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MULE CROSSING: Fine-Tuning the Aids

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By Meredith Hodges

While doing the exercises in balance by riding without the aid of your reins as described in DVD #5, you probably discovered a lot more shifting of your own balance than you imagined. This nearly imperceptible shift of balance, however, can grossly affect the balance of your equine. Until now, I have always given the rider a visual point of reference by allowing you to glance down at the outside front leg. Now you will want to be more inwardly conscious of your own body position.

You need to repeat many of the previous exercises to cultivate this kind of sensitivity, but this time, close your eyes for brief periods of time to get the “feel” of each movement in your own body. Do not simply allow your equine to travel freely in any direction, because this will not give you an accurate feeling for any specific gait or task—you must plan your course of action. If, for instance, you set up your equine to bend through and come out of a corner with impulsion, you can close your eyes for a few seconds down the long side and feel the balance that comes out of that corner when the movement is executed correctly. In this particular situation, once you’ve closed your eyes, you may notice that your animal is starting to lean slightly to the inside. A squeeze/release from your inside leg, sending your mule forward and catching that balance with the outside rein, corrects the balance and keeps him going straight and erect down the long side.

Your seat bones are closest to your body’s center of gravity, making them the best sensors for balance. “Feel” the weight shift from one seat bone to the other through turns and circles, and then even out as you ride straight lines and diagonals. You will soon discover that, in order to do a circle in better balance, you must have slightly more weight on the outside seat bone and leg.

This situates your weight over the outside hind leg, which is the leg that initiates impulsion. Putting the weight over the outside hind leg clears the mule’s shoulders, allowing freer movement in front. If you ride on your inside seat bone, the weight begins to fall to the inside of the circle and puts pressure on the shoulder, inhibiting the upright, forward balance and this will put your animal on the forehand instead of engaging his hindquarters.

Remember to plan your course of action and use your half-halts between changes of direction and transitions from one gait to another. You cannot expect your equine to maintain his balance when he is constantly being surprised with changes of direction or gait. Look ahead (Do not look down!) and use your eyes correctly to enhance your balance and to help you more realistically plan your course. Teach yourself to be accurate with your eyes—look well ahead at all times and try to stay exactly on the lines and the arcs of your circles. When you plan a circle, look halfway around your circle so you can plan the arc more accurately, and then you can make the next half of the circle the same as the first half, in order to complete your circle with minimal trouble. Keep your eyes on a visual horizontal line that runs parallel to the ground. Remember—you have two eyes, and any movement as slight as a tip of your head to one side or the other can affect the upright balance of your equine. Dropping your eyes to the ground shifts your animal’s balance forward and onto his shoulders, again interrupting his balance.

Do small circles, but only as small as your equine can handle without losing his balance. Once he can easily maintain his balance without interruption, you can begin to decrease the size of the circles. Keep movements planned and large. This will give your equine plenty of response time through planned movements and will allow you to ride and correct the balance with more ease. If, for some reason, your animal loses his balance, falls out or rushes, stop him by using even pressure on both reins, with a squeeze/release action. Back him up slowly and deliberately, remembering to walk backward with your seat and legs, one step at a time, and then calmly go back and try to repeat the movement. If he makes the same mistake a second time, halt, back up and then walk through the area that is giving you the problem. Resume trotting or cantering when he complies. When you approach that area again, slow him down again, go through and resume your plan.

If he “ducks out” with you and begins to run, keep your connection on the rein that he has pulled as best as you can, and try to stop him by pulling on both reins together with a light squeeze/release action. Try to verbally calm him, and when he finally stops, let the reins go loose and praise him for stopping. Then, collect your reins again, turn him with the rein that he has just pulled out of your hand, and return him to the task. Do not try to pull him around with the other rein, because this will cause him to lose his balance and will frighten him even more. If he is praised for stopping, he will not be afraid to stop. If the reins remain tight and he’s punished for running, he may never want to stop.

The main goal is to cultivate an equine that is moving calmly between your two hands and your two legs and is responsive to changes in your aids—to your seat, to your legs and to your hands. If you keep your eyes focused well ahead and your hands and legs evenly balanced over your seat bones, you can strongly affect your animal’s vertical balance. Correct and repetitive use of the aids will eventually allow your equine to become lighter in the bridle and more responsive. In addition, his muscles will begin to be properly and symmetrically conditioned. An animal that is restrained and forced will develop muscles incorrectly. In turn, this will cause him stiffness through many movements. Most commonly, you see a slight “U” in the base of the neck in front of the withers. This is caused by stiffness in the poll from riding from front to back, rather than from back to front. Actually, the stiffness will transmit to other parts of the body and can cause chronic soreness as in the croup (hunter’s bump), but the most obvious signs show in the neck and poll. Incorrect development of the muscles will undoubtedly inhibit your equine’s best performance.

