Lakitos – Evasions

In my last post I described how Lakitos felt to me as I sat on him without trying to actually ride, that is change or correct his way of going.  Before I begin to discuss the aids and exercises we employ in our training, I wish to take a moment to describe the obstacles we face in our training program, since all riders face issues of their horse’s personality or past experiences.  As I have said before, Lakitos  stresses and worries to the point he scares himself, often without any identifiable cause.  So today I will share this challenge, and then we can move on to discuss the actual training and riding.

 Alert, but calm

Alert, but calm

Lakitos is a very friendly and calm horse in the barn and other familiar, unchanging places.  He likes people and other horses, although he gets tense when another horse comes directly face to face with him, both on the ground and under saddle.   He can walk calmly to his paddock or toward the arena assuming nothing has changed.  When something has changed or has been moved , he senses it immediately ( still find it fascinating that he can have such a good memory) and starts to breathe quickly and try to hesitate or otherwise avoid gong near or past the object.  In fact, the more and longer he looks at something, the more frightened he becomes.   The rider/handler has to stay calm and relaxed and give him another point of focus.   Of course, the ideal situation, if riding, is to keep him on the aids and moving forward, but this is not always the case.  At one point I wanted to be “kind” to him and allow him to walk freely (long rein) to and from the arena, but for him that was not “kindness,” but rather abandonment,   (I should note that the walk from the barn to the arena is about 60 meters, and goes past various buildings, paddocks, the jumping arena, and often a lot of activity.)

The "long" walk.

The “long” walk.

When left to walk on his own he can only look for things to worry about and avoid, as he makes the “dangerous” trip from arena to barn.  For him  “kindness” is  to keep him where he feels safe —“on the aids”.  We all want to be kind to our horses and develop their trust.  However, it is important that we determine what is kindness to the individual horse, for they are all individuals.  What makes one feel calm can bring terror to another.

As an example, I will relate a typical day.  If I mount in the barn, he is calm and stands quietly.  He walks in a relaxed manner out the door and is reasonably content walking as far as his paddock (we are assuming here that he is not “on the aids”), provided of course, nothing has changed along the way.  Once he passes the paddock he begins to stress.  You can feel he is worrying about what will be going on in the arena (since the arena is uphill from the barn, he cannot see what is there until he arrives at the entrance):   are their poles left on the ground, colorful plastic objects left in the arena or in the corners by Pony Clubbers?   Lakitos finds these things a bit “offsetting” and on the way to the arena seems almost to be thinking “good grief, what frightening thing will I have to face today”.  A bit like I feel on my way to the dentist.

Avoidance, try to run through the corner.

Avoidance, try to run through the corner.

Once in the arena he takes a quick look around making a  mental list of the problem areas.  At this point, if he is not on the aids, he is hesitant to go forward, meaning through his body toward the hand.  Here I think it is important to remind ourselves that while some horses are nervous, some spooky, some tense, and some outright bullies, the thing that brings them all to a state of relaxed submission is feeling balanced, therefore “safe”.  So my primary objective with Lakitos is to keep his focus, keep him on the aids and develop his, balance.  For him this is reassuring and allows him to work comfortably.  Happily, he is a very kind and willing horse, and quite a workaholic, never quitting.  He never does anything against the rider, and in his heart wants to relax and please.

Always watching and correcting.  Keeping us out of trouble.

Always watching and correcting. Keeping us out of trouble.

As we know, all horses offer challenges to their riders.  Here, I have described our challenges with Lakitos.  Since we like to solve problems and face challenges, and as we are in no hurry, he suits us.  However, I must add I would find it almost impossible to pursue his training without coaching and eyes on the ground.  In my riding at the moment, I find I tend to anticipate certain reactions from Lakitos and often become either too strong in my aids, lift out of my seat, or match his resistances rather break them.  With good instruction I am usually corrected quickly and can proceed without major problems developing.

I am happy to report that during the few months Lakitos has been with us in France, he has made good progress in his transition from his surroundings and work in Germany.  He is often softer in the contact, less determined to stiffening his body and lean on his shoulders and the bit, pays more attention and responds more quickly to my aids.  While he has no reduction in his “self-imposed anxiety”,  he relaxes more in the work since he begins to trust me and my aids.  He is a teeth-grinder by nature, and this has become now a rare occurrence, as has his jaw crossing and neck stiffening.

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I wish also to point out that while I do not know his history, I do know he was ridden by stronger, younger riders.  Therefore, a part of this transition has been a necessary adaptation to a smaller, older rider who is not as strong and naturally uses slightly different aids.  So I think it speaks well for his effort to fit into a new riding technique, considering all of his insecurities.

