A super inspiring Summer Academy it was this year in Denmark!
We started with a Selected Trainers meeting followed by the public evening in which Bent Branderup showed the training and progression of his own horses. I was surprised when in the morning, Bent asked me if I could show Valentino in the longe work during the public evening. Quite a happening to show our work! Valentino is a horse with physical as well as mental issues. Lately, the mental part has improved tremendously, with him staying in much more relaxed focus with me. Therefore, we have only now been able to really start dressing his physical challenges; stiff hind legs and weak knees. During our longe work at the public evening, Valentino was very relaxed. Even though he is not spectacular on the longe, the fact that he stayed calm and remained focus on me was spectacular enough! And that with such an audience! The applause at the end did not bother him at all. Who knows, maybe he will become a show horse some day after all!
The next days, we had very interesting lectures and discussions on the topics of feeding and shoulder-in, and we had fantastic exchange going on between the trainers. I was honoured to teach both Katrin and Kathrin :-) on the seat using Centered Riding techniques, and received very nice insights from Pia Haas on my body language in ground work.
During the round table, my dear student Eef Nibbelink was taken into the book as a new squire and my colleague Marion vd Klundert received the knight status, Congratulations to both and to all others for updating, ring tests etcetera!
It was such a pleasure this year to be present and to be there with my horse was even more special.
Below, you can watch an impression of the 2015 Summer Academy.
Thanks to all for making it a great experience!
After the summer academy, we travelled another day up to Sweden, to the home of Christofer and Rebecca Dahlgren. It is beautiful up here in Hallekis, and I am glad my family is here too to enjoy a little vacation time at the same time.
Yesterday and today, I had lessons with both trainers in the AAoR and the liberty work with Valentino.
My main goal was to discuss with Christofer how to address the issue with Valentino's hind legs (they are stiff and weak and need to become more bendable to make riding comfortable for the both of us, but how do I bend them without straining his knees?). With Rebecca, I want to confirm the liberty ground work and make a start in the riding without bridle.
In the first lesson with Christofer we focussed on getting Valentino off the outside shoulder by making the circle smaller in travers on the longe. Important is with Valentino to keep the tempo very slow so he doesn't start to push. The second pointer I got is to make V. more responsible for his own gaits: working on a bigger circle on which he can keep the canter in a relaxed 3beat.
The collected work we have been doing along the wall was OK and we will continue to develop it into piaffe and into transitions more forwards.
Rebecca finally convinced me to go for a stick with a string attached. The 2nd day and lesson, Valentino started to respond instead of react to the string and I experienced the calming effect the string can have on the horse. In this lesson, we added another new exercise for me and Valentino; to sling the string around his chest to catch the shoulder. I feel like a true cowgirl doing it, but we both enjoy it!
The 2nd lessons with Christofer went already much easier with getting V. off the outside shoulder. Along the wall we focussed on making transitions from collected walk to a fwd trot and back without V. falling into my hand. The goal is to release his energy by increasing my own and not by using a stick to activate his hind legs. The aim is not to get maximum bending of his haunches, as this is very difficult with his hind legs, but to keep the roundness in his upper line in all gaits and transitions.
We look fwd to tomorrow!
It is so normal for us to prepare properly when we decide to start a new sport. Take running; we decide that from now on, we plan to run twice a week. We go to the sport store and buy ourselves shoes that fit properly and maybe even a fancy watch that can monitor our distance, speed and heart rate. We ask the assistant in the store for advice and try out different shoes to find what fits us best. We all know that our training will be uncomfortable and more likely to fail if we go for the wrong shoes. We also know that we should follow a training schedule to gradually increase the distance we can run. If we have a physical problem, we will adjust our training schedule accordingly.
However, with horses, loads of owners seem so believe that meeting all the proper preconditions to successful training are not that relevant. Is it because when we run without the proper preconditions such as fitting shoes, we ourselves are the ones that suffer? And with our horses, as most of them suffer in silence, we can choose to ignore these preconditions with excuses such as 'limited funds' or 'he doesn't seem to mind'?