I ride my equines diagonally through the aids to get the best lateral and vertical response. I want to maintain a good forward movement, which means that the impulsion must come from the hindquarters and push forward. Think of your hands and legs as four corners of a box that contains your equine. If you push forward on one side at a time from, say, left leg to your left hand, it leaves the other whole side of the animal unchecked, and he will proceed forward with a tendency to drift into the “open” side. This is why you have to ride alternately and diagonally from the left leg to the right hand and from the right leg to the left hand. It is why you ride from back to front, leg to hand, in a diagonal fashion—it pushes your animal from the outside leg forward into a straight and balanced inside rein, and from the supportive inside leg to the outside rein—he remains upright on the arcs and sufficiently bent. The wider the space between your legs and between your hands, the more lateral “play” you will feel in your equine. If you keep your hands close together and your legs snugly around his barrel, there is a lot less lateral “play” and a great deal more accuracy when doing your patterns. Think of your legs and hands creating a “train track” with rails between which your animal must move. The wider the space between your hands and legs, the “snakier” his movements will become.

But what if he will not turn without you really pulling on the inside rein? He will turn if you do it correctly. Remember, it doesn’t matter how far you turn his head to the side. His head is not attached to the ground and he will only go where his legs go. You will be helpful to your mule and correct if you always try to keep his head and neck straight in front of his shoulders. When you wish to turn, give a slight half halt to slow for the turn. Be sure to support your equine with your legs as you do this—the inside leg should become stronger with each squeeze and give with each release. Keep your outside rein slightly checked back compared to your inside rein (which pulls and releases), and hold your hand in close to the withers on the outside. Do not check too hard or your equine will turn out instead of around the circle. Take your inside rein away from the withers a little to encourage the turn, but be careful not to take it any farther than necessary, because this will disconnect your animal’s hindquarters from his shoulders. As you repeatedly do this exercise, your equine will learn to lead with his shoulders, bend his body through his rib cage to the arc of the circle, and not just his head and neck. If necessary, you can counter bend his head and neck to move the shoulders onto the arc of the circle, but do not counter bend too much or you will get a turn instead. Hold his correct bend steady with your legs – the inside leg at the girth and the outside leg slightly back to encourage impulsion through the turn.

The finer you tune your own aids, the lighter and more responsive your equine will become. To summarize, before you begin, plan your course of action. Keep movements large and flowing, your eyes looking ahead and your aids even and close in. Employ the aids diagonally, while firmly encouraging forward energy horizontally from back to front while at the same time, encouraging vertical flexion over the topline. Do not be too concerned about where your equine’s nose is if his body movement is correct. As he becomes more confident, fit and relaxed, and as your aids become more correct, his head and neck will drop into the improved posture of their own accord. If you try to set the head and neck on the vertical before the body has been conditioned to balance and round, you will produce an animal with a hollow back and a lot of vertical and lateral stiffness. This will prevent him from correctly responding to your aids even if he wants to, because he will be physically unable to do so. It may take a little longer to correctly condition both your body and his, but the result is a sound, cooperative animal, possessing the mental and physical qualities necessary for the best performance upon your request. You may even experience the surprise of a better response to your aids and good posture, balance and strength in your own body, as well.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2016, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This article is an excerpt from the book, Training Mules and Donkeys by Meredith Hodges, 2013.

 

 

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MULE CROSSING: Learning to Ride a Balanced Seat

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By Meredith Hodges

My philosophy is based on the principle that I am not, in fact, “training” donkeys and mules. Rather, I am cultivating relationships and establishing a lifestyle with them by assigning meaning to my body language that they can understand, while I learn what they are trying to indicate to me with their body language.

In the same way that my own level of understanding changes and grows over time, I believe that my animals’ understanding grows, too. In the beginning, the emotional needs of a young mule or any equine are different from those of an older animal. The young animal needs to overcome many instincts that would protect him in the wild, but are inappropriate in a domestic situation. In a domestic situation, the focus must be on developing friendship and confidence in the young equine, while establishing my own dominance in a non-threatening manner. This is accomplished through the use of a great deal of positive reinforcement early on, including gentle touches, a reassuring voice and lots of rewards for good behavior. Expressions of disapproval should be kept to a minimum and the negative reinforcement for bad behavior should be clear, concise and limited.

