yourself first. Be honest about stiffness in your own body, and any judgment or restriction in your mind. Are you riding like someone who’s been made to feel wrong every day of her life? Are you looking for something to punish or something to cheer? Can you be Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire and then vice versa?
Start here: Put a smile on your face and crank up the music. Remind yourself that you love horses.
If it’s groundwork, shake out your body, release your jaw. Feel your feet on the soil, your head cleared by the air deep in your lungs. Let energy rise in your core. As you cue, continue that life-affirming breath, move with intention and rhythm. Start right where the horse is and build slowly from there. Embody a confidence that draws your horse to you.
In the saddle, ask for a walk but instead of judging his movement, check in with your own. You need the warm-up as much as he does; breathe into stiff joints, remind your shoulder blades where they belong, stride along feeling the change of how your shirt moves at your waist. Can your ankles relax so your legs fold softly around your horse’s barrel? Can your thighs release to allow your seat deeper in the saddle, each stride met with the release of your sit bone? No resistance.
Now, remember transitions are the key to connection.
A horse’s training can progress being screamed at by a drill sergeant, or by being inspired by the light-hearted praise of an equal. Your choice but it’s obvious one is much harder to maintain than the other. To be positive, listening, and engaged in every stride takes great mental strength. We tend to think of a riding ambition as a bad thing, but what if we were ambitious about aware in the moment and energetic? Isn’t that where we need to meet our horses?
On the ground or in the saddle, use two words to answer your horse’s efforts; Yes and Good. It’s your job to come up with questions that would set your horse up to receive those answers.
Time passes and you’ve both done some great work. You’ve been light and energetic. He has been forward and responsive. Can you tell when your horse begins to tire?
Now you are looking for the slightest loss of forward, but for all the right reasons. Be so present in the ride that you can stop just before either of you want to. Finish strong and both you and your horse will come to the next ride with best expectations.
[Last week, lameness. This week, laziness. Next week, what your horse wishes I’d said in the first place.]
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro
“My horse won’t go forward,” she says. Are you sure he isn’t in pain?
“No, he’s fine. No signs of lameness.” Not going forward is a sign of lameness.
When is a horse trainer an amateur veterinarian? Every day. Soundness must be the first question when we start anything with a horse. We all acknowledge it’s true, we love horses, after all. It’s an intellectual awareness that can be hard to remember in an emotional moment.
Head-bobbing lameness is obvious, by that time the pain is front and center. An injury can show up undeniably, but subtle lameness is harder to recognize. If there’s resistance where there usually isn’t any, have a closer “feel.” Perhaps the horse’s transitions up or down are a little sticky. He might be reluctant to canter or have an unwillingness to come to the mounting block. Perhaps, you think you imagine a slight unevenness, not limping but a subtle weakness or tension. Or maybe not.
Instead, we think it’s a training issue. It’s a flash of ego or some dark Neanderthal warning that we can’t let our horse win. He needs to respect us. Usually, we just want to ride, that’s all.
It doesn’t go well so we start by asking a barn friend or for online advice. It explodes and everyone has an opinion. Suddenly, it’s an information runaway. You have training techniques to get a horse forward coming out of your ears, and as you jump from one to another, the more confused you get, and the worse your horse is. It really feels like a training issue now.
Back to square one: The only way a horse has to tell us he’s in pain is through his behavior. We can misread that, decide the behavior needs to be corrected, and train him it’s not safe to show his vulnerability.
An example: A horse doesn’t want to canter because his back is sore. So, the rider canters the horse another ten minutes, to get him over his disobedience. Or we think girthiness is just normal. Or we don’t notice when his eyes go very still and dark.
I don’t blame you for hoping for anything but a nebulous lameness. Fixing a canter is easy in comparison.
Perhaps you’re at the other end of the continuum. You know your horse is acting strangely but he looks okay. It’s something you almost feel more than see, but you’re sure something’s not right. So, you call your vet for a lameness check. Maybe an ultrasound, radiographs, and a decent sized check written.
“Nothing I can find,” your vet says
They might literally teach that sentence in vet school. It took me a while to hear it literally. It doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong, it means just what is said. The vet found nothing. Beyond that, it says something about science, as well. We’ve come so far, but sometimes the source of pain can’t be found. The horse can’t say, and vet science is still an art. Is there anything more crazy-making than a nebulous lameness?
