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In Part 1 of What’s the Difference? we began to define a few of the things that are unique to my training program. At the beginning of my career, it wasn’t long before I realized that, if I wanted to improve my skills and get a better response from my long-eared equine partners, I had to go back to the beginning, start over and pay close attention to what they needed from me at each stage of training in order to accurately perform what I was asking. When I did, lessons truly became a resistance-free, cooperative effort!
I soon realized that leading training had more value than just teaching to lead, tie and perfect technique for a showmanship class. For instance, holding the lead rope in the left hand while pointing to where I was going with the right hand, and using the right hand to maintain the position of the equine, was an important way to allow him to be responsible for his own balance with minimal interference. When I was holding the lead in my right hand, every movement of my hand caused him to have a slight loss of balance. Having the fanny pack of crimped oats strapped to my waist kept his attention on me and prevented him from forging ahead or running off entirely. Teaching the trot on the lead rope was much easier.
I soon discovered that the equine would actually measure his stride to mine when I paid attention to my own posture during leading and kept my steps and stops rhythmic and in synchronization with his. When I kept my transitions from walk to stop smooth and fluid and stopped with my feet together, so did he. When I was consistent about asking him to square up and put equal weight over all four feet at every stop, he would soon make the adjustment himself when I turned to face him. I saw an improvement in balance and strength as I kept my walking lines straight and my turns smooth, working on a gradual arc rather than abrupt turns.
When I saw the difference in the equine’s at-rest position and play patterns, it was evident to me that the muscles at the core that surround the skeletal system were becoming stronger from these passive, isometric exercises. The mind of each animal was more alert and tuned into our tasks, and there was no real incidence of disobedience when I did my part correctly. In the quest to improve their strength and balance, I improved my own substantially.
On the obstacle course, the task is first to instill confidence and trust. When you lead, and use the crimped oats reward, it alleviates fear in the equine and gives them the motivation to explore. Over time, he begins to trust your judgment. When you put obstacles in comfort zones where they eat and rest, it will create anxiety instead of instilling confidence. In my estimation, equines aren’t really afraid of the obstacles themselves. It’s just a fear of being trapped or hurt.
But there is further value in obstacle training on the lead rope. With flatwork leading training, you have cultivated strength and balance in the equine at the core and are now ready to add coordination. Once the equine has learned to negotiate the obstacles without fear, he is then ready to go back through the obstacles and learn coordination by breaking these obstacles down into much smaller steps.
At each obstacle, approach, stop and square up in front of each obstacle. Then ask for the front feet to be placed into the obstacle, stop and square up. Then ask that all four feet be placed into the obstacle, stop and square up. Then ask for the two front feet to exit the obstacle, leave the hind feet within the obstacle, stop and square up. Then exit the obstacle, stop and square up once more before leaving the obstacle.
This approach teaches the equine to stop and rebalance at every new position throughout the obstacle. It builds body awareness as well as adding coordination. You will see that they are not really as balanced as you might think when you ask them to put the two front feet off the far side of the bridge while leaving the hind feet on the bridge. The equine will generally try to keep going forward, or the hind end will pass the front end as it falls off the bridge. When he is capable of doing so, he will be able to hold the position, but you might have to provide assistance the first few times in this awkward position.
You will soon discover after this kind of training that you no longer get your feet stepped on, and that they will avoid stepping on hoses during baths, or cords during clipping. They are truly more able to effectively balance their own bodies. And when you begin lunging in the round pen, the equine is better able to comply with your wishes to balance correctly on the circle at walk and trot. Movement will be more rhythmic with smooth and fluid transitions.
When allowed to freely move in the round pen at walk and trot, the animal who has had the benefit of detailed leading training will exhibit better balance than the one who has not. When he canters, the unbalanced equine will want to raise his head, and hollow his neck and back in varying degrees. In order for him to continue to build muscle in the correct frame, I use an aid I developed called the “Elbow Pull” to help maintain good posture and balance. I was first introduced to this concept by Richard Shrake. If the equine is allowed to exercise with the head and neck raised, he would build muscle out of good equine posture. That would need to be corrected later, and would cause disobedience during the lessons due to soreness, especially if done with a rider on his back. Strengthening the equine body in the correct posture first with the “Elbow Pull” and without the rider will prevent this problem. In addition, with this device, the equine will be started in a snaffle bit with the desired direct rein communication and will learn to be submissive and light in the bridle.
