The Neck’s Integrity

I think it’s important to understand basic anatomy to understand what postures are healthy and not so healthy. Training your eye is essential, because there are many postures we can become accustomed to seeing and even think of as beautiful that aren’t good for the horse. Conversely, many postures that are healthy and sustainable for a young, green or weak horse are not fancy and sometimes not as pleasant to see (if you’re conditioned to think of a certain posture as pretty over others). I find people in the dressage world especially to be pretty intolerant to seeing horses noses up or too far down, but let’s look to the bones for an ideal posture.

Can you create a connection with your reins that doesn’t compromise the neck vertebrae? Ideally they should remain lined up. When a horse is brought “on the contact” too soon, the integrity of the neck can be easily compromised. You see the first two vertebrae go down, the third becomes the high point, and with this comes ramifications that aren’t good: a horse’s neck shortened and crammed into their chest, less poll movement, shallower breaths, rigidity in the back, tightness in the SI, limited movement of the hind legs under the body. In other words, this horse is physically incapable of pushing from behind:

For horses ridden this way, long and low is my go to until they can maintain the integrity of their neck on the contact.

Whether your horse’s neck is up or down, on contact or not, I try to imagine the vertebrae. Are they lined up in the posture I’m riding in? If not, I know the effects on the rest of the body a shortened neck has, and I try to avoid it.

As Manolo Mendez often says, “short body, long neck.”

The horse’s neck at rest
The horse in movement with vertebrae in alignment
The horse behind the vertical – first two vertebrae drop down
The lengthened neck shows the vertebrae in alignment
Long and low allows the horses’ neck to stretch and therefore the back to loosen

Philosophical Integrity

Your work doesn’t have to be for everybody – and that’s ok. For me, maintaining the integrity of my philosophy is paramount. There are things I find essential for each horse to have, and I’m not willing to progress before those are in place. There are things I’m not willing to compromise. A talented horse, important client, or excitement about a show or event won’t change my philosophy; and my philosophy isn’t for everyone. That’s totally fine. What’s important to me is giving each horse and rider the best shot I can at being relaxed, balanced, and safe together – so for those who are willing and able to take that ride, well then let’s ride.

Humans are Humans

I think there is a very interesting line between a dictatorship with the horse, and avoiding anything that makes them uncomfortable. Because humans are humans, we tend to go to extremes. There are some people who treat their horse like a tool. They’re likely to say “he has to do x,y,z” and “I expect my horse to do x,y,z”. Then there are people who say “my horse doesn’t like that so we don’t do it.” “He is scared to be tied so I don’t do it.” “When I went out to catch him he said no thanks so I didn’t bother him.”

As with anything, the healthy approach is the middle road. If we force our horses to do our bidding without regard for their feelings, there obviously is no room for a real relationship of any kind. To some people, the horse is a toy they purchased to do what they want. What a sad existence for a horse.

For the folks who never ask their horse to do anything uncomfortable, the horse never learns any structure, and isn’t able to gain confidence. They might say no initially because they worry, don’t understand, or don’t have the tools to complete the task. It’s our responsibility to give those tools to build a horse who has confidence in themselves, in us, and the world at large. A horse who doesn’t expand their comfort zone is at high risk – how will they get shots, trims, tie if needed, be handled by a vet if they need care, caught in an emergency, hauled to safety? Building a horse who is habituated to say no is not ethical, just as creating a soldier for a horse is not ethical. It leaves them vulnerable without tools to deal with their world, and unless you plan to set them free into the wild, they still have to deal with the elements of domesticity that aren’t natural for them.

I try to give all my horses the tools they need to be confident, to be safe, to handle the unexpected, and I respect when they say no, I don’t want to do that. But hearing no means I need to evaluate: do they have the tools they need? Do I need to approach this differently or at a different time? And yes, sometimes what I’m asking isn’t appropriate. If it doesn’t improve the horses life, I think they have a right to say no. But if I know it will add value to their life, I need to find a way to help them get confidence enough to do it.
As with all elements of a partnership, I listen to their concerns, and introduce things in a way that suits them.

Praise without conditions

I notice something interesting when I teach people, especially women. When I pay attention to improvements and make a big deal of them, many people are often immediately suspicious.
The conversation might go something like this:
Me: “you rode that circle very nicely!”
Student: “well I still didn’t get a good rythm, my right leg is still too tight and my horse didn’t bend well.”
Me: “ok but it still is a really nice improvement”
Student : “well it could be better”

It sometimes seems that our brains are committed to focusing on the negative aspects of our work, that we aren’t allowed to be proud of our improvements. When I ask my students to tell me something they did well, they often look visibly uncomfortable, and if they can come up with something, they add conditions to it. “I got better at x, BUT I still didn’t do y and z.” I tell them often that a successful moment doesn’t need to be described with conditions. You can be aware of what needs improvement without needing to beat yourself over the head with it.

I also think people can get accustomed to the authoritarian type teacher who just hollers your every failure at you, until you accept you are never going to be as good as them. So a teacher who compliments their improvement and draws on their strengths draws suspicion – maybe the teacher doesn’t know anything if they think I’m good.

The thing is, I would never in a million years teach a horse the way some people have become used to being taught. Hanging your failures over your head puts too much emphasis on your shortcomings. Yes I can see what your leg is doing, but we’ll get to that. One thing at a time. When you ride with a laundry list of your own faults, you don’t reward yourself, or notice your accomplishments – and you don’t notice the horse’s either. You can’t help it. You think you’re being hard on yourself but you’re hard on the horse too.