Back near the dawn of time, I had a young horse who was being very “rebellious”, and my trainer and I were working him through it. During one ride, his poll was so tense that he whacked me in the skull. I guess it knocked sense into me, I didn’t recognize my good boy. Finally, I called the vet, almost secretly, telling her that I thought something was wrong and was ready to be embarrassed when she told me I was being a ninny.
My vet was the kind who thought her clients knew their horses and she had a suggestion. She asked me to leave him in a stall and she came in about forty-eight hours. He was dead lame when I led him out. It was a suspensory injury that took a year and a half to heal. In hindsight, easy to diagnose and not nebulous at all. Since I prided myself on our miraculously profound and deep connection, I felt both guilty of neglect and mad that he didn’t tell me. Silly me.
He’s a horse and being stoic is smart. A prey animal who shows weakness attracts predators, but it can be an issue in his own herd as well. It’s common-horse-sense to hide vulnerabilities, a matter of life and death for him. Being stoic is actually a strength when you see it from his side.
When someone tells me they know their horse is sound, it gives me a bittersweet feeling. Part nostalgia for the last time I had the confidence to think soundness was a finite, knowable thing, and part sad begrudging respect for the horse’s ability to endure.
For all their strength and beauty, horses are also badly designed. They have tiny feet and large bodies. Their digestive system is very particular. I can’t help but think that the stifle is like a personal Bermuda Triangle.
Most of us are taught to push through riding challenges, but we must learn to recognize pain as well. Minor lameness needs time to heal. If we don’t pay attention or send the horse back to work too soon, minor issues become chronic lameness and we damage the horse’s willing good temperament as well as destroying his physical strength.
About now, a cynic should chime in that they don’t feel great either. Pain is how you can tell you’re alive. “It’s a long way from his heart, get to work.” Maybe the ultimate insult, “You’re babying your horse!”
Fine. More bad advice from railbirds. Why do humans value suffering so much?
Talking about lameness is the most depressing thing. Healing can be elusive, and years can be lost. There is no guarantee that by owning a horse that you will also be riding one. Horses are heartbreakers, but we aren’t quitters.
Wouldn’t it be great if hindsight could work in our favor for once?
This is a longwinded way to remind riders that the warm-up is the most crucial part of the ride. It takes twenty minutes for the synovial fluid to warm the joints of a young, sound horse. Twenty minutes feels like forever, but a slow, thorough warm-up is insurance for a horse’s longevity, the only forever that matters. Strength and suppleness must be the priority because soundness is the first requirement for any training.
Happy New Year. It’s my ninth year of writing this blog about riding. Thank you for reading along, and I had a thought…
I was digging through my office supplies looking for a small notebook in a messy bookshelf; files of old receipts, fliers for tack I’ll never buy, a box of snapshots from way back when we took snapshots. I buy office supplies like other women buy makeup or shoes. I will never be without a pen, the kind I like with a medium roller ball point. The fine points are just too stingy with the ink.
Finally, in a basket on the bottom shelf, I see a spiral binding hiding underneath the bag of antique supplies from the 1990s. I’m that kind of organized. I pull the notebook out and I can’t remember buying it, but that’s my handwriting scribbled through the front few pages.
And I’m shot back in time. These are notes I wrote after being a demo rider in a Jane Savoie clinic. Reading the definition of being “in front of the leg” brought a smile back. It was a life-changing weekend for me. I was so new to dressage that I still called the arena a “pen.” I was riding a hot young horse who was an ex-reiner, just like me. He has since grown old and died, but these notes are as good as gold. Now I give clinics, and people take notes. At first, it was strangely unnerving, seeing that scribbling on paper, but that’s just silly. The notes are about something much more interesting and important than me. They’re a way that we learn about horses.
Maybe as a kid, you had a pink diary with a key, kept hidden from your sister. It was the first book of your secrets. As life got more complicated, it became a journal with a black leather cover, your inner-therapist helping you sort your thoughts. Maybe later you kept a gratitude journal. Some days were so dark that the only thing you could think of to be grateful for was making it to the end of the day entry. Have you written your way through hard times?
Journaling is home-made mindfulness, a way of keeping our place in time, but I think we underestimate its value as a learning tool. What if writing is just a different kind of riding?