This originally disturbed the Dressage community until I was able to explain its function. This is a self-correcting aid for the equine. It does not force him to keep his head down. Rather, it simply does not allow him to raise his head too high and invert his neck and back. He is free to raise his head, but if too high, it puts pressure on the poll, on the bit, behind the forearms and over the back. It suggests that he lower his head and stretch the muscles across the entire top line in correct vertical flexion. When he is in good posture, all pressure is released and muscle is built symmetrically throughout the entire body in balance and good posture.
When doing exercise in the round pen, if verbal cues and rewards are consistent, your equine actually learns verbal communication in conjunction with body language and his understanding will increase much like a child’s does in grammar school. Equines may not be able to speak English, but they can certainly learn to understand it. Being in good posture will begin to facilitate correct lateral bend to his body and build those muscles in correct posture. He will offer the canter when he is strong enough, so forcing canter is not necessary. Turning him into the fence for the reverse will set him up for the correct diagonal at trot and the correct lead at canter allowing him to make transitions easily and smoothly.
When the equine’s body is developed properly, he will be strong enough and will have the necessary control of his own body to handle the added shifting weight of the rider. Most equines struggle with their own awkwardness and before they get control of their own bodies, they are asked to deal with the awkwardness of the rider at the same time. This often results in perceived disobedience. The equine that is stable in his core muscles and body carriage will be better able to help the rider maintain and improve his own balance and control. Bucking and bolting cease to be a problem.
Learning certain moves is easy and takes much less time, but for maximum performance there is no substitute for taking the time to properly build and condition the muscles that will support your equine’s good postural frame. If you are willing to put in the time and effort necessary, the result will be an animal that is happy and comfortable in his work, light in the bridle and a beautiful mover. Your relationship and performance will soar to unimaginable levels!
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 Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Chasity is in such good condition these days that I felt I could skip a week before engaging in her formal lessons again. She does get manual abdominal flexion exercises daily when she is fed. The beauty of postural core strength exercises is that they stay strong after the initial introductory work. It has been five months of this kind of exercise for Chasity, so if her workouts are only every other week, they are enough to sustain her strong core strength in good equine posture. The muscles, ligaments and tendons are now symmetrically strong around her skeletal frame. I decided to start in the Round Pen to allow her to move out before engaging in the more intense lunging and ground driving in the open arena again. Her posture and movement were impeccable!
The “Elbow Pull” is now staying loose most of the time. This means she is strong and balanced in good postural self-carriage. Her movement is confident and fluid. She executes the turns on the haunches perfectly upon command. The transformation in her whole body and strength has been exciting to witness! Her attitude has improved by leaps and bounds as her overall health improved. We are still treating the infection she has that seems to be systemic and in her glands. Our approach will be to continue a regimen of antibiotics, then when it is done, take her off of them until it appears to be trying to return. Then we will resume antibiotic treatment.
Chasity moves beautifully and stands stock still whenever we are working on her. This is a marked improvement from the “Nervous Nellie” that first arrived at the end of March this year.
After doing a bit of lunging, we are now going to review ground driving in the Round Pen before we go to the open arena for more practice. I want to get her light in the bridle now, so I begin with a rein back. Then we proceed forward at a relaxed pace.
Chasity does a very nice “S” turn through the middle for a change of direction. I try to keep my contact with her bit as light as possible, giving her cues with no more than vibrating little fingers.
Chasity is responding well to the drive lines and is getting lighter in the bridle. She halts and rein backs easily upon command to receive her reward for a job well done!
After lunging Chasity and Wrangler individually in the Round Pen, we are now headed for the dressage arena where they will each get their turn at lunging on the lunge line and ground driving. They both lead easily alone, or together, and walk in sync with me upon request. Sometimes Wrangler gets a bit distracted.
Chasity is always on alert, but does not tend to be silly about things. She remembers her lessons well and is always happy to please. I start her with the lunge line shortened and this time she does not pull at all, but stays on the circle with her intermittent squeeze/release cues from my little finger as her outside front leg comes forward and into suspension.
As she circles, I slowly let out the lunge line. I will not ask her to trot until she offers to so so. I don’t want to force speed and sacrifice precision. She is now stopping consistently in a goos balance.
After re-tying the lunge line to the bit ring on the other side, I reverse Chasity, ask her to go the other way and she complies nicely. Again, I start with a short line and let it out gradually.
At the end of several rotations, I ask her to “Whoa,” stretch down and then stand still while I roll up the lunge line and prepare to put on the drive lines. My Ranch Manager, Chad, is ready to assist with the ground driving this time after her bolting in the previous lesson when I ground drove her by myself.
