Thursday, July 19, 2007

On "Good Hands"...

I read a very interesting article recently in the Eclectic-Horseman.com archives by Bettina Drummond. The subject was the phrase "on-the-bit" -- not a discussion of what the phrase means -- but rather a discussion of the fact that the phrase is based on NOTHING in the classical horsemanship literature of the 16 - 1700's...instead, it is, perhaps, simply a bad translation from French or German.

WOW. That ought to make you think. It always struck me as sort of a bad turn of phrase. Similar, I think, is the common understanding of the meaning of "contact".

I can't count the number of times folks have classified me as a "Western" rider, simply because I ride in a western saddle and don't have constant pressure on the horse's mouth. The truth is I am NOT a western rider...my goal is, ultimately, a horse that is so responsive that I can "collect" him by asking him to flex at the poll, elevate his withers, round his back and come up under himself without ever pulling the reins tight. I absolutely want my horse in a very classical sort of frame. What I DON'T want is a tight rein pulling the nose behind the vertical, artificially setting the horse's head and effectively shortening the strides of his front feet, while the horse's weight remains heavy on the forehand.

That brings me to the subject of the hand on the reins. One doesn't GRIP the reins if the goal is softness and lightness from the horse. The fingers instead should curl lightly around the rein, and the connection between hand, rein, and mouth should be alive, like playing an instrument. Never a steady pressure, but a constant ask and release for the horse's correct response.

Developing both the horse and one's own finesse at this is, I think, infinitely more demanding than the alternative. Imagine the patience to bring a horse to that level, assuming that you could get yourself there first! But the first step is acknowledging the differences, and acknowledging that you've been doing it wrong...in fact, that you were TAUGHT to do it wrong. Good grief, how exasperating is that!! Now take a deep cleansing breath, and vow to learn the RIGHT way...

Thursday, July 5, 2007

It's NOT all about hooking on.

Lots of folks seem to think that the roundpen is all about "hooking on". While it's absolutely important to be sure the horse is paying attention to you, hooking on is something that can easily be overdone...and it's one of the harder things to UNtrain. The point of hooking on is NOT "getting the horse to follow you as leader." It is simply teaching him that when you're around, he should be ready to go to work. That you have a plan he needs to be involved in. When you ask for his attention, it is because you have an immediate job for him to do.

I've watched so-called "trainers" get a horse in the roundpen and do nothing more than have the horse follow them around for twenty minutes like the Pied Piper, then call it a day. All they've accomplished is to teach the horse that if he's following mindlessly along behind them, he doesn't have to work! In fact, very early in the roundpen, most horses will come to the conclusion that hooking on, walking in and facing you, is the quickest way out of work. It's extremely important to balance the hooking on lesson with teaching the horse to drive away from you at the outset.

Everything that you do in the roundpen should be done with the horse's attention. When you drive him, whether at the walk, trot, or lope, it should be with feel...he should have an ear in your direction and his head tipped slightly towards you; he should move with ease and as much life as you ask for, actively waiting for the next request....not as though he's mindlessly plodding, nor franticly racing in circles whilst looking to the outside of the pen. Might as well turn him out and let the ranch dogs chase him if it's no better than that.

Always remember that all groundwork is about getting control of the feet...each one by itself, and in conjunction with the other three. To be able to direct the feet with any finesse, the lessons should involve fast work as well as slow, methodical work, until the horse moves fluidly when and where you want him, at any speed. Hooking on simply represents the horse's willingness to be available for the job...it is not the job itself!