As riders, we study how horses learn and we might pay attention to how we learn, too. What horses do in a split second, interpreting the environment with their senses, takes us longer.
The best human learning happens when we use our range of senses. It’s one reason that clinics can be such great experiences; they provide learning opportunities with varied input, in one place. We hear about it, see demos, take notes. We watch others learn. We feel compassion when they make mistakes we might make. We also see people like us get it right and we’re encouraged. We think about it, then try it, get coaching, and try again. Maybe we get overwhelmed, and then the smell of manure brings us back to reality. Our senses have a workout listening, seeing, touching, smelling, experiencing, writing, sharing, and that’s just the first day.
And in the quiet clinic afterglow, we try to keep the memory alive. Writing is not the same, but putting words on paper is taking a snapshot of the day and explaining what you saw and did, as a way of deepening the learning. Maybe after the next ride, you write that down, too, and take more of the clinic into your daily work. Look, you’re journaling without a net!
But it isn’t the dark ages. You might think technology is the devil, but maybe you need to tame it to your purposes. Don’t like to write or type? That’s fine, voice-to-word apps abound. You can dictate your journal into existence.
Then go online and sign up for a blog. I suggest WordPress, but any will do. I know this is scary. Don’t hyperventilate, don’t get bucked off before you start.
When is a blog not a blog? When we re-task it to suit our journaling needs. Think of a blog as a word processing program that also has a search feature and comes in a tidy, attractive package. You can categorize your thoughts/posts in a more organized way than a spiral notebook. A blog can be as private as a diary, and rather than having word docs and emails drifting around the internet and loitering in other computers, or lost for decades, your words are contained in a private place but at your fingertips. And blogs are free.
So now that you have the blog, you trick it out like a clubhouse. Post all the best photos. Tell the story of how you met your horse and fall in love all over again. On a day when the weather won’t let you ride, write a ride. Describe how your body moves and repeat every bit of trainer advice you ever got. Teach yourself something. Affirm what you know. That’s always a good ride.
Then save for the next rainy day and begin a quote collection. Cut and paste inspiration to your journal-blog.
You can import your vet records and make a category for that. A category is a way to sort, so five years from now when memory fades, you can find that previous incident with your previous vet. Add information about supplements that you don’t need yet. Keep links to bitless bridles and a record of saddle fitting sessions. All the boring things that you’ll wish you had later.
Keep a record of riding lessons and clinics you attend. Writing them out is like getting two for the price of one. Add a list of goals for the season, and the year. Define your vision and map a path ahead. You might add a photo of your trainer, she never forgets you. Write about trail rides and show experiences. Post photos of your friends and their horses. These are precious times, more valuable in hindsight.
Finally, most importantly, that dorky gratitude journal. Take a moment at the end of the day and say thank you. How would it impact the relationship you have with your horse in the saddle, if this was how you ended your day?
Since beginning to give writing workshops to riders as an add-on to clinics, I’m been so inspired by the writing people share. I am convinced our words matter, now more than ever.
There’s a reason teachers used to have students copy a sentence a hundred times on the chalkboard. All these years later, I think I have learned almost as much from this blog as I have from horses. The practice of writing has deepened my understanding profoundly.
Besides, it’s how you and I met.
I’m not suggesting a New Year resolution or that you ever need to go public. I’m just saying that a word at a time, month after month, is a way to be in the barn with your horse when you aren’t. It’s another expression of the passion that drives us all, and you can store that up for a time you need it, an investment of the best kind.
All horse stories are the same. We get the wrong horse. We find a way to build a relationship in the old-fashioned way, a little bit at a time. Then in a blink, years have passed and that hot young thing is an old campaigner. You aren’t who you were either. You’re much better, in ways you never imagined. When the only really bad day with your horse comes and you have to say goodbye, you have the best keepsake. You’ve written the legend of your horse. Forever yours.
Who knew I would love giving clinics this much? In the past, I’ve always done a scant few a year here in Colorado, but the last two years have run me full tilt around the globe. It’s a huge learning opportunity to be able to work with so many more horses and riders than I could by staying local. Apparently being a clinician is like riding; you improve the more time you spend in the saddle.
