Section-4 Re-Starting Under Saddle


About Re-Starting Under Saddle

The fourth and final course of this series is especially useful for starting horses under saddle, rehabilitation for horses with behavioral or physical issues, assessing weaknesses in performance horses and improving any horse’s way of going. This is also a useful course for all levels of riders from novice to advanced. For the novice rider, steps are gradual, specific and safe. For the advanced rider, balance is presented in an entirely new way that will facilitate a deeper understanding of why certain results are present, how to easily diagnose problems and how to find solutions or make improvements.

The real aspect of training in this course is to develop the habits of “good riding”. To do this requires navigating the complex interaction between horse and rider to find, develop and maintain the Learning Frame of Mind and Self-Carriage at all times. Aiming for Optimal Balance means that both a Learning Frame of Mind and Self-Carriage are present for both horse and rider in each skill outlined for this course. The skills may appear to be simple, but achieving Optimal Balance within each skill is the point of training and takes time to achieve.

Riding is so much more than just not falling off. Both the horse and rider have feelings and thoughts often governed by instinct and specifically engineered anatomy that is always governed by the laws of physics. Accepting the rider is only the first step, carrying a rider is a learned skill for a horse and finally finding self-carriage with a rider is another challenging skill to develop in a horse. Really good riding takes understanding and skill development,  no matter how much or how little talent is available.

Maintaining a Learning Frame of Mind throughout each skill is a priority.

When you lose calm, willing, attentive or adaptable during a ride that is a clear signal to slow things down. Losing the Learning Frame of Mind means that the horse simply cannot cope or doesn’t understand what you want and is becoming defensive. To restore the Learning Frame of Mind you can make things simpler, take each step slower or just stop and take a fresh start. You can even go back to the groundwork to get things better. The most important part, is that you make taking notice of your horse’s frame of mind a priority and work to strengthen the qualities of calm, willing, attentive and adaptable instead of destroying them. A horse has not accepted or actually learned a skill until calmness, willingness and concentration are consistently demonstrated throughout the entire skill.

Building and maintaining Self-Carriage throughout each skill is the goal.

Once the horse is calm and accepting, shows a willingness to work with you and offers attention, what is the next point of training? For the horse it is simply to be comfortable while carrying a rider. The rider needs a healthy, safe horse to work with.

Because horses are big and strong it is easy to think that carrying a rider would be no big deal. When a horse does what we want, then we think everything is OK. If the horse is doing the maneuver and not resisting or stumbling then it seems the horse must be “in balance”. But there is a lot more to it. Understanding optimal use of the body and developing Self-Carriage requires an educated rider. Balance is very specific and challenging to develop on a consistent basis. Bio-mechanics or balanced movement are usually popular topics only amongst serious riders who have spent years studying horses. But achieving balance is vital to every horse’s well-being and does not have to be extraordinarily complicated. The skills in this course strive to make understanding and achieving mechanically correct motion simple and uncomplicated.

Horses are prey animals. Masking deviant movement (pain or discomfort) has been essential to their survival as a species. Deviant movement attracts predators. Being masters of compensation worked for horses for thousands of years in the wild, but it works against them in the human environment. Recognizing imbalances can be difficult for people. We miss or perceive the small signals as unimportant until the horse “suddenly (fill in the blank).” But horses actually give plenty of signals that things are not right. When we learn to tap into each of the three planes of the body while riding, we find that the signs are there. The skills in this course are designed to help you learn how to feel the inside of the horse and make adjustments towards Optimal Balance.

Optimal Balance in Self-Carriage is important no matter what the ultimate goal for the horse may be. Every rider wants to go forward (walk, trot, canter, gallop, or gaits), stop, make transitions and steer. The better the quality is in these fundamental skills, the easier it becomes to do the “hard stuff.” Even the highest levels of competitive riding are really just basic skills done with refinement, speed, variety and obstacles. You hear it all the time from top-level riders and masterful horsemen, “Get the basics better”.  That is exactly what we intend to do in this course.


Theory Topics For Re-Starting Under Saddle

How every rider affects the horse’s balance

Riding is entirely un-natural. Mother Nature provided horses the ability to balance their own bodies through a perfect system of structural weight shifts but did not factor in the variety of shapes, sizes and weights of riders too. While a horse can balance with a rider on board, it is not natural or easy for horses. Balancing with a rider is a learned skill for a horse. The only way a horse can balance a rider and become stronger and healthier than nature intended is with the help of the rider.

As soon as a rider sits on a horse, the horse’s balance is challenged. A rider who does nothing other than stay on will compromise a horse’s balance simply because gravity pulls weight through the paths of least resistance. If the horse has to compensate somehow by being out of balance with a rider then sooner or later problems begin to surface. When a horse finally reaches its unique threshold for tolerating discomfort then behavioral issues take hold. When a horse reaches its unique ability to function while (even slightly) out of balance then lameness or a decline in health takes hold.