As your young equine grows and matures, he will realize that you do not wish to harm him. Next, he will develop a rather pushy attitude in an attempt to assert his own dominance (much like teenagers do with their parents), because he is now confident that this behavior is acceptable. When this occurs, reevaluate your reward system and save excessive praise for the new exercises as he learns them. Note, however, that a gentle push with his nose might only be a “request” for an additional reward and a polite “request” is quite acceptable in building a good relationship and good communication with your equine. Allow the learned behavior to be treated as the norm, and praise it more passively, yet still in an appreciative manner. This is the concept, from an emotional standpoint, of the delicate balance of give and take in a relationship. As in any good relationship, you must remain polite and considerate of your horse, mule or donkey. After all, “You can catch more flies with sugar than you can with vinegar.”

Many details of both animal and trainer must also be considered from a physical standpoint. In the beginning, unless you are a professional trainer with years of proper schooling, you are not likely to be the most balanced and coordinated of riders, and you may lack absolute control over your body language. By the same token, the untrained equine will be lacking in the muscular coordination and strength it takes to respond to your request to perform certain movements. For these reasons, you must modify your approaches to fit each new situation, and then modify again to perfect it, keeping in mind that your main goal is to establish a good relationship with your animal and not just to train him. It is up to you, the trainer, to decide the cause of any resistance from your equine, and to modify techniques that will temper that resistance, whether it is mental or physical.

Here is an example: I had a three-year-old mule that was learning to lunge without the benefit of the round pen. The problem was that he refused to go around me more than a couple of times without running off. I first needed to assess the situation by brainstorming all the probable reasons why he might keep doing such an annoying thing. Is he frightened? Is he bored? Is he mischievous? Has he been calm and accepting of most things until now? And, most important, is my own body language causing this to occur? Once I was willing to spend more time with regard to balance on the lead rope exercises and proceeded to the round pen to learn to balance on the circle, I soon discovered that developing good balance and posture was critical to a mule’s training. The reason my mule was pulling on the lunge line so hard was because he just could not balance his own body on a circle. Once I reviewed the leading exercises with him—keeping balance, posture and coordination in mind—and then went to the round pen to learn to balance on the circle, I noticed there was a lot less resistance to everything he was doing. I introduced the lunge line in the round pen and taught him how to circle with slack in the line. And, I realized that it was also important to time my pulls on the lunge line as his outside front leg was in suspension and coming forward. It didn’t make much difference in the round pen, but it was critical to his balance in the open arena so the front leg could be pulled onto the arc of the circle without throwing his whole body off balance. After learning that simple concept, lunging in the open arena on the lunge line was much easier and he did maintain the slack in the line while circling me.

Like humans, all animals are unique, and like humans, each learns in his own way. Learn to be fair and flexible in your approach to problems. It is best to have a definite program that evolves in a logical and sequential manner that addresses your equine’s needs physically, mentally and emotionally. Be firm in your own convictions, but be sensitive to situations that can change, and be willing to make those changes as the occasion arises. This is what learning is all about for both you and your equine.

Just as mental changes occur, so do physical changes. As your equine’s muscles develop and coordination improves, you will need to do less and less to cause certain movements. For example, in the case of the leg-yield, you may have to turn your animal’s head a little too far in the opposite direction to get him to step sideways and forward. You will need to guide him more strongly with the reins and kick harder. As he becomes stronger and more coordinated, and begins to understand your aids, you can then start to straighten his body more toward the correct bend and stay quieter with your aids. Granted, you began by doing things the “wrong” way by over-bending your equine and by over-using your aids, yet you put him “on the road” to the right way. You assimilated an action in response to your leg that can now be perfected over time. In essence, you have simply told your equine, “First you must learn to move away from my leg, and then you can learn to do it gracefully.”

The same concept works in the case of the trainer or the rider. Sometimes you must do things that are not quite right in the beginning to get your own body to assimilate correctness. In the beginning, a rider cannot “feel” the hind legs coming under his seat, so he needs to learn by watching the front legs moving forward along with his hands. With practice, the rider will develop the “feel” and will no longer need to watch the front legs moving forward. Remember, we all perceive things a little differently, and our perception depends on how we are introduced to something and on whether or not we can understand or perform a task.

