31st in a series
After you’ve been getting vertical flexion on the bend and at the standstill for a while, introduce vertical flexion on a straight line as you walk your horse forward. This is a critical part of your “feel” training, as you’ll be required to instantly adjust your pressure in one or both hands in order to teach your horse to maintain straight head-to-tail alignment while maintaining flexion at the poll.
Start by establishing light rein contact with both hands while you’re riding at the walk in a straight line. Keeping that light feel, gradually squeeze your calves just behind the cinch (or bump if you need to), driving your horse forward into the bit as you softly start to work the bit back and forth with your fingertips, encouraging him to relax his poll and drop his head.
30th in a series
It’s important not to ask for too much from your horse at once. You don’t have to get the total result from your horse right from the start, but you do want the thought—the gesture—that he is willing to think about giving his nose to the pressure on the rein. When you first ask, your horse could give you a real negative gesture by lifting his neck when he feels the rein—let’s hope not! But a positive gesture would be him thinking, just thinking, about dropping his nose and rounding his neck when he feels you pick up. Always give him a big “atta boy” for positive gestures.
29th in a series
We say a horse is “soft in the bridle” when he has achieved soft vertical flexion – that is, when the horse will drop his nose by rounding his neck and poll whenever he feels light contact with both reins. Your ultimate goal is to get this reaction from your horse before you’ve even taken all the slack out of your reins—like you could ride with silk threads and not break them—wouldn’t that be great! We all dream about it!
But I’ll warn you right now, it won’t happen if you’re still feeling any resistance when you ask for lateral flexion. If you are still getting resistance to either side, you need to keep working that before you start into asking for much flexion vertically. If you ask too soon, you’re likely to create a dull mouth in your horse rather than the soft, responsive one that you’re after. Each step builds upon the one before it, and getting each step perfect, before you move on to the next one, is critical.
28th in a series
To begin to get your horse to give at the poll as a result of soft pressure on his mouth with both reins
Skills You Will Develop
Timing: Timing is critical in this stage of the program. You want to make sure that you reward your horse instantly when you get the result you want so he learns to give and not pull.
27th in a series
After using pattern exercises the last two issues, Les wraps up his lesson with some key points. Who’s steering anyway? A very simple concept that can be easy to forget is this: If you’re not telling your horse to turn, he should be going straight. Too many riders let the arena fence do their steering for them, and when they come off it they, and the horse, can really get lost. So get off the rail, look up, then pick a point and trot toward it. What happens? Odds are your horse will start drifting toward what interests him, and you get an excellent training opportunity for him and yourself!
24th in a Series
Last issue, Les discussed some methods to deal with pressure and communication. Now let’s look in detail at the process.
This means that before he can be trained, you need to become trained. You need to get to the point where your hands respond to the presence and absence of resistance in your horse’s mouth, almost before your brain comprehends it. Think for a minute about when you drive a car (or, for our younger readers, ride a bicycle). When you come to a curve in the road, do you mentally stop and think about how you’re going to make it around the corner before you actually start to move the wheel? Probably not if you’ve been driving for more than a few months. Your riding has to start to become the same way:
Fourteenth in a series In recent issues, Les covered cuing zones and other details of using our legs. Here is an exercise that illustrates with our hands.
Here’s a good exercise to remind you of how little rein pressure it takes to send a signal to your horse. To try it, just hang your bridle on a doorknob, like it would hang from a horse’s head. Now stand about five feet away, take one rein in your hand and just lift it until you make contact with the bit and it starts to move. You’ll see that it doesn’t really take a lot of pressure or movement on your part to get movement out of the bit. Our goal is not to force the horse’s movement through the bridle, but to teach him to respond in a certain way when he feels contact, not necessarily pressure, from the bit. The faster you can train yourself to cue him with a lighter touch, the faster you will get the light response we all want to achieve.
Tenth in a series
Now that Les has covered the importance of our hands in the last two issues, let’s learn another communication device.
Clucking is a conditioned response. I read somewhere that clucking goes back to Xenophon*, who lived in something like 400 B.C. Anyway, horsemen have been doing it a long time. And it is interesting how clucking makes a difference, as far as bringing up the adrenaline in a horse.
Another thing you’ll need to work on is to develop your hands’ “neutral” position, which needs to become one where there is no contact with the bit. Our goal is to have a horse that yields quickly and smoothly to any pressure—ideally to just the feel of you taking the slack out of the reins—and if you’re used to having contact with the bit all the time, you’ll never get there.
Eighth in a series
After reviewing reins last issue, we’ll look at how we use our hands in this column and next.
A key component of this program is that you learn to ride with “life” in your hands. What we mean by this is that you never want to just hang on the bit with steady pressure. Any time you pick up (that is, start to take the slack out of the reins) and feel resistance, you’ll want to immediately start working your hands back and forth on the snaffle, or go to soft bumps if you’re using a direct rein, until the horse stops resisting and yields to your hand. If you try to just pull on the horse, you’re really only training the horse to pull back, and in the long run he’s a lot stronger than you are!