Designing my clinics, I try to combine my past experience attending clinics (some of the best and worst memories with my horses), with a method of teaching that I wish someone had used with me, and then season it all with my dearest wish for better understanding for horses living in a human world. A lofty goal, but I’m happy with how it’s going so far.
There’s a comment I hear often, “I can’t unsee this.” Initially, I took it as a compliment, hoping I’d done a good job describing and explaining. Horses always backed me up, standing next to me with their body language saying the thing I was verbalizing, and it was so obvious that we’d all laugh. I got wonderful testimonials and the people who came to my clinics were open-minded folks trying their best for their horses. It’s been a happy bubble. Sometimes people told me that they couldn’t find a local trainer like me, and I’d try to be humble and smile. I can be insufferably dense sometimes.
On the way to the hotel after a clinic, the organizer “complimented” me with an edge that I finally heard. She insisted she really had to quit her trainer and there were no other options. None. And commuting 7000 miles to ride with me wasn’t going to work. It was almost like I’d pulled the rug out from under her. I felt like apologizing.
With the same kind bluntness, she went on to tell me that she subscribed to two other trainers online, but she really wanted to subscribe to me online. Then we both acknowledged that I didn’t have an online program.
It isn’t that I hadn’t thought about it. Half my friends (I know both the trainers she followed) have them and they’re doing a good job. If I was to take it on, it would need to be different enough to be worthwhile, remain true to what I train, and offer value to followers. Not to mention my tiresome aesthetic requirements.
One more challenge, I’m not convinced we can learn the fine art of training from how-to videos where we sometimes do more damage than good for horses. What if this art of training should be passed hand to hand, human to horse, the old-fashioned and ridiculously limited way?
And is anyone as old-fashioned as me? I write, for crying out loud. Not with a quill, but low tech for sure. And I recently found out that blogs are terribly outdated now. Apparently, everyone has moved on, and here I am, close to nine years in with no plans for extinction. I’m a blogasaurus, the opposite of a T-Rex, I have spindly legs but very agile fingers.
The organizer and my friends are right, of course. I’ve been resistant but after that proper shove, the idea had a runaway in my skull. I asked advice, made some lists, bought a bunch of tech gear that I can’t figure out how to use, and made a start on my online program.
Rule one: It has to feel personal.
Audio blogs read by me.
Podcasts like where we breathe together in the saddle.
Short videos describing some of my favorite riding exercises.
Signal Speak: Reading calming signals on my videos and yours.
A re-organized library of past blogs grouped by topic.
Live chat opportunities.
Reduced rate for one-on-one time with me.
Q&A from members with answers longer than I can write on Facebook.
A mentor corner to share ideas among trainers and where I can form a list of local referrals.
Writing for Riders
Insert your best idea here. You are the one who knows.
My favorite part might be the daily quote.
It’s been a collaborative effort between my new tech goddess, a few mentors and friends, and me. The new website will roll out in January, with a subscription fee. Before that, I’ll be leaking bits and pieces over the next weeks.
Finally, the boulder blocking the path was what to call this place in cyberspace. Isn’t naming the hard part? Naturally, I over-thought it, then all the words ran together, most being overused and understated, or just plain lame. Cleverness bumped up against wordiness. Brain cells died painful deaths. Breathe, Anna. Less is more.
The things I hear most from readers and riders are that they feel isolated. They struggle with peers who are critical. Most want support with a different training approach saying old methods, “always felt wrong but it’s what I was taught.” And there is no place locally.
Then Edgar Rice Burro, the brains in the herd, sagely nodded, enthusiastic that I was inviting everyone to the barn. At first, I thought he misunderstood me but he’s so right, it’s just the best place I know. Let’s meet here at the Barn.
To be clear, the blog will continue exactly the same, and it will always be free! Free to read, free of sponsors, and free of ads. As free as a gallop, and as timeless as a cave painting. I’m a belligerent blogasaurus and that will not change.
And if you want even more, something inclusive and deeper, join us in the Barn. We’re supportive, committed to learning and putting the horse first. We’re grateful to be part of a Relaxed & Forward tribe with the goal of changing the horse world for the better. Traveling has shown me that there are more of us than we think.
Oh. Edgar Rice Burro reminds me that if we’re going to be working with less intelligent creatures than him, meaning horses, we’ll need to keep a sense of humor, too.