It is nearly impossible for the inexperienced horseman to perceive and control unused seat bones as a viable means of controlling the animal. Reins and legs are much more prevalent. In order to help such a rider perceive their seat bones more clearly, it sometimes helps to start by involving the whole lower body. Earlier in this book, I suggested that, to begin facilitating this action, you pedal forward in conjunction with the front legs. Connecting this action with the front legs of the equine allows you to “see” something concrete with which you can coordinate, plus the pedaling encourages necessary independent movement in the seat bones from side to side and forward. When you begin to “feel” this sensation, you can begin to understand that when the foreleg comes back, the corresponding hind leg is coming forward under your seat bone. When you understand this, both mentally and physically, you can begin to pedal backward, which will cause you to be in even closer synchronization with your equine’s body. As your leg muscles become more stable, actual movement in your own body becomes less, more emphasis is directed toward your center of gravity and more responsibility is placed on your seat bones. Using this approach, your muscles are put into active use and coordinated with your animal’s body through gymnastic exercises, which will eventually lead to correct positioning and effective cueing.

Achieving balance and harmony with your equine requires more than just balancing and conditioning his body. As you begin to finish-train your equine, you should shift your awareness more toward your own body. Your equine should already be moving forward fairly steadily and in a longer frame, and basically be obedient to your aids. The objective of finish-training is to build the muscles in your own body, which will cause your aids to become more effective and clearly defined. This involves shedding old habits and building new ones, which takes a lot of time and should be approached with infinite patience. There are no shortcuts. In order to stabilize your hands and upper body, you need to establish a firm base in your seat and legs. Ideally, you should be able to drop a plumb line from your ear to your shoulder, down through your hips, through your heels and to the ground. To maintain this plumb line, work to make your joints and muscles in your body more supple and flexible by using them correctly. Don’t forget to always look where you are going to keep your head in line with the rest of your body.

As you ride your equine through the walking exercise, try to stay soft, relaxed and flexible in your inner thighs and seat bones. Get the sensation that your legs are cut off at the knees, and let your seat bones walk along with your animal, lightly and in rhythm with his body. If he slows down, just bend your knees and bump him alternately with your legs below the knees, while you keep your seat and upper legs stable and moving forward. To collect the walk on the short side, just bend both knees at the same time, bumping your equine simultaneously on both sides, while you squeeze the reins at the same time. Your legs should always have contact with your animal’s body in a light “hugging” fashion and real pressure should only come during the cues.

In order to help you stay over the middle of your equine’s back on the large circle, keep your eyes up and looking straight ahead. Shift your weight slightly to the outside stirrup, and feel it pull your inside leg snugly against your animal. Be sure that your outside leg stays in close to his barrel as you do this. On straight lines, keep your legs even, but on the arc, and look a little to the outside of the circle. This will bring your inside seat bone slightly forward, allowing your legs to be in the correct position for the circle. This technique is particularly helpful during canter transitions.

Most people feel that they do not balance on the reins as much as they actually do. If you balance on the reins at all, your equine will be unable to achieve proper hindquarter engagement and ultimate balance. To help shift the weight from the hands and upper body to the seat and legs, first put your equine on the rail at an active working walk. On the long side, drop your reins on his neck and feel your lower body connect with his body as you move along. You will need to tip your pelvis forward and stretch your abdominal muscles with each step in order to maintain your shoulder to hip plumb line. If your lower leg remains in the correct position, your thigh muscles will be stretched over the front of your leg from your hip to your knee. There is also a slight side-to-side motion as your animal moves forward that will cause your seat bones to move independently and alternately forward. There is no doubt that you can probably do this fairly easily right from the start, but to maintain this rhythm and body position without thinking about it takes time and repetition.

When you are fairly comfortable at the walk, you can add some variation at the trot. Begin at the posting trot on the rail. When your equine is going around in a fairly steady fashion, drop your reins on his neck and continue to post. As you post down the long side, keep your upper body erect and your pelvis rocking forward from your knee. Your knee should be bent so that your legs are positioned on the barrel of your animal. Raise your arms out in front of you, parallel to your shoulders. If your equine drifts away from the rail, you need to post with a little more weight in your outside stirrup. As you go around corners, be sure to turn your eyes a little to the outside of the circle to help maintain your position. As you approach the short side of the arena, bring your arms back, straight out from your shoulders, and keep your upper body erect. As you go through the corners, just rotate your arms and upper body slightly toward the outside of your circle. When you come to the next long side, once again bring your arms in front of and parallel to your shoulders, and repeat the exercise.