Striving towards Optimal Balance helps a horse do its job of carrying a rider in the safest and most comfortable manner. Riding a horse this way not only solves behavioral issues, it can avoid them. While helping a horse achieve Self-Carriage will certainly not cure every lameness or health issue, it does help by alleviating inappropriate weight distribution or restoring correct function to all the bodily systems.

Aids vs. Contacts: Developing a clear channel of communication

There is a massive difference between having a contact with your seat, legs, or reins, and giving an aid. Riders often confuse the feel of contacts and aids, and this causes confusion and difficulty for the horse.

Reins As An Aid

A contact is specifically defined as a neutral touch between you and the horse through your seat, legs, or hands. Contacts are non-directive and offer the horse a “release” from the aid. An aid is specifically defined as an increase in pressure or a movement with your seat, legs, or hands and affects the horse’s movement. An aid is a direction or request, and the aid is not effective until the horse tries to respond correctly to your request by moving in the direction or speed you have asked. Once the aid has been effective and the horse “tries” the right response, you need to immediately release the pressure and return to a contact. If you are not crystal clear in your mind and aware of the various feels you offer the horse, then it becomes very easy to turn a contact into a constant aid. When a seat, leg or rein aid never releases it eventually quits working. At best, you will end up working harder than the horse by having to use a lot of energy. At worst, the horse finally rejects the feel of the rider. The horse may reject your seat by bucking or rearing, refuse to go forward from the legs, or become unstoppable with the hands.

Once you understand the difference between a contact and an aid you can use them appropriately to have a conversation with the horse. You need to be very clear and consistent with the feel of applying an aid, releasing the aid and being in a neutral contact. The horse has to learn what each different feel “means”. If you are not clear and distinct through feel, then the horse will remain confused and likely push against an aid instead of responding correctly. The sooner you can become clear in your communication with the horse, the sooner you can begin having pleasant conversations with your horse and work towards balance.

Defining roles and dancing as partners

Knowing what your jobs are as the lead and what your horse’s jobs are as the follower in the dance is what makes a beautiful partnership. If either partner is doing too much or too little then the result will be awkward, stiff, irregular movement. Dancing well with a partner requires that both individuals have a sense of Self-Carriage. Gliding around a ballroom becomes impossible when one of the partners has to be dragged, pushed or pulled.

Self-Carriage means that both partners have a strong sense of straightness, impulsion and engagement that can work with, but is not reliant on, the other partner. Knowing what this looks like and feels like for the rider and the horse is the point of the skills in this course.

Balance, Feel and Timing: the keys to Self-Carriage

While most riding instruction is specific with what to do (heels down, shoulders back, inside leg to outside rein), the skills in this course focus more on why and how to use your body contacts and aids. When a rider develops independent balance, the ability to feel changes in the horse and can time various aids between contacts, then riding becomes communicative instead of mechanical.

The skills of balance, feel and timing allow a rider to be adaptable to the needs of the horse in any given moment. Without balance, feel and timing a rider will have a hard time keeping up with the rate of change that a horse is capable of. Doing too much or too little can stifle progress, throw the horse out of balance or take over one of the horse’s jobs regarding Self-Carriage. Balance is about finding the place that is “just right” feel is the map or strategy of how to get there and timing is the ability to get there efficiently. Natural riders and people who have ridden from a very young age develop these skills subconsciously. But balance, feel and timing are not strictly for the young or talented, they can be taught or improved at any age.

Developing vs. Challenging Self-Carriage

Many training programs focus on “jobs” or “tasks” with the theory that if the horse can do something then the horse is trained and finds balance along the way. I call this the “sink or swim” approach to training. Even if a horse does manage to figure out how to carry a rider in all speeds, do maneuvers, jump, turn fast, race or navigate trails, the odds of the horse doing these jobs in correct balance are quite slim. Developing Self-Carriage can be accomplished rapidly by keeping the work simple and not over-taxing or over-challenging the horse’s balance. Working in safe, easy footing for the horse, making straight lines or generous circles allows the rider and horse to focus on balance first.

Challenging a horse’s balance is something that is done towards the end of this course. Once a horse and rider can maintain balance in the paces, on both directions and on large circles, then more complicated patterns are introduced and simple obstacles. Using patterns and obstacles to achieve balance is the norm and it can be done. However, that approach requires the rider and horse to focus on multiple things at the same time, which makes it much more complicated to do correctly.

Understanding Gaited Horses

Again, the current norm regarding gaited horses is not the approach I take. Most gaited horse owners or trainers somehow regard the gaited horse as a different creature from non-gaited horses. But gaited horses share the same instincts and anatomy as every other type of horse and so fundamentally they are the same. That is why the same veterinarian can work on both gaited and non-gaited horses.

What is different about gaited horses is that they have many “gears” of speed and they are incredibly loose and limber from genetic selection. Balancing the gaited horse is very challenging, which is why most people resort to leveraged bits and gadgets. Explaining gears can be shown through measuring tempo. Gaited horses don’t change footfall patterns like non-gaited horses, instead they change tempo to create many versions of a 4 beat walk.

