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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.