Notice the different pressure on your seat bones as you change your arm position. When your arms are forward it will somewhat lighten your seat, while having your arms to the side will tend to exert a little more pressure. Consequently, you can send your equine more forward with your seat as you go down the long sides. On the short sides, you can shorten that stride with a little added pressure from the seat bones. When you wish to halt, put your arms behind you at the small of your back to support an erect upper body. Let your weight drop down through your seat bones and legs to total relaxation and an entire halting of movement. Remember to use your verbal commands—especially in the beginning—to clarify your aids to your animal. If your equine doesn’t stop, just reach down and give a gentle tug on the reins until he stops. Before long, he will begin to make the connection between your seat and your command to “Whoa,” and your seat will take precedence over your reins.

When you and your equine have become adept at the walk and the trot, add the canter. At the canter, however, keep your arms out to the side and rotate them in small backward circles in rhythm with the canter. Be sure to sit back and allow only your pelvis, your seat and your thighs to stretch forward with the canter stride. Keep your upper body erect and your lower leg stable from the knee down. Once your equine has learned to differentiate seat and leg aids in each gait and through the transitions on the large circle, you can begin to work on directional changes through the cones.

As you practice these exercises, you will soon discover how even the slightest shift of balance can affect your animal’s performance. By riding without your reins and making the necessary adjustments in your body, you will begin to condition your own muscles to work in harmony with those of your equine. As your muscles get stronger and more responsive, you will cultivate more harmony and balance with him. As you learn to ride more “by the seat of your pants,” you will encounter less resistance in your equine, because most resistance is initiated by “bad hands” due to an unstable seat. As you learn to vary the pressure in your seat accordingly, you will also encounter less resistance in your animal through his back. Having a secure seat will help to stabilize your hands and make rein cues much more clear to your equine. The stability in your lower leg will also give him a clearer path to follow between your aids. Riding a balanced seat is essential to exceptional performance.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1990, 2016, 2017, 2022 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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MULE CROSSING: Achieving Balance and Harmony

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By Meredith Hodges

Achieving balance and harmony with your equine requires more than just balancing and conditioning his body. As you begin finishing training on your equine, your awareness must now be shifted more toward your own body. Your equine should already be moving steadily forward in a longer frame and be basically obedient to your “aids” (your seat, legs and hands). The object in finishing training is to build the muscles in your own body so that your aids become more clearly defined and effective. This involves the shedding of old habits and the building of new ones. This takes a lot of time and should not be approached with impatience. There are no shortcuts!

In order to stabilize your hands and upper body, you need to establish a firm base in your seat and legs. Ideally, you should be able to drop an imaginary plumb line from your shoulder through your hips, through your heels and to the ground. To maintain this plumb line, you must work to make the joints and muscles in your body more supple and flexible through correct use, so that this line becomes your automatic posture.

As you ride your equine through walking exercises, try to stay soft, relaxed and following forward in your inner thighs and seat bones. Get the sensation that your legs are cut off at the knees and let your seat bones walk along with your animal—lightly, and in rhythm with him. If he slows down, just bend your knees and nudge him alternately with your legs below your knees, while keeping your seat and upper legs stable and moving forward. While your legs are still, they should rest gently on his sides in a “hug.” Do not push forward in your seat, but allow him to carry you forward. When collecting the walk on the short side, just bend both knees at the same time, nudging your equine simultaneously on both sides, while you squeeze the reins at the same time.

In order to help you stay over the middle of your animal’s back on the large circle, keep your eyes up and ahead, shift your weight slightly to the outside stirrup, and “feel the movement.” Bend your knee and set your inside leg snugly against your equine at his girth.  As you do this, be sure that your outside leg (the leg on the outside of the arc) stays in close contact with his body, well behind the girth. He will begin to bend his body through contact with your legs in this position. Your inside leg (the leg on the inside of the arc) will support the bend and help to keep him upright, and the outside leg will drive him forward through the arc of the turn, or circle. On straight lines, keep your legs even, slightly behind the girth and look straight ahead. To keep his shoulders from “dropping” while executing a turn, look up and a little to the outside of the circle. This will bring your inside seat bone slightly forward and your outside seat bone slightly back, allowing your legs to easily be in the correct position for the circle. Your weight should be shifted to the outside leg. This is particularly helpful during canter transitions.