Gaiting can be broken down into some version of a walk (4 beats). The lack of suspension inherent in the walk footfall pattern is why gaited horses are so smooth to ride at fast speeds. The only exception to this is pacing (2 lateral beats) or when a gaited horse is cantering. Regular, or non-gaited horses, change beats when they change speeds – walk (4 beats), trot (2 diagonal beats), canter (3 beats). Each footfall pattern in walk, trot or canter will be rhythmical in a tempo or beats per minute that is appropriate for the speed. For example, a regular horse may walk 4/180 beats per minute, trot 2/150 beats per minute and canter 3/300 beats per minute. A gaited horse can walk at 4/180 bpm, or “gait” at 4/200 bpm, 4/300 bpm, 4/400 bpm and so on.

Most of the work on balance with a gaited horse is done at a slow, working walk. Once all three dimensions of balance are solid, the horse picks up nice, clean gaits with little trouble just by adding speed incrementally. All work done is in a snaffle bit just like the non-gaited horses.


Re-Starting Under Saddle

4.1 Mounting

As a skill this means that the horse is helpful with the mounting process, putting effort into allowing you on its back. A horse trying to escape or being unpredictable during mounting can be incredibly unsafe. It is also a horse’s way of telling the rider that it does not fully accept a human on its back.

4.2 Clarifying Aids and Contacts

If the four basic aids do not effectively control motion and direction and can readily be released back to a contact, then essential communication will become muddled. Again, a lack of clarity between aids and contacts can become incredibly unsafe. At best, unclear communication will hinder balance and performance.

4.3 Left/Right Balance, Straightness, halt/walk

Outside forces can counterbalance a horse to achieve a straight path of travel. This would be equivalent to a person with a limp walking down the middle of a sidewalk. Straightness in this course focuses on the internal forces that create left/right balance through the body. Equal weight distribution through the left and right sets of legs allows the horse to be level and maintain a healthy alignment of the spine first and foremost. Maintaining an accurate path of travel is the last step.

4.4 Front/Back Balance, Impulsion, halt/walk

A horse’s speed, is most efficiently generated as a result of impulsion, where impulsion is the thrust that is generated by the hindquarters. Horses can however also generate thrust less efficiently by “pulling”, using more of the neck and chest muscles. I have witnessed horses that exhibited this inefficient tendency. Effective impulsion, which helps the horse to generate speed efficiently, requires effective use of the hindquarters. With underutilized hindquarters, the front legs will simply pull the horse forward inefficiently and all the power and stability of the hindquarters will be left as “unused potential”.

4.5 Up/Down Balance, Engagement, halt/walk

Engagement simply means the mechanical function of the hindquarters is becoming active because body weight is shifting to the hind legs. This process begins in a long frame and as the horse becomes stronger, greater degrees of engagement lead to “collection” or a short frame. While some riders may never require a short frame of collection, all horses require engagement and some degree of collection to be in balance. Engagement has little or nothing to do with short reins or rein contact.

4.6 Transitions

Maintaining all three aspects of balance through a transition is a skill unto itself. While transitions and faster speeds can be worked on well before this skill, this particular skill emphasizes balance before, during and after a change in speed or footfall patterns.

4.7 Working Trot

As the horse increases speed the velocity creates more force against the rider. Imbalances in the walk that feel manageable can become more challenging at the trot. As the horse shifts from a four beat footfall pattern to two, all three aspects of balance must be established again.

4.8 Working Canter

Again, as the force of movement increases on the rider, change can become challenging. While the patterns of imbalance or balance change little, the change from four or two beat footfalls to three offers another challenge to balance. All three aspects again need to re-calibrate to maintain balance.

4.9 Riding Patterns

Once all three aspects of balance can be sustained in the basic paces, riding patterns offers interesting challenges to Self-Carriage. Transitioning between speeds and various paths of travel with accuracy, balance and harmony is the essence of classical dressage. Patterns can be simple or complex, but the aim of riding in Optimal Balance and maintaining Self-Carriage is the foundation of dressage.

4.10 Riding Obstacles

Obstacles can be a number of things that offer greater challenges to Self-Carriage. Obstacles as a category includes obvious things like cavaletti, jumps, barrels, steep terrain, water crossing and cows. This category can also include less obvious challenges like riding in large groups of horses, new environments, less than ideal conditions, fear inducing surprises and leaving the barn or buddies behind. Learning to cope with obstacles while maintaining balance in both mind and body is a skill that requires effort both for horses and riders.

4.11 The Gallop

For those that never plan to race or perform, the gallop may seldom be practiced. But galloping is natural for all horses and doing it in balance, without adrenaline, is not only possible it is safer!

4.12 Gaited Horses

Gaiting is essentially the ability to shift speeds or tempo within a walk. Doing this requires subtle skills in both horse and rider and is not as simple as making transitions from walk to trot to canter. All the ingredients are described in the earlier skills of walk/halt, but some special challenges do arise in this skill.

Quote Of The Day

"I call horses 'divine mirrors' - they reflect back the emotions you put in. If you put in love and respect and kindness and curiosity, the horse will return that"
~Allan Hamilton