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.

DSC04135

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.

Some Solutions on Circles

To complete my discussion of the circle, I will focus on some solutions to problems I originally described.   It is very important to note that the horse’s laterality or “handedness” plays a HUGE role in finding solution.  In short, we must teach the horse to be straight, and this means even on a circle.  To quote Ulrick Schramm (The Undisciplined Horse),crookedness is an everlasting curse.  Even a very accomplished horse will evidence at times some degree of one-sidedness and this has to be corrected repeatedly by the limbering exercises on circles and two tracks”   So let’s discuss those limbering exercises.

Stiffness

Stiff

Reactions (or resistances) by the horse are nearly always related to his desire to balance himself, and when he begins a circle his lateral tendencies will magnify themselves.  He will cross a hind leg and lean, he will drift out, speed up or try to avoid consistent contact.  Therefore, the rider’s work is to teach the horse to relax and become supple through his body, not just his neck, in order to maintain, or regain, his balance.

Following are some exercises to be performed on a circle to develop this suppleness.  (Here I assume the horse has learned to respond to the basic leg, seat and rein aids, and can perform a shoulder-fore and haunches-in on straight lines.)

  • first, for purposes of perspective, mark a circle of 10 to 15 meters, making a clearly visible track.
  • attempt to walk the circle keeping the horse, as well as possible, on the track.  Review the hoof marks afterwards, and of course perform this effort in both directions.
  • attempt a shoulder-fore on the circle (first renew your clean track).  Remember, the shoulders move slightly off the track with the haunches on the track.  This is really more difficult than it seems and only a truly supple horse can accomplish this and leave “correct” tracks (not wobbling or shifting or stepping wide).
  • attempt a haunches-in, maintaining the front end on the track and without any leg crossing.  Maintain the neck parallel to the shape of the circle (this will require a supple and soft activity of the reins, not holding or forcing the position of the neck).
  • finally, attempt a counter shoulder-in on the circle.  This movement, done correctly, really serves to loosen and supple the shoulders.  It is not easy and can take sometimes weeks to accomplish with some horses.  Be patient and do not expect good results on the first attempts.  The horse has to learn how to move his body this way, and any forcing of the process will be counterproductive.

Developing control of the haunches

Once you can perform these exercises quite easily your ability to perform even the smallest volte will result in a straighter, more rhythmical and active horse , as he will be able to maintain his balance.  As General DeCarpentry noted in his book,  Academic Equitation, “there is no better procedure than bending work on the circle……..to obtain and to develop the lateral suppleness of the back–which determines suppleness in the vertical plane”.

Once good results can be obtained from the exercises described above, you can then begin to manage your bend on turns and circles with the use of your outside aids, and not just a bend in the neck from the inside rein.  You can begin your circle by guiding gently the haunches to the new direction, and then maintain control of the shoulders with your outside rein.  You are also able to support the horse with your outside aids to prevent  the falling in on the circle without the horse stiffening and losing balance.

When the horse learns to performs these exercises on circles, not only will his circle work improve, but his laterality becomes much less of an issue in later movements because of his “learned” flexibility in both directions.  And as an added bonus, you horse will very likely stay sound longer.

Problem Solving – Introduction

I have been preparing a series of posts with respect to “problem solving“.  I am not referring to the common usage of the term, i.e., behavioral problems such as rearing, bolting, biting, etc.  Instead I wish to tackle issues that arise during the training process such as stiffness, crookedness, lack of or inability to maintain balance, refusals at jumps, crossing of legs on turns and circles, winging and paddling…….the list goes on.

My approach to these discussions will be to select an issue, demonstrate using photos or videos, and explore possible causes, as well as suggest possible solutions.

We all realize that often we have some underlying problems which go undetected by the rider (and often from the ground person) but eventually show themselves in overt ways such as head shaking, tongue problems, gait irregularities, an unevenness in the contact, etc.  Often by observiing others, we discover something within ourselves.  This is my intention regarding these posts…….to bring awareness to training issues, and offer insights which can lead to solutions.

My first post will concentrate on the “simple” issue of circles and turns.  I say “simple” with tongue in cheek because the ability to make a perfect circle would eliminate the need for several of the remaining posts.  As we all know, everything is interconnected but  by examination and discussion of the parts, we produce a better whole.  The hard part is isolating one issue from another.  However, I will try to do just that.

I hope you will stay with me throughout this journey, and please offer any comments or suggestions you might have.  I would like very much for this to be a discussion, that is to say, interactive, as we ALL encounter training problems, and often one person alone can overlook something important to another.