I do not want Chasity to think she can run off every time we get into the open arena, so I will set her up to be successful right from the beginning with the assistant this time. She can run and play with Wrangler in turnout later. She does not seem to mind at all and is all business about her ground driving. She completed the Hourglass Pattern in one direction, crossed the diagonal and did it in the other direction and then did a very nice halt and rein back to end the lesson.
Chasity stood quietly while I removed the drive lines and rolled them up. Then we went to retrieve Wrangler from his place along the fence. After Chasity’s turn, Wrangler got his turn at lunging on the lunge line and ground driving. Then we all headed to the gate together.
When you are consistent in the way you do things with every animal, it is easy to lead, lunge and negotiate obstacles with multiple animals because they all know what to expect and there are no abrupt changes to the routine to cause adverse behaviors. Training can be fun for EVERYONE!
Chasity does not have the most optimum conformation anyway, but when she first arrived, she was really stuck in a bad posture. She moved with a hollow back and her legs did not reach underneath her body when she walked. Her body did not allow for a flexible spine with ideal movement through her joints and I would presume that internal organ function was also compromised. Her body was very stiff and flexion of any kind was difficult for her. The bacterial infection in her udder was old and persistent. With our feeding, management and exercise program, Chasity has improved substantially and now enjoys a much more posturally correct body, more flexibility and a bacterial infection that is receding rapidly with antibiotics and the right kind of exercise. She is now happy to come to the stall door to accept her halter and “gives” easily and willingly to have the “Elbow Pull” postural restraint adjusted!
Standing in a 4-square posture used to be really difficult for Chasity and with her rigid back, she was unable to stretch her spine and flex at the poll while standing with equal weight over all four feet. With a month of our postural therapy leading exercises through the “Hourglass Pattern” this has changed dramatically and she can now flex easily when prompted.
Bending through her rib cage around the turns, while remaining erect in her body, was also impossible at first. With each new lesson, she continues to improve in both directions. The neck sweat encourages shrinking of the fat deposits on her crest and the bending is improving the alignment in her neck.
Work over the ground rails at the center of the “Hourglass Pattern” is helping her hoof-eye coordination, enabling proper foot placement, suspension and self-carriage in her body.
Chasity enjoys the simple challenges of these exercises as they provide more comfort in her body than she has ever known! She is happy and enthusiastic about these sessions!
With the rapid improvement through her body during the flatwork exercises in the “Hourglass Pattern,” we were able to begin going through some very simple obstacle exercises that made the sessions more interesting for her and kept her alert while adding some coordination to her body. The repetition of going through the gates the same way every time taught Chasity to wait patiently, bend correctly through her rib cage when walking through them and to consistently stand 4-square on both sides.
Breaking the obstacles down into smaller steps taught her to be alert and attentive to my commands and allowed her to learn to rebalance properly in each of these new positions.
When I first began the obstacles, I did not ask her to do the most difficult position of standing with her front feet down and her back feet on the bridge. She has been very good about stopping when I ask, so I decided to try it today and she did GREAT! I did not ask her to square up in this position yet, but I will as she becomes stronger in her core and can hold the position more easily. Then we walked of the end of the bridge and squared up again.
The first attempt at the tractor tire, Chasity walked up to it and looked at it, but would not do any more than that. The last attempt at the tractor tire, Chasity allowed me to pick up her foot and just direct it toward the middle like in the first photo, so I left it at that, rewarded her and asked no more. Today, she went one step further and offered to extend her foot herself, but still would not place it in the middle of the tractor tire, so we stopped, rewarded and will continue again next time! She is getting a LITTLE further each time and that is “rewardable” in my book! To force it would only result in a fight and probably wouldn’t get the job finished anyway! I am sure we will have better luck next time!
The last time over the smaller tires, she was hesitant. This time she forged ahead like a pro! And, going forward through the barrels was no problem at all! We might try backing through them the next time if she is willing.
Backing through the Back-Through “L” is getting much better and the tarp is a cinch! This time, she went right down the middle with no trouble at all! Taking small steps is critical to success!
Chasity has become a pro at negotiating the gate, standing perfectly and waiting patiently on each side.
The broom is yet another obstacle and Chasity learned it would not bite her as I politely swept up around her. She was rewarded for staying calm and afterwards, we did some spinal stretches.
Then it was time for yet another soak of her infected udder. The vet arrived to do a check and was so happy to find that we had reduced the infection by 70% in only 14 days! He really did not expect that! He also commented about how much better her posture was and the strength she showed over her top line. We opted to do a second 14-day run of the same antibiotics and continue the exercise and soaking.