Finally, I believe I have described to the best of my ability the feelings and challenges Lakitos presents.  Therefore, I will begin in further posts to discuss how we approach his work, what I do and why.  Since we combine lunging, pole and caveletti work, long-lining and riding, there is much to share.  And much to learn, as the horse always gives us reason to think, and re-think our approach.  in the end, they are our teachers.

What I Feel From the Back of Lakitos

After much reflection, I have decided to approach my next few posts in a slightly different manner.  I hope to take the reader onto Lakitos with me, giving the best description possible of what I see and feel.  I also will incorporate a bit of the instuctors point of view, both in correcting the horse and rider.

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Here he is relaxed in the walk and long in the neck, but could open his walk more.

trot inside

In this trot, he is active with his hind leg, but could engage more under himself.

A good starting point is an evaluation from my coach, Henri.  What does he see as the primary issues to tackle at this moment in training in both horse and rider?  Let’s begin with Lakitos.  (I wish to note here that my coach is not only an accomplished rider, but also an expert in equine biomechanics.)  Globally,  (1) He needs work to open his shoulders to develop more fluidity in his gaits  (at the walk, needs more shoulder freedom).  (2) He needs to engage  his haunches to obtain a lifting of the withers,  (3) I need to build his confidence in the aids, thereby developing more confidence in the rider. Regarding me and  my position (I am working also after a 3 year riding absence to develop my condition and improve my posture in the saddle), the most common commands I hear are:  (1)open your shoulders, (2)sit deeper, (3)relax your leg down,  and(4) post closer to the saddle in the rising trot.  Regarding my hands, Lakaitos has a difficult mouth (he crosses his jaw and stiffens on the reins) and has a tendency to be quite inattentive, so I have a habit of meeting his stiffness with a little stiffness of my own, so I often hear, relax your contact.  Don’t give him something to stiffen against.  Easier said than done.

Now, to what I feel when I am riding.  Let’s begin at the walk, with a description of how things feel under my seat and legs.  First, I feel a bulging fullness under my right leg, and a place to sit on his back with my right seat bone.  On the left, everything feels empty to my leg and seat, and he leans heavily in that direction.  Because of this crookedness (laterality) it is difficult to get my legs back and control his haunches.  In my hands, it is difficult to make sensitive observations since he is easily distracted and a bit flighty.  It takes a long time for him to relax and the warm up required varies from day to day.  However, what is consistent, he locks  on the right rein, flexes easily to the left.    When he is distracted, he becomes very rigid on the left rein, and any attempt to flex results in a crossing of the jaw and stiffening of the neck.  (I plan to discuss at a later point what I do about this, but for now we are just “describing”.)  However, when he relaxes and concentrates on his work, he enables the rider to sit squarely on his back and modify weight and seat aids easily, and comes into the left leg sufficiently that it can be used properly.  In the hand, it is important to keep the bit “alive” in his mouth so he can relax his jaw and swallow.  This relaxation keeps him from stiffening his neck and it becomes easier to bend and flex.  Just recently he has begun to stretch out and down to seek the contact and allow the rider to make a “release” without disturbing his balance.

It is easy to see the left leaning, emptiness left and right shifting (bulge).

It is easy to see the left leaning, emptiness left and right shifting (bulge).

At the trot, his first reaction is to trot very quickly, with running strides.  Because he stiffens himself and is crooked, he rushes in order to balance himself.  Without any intervention on the part of the rider, the left stirrup is a bit longer than the right (again his laterality), he falls left and stiffens against the right rein, making it difficult to get a response from the right leg, other than rushing even more.  His neck becomes rigid and the contact uneven.  His back is dropped and it is difficult to sit and even posting is challenging without bouncing up and down (my coach calls it “bellydancing”).  Overall, he is out of balance and uses speed to maintain his equilibrium.

Much the same occurs at the canter.  Going left he maintains the canter easier, but is either two slow and a bit lateral in the canter, or races  to keep his balance.  Going right, it is more difficult for him to maintain the canter and he breaks to the trot, or he stiffens and sometimes bolts in a bit of a panic.  When these things happen, there is no place to sit, he stiffens his whole body an leans on the bit.

As you can see, he has balance issues that must be addressed immediately by the rider.  He is a very insecure horse, and relies on the rider considerably for his sense of  “safety”, that is to say balance and security from things that make him nervous.  This is perhaps an extreme case since Lakitos is very sensitive and very insecure, but it serves as a good example of the responsibilities of the rider to his horse.  From him, many riders can identify similar issues with their horses.  Hopefully however, their horses have patience and tolerance and the rider can learn to make good use of the aids to solve these problems, progressing a little each day.

I often have to remind myself that I am “re-schooling” Lakitos, as he was previously ridden in a different manner and discipline by riders younger and stronger than I am at this point in my life.  Therefore, it requires a lot of patience, and acceptance that there will be good days and not so good days.  However, one advantage to this journal is it helps me to recognize the progress we are making.

