Sunday, June 29, 2014

Thoughts on Transitioning to the Bridle: Snaffle to Curb

     Most horsepeople understand that horses should be started in the snaffle and most even have a basic idea of why this is correct but, I'd like to review it a little anyway to make sure it really makes sense.
     A snaffle has direct contact only, not leverage.  It works primarily off the corners of the horse's mouth and puts some pressure on the tongue.  A snaffle is easy for a horse to learn to accept and learn to pick up and carry in his mouth.  It's easy for the rider too because it works well with primary rein cues (i.e. direct rein and opening rein).  It also works well with alternating reins.  All in all, it's good basic education for the horse.
     Now, a horse must learn to "give" to the snaffle too.  He must learn to turn and follow the rein around, backing up and having a nice easy stop with no resistance.  All of this is very important before he transitions to a curb bit.  I want a horse to be able to collect up at all gaits and in all transitions.  He should also circle well at all gaits (and I mean circles - not eggs or stop signs!).  The horse should show no resistance at all, he should not push on the bridle or root or elevate his neck.  All should be soft and pretty.
     I like to teach all young snaffle bit horses basic things like side passes, counterbends and flexing to the side.  Serpentines and spirals are nice exercises too.  This work is all based on that circle work done earlier in the training process.  (It really works too, to remember these exercises and make them an ongoing part of your horse's training and warm-up program.  They should never go away.)
     Only when a horse has accomplished all of the above do I think he's ready for the next step.  If the horse is a junior horse, I will move him to a hackamore next.  A hackamore gives nice indirect leverage and with two hands.  The horse must learn to do all of those basic maneuvers in this new piece of equipment.  He starts to understand the "lift" and the feel of leverage and I think it helps a junior horse learn to respond softly and confidently to the curb.
     If the horse is six years or older though, I'll put him a very mild, jointed and limber curb bit with short curved shanks.  And......the process starts all over again!  I think its so important that the horse learns and gains confidence as he progresses through each layer of training so I think of the transition from snaffle to bridle as a series of building blocks, one on top of another.  Hope this helps!  Talk to you next week, JD.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Luck of the Draw

     Luck?  No, I'm not thinking about Poker.  As usual, I'm thinking about horses or, in this case rather, the breeding of them.
     Good and knowledgable horsemen study pedigrees, phenotype, show records and everything else.  They consider the mare versus the potential sires' strengths as well as weaknesses.  They endeavor to make a foal that's better than either parent.  Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't.  If you breed often, the role of the dice occasionally falls in your favor but then, there's always the "fluke" too - that absolutely gorgeous foal out of very ordinary parents or those world-champion parents who produced a very ordinary foal. 
     So, what am I leading up to?  That there is a large element of luck in any horse breeding!  People can brag about what smart breeders they are all they want to but in the end it's often a gamble.  If you look at the number of foals top breeders produce to get that top colt or filly, you'll see that along with all that study and planning - luck often also figures in.  (I guess I'm just a little tired of hearing the
media talk about how smart the breeders of California Chrome are and just how stupid everybody else was!) 
     I have bred just one mare in my career.  A mare I dearly loved and that I thought was worth attempting to reproduce.  I did my homework and found I had a vision in mind when I picked the stallion and I got a really nice filly out of the cross.  She's now a multiple National Champion and has done more than I dared dream she'd accomplish.
     But, no - the filly, "Tilly" wasn't exactly what I had in mind either.  She loves to jump and is very good at it but I don't train Jumpers - that certainly was not in my "vision".  See what I mean?  You just never know the outcome when you decide to breed.  Was I smarter than someone else to end up with a multiple National Champion out of one cross?  Absolutely not!  I just won the "luck of the draw"!   Talk to you next week, JD.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Excuses, Excuses!

     I hear people make excuses for their horses all the time, trying to find a reason for the horse's errant behavior.  An assessment is all good and fine but horses don't reason and they don't talk so while examination of an issue may be necessary, be careful you don't go down the slippery slope of making excuses.
     To explain what I mean, I'll tell you about a little dog we adopted a while back.....  This little guy had alot of baggage, including a biting problem that stemmed from fear.  He was very unsure of himself and very afraid of children.  He'd been roughly handled by his previous owners and hurt by children. He was on "death row" at the pound until we gave him time and attention and security and we were thrilled to see him improve consistently. 
     He was well on the road to success except in one area.  He still snapped at children.  He would even run at them and snap at them even if they weren't really near him, for instance, five feet away.  Bad - very bad!  We had tried reintroducing him slowly to children who treated him gently as we held him.  We worked to give him security and control.  We worked carefully to teach him the difference.  So, there were no excuses but instead, it was time to try another tactic.
     The time had come for some discipline, which we quickly applied. It took only a few sessions and now this little dog is completely trustworthy with children and everyone else.  It pleases me so much to see the kids at the barn playing with him and watch him make many friends.
     So, here's the thing, this is no different than bad behavior with horses.  It doesn't matter what started it, you must deal with the misbehavior in a decisive manner that the horse understands.  If one approach (applied thoughtfully and consistently) doesn't work, don't make excuses, make a change. 
     Horses live in the moment and often what starts out as a reaction to something just becomes a habit the horse has learned to do and there's no longer even a connection between what originally caused the problem and their current acting out.  Horses can quickly become like spoiled children, but they are 1,000 lb spoiled children so that's a real problem!
     Getting the horse's attention and disciplining them for bad behavior (eg. pawing, jumping up and down in the trailer or cross ties, refusing to stand still, and oh so much more!) will ensure the horse learns manners and doesn't become more and more difficult, to the point of being dangerous.
     Horses have to live with people and must be safe to be around - just like that little dog.  Horses that succeed and learn good manners usually lead very good lives but those that don't learn these lessons often end up in very bad situations.  Help your horse succeed by thinking twice next time you're tempted to make an excuse for his bad behavior.  Talk to you next week, JD.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


     I'm a big proponent of the KISS method of training and teaching.  For the uninitiated, KISS is the acronym that generally means "keep it simple, stupid!".  It means the gobldy-gook stops here.
     This way of viewing things, I think, is good for all - horses and students and even trainers.  One of the many reasons I believe this to be true is that so often the basics seem to get lost.  We either forget to teach them or just don't understand the importance of the basics ourselves.
     I have often said that what seems to be a rather simple concept can have far-ranging ramifications.  For example, simple things like balance or collection or momentum - what do they really mean and how do they work together?  How do we apply them?  Something so simple as moving a horse's ribcage can be so misunderstood!  Or how forehand versus haunches.  And what about a pivot on the forehand versus a true turn on the forehand?  Here's another one I see so often misunderstood:  A proper side pass and how