Imagine having to go to school each day with an empty stomach, or having to sit at your desk doing your work on a chair with nails sticking out of the seat into your delicate behind.. You would not be able to focus 100% on your work, would you? Same goes for our horses.
For me, before training starts, it is important that in my horses and with my students and their horses, all preconditions to successful training are met. These include: teeth care, hoof care, feeding, housing, social contact, regular vet checks and fitting tack. It basically means the horses should be free of any kind of stress. The Art of Riding is all about a 2-way communication, about building a relationship with your horse, about 2 bodies and 2 minds working together in harmony. How is harmony ever going to be reached with a horse that has stomach aches from chronic ulcers because he is never allowed outside his box and gets fed 5 kg of concentrated food each day? Or with a horse that has pain because of an ill fitting saddle or a jaw that can't move properly because his teeth are neglected? Therefore, I always engage in a conversation with my students about these preconditions when they come and train with me. I want to check the tack that they are using and sometimes, I have to advise them to change something. Instead of disappointment that something isn't right, most of my students are grateful to get this information so they can take action to improve their horses well-being and to optimise their training. You can't help not-knowing about things you haven't learned about before, so there is no personal blame to anyone who rides with an ill-fitting saddle or with neglected teeth on a horse if they believe (and often are told by their expert saddle-fitters and equine dentists) that everything is allright. But there is blame to put on those who know things aren't right and who continue in the same way anyways.
Often, I encounter people that have a horse, acknowledge the problem of bad teeth or a poorly fitting saddle, but then tell me the horse will have to deal with it, because it will be sold anyways, or because they have no more money in their bank account. Would you deal with bad fitting shoes and still run with them, even if they hurt your feet and give you blisters or ruin your knees? If you have the means, you will buy better shoes. If you can't afford that, you may have friends that can lend you another pair of shoes or in the worst case scenario, you would rather stop running than ruining your feet. Why not do the same with your tack, for instance? If you know that your saddle doesn't fit and hurts your horse while you ride, no matter what excuse, you simply don't use it anymore. Borrow another one, ride bareback or simply train your horse from the ground until your circumstances change. There are always solutions for those that look for them, and there will never seem to be a solution for those who are not really willing to change.
Here is the deal if you want to have a horse and train with it: you have to start addressing all of the preconditions first. When people ask me for advice about buying a horse, I always stress the point that buying the horse is not the biggest issue. The biggest thing is then to get it vet checked, to purchase proper fitting tack, arrange for a dentist and a good hoof trimmer and to find suitable housing for the horse with turn-out and social contact. The responsibility never stops. Training only starts after you have looked into all these preconditions and concluded that your horse is free of pain, stress and frustration.
Most of the times, the training horses that come to us because of behavioural problems improve simply by being housed in our Paddock Paradise, with the balanced, stable group of horses that we have here. They get educated in manners better then I could ever do in the same time, they get to move as much as they like and play and groom with other horses. People are amazed about how well-behaved their horses come home again. Well.. they will have to make sure to keep the preconditions like turn-out, social contact, movement and healthy food and the chances that their horses stay that nice increase tenfold. Good training is only the icing on the cake.
Make yourself known with not only the training aspect of horses, but with all related topics that can influence the welfare of your horse. A horse that is stressed, in pain, hungry or annoyed cannot learn! Proper feeding, feet, teeth and equipment are nescesary for proper training. Do not just trust the experts when they tell you something. Make sure you understand WHY and WHAT when you speak with experts and always ask for a 2nd opinion if your gut feeling tells you something isn't right. But most important, never make ANY excuses to justify the continuation of something that you know is bad for your horse. Change it! He is under your care, it is your responsibility. If you want him to work with and for you, make sure he can, optimally.
Yesterday, one of my working students asked me "What exactly is a school exercise? And which exercises are school exercises?"
I explained to her that in my opinion, a successful school exercise shows that the horse is fully schooled in this exercise. Meaning, that you can decide the shape (where to place the shoulders, hips, head of the horse), the direction of movement, the speed and the degree of collection. All within the physical limits of the horse at that point in time.