Chasity no longer needs to be led into her stall and turned around to take off the halter. She can now be sent in and turns to face me of her own free will! Core strength postural exercises have a profound effect on the equine’s body and mind! Chasity is yet another example of the dramatic results that you can see when employing this relatively simply feeding, management and training program. It is not only for rehabilitation, but rather, it is a program that can give your equine athlete optimum health and the opportunity to perform to the best of his ability! Just ask Chasity!
After doing her Hourglass Pattern exercises, first one way and then the other, we opted to add some variety to the workout by adding some straight forward obstacles. In our indoor arena, I have an open space of 60’ X 120’ and a 45’ round pen at the end of the arena in another 60’ X 60’ fenced off space. Around the outside perimeter of the round pen in that area, I put my obstacles. I have found that there is less margin of error learning obstacles in a confined space to add coordination to their core strength in good equine posture. They can learn to pay more attention and to be more meticulous in their execution of the obstacles. This is a helpful way to begin with obstacles. The first obstacle for Chasity was the gate!
After going through the gate and standing stock still while I latched it, we proceeded to the bridge. I was pleasantly surprised when she allowed me to stop her with only her front feet on the bridge. This is generally a Stage Two move in my program since obstacles are used for coordination. Most equines are so uncoordinated that they just want to keep walking over and through the obstacles without stopping at first. Good for Chasity!
Chasity then carefully walked up onto the bridge with all four feet and halted on command! This was going much better than I had expected!
When I asked her to square up, she got a bit skewed to the side on the bridge, but she was nevertheless squared up, just not in line with the bridge. So I took it and rewarded her effort.We can do better the next time.
Then we got off the bridge and I squared her up again. Then…I introduced her to the tractor tire.
She looked at it…wasn’t afraid of it…walked around it…
…and looked at it again. She was clearly NOT going to put her foot in the middle of that tire! I decided to quit while we were ahead and try again next time. Because I didn’t push her, she consented to walking through the smaller tires…
…tentatively, but she did it! And then she walked around the barrels with no trouble at all!
Just having Chasity navigate these obstacles without being afraid of them was a major accomplishment. We then walked into the back-through “L” and I decided to make it a little bit tougher.
After walking through the “L” forward, I asked Chasity to back through where she had come.
She was a bit perplexed, but slowly backed between the rails, made the turn at the elbow, and went straight back from there with very little forcible encouragement.
Once at the end of the back-through “L,” we headed for the tarp. She followed me obediently, but was so silly…
When we got to the tarp, she wanted to walk EXACTLY where I walked! I guess she KNEW it was safe there! Too funny!
I gave her a reward because she really didn’t balk and we proceeded out of the obstacle area.
As we left, we executed the gate correctly and she was rewarded again. She stood quietly until I was ready to move.
Then we proceeded down the arena wall towards the exit gate and stopped to turn off the lights. She was a little surprised that the wall opened up, but stood still while I opened the door and turned off the lights.
Then I closed the door and we exited the arena. Adding obstacles and simple expectations to her regular work in the Hourglass Pattern made the experience more interesting and engaging to Chasity. When you add new things to their lessons, you shouldn’t feel like the equine has to do it right the first time. Just quit while you are ahead and your equine WILL do better the next time! There is no battle to remember!
Beginning by negotiating obstacles in larger areas makes for a larger margin for error. Too many things can go wrong and lead to an unpleasant chain of negative events that suck you and your equine into unnecessary altercations. There is plenty of time to do them in the more open spaces once they have learned how to negotiate them in the smaller spaces. I first school green animals during ground driving and under saddle in the small open area of my indoor arena (60’ X 120” – Standard Small Dressage Arena Size) before I take them into the larger outside arenas. This has resulted in a decrease of bolting and running. When you set up your training environment, it is always optimal to set up the equine for success!
“Hey Spuds, where are we going today? What’s that over there?”
“Oh, it’s just the barrels. I remember ground driving through these!”
“This is my favorite part of the lessons, Augie!”
“What the heck does she want now, Augie?”
“Okay, I get it now Augie!” That was easy!”
“Now what is she up to? I have to work by myself?!”
“Spuds, I just can’t back between the barrels. I can’t see where I’m going!”
“I’ll show you how, Augie! Forward around the barrels? No sweat!”
“Back around the barrels in a figure eight?! Easy as pie!”
“And the reward is always just heavenly!”
“Oh good…something I CAN do!”
“Wheee! Now this IS fun!”
“I’m not too sure about these steps, Augie!
“But jumping sure IS fun! I am so glad she made us pay attention to good posture during training!”
“It was another great adventure, eh Spuds?!”
“Yup, it sure was!”