In this sequence of images, Oliver who is entirely at liberty follows me down the arena to our drum (horse platform). At my direction, given by gestures of my arms and the posture of my body -- but without voice commands or physical aids of any kind -- he mounts the drum, raises a front foot as for Spanish Walk, and then picks up a foot for me to examine it. He gets a good scratch as a reward, along with some bits of carrot. For more thought-provoking examples of what I teach during Horsemanship Improvement Clinics, click on the button below to go to linked pages.
The next sequence, below, shows me demonstrating the technique of twirling a horse's head from the ground. To twirl the head means to cause the horse to tuck its jowl SIDEWAYS under its throat without tipping its head; the ears should remain on a level. The horse in this sequence, at first somewhat distrustful and braced at the poll, responds after a few seconds by completely turning loose to me. The amount of pressure that I needed on this horse was about four ounces; notice my softly cupped fingers. There is only one purpose for this technique, which is to induce or trigger release of the muscles of the upper neck and throat.
"Twirling the head" is my own term, and the technique itself is a modification of the approach originally taught in the 1830's by Francois Baucher as "jaw flexions". Unless the horse turns loose of all brace through the poll, jaws, and tongue, he will not be able to flex all the joints of the hindquarter in order to "sit down" for collection.
RIDING AND HANDLING
As with the previous section on "Factual Knowledge", all I can really do here is suggest a list -- in this case, skills that I come to town intending to teach and that I hope all students are interested in learning. The photos and illustrations at left, like the list below, are meant to pique your curiosity and inspire your interest in wanting to know more and be able to do more with your horse.
At my Horsemanship Improvement Clinics, interaction of riders and horses occurs in two ways -- Ground School and Under Saddle.
"Ground School" recently has to a great degree, I think, been driven into the ground. I frequently see it mis-used, greatly to the horse's detriment. I've seen lots of riders burned out on it and an equal number of horses who, far from being calmed and educated by ground schooling, came away from it tense and fearful. The handler needs to realize that the spinning rope and the flag, along with the longe whip and the dressage whip, are powerful tools which must be used with discretion, kindly intent, good judgement, and fine timing. When we use these tools, it is not to get our horse to perform; it is to help him "turn loose" -- of all worries, confusion, and tension.
I do start every clinic with ground-handling, but rather than drubbing the horse through endless meaningless and unnecessary "disengagements" and "one-rein stops", the first thing I do is explain that we are going to take it slow and we are going to progress from one training step to the next not because that's what some rigid protocol set up by a self-styled guru demands, but rather because the horse himself tells us that he has understood and mastered Step One and is ready for Step Two.
I ask students to commit to doing "all that it takes but no more than it takes" to obtain responses from their horses. We are in quest of finding out "how little it might take" instead of blowing right through that to where we're compelled to find out "how much it's going to have to take." I teach students to think and plan first, then ask for position, wait for response, and then release. POSITION -- WAIT -- RELEASE is a thumbnail description of how touch is to be used to educate your horse.
We are absolutely talking about perfecting details here. We are talking about horse-awareness and self-awareness, because those are major keys to mastery. I ask students to have their horses perform each maneuver one step at a time -- I mean literally, I want the horse to take just ONE correct step, and then relax. And I ask you, the handler, to observe EXACTLY HOW your horse takes that step. When you asked for one step, did you instead get three or four or more steps before the horse more or less stumbled to a stop? Did the horse rush through it, as if trying to flee? Did he step backwards, when what you intended to ask was for him to step forward or laterally? Where did you step, how did you weight your own feet, how did you use your arms when you asked him? How did your body posture and gestures contribute to your horse's response?
Every good and effective horseman is a good observer. Your commitment to observing the horse's reactions, and your ability to correctly interpret the meaning of those reactions, allows you to know when to continue, when to stop, when to modify, when to reduce, when to repeat, and when to change to doing something else or begin teaching the next thing. At my clinics, I will challenge you repeatedly to report your horse's response and then respond appropriately to that. "Training" consists entirely of this kind of back-and-forth conversation.
I put a high priority on helping students develop their timing. The word "timing" can refer to several different aspects: it may mean "timing the application of pressure" -- which includes when to touch your horse, what you touch him with i.e. your fingers or some implement, and how firmly you touch him. More importantly, "timing" means "timing the removal of pressure" -- because this is the crucial "aha moment" when the horse realizes "so that's what I'm supposed to do!"