For me, a school horse is a horse that responds to the seat, leg and rein aids. That allows itself to be shaped, collected and extended at the rider's request. This does not mean that it needs to be able to make a perfect piaffe. For me, the trot is schooled when the horse can collect and extend in the side movements within the horse's physical limits at that point in training. This means for me that school exercises are those exercises that we use to, exactly, school our horses. To educate them, to let our seat, reins and legs shape and guide them. Side movements are meant to teach the horse that we can place their shoulders and hips, transitions to practice their response to our seat and legs and to prepare them for collection. We explain to them that our seat asks them for collection and extension.
A school horse is for me a horse that lets itself be shaped by the rider. This does not mean it is a 'pre-programmed' horse to perform it's tricks under novice riders. A properly schooled horse will follow your seat, and therefore respond to everything you ask it to do, even if you did not intent to ask anything, he will respond to each change in your balance.
We in the Academic Art of Riding world, have a tendency to put 'school-' in front of things. We make school-halts, school-walk, school-trot, school-canter. With this, we try to discern this type of halt, walk, trot or canter from 'normal' canter and indicate that in this exercise, the horse is properly schooled to be 'between our aids'. For me, it does not automatically imply that the horse needs to be at the maximum of his capacity in collection. Just that we could take the horse there if we want to and take it out of it again too. So a school halt is not a fancy looking shaped horse with a front leg in the air. It is the horse that makes a halt being exactly between the rider's aids, halting exactly as the rider asks. Unfortunately, I see often people pursuing perfection in an exercise by repeating the exercise, rather than working on bringing the horse more to respond to the aids, and training their bodies to give the aids in a subtle and correct way.
Christofer Dahlgren described schooling horses beautifully to me: imagine that everything your horse is capable of doing is already there, in his body, just like a wood sculpture is already inside wooden log. It takes time to cultivate the wood and to slowly bring the sculpture out. This is what we do when we school horses. Our horses are able to do all these beautiful movements in their fields. We teach them to respond to our aids so that we can ask them to make the same movements with us on top, at the moment we ask for it. Our horses are schooled in a certain exercise when they can perform the exercise in the shape, direction, speed and degree of collection that we ask.
1. Stelling: check if there is space between the lower jaw and the atlas vertebra.
2. Stelling: Check is the lower jaw has moved a little over to the outside, aligning the molars on the outside
3. Stelling: Check is both ears are on the same horizontal plane, with the outside ear a bit forward compared to the inside ear.
4. Bending: Check for a fluent curve in the spine, from tail to ears.
5. Bending: Check if the distance between the outside hip and shoulder is bigger compared to the distance of the inside hip and shoulder.
6. Bending: Check if the manes drop gently to the inside.
7. Bending: Check if the ribs on the inside swing down when the inside hind leg steps forward.
8. Bending: Check if you can see the inside of the pelvis swing forward-down when the inside hind leg comes forward.
9. Bending: Check if the tail also curves inwards in bending.
10. Bending: Check if the inside hind leg steps under the point of weight (under the girth, between the front legs).
This is part III of the Art of Riding by Ylvie Fros video series: Stelling and Bending
As video says more than 1000 written words, I have been working on a series of video's introducing myself and the Art of Riding.
Watch part I and part II here:
There has been a lot of confusion among riders about what to do (or not to do) with the outside rein. Many riders that I meet have learned to ride the horse 'on the outside rein'. Often this is interpreted as keeping the outside rein short and keeping the horse (too) straight. This interferes with the bending and suppleness of the horse. On the other hand, riders that work too much with their inside hand and do too little on the outside create too much neck bending in their horses which causes them to fall over the outside shoulder. The outside rein in Academic perspective:
When the goal of your training is to supple your horse up through straightness training exercises and then to collect the horse, you first need a horse that can bend to both sides evenly. When it can bend evenly, you can straighten it. In this context straight means: with hips and shoulders aligned. Straightness training exercises are necessary to conduct the power generated by the hind legs through the body in a biomechanically correct way. When the shoulders are in front of the hips, no matter if the horse is on a straight or on a curved line, the energy can flow from back to front. It creates a balanced horse that can move supple and elegant. The suppleness is achieved by bending the horse to both sides, stretching the muscles along the spine. With a stiff horse, that is why in first instance we focus only on the inside rein (bring your nose in) and the inside leg (bend around me). This we alternate to left and right. Consider a stiff garden hose with some kinks in it. By bending it gently to left and right we supple it up and smoothen the kinks. Then we can shape it in a curve and allow the water to flow through it fluently. Any kink would block the flow.