Most of us feel that we do not balance on our reins as much as we actually do. If there is any balancing on the reins at all by the rider, your equine will be unable to achieve proper hindquarter engagement and ultimate self-carriage. Here is a simple exercise you can do to help shift the weight from your hands and upper body to your seat and legs. Begin by putting your equine on the rail at an active working walk. On the long side, drop your reins on his neck and feel your lower-body connection with him as you move along. In order to maintain your shoulder-to-hip plumb line, you will find that you need to tip your pelvis forward and stretch your abdominal muscles with each step. If your lower leg remains in the correct position, this will also stretch the thigh muscles on the front of your leg from hip to knee. There is also a slight side-to-side motion as your animal moves forward that will cause your seat bones to move independently and alternately forward. There is no doubt that you can probably do this fairly easily right from the start, but to maintain this rhythm and body position without thinking about it takes time and repetition.

When you are fairly comfortable at the walk, you can add some variation at the trot. Begin with the posting trot on the rail. Always post down in your seat to meet the equine’s front leg that comes back and underneath your outside leg. Post upwards as the equine’s front leg goes forward. Once your equine’s hindquarters are adequately engaged, you will begin to feel his hind legs coming under your seat. However, when starting out, it is easier to learn to post using a visual of the front legs, and rely on the physical sensation of the hind legs coming under your seat later. When your mule is going along the rail in a fairly steady fashion, drop your reins on his neck and continue to post. As you post down the long side, remember to keep your upper body erect, your pelvis rocking forward from your seat, your knees bent such that your legs are gently hugging the barrel of your equine, and your arms raised and straight out in front of you, parallel to your shoulders.

If your animal drifts away from the rail, you will need to post with a little more weight in your outside stirrup. As you go around the corners, be sure to turn your eyes a little to the outside of the circle to help your positioning. As you approach the short side of the arena, bring your arms backwards and straight out from your shoulders in a “T” formation, while keeping your upper body erect. As you go through the corners, just rotate your arms and upper body slightly toward the outside of your circle. When you come to the next long sides, bring your arms, once again, in front and parallel to your shoulders and repeat the exercise.

Notice the different pressure on your seat bones as you change your arm position. The forward arms will somewhat lighten your seat, while your arms to the side tend to exert a little more pressure. Consequently, you can send your animal more forward by using your seat as you go down the long sides, shortening that stride with a little added pressure from the seat bones on the short sides. When you wish to halt, put your arms behind you at the small of your back to support an erect upper body, and let your weight drop down through your seat bones and legs. Also, remember to use your verbal commands often in the beginning to clarify your aids (effect of the seat, legs and hands) to your equine. If your equine doesn’t stop, just reach down and give a gentle squeeze/release on the reins until he stops, but be sure to remain relaxed and continue to drop your weight into your seat and legs. Keep your inner thighs relaxed and flexible. Do NOT squeeze! Think DOWN through your legs on both sides. Before long, he will begin to make the connection between the weight of your seat and your command to “Whoa,” and your seat will take precedence over your reins.

When you and your equine have become adept at the walk and the trot, you can add the canter. At the canter, however, keep your arms out to the side and rotate them in small circles in rhythm with the canter. Be sure to sit back and allow only your pelvis, seat and thighs to stretch forward with the canter stride. Keep your upper body erect and your lower legs stable in the gentle “hugging” position. Once your equine has learned to differentiate seat and leg aids during each gait and throughout all transitions on the large circle, you can begin to work on directional changes through cones.

As you practice these exercises, you will soon discover how even the slightest shift of balance can affect your animal’s performance. By riding without your reins and making the necessary adjustments in your body, you will begin to condition your own muscles to work in harmony with those of your equine. As your muscles get stronger and more responsive, you will cultivate more harmony and balance with your animal. As you learn to ride more “by the seat of your pants,” you will encounter less resistance in your equine, as most resistance is initiated by tension in the seat and legs and by “bad hands,” an ineffective and uncommunicative dragging on the reins. Your hands should remain quiet and supportive in contact with the bit. Keeping your legs close to the sides of your equine’s body in a sort of hug will clarify the “track” he is to follow (much in the same way a train is confined to its tracks). As you learn to vary the pressure in your seat accordingly, so will you encounter less resistance in your animal through his back, and the stability in your lower legs will give him a clearer path to follow between your aids.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 1992, 2016, 2017, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

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MULE CROSSING: The Road to Success with your Mule!