You are allowed to be proud of your improvements. In fact, I highly recommend it.

Fun

Are you having fun?
Not many people use horses for a living anymore. That means that riding and being with horses is a hobby done in our free time. This should free us up to have some fun with it!
So many people I meet are very obviously not having fun. They are frustrated, afraid, over horsed, shelling out an arm and a leg for their hobby and seeming to not get enjoyment out of it. Maybe they have a trainer who stresses them out or is harsh and driving. Maybe their boarding barn is full of drama. Maybe the horse is fearful, forward, athletic, young, and they might do better with a confident, quiet older horse.

So are you having fun? It’s supposed to be- there may be moments of fear while you work through expanding your comfort zone, but not everlasting dread. There may be moments of frustration while you work through concepts that are new and hard, or run into roadblocks, but not frustration overall.

Just as a horse needs the right environment of security to learn, people need security to learn as well.

So if you aren’t having fun, what needs to change? Maybe you have the wrong horse for you- nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to ride all kinds of horses. Maybe you have the wrong trainer. The yelling kind or overly forceful kind can zap the fun out of anybody’s riding. Maybe you don’t have a trainer and could benefit from some instruction and help. Maybe your attitude needs a makeover? Maybe your expectations need tweaking. It could be a little of all of things, some of them, or something completely different.

Either way, it’s important to remember riding is for fun, so if you aren’t having any, something needs to change.

Roping the Legs

Teaching the horse to give to the rope with the legs is incredibly important for their safety and well-being. It teaches them to give their feet to pressure should they ever get caught in something – wire, a fence, you name it. Instead of struggling and injuring themselves (a fearful horse can really cause themselves great harm), they can learn to relax their leg. Doing this has literally saved my life, and probably my horse’s, several times while stepping into barbed wire by accident on the trail.

Roping the legs is important, but can be done poorly or well. Quite often it is done in ways that are brutal and cause harm and fear to the horse. Before ever putting a rope around their legs, I work to prepare them extensively, so that by the time I have a rope on them, they are not worried. Like everything else, this work should be done slowly, carefully, and giving the horse plenty of time to think it through.

This little 3 year old isn’t worried and gives his foot softly.

Don’t Be a BuzzKill

It’s pretty easy to pull out the laundry list of things your horse does that you don’t like. But I wonder what they would have to say about things we do that they don’t like? I bet the list would be pretty humbling.

It’s so easy to focus on what isn’t going well and what we want to improve. I work hard on my lessons to get people to notice the little improvements, and to have high standards but still spend their energy thinking about what is going well.

I don’t teach people by complaining about every thing they do wrong, in fact I ignore a good amount of it. It’s too overwhelming and would shut them down. They wouldn’t want to try anymore. That doesn’t mean I never work on those things, but I do them as they’re able- when they’re ready, with plenty of attention going toward the changes and efforts they’re making.

Are you encouraging or discouraging your horse? You can notice the things you don’t like, but don’t set up permanent residence in buzz kill land

Don’t Be a BuzzKill

It’s pretty easy to pull out the laundry list of things your horse does that you don’t like. But I wonder what they would have to say about things we do that they don’t like? I bet the list would be pretty humbling.

It’s so easy to focus on what isn’t going well and what we want to improve. I work hard on my lessons to get people to notice the little improvements, and to have high standards but still spend their energy thinking about what is going well.

I don’t teach people by complaining about every thing they do wrong, in fact I ignore a good amount of it. It’s too overwhelming and would shut them down. They wouldn’t want to try anymore. That doesn’t mean I never work on those things, but I do them as they’re able- when they’re ready, with plenty of attention going toward the changes and efforts they’re making.

Are you encouraging or discouraging your horse? You can notice the things you don’t like, but don’t set up permanent residence in buzz kill land

Paying Attention

One complaint I hear frequently from riders is “he’s not paying attention to me!”
This is often coming from someone who’s mind is wandering, overthinking, worrying, daydreaming, and the like. If we are not here, and more importantly, if we don’t have a nice feel for the horse to find when their attention is with us, why should they do it?
I often ask riders when they say their horse should pay attention to them – why? Not only does he not “have to,” because he’s bigger and stronger than you are, but paying attention to you over his herd makes him more vulnerable, more at risk, and less safe.

The horse’s main job is to eat and be with a herd for security. When we deprive him of those two things he obviously is going to have some worries and needs to be met. Can you provide security? Can you provide relaxation? Can you provide balance? Can you be in the moment with him?
If not, why should he give you his attention? His security lies somewhere else, and without security, he can’t even begin to care about riding circles.

When the Horse Wins

Travis and I are riding with Brent Graef this weekend. I always learn a lot from Brent, but what I’m constantly impressed by is his ability to keep people out of their heads, to help people see the improvements and try in their horse, and to help people understand how to use what their horse is offering instead of fighting it.
It’s so ingrained in us from the beginning of our riding lives to fight what the horse wants to do or is doing- to do the opposite. When we meet the horse halfway, and use what they want to blend in to what we want, things work out so much more smoothly. Horses relax, feel safer, more understood, and are more willing to go where we want afterwards.
The hardest part is getting people to stop thinking in terms of “winning” and “losing.” We seem to think if the horse wins, we lose. Brent is a master at helping people understand that when the horse wins, they win confidence, understanding, relaxation, and we ultimately win too. We just have to be a little flexible.