Now, when the horse can bend around your inside leg, sometimes you will notice that it is getting too much and that the horse breaks out over the outside shoulder. Now there is the job for the outside rein: to reduce bending when it gets too much, and to guide the flow of energy around the bend towards the mouth of the horse and into your hands. When the horse bends too much in its neck, it is as if the garden hose got a kink in it and the power of the hind legs gets partially lost over the outside shoulder. It is the outside rein that smoothens it out. You bring the outside of your body through the curve by allowing our outside ribs and shoulder to move forward, and by touching the outside shoulder of your horse with the outside rein (we call this indirect rein), you place the shoulders inwards, in front of the horses hips. If you start using your outside rein before you have bending, you limit the amount of suppleness and flow that your horse can develop. The outside rein is a reducing and a guiding rein, do not reduce or guide something that is not there! A too short outside rein or backwards working outside hand keep the horse stiff and prevents the back muscles to supple up. That is why in the Art of Riding we work in phases. In the first phase with a stiff horse, we work on inside leg and inside rein to achieve bending and suppleness. Only in the next step we reduce and guide with the outside rein. When we can bend the horse only from the seat, then we leave the inside rein and only guide the horse from the outside rein. A pitfall is that sometimes people get stuck too much in the first phase, pulling the inside rein and bending the necks of their horses too much. So in the end, it is the outside rein that is most important! However, not with every horse we can start with it. That is why often we need to start with phase 1, the inside aids. But always keep the end goal in mind: a horse that is supple and balanced and can bend from your seat. Start using the outside rein as soon as you can to guide your horse through turns. Distinguish direct rein (placing the head) and indirect rein (placing the shoulders). Only use the outside rein as direct rein when the horse bends its neck too much and otherwise use it as an indirect rein placing the shoulders in front of its hips (guiding the horse). This allows the energy to flow freely from the hind quarter into your hands.
Travers (Hind quarter-in):
When the horse has an inside hind leg that can bend (from working with shoulder-in), this leg can also be trained as an outside hind leg. Travers (or quarter-in) reduces the push of the outside hind leg and stimulates the development of the carrying capacity in that leg. Travers is the result of bringing the hindquarter in while keeping the shoulders in their original position. The point of weight of the horse is placed in front of the outside hind leg. This leg is placed under the weight, causing the leg to bend. In canter, the outside hind leg is a very important leg. By training travers in walk, the canter can improve significantly.
Renvers, half-pass and pirouettes are derived from quarter-in and also make the body and hind legs more bendable. Gradually, the exercises become more difficult as the horse needs more self carriage and collection.
In quarter-in, the horse moves with its shoulders against the wall. In renvers, the horse keeps his hindquarter against the wall. Renvers is a good test to check whether the horse really can bend and can carry more weight with its hind legs. If this is not the case, the horse usually tends to fall on the outside shoulder towards the middle of the arena, or on its inside shoulder towards the wall. Usually, the renvers is started from shoulder-in. When you change the bending and maintain the front legs on the inside track, this results in the renvers. The renvers by itself is not more difficult than the travers, but it is the transition shoulder-in to renvers and back which is most difficult.
Half-pass is a travers across the diagonal. During half-pass, the horse has no support from the wall. Therefore it must be able to do the exercise on its own 4 feet, without any support.
In a pirouette, the horse walks in a travers on a small circle. The front legs make a bigger circle than the hind legs. The shorter steps of the hind legs on the small circle require the horse to put a bigger weight on the hind legs. The hind legs have to carry this weight, making the shoulders move more freely.