Much more relaxed.

Much more relaxed.

As I said, this post is not meant to discuss what I am doing to school my horse; how I use the aids, what exercises I am doing, etc.  This is an initial description of how he feels to me, and what my coach can observe BEFORE we apply any aids.  This is the RAW material, the horse as he is with the burden of the rider, but without any help from the rider.

My next post will begin to explain how I am proceeding with my training, and what results I am obtaining with this work.  I will also include the problems, set backs and frustrations.  But happily, more often than not, I go back to the barn feeling pleased with my horse and his effort to please me.

The “Happy” Horse

So much has been written about the “happy horse”, especially lately.  I believe this recent rollkur lefttrend is in some part a backlash to the controversial low and deep, or rollkur form of training.  If not specifically that, then perhaps in response to the form of business riding  where the horse is “pressed to the max” to boost the price for sales.  Whatever the motive, it is definitely the “trend” at the moment.

I have been reading various approaches to making a horse “happy”.  Some of these articles  suggest  a horse is happy when he can stretch , he is happy with very light contact, lots of walk breaks make him happy, as well as a multitude of other riding concepts and practices.   For me, these things, in an of themselves, do not make a horse happy.   As the result of reading various opinions, they have inspired me to reflect on my many years of experience with numerous horses, as well as the knowledge I have worked to acquire over the years.  I have thought a lot about what it took to bring each of these horses to a point of calmness in their work.  Of course, there was a lot of variation in their needs, as horses are individuals and not to approach them as such can never make them “happy”.  Finally, I have decided to express my opinion as well.

Here I feel this young horse looks relaxed but still making an effort in his work.

Here I feel this young horse looks relaxed but still making an effort in his work.

First, let’s start with my definition of a “happy horse“.  For me, this is extremely simple; what makes a horse happy in his work is a clear understanding of what is asked, and a rider who finds the way to make it easy for him to accomplish the task asked of him.  What is difficult is adapting the training to the individual needs and attitudes of the horse.

It would be easier to begin my discussion with a typical young and unspoiled horse, beginning his training with only his “personality” to consider.   However, most of us are not starting three and four year old horses.  Rather we are dealing with a horse with a history, good or not so good.  This situation of course complicates somewhat our approach to making our horse  “happy” in his work.  So, I will tackle this issue using a specific example.

Contact can make a horse either happy or unhappy.  So let’s discuss  the horse who has been ridden upside down with little contact, or with the “contact, no contact” (taking the rein until the horse puts his head down, and then slacking the rein until he raises it again) style of riding commonly seen at lower levels of dressage.  In an effort to “train” this horse, that is to say develop rhythm, balance and straightness, we must of course school the horse with contact.  Needless to say, the horse will not at first be happy to accept contact.  But we all know in order to teach him to become elastic and flexible, we must have contact.  In order to develop his topline, we must have a tensile strength from pole to tail (longitudinal flexion) which cannot be accomplished without contact.  Therefore, he must encounter and be developed to UNDERSTAND and ACCEPT contact with the bit and therefore our hand.  (I am not intending to conduct a training session, perhaps at another time we can discuss the question of contact.)  We have to remember here, we are not “educating” but “re-educating” our horse so we have to expect some resistances.

So how do we bring this horse into a state of “happiness”?  First we have to acknowledge that re-schooling takes a lot of patience.  In order to work calmly, the horse has to understand the aids and have confidence in the rider.  This requires constant repetition of the application of the aids using the BIG LETTERS so he has a clear understanding of your demands.  Of course anything new is a bit stressful, for horses and humans, and therefore the horse might not seem happy, but a calm repetition will over time bring the horse to a point where he will perform this demand in a relaxed way.

Here the horse is making a big effort, but does it willingly ...happily.

Here the horse is making a big effort, but does it willingly …happily.

This does not mean the work is not hard, but unless a horse is lazy, he does not mind to work hard if he understands his work.  For me, when he can perform his work in a way that he understands, even if it is physically demanding, he is happy to do it.

Finally, I think we can make the description of a “happy horse” even more simple.  A horse is most happy when he feels he is in BALANCE.  The work is not easy for the horse when he is out of balance. And it is the rider who must help the horse stay in balance throughout his work.  Of course a horse who is not on the aids, does not understand the aids, can never receive any help from the rider (outside of force) to maintain his balance (or re-balance).  Simply put, the horse has to have some stress while learning to respond correctly to the rider’s aids, which will not always make him happy, but once he understands the aids and trusts the rider to apply them consistently, he relaxes mentally and assumes the role of “happy horse”.  This is the true meaning of harmony.  Consistency and trust.  Happiness!!