Ground school is an excellent place to develop timing because the handler can see the horse's facial and body expressions, and the position of its feet and how it is weighting them, much better from the ground than from the saddle. One of the first things I help most riders with is understanding weight shift and how to induce a horse to shift its weight. The horse cannot pick up any foot it is standing on, and for this reason, almost all "aids" actually work only in context of weight shift. Your timing is good and your aids are effective when they help the horse pick up whatever feet it needs to in time to perform whatever larger action you're hoping that he will perform. You were trying to perform shoulder-in or half-pass and getting frustrated? You had hoped to win a jump-off or a barrel race? Your slidestop goes crooked or winds up scotchy? Your gaited horse hard-paces? Your horse only takes one lead? Your circles look like D's? These are examples of the kinds of "larger actions" that start to succeed after we work together at one of my clinics.
I begin every clinic with group ground-school sessions, not merely to teach you about yourself and your horse, but to teach ME about you and your horse. Typically I come to town knowing no one but the sponsor or organizers, and sometimes it will be the first time I have met even them. Before licensing you to mount, I must find out the particular needs of each rider-horse team -- especially, how safe each horse is likely to be for the rider in the context of an arena it probably isn't familiar with and in a group of horses that it has just met. Ground school gives me the best shot at doing this. I will not permit anyone to mount until they have "passed" a series of ground-handling competencies. Most rider-horse teams get their "mounting license" within a couple of hours, but some need more time and those may be shifted to some form of private or semi-private session, depending upon scheduling constraints and the availability of a roundpen or small pen.
GROUND SCHOOLING SKILLS (WORK "IN HAND")
Manners through Focus and Attention
Twirling the Head
Stick and drum work
Working with "position -- wait -- release"
Free schooling and coming at call -- "The Art of the Thread"
Understanding "Turning Loose"
Once I grant your "mounting license" at a Horsemanship Improvement Clinic, we begin building a group ride, in which riders not only interact with their horses but also with other rider-horse pairings. The top student in any of my classes is not going to be the person with the fanciest horse, the horse that's won most prizes, or the rider who "knows" the most. Rather, it's going to be all those who commit to being of the most help to the other riders. This is obvious once you think about it: at any public riding clinic, there are always going to be people with horses more calm and experienced, and people with more riding skills and experience than others. Beginners are just as welcome at my clinics as Olympians. I expect the Olympians to be gracious enough to assist me in teaching the beginners -- by giving demonstrations when called upon, by encouraging beginners, by leading in troop rides, by asking good questions, and by protecting them by riding in such a way as to support them and keep them safe.
Top riders will be rewarded for their assistance by receiving additional attention from me, and by being permitted (indeed encouraged) to ask about and work on more complex, subtle, or technically demanding stuff. It is not easy, and it is not always even possible, to maintain a "fair" balance at clinics between the needs of beginners vs. more experienced riders, but I have found that the best approach which results in the greatest satisfaction for most students is where we come into it with the mature intent to help each other rather than show what we think we already know. Likewise, beginners who get weepy or whiny as a means of co-opting my attention will be squelched.
You can look at the list below to get an idea of the sort of skills my students work on when mounted. Beyond that, the biggest thing I want to add before ending this essay is that the "focus and attention" aspect, which I teach through the group of metaphors which subsume Birdie Theory, are the basis for every physical skill. Your ability to cause your horse to focus and pay attention is HOW he can become calm and obedient. And once he is calm and obedient, you can begin working on straightness, collection, and all the particular skills (i.e. for dressage, barrel racing, jumping, reining, trail riding, or anything else) that are built on that. There is no other order of doing things which will work. Most of the troubles that riders get themselves into in attempting to train come from not putting focus and attention first, and from not committing to return to that immediately -- dropping all other objectives or activities -- any time the "Birdie" gets lost.
Let me repeat: this apparently intellectual thing, this "Birdie" metaphor which looks at first glance like mere gossamer, is in reality the weighty and solid basis for all else. Riders must learn to "read" their horses well enough to know what the horse is going to do before he does it. Under saddle, the practical result of this insight is that it makes it easy to create the all-important set-up, getting the horse's body into a position and balance which makes the desired movement not only inevitable but beautiful.
This is a summary, the essence, of the Five Pillars of Horsemanship: Straightness, Balance, Timing, Feel, and Inner Spirit. It's what I teach. I invite you to attend a Horsemanship Improvement Clinic to go into all of it much more deeply.
UNDER SADDLE SKILLS
Seat and balance
Arm position and correct use of the hands and fingers
Correct use of the upper and lower parts of the legs
Knowledge of aid sequences for all gaits and lateral movements
Knowledge of footfall sequence in different gaits
How to set up for each kind of transition (i.e. changes of speed, tempo, step length, stride length, direction, and gait)
Understanding weight shift -- going back and going forward one step at a time
Perfecting timing in a zillion different situations
Straightness and how to induce the horse to carry himself and his rider straight
The Fountain of Collection
Knowledge of arena figures -- building a full toolbox
Use of cavalletti
How to structure a training session
How to practice to win in dressage or reining
How to practice to win in jumping or barrel racing