With patient, consistent exercising and by slowly increasing the level of the exercises, the horse will become more flexible, stronger and more supple. In these exercises, it is very important to involve the inside hind leg by preventing it to step too much to the inside. The next step is bending the hind legs simultaneously, this is where straightness training as a basic training ends, and the Art of Riding begins.
Bits, one of many discussion points between horse lovers. Do we need them?
In this article I'd like to share my thoughts on this subject.
There are those who claim it is not possible, ever, to control your horse without using a bit. To those people I'd like to say: control is not force, control is not reached through pulling an animal in the mouth. Control, if you want to use that word, is reached through understanding and through communication.
Then there are those that say that it is not 'natural' is it to put a piece of metal in a sensitive mouth, and therefore bits should never be used. To those I'd say that in that case, we should not ride horses at all, as it is also not natural for a horse to have a rider on his back.
Yes, a lot of harm can be done by using a bit wrong. I have seen terrible things done in a horse's mouth; from mouth corners bloody and cut, to splintered bars, damaged teeth and scarring inside the mouth.
However, it is also possible to damage a horse's head severely using a rope halter, cavesson or any other tool on the nose bone. I have seen broken nose bones, excessive scarring on the nose from 'serreta's' (cavessons with pointy bottom) and terrible wrong doing with hackamores.
So in my opinion, the discussion should not be about the type of tool ("mine is better then yours"), but let's have a sound discussion about how tools should and should not be used. A rein, connected to the horse's head in whatever way, whether to the mouth or nose, should NEVER be used in a pulling way, there should NEVER be placed force on the horse's head. One main reason of course is the damage that can be done with each tool that takes influence on the skull. Not only the damage I mentioned above, but also damage to the horses esophagus, windpipe, tong bone, salivary glands and neck vertebrae.
Another reason why one should never pull on the reins is a biomechanical one: When a hand works backwards, pulling on the horse's head or mouth, the spine is compressed. This works its way backwards through the spine into the pelvis and results in a flattened pelvis and hind legs that are being pushed backwards out. This creates a bigger push from the horse forwards, which in most cases is then caught again in the rider's hand, which has to pull harder, and so on. In short; it does not work to pull on reins to stop a horse. Actually, pulling has the opposite effect. That is why in racing, you see the riders pull on the reins. It creates a 'pushing' speed. Unfortunately, it also creates a ‘spectacular’ extention in the front legs and it gets awarded with high scores in too many competitions, both in dressage and in gaited competitions. This way of extending damages the front legs and stiffens the back and is in no way a harmonious or natural way of moving.
In the Art of Riding, our aim is to work the hind legs forwards under the point of weight and allow the horse to carry us in a balanced, healthy and harmonious way, with movement that adds beauty to the natural gaits. For that, the pelvis needs to tilt, bringing the tail down. This does not work with a rein that is pulled or simply held (what some call the 'resisting hand'). Even with a hand that does not literally pull but is just held to resist the effect is that of pulling; it pushes the hind legs backwards out.
What we strive for is a horse searching towards a giving hand. This does not mean there is no contact. Our definition of contact is simply lighter than many other trainers. For many, contact equals weight. For us, weight equals wrong biomechanics. Contact should be subtle, should be vibrations, should be energy, should never be strong, should never be fixed. That is why in the Art of Riding, you can see reins slightly hanging through. This does not mean that there is no contact, horses can still feel our half halts and vibrations through the reins, and we can still feel the horse.
You can imagine that using a bit in that manner, or a cavesson or a hackamore or whatever bitless bridle, has a different effect than using a strong contact with tight reins.
So, here is how I like to use my tools:
With a young horse, I prefer to start bitless. I use a cavesson on the nose. I use this tool, because it has an influence on the upper jaw and through the skull into the spine. Snaffle bits and many bitless bridles take influence on the lower jaw, which is moveable. I like the lower jaw to be placed correctly by the horse itself. When I ask with a direct cavesson rein for a horse to look to the left, when his nose turns left, his lower jaw is free to move to the right, aligning the molars on the right side of his jaw. This is what we call stellning, or correct bending at the poll. It creates a freedom between the jaw and the atlas vertebra. When I ask the same with a snaffle or a bitless bridle that crosses underneath, I actually pull the lower jaw to the left, which can result in a tilting of the head, a stiffening in the jaw or a wrong rotation into the horses spine.