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By Meredith Hodges

When equines are trained in a logical, consistent and respectful way beginning with detailed lead line training, even “cycling females” is not a problem. Appropriate lessons need to have a logical beginning and be taught in a sequential fashion. The logical beginning in any athletic conditioning program should be to strengthen the core muscles that support bony columns. The length of the lesson and order in which lessons are presented facilitate strength and balance at the core. Adequate length of each stage of training and the way the lessons are delivered instill a sense of security, confidence and trust in the handler that cements the relationship and become part of the equine’s automatic behavior.

Think of it in terms of teaching children. Children have difficulty learning and paying attention when they have not been eating in a healthy way or exercising properly, when the teacher is unclear in their delivery and the material does not flow together easily, when the teacher moves along too quickly, when there is too much repetition and when they have to stay in one position too long. When the teacher is more aware of the elements of learning, delivers the information in a logical and sequential manner with attention to mental and physical health, and provides solutions, the students will thrive!

We are often in too big of a hurry to ride and do not spend enough time at the lower-level stages of training. We don’t understand the implications of moving along too fast because these animals are so much larger than we are that we can’t imagine that they would have strength, balance and coordination issues that would be counter-productive to our expectations.

How could we even know? There are multiple trainers out there who believe that an equine can be ready to ride in 60-90 days. This is highly publicized and does not afford the average person to think any further than just being able to ride. However, if you ask yourself if you could be ready for a 25-mile marathon in 60-90 days, then the picture starts to become clear…there is much more to think about and it takes much longer to be ready for such activities. You cannot strengthen muscles, balance the body and instill body awareness adequately in this short period of time, and core muscle strength might not be addressed at all!

Leading training is not just teaching to follow and many people spend too little time on leading training. In leading training, the equine gets the benefit of isometric-type exercises that strengthen the muscles closest to the bone while you work on forward and backward straight lines, smooth arcs through the turns and square halts, all facilitating good balance and proprioception (body awareness). This promotes good core muscle strength that will enable your equine to move to the round pen stage of training and do remarkably well because he won’t be fighting his own awkwardness and lack of balance while trying to balance on the circle at all three gaits.

This kind of training requires that you really pay attention to your own good posture and execution of the tasks in leading training. You must be consciously aware of your own posture. Stand straight and tall, holding the lead in your left hand while using the right to keep the animal at your shoulder, not too far forward, not crowding you and not too far back. Wear your fanny pack full of crimped oats (the reward) to keep your equine interested in staying at your shoulder and not lagging behind.

When you walk, make sure your legs are following the movement of their front legs, stepping forward with your corresponding feet and not stepping any further forward than they do. When you stop, stop with your own feet  together (in a balanced fashion), turn and face the equine’s shoulder and square up his feet every single time you stop. This causes the equine to be conscious about balancing weight over all four feet evenly that will result in the balance becoming steadier as the task demands and speed increases.

You can tell your equine is ready to move from the flatwork leading training to the obstacle leading training when you can throw the lead over his neck and you receive his compliance though all he has learned without you touching him. Next, we add the element of coordination during lead line training over obstacles. The first task of lead line obstacle training would be to introduce the obstacles and ask for reasonable negotiation of the obstacle to instill confidence in the equine and trust in you. The second stage would be to break the obstacles down into smaller steps to manipulate coordination and balance and to instill adequate self carriage through the obstacles.

Taking time to do these exercises correctly at the walk and trot on the lead line will help immensely before the equine goes to round pen training where the exercises become more active and demanding. The core base from which the animal must work will be much stronger and he will be better able to stay erect and bend through his rib cage on the circle in the round pen instead of leaning like a motorcycle.

When we finally do graduate to the round pen, it will become important to maintain good equine posture and balance. When equines are allowed to run freely in the round pen, they naturally get excited and want to hollow their neck and back. This is why we employ the self-correcting device I call the “Elbow Pull.” There are separate ways to adjust this, one is for horses and one is for mules and donkeys. More details about this and leading training can be found in my manual and DVD combo, “Equus Revisited.

By the time you finally do ride, your equine will not only be strong, balanced and coordinated enough to do more complicated activities, but if you are unbalanced at all, he will be better able to cope with that as well. This is particularly important with cycling females as they already have a marginal, but normal amount of aches and pains while they cycle. If they are to maintain a good attitude and good balance with a rider, they need good core muscle strength, so they can overcome the normal menstrual aches and pains and deal with the rider in a reasonable way. They will also be more mentally and emotionally tuned into you and less likely to become disengaged. It is my observation that most disobedience is due to a lack of balance whether it is mental, emotional or physical.