With the cavesson, I teach the horse the direct and indirect rein, my half halts, the stops. I bend the horse and send him forward down towards a giving hand.
When I am ready to ask more collection, I add the curb bit. The curb is an unbroken bit with shanks. The use of the curb is through the leverage system of the shanks and the chin chain. The effect of a correct use of the curb, is that it stretches the muscles in the upper line in the neck, causing the ears to move forward and the skull to be placed more vertical with an ‘open neck’. Meaning, the space between the jaw and the atlas should be kept ‘open’ so that the horse’s biofunctions remain intact. A snaffle cannot do this, as it does not have this leverage system and would simply pull the lower jaw closer towards the neck, compressing the windpipe, salivary glands and esophagus.
Many consider the curb to be a cruel tool and a snaffle bit more friendly. Snaffles are widely accepted in the horse community. However, with the snaffle there is much more risk of compression of the neck and of damaging the bars and the teeth. Many riders ride with lots of weight on the snaffle reins. With a curb, you already have a good communication with a loose rein. Yes, it looks more scary with the shanks, but as with any tool it is not that scary once you understand how to use it. Many of the Old Masters would only use cavesson and curb and you can find many images of them riding with a loose rein. That is the beauty of the curb; you have communication with a very loose rein, and you can stay very quiet and soft in your hands. Of course, the image of the curb nowadays is a bit different, as we see many riders misusing the curb, riding with tight contact and shanks pulled backwards vertically.
An alternative for the curb for those who do not want to use or cannot use a bit is the hackamore. It uses the same principle of the leverage through the shanks. Nowadays, we even have a combination of cavesson and hackamore available: the cavemore.
So, for a long time I train my horses with the combination of the cavesson, for bending and half halts, and the curb for collection.
When my communication with my horse is good enough, when my horse understands me through my seat and when my control over my seat is precise enough, I can stop and turn my horse in correct bending and with the right forward-down just from my seat. Then, I do not need to use the cavesson anymore and can ride with curb only. As the curb is unbroken, you cannot use your reins separately. Therefore, the curb should be used one-handed. When I become even more advanced with my seat and my horse is able to collect from the seat, you can take everything off and ride without anything on the head.
This should always be the goal of the Art of Riding; to master the seat and the communication with your horse to a degree that you do not needs as many tools anymore. However, there will be very few riders that have this control over their seat to be precise enough right from the beginning. And there will be very few horses who will instinctively understand what we mean exactly and who are able to execute all exercises without some extra support. For most horses, we will need these tools, whether a cavesson, curb or other bridle, to explain to the horse in a clearer way what we want.
So for those riding naturally, with no contact to the head, the discussion is what kind of communications you can have going with your horse and how many nuances you can have in this communication. Can you ask your horse to place its jaw in the exact position to allow a good biomechanics, can you truly free the shoulders?
For those riding with tight contact, is your horse truly stepping forward under and bringing up the back? Is the jaw moveable and the mouth soft? Can you ask your horse to place its jaw in the exact position to allow a good biomechanics, can you truly free the shoulders?
You see, both ‘extremes’ probably want the same end result; a horse that can move freely, feels good about itself and sits comfortably. But by fighting over the tools and not questioning the use and how we could learn from each other in finding a way to reach our goals, we will not resolve our issues. In both worlds, I see good trainers and bad trainers. The good ones all have in common that they are able to communicate with their horses and give them a biomechanical correct shape.
In my opinion, we should treat bits and all other types of bridles as a tool to communicate with our horses, to be replaced by our seat when our communication gets better.
So in this whole discussion, let’s not blame the screwdriver for doing a bad job, let’s blame the handyman who is using it.
Any device on a horse’s head will be as severe as the hand that holds the reins!
I like to share my thoughts on the Art of Riding with you here. Topics related to training and keeping horses and reports of my own experiences you can find here. Enjoy!