With good core muscle strength, even cycling females will be better able to perform to their full potential at the time when you lower your expectations. The level of their mediocre performance will still be higher than most of their competitors. Equine mares are difficult enough, but jennets and mollies that are not trained in this logical way will be distracted, tune you out when they are cycling and revert to their instinctual behaviors like squatting, peeing, clacking their teeth and they will remain “on alert!” This can cause a lot of problems for the handler.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2010, 2016, 2021 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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LTR Training Tip #32: Good Posture and Performance

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For your equines to perform their best, they need to have even weight distribution and efficiently utilize balanced movement in their bodies. Learn how to encourage good posture for good performance.

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The Hourglass Pattern For Good Posture4

CHASITY’S CHALLENGES: The Hourglass Pattern for Good Posture: 4-14-20

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4-14-20

The “Hourglass Pattern” is an amazing therapeutic approach to conditioning that I have used with all of my equines of varying ages, sizes and breeds. It builds a foundation of symmetrical strengthening at the core involving the ligaments, tendons muscles and soft tissue that support the skeletal frame and promotes even wear of the cartilage between bones in the joints. It can prevent arthritis as the animals age. This is vital to your equine athlete’s health. Chasity and I open the gate to her rebalancing and rehabilitation exercises in the “Hourglass Pattern.”

The red “X’s” in the pattern represent the points where you are to halt, square up, reward and wait. This process becomes helpful as your equine learns to navigate gates properly and learns to wait patiently through repetition and consistency in your behavior. Always go through gates exactly the same way so your equine knows what to expect. Abrupt actions lead to chaos.

We want to promote self-carriage, so we do not hold the lead rope in the right hand when leading from the left side where it can subtlety cause movement in the head and neck from side to side, adversely affecting their balance. Rather, we hold the lead rope in the left hand when leading from the left side and in the right hand when leading from the right side. We lead from the inside of the arcs in direction through the pattern. Always, say the animal’s name, give the command to “Walk On,” look where you are going, point in the direction of travel with your other hand and walk in sync with the equine’s front legs. This facilitates good posture for both of you!

When negotiating the “Hourglass Pattern,” there is an internal pendulum that swings back and forth and comes to center each time the animal halts and is squared up. If you were to work only along straight lines there is an optical illusion that takes place along the perimeter and makes the animal’s body lean to the inside of the track, and when halted, they cannot find the center of balance. Every time you halt, square up your equine and reward with the crimped oats that you keep in your fanny pack around your waist (other “treats” will not work the same way!). Then wait until they finish chewing so they can settle into their perfect balance unobstructed.

As they progess, they learn to bend to the arc of the turns through their rib cage, carry their body erect in good posture supported by stronger ab muscles that round the back upward as they learn to give to the “Elbow Pull” such that it remains loose. When it is tight, they are simply having difficulty holding their good posture and lean on the “Elbow Pull” much like a beginning ballet dancer must use the bar on the wall. Many people think that you do your equine a favor by not putting a bit in their mouth, but you cannot affect their posture without one. The animals that are not bitted and schooled in good posture can have all kinds of postural issues as they age. Chasity is falling in and out of good posture because she is only in Week Three of her training. As she improves, she will be able to keep the “Elbow Pull” loose for longer periods of time until it is always loose.

As this way of moving and standing becomes more habitual, so does their comfort in these positions. When they rest, they will stand 4-square instead of with splayed legs, or a hip dropped and a foot cocked. They are happy and deliberate in their movements and good posture continues to improve until this become their new habitual way of moving and resting. You will see marked changes in their play and rest patterns while in turnout.

Adding rails to the center of the pattern keeps them attentive, alert and teaches exact hoof placement (hoof-eye coordination). As their movement becomes more deliberate and balanced, their confidence is increased as is their trust in you for making them feel so comfortable in their own skin. They learn to wait for your command  before moving. They look forward to their time with you and will gladly leave the herd to be with you! No more herdbound behaviors!

We build this foundation through the “Hourglass Pattern” first during leading training,  then after obstacles and lunging training during Ground Driving, and finally Under Saddle. Each stage produces new challenges to the equine’s body and mind that add to their overall development in a logical, sequential and healthy way. Because of all these small steps, with gradual difficulty, it is easy and fun for both you and your equine to do. You are never over-faced with difficulty and you learn to appreciate the little victories along the way! Chasity was somewhat of a pushy, bully to start with, but she now waits patiently when I ask and navigates movement in much better posture, even after only three short weeks! More dramatic changes to Chasity’s body and mind are still to come! It’s not just about the end result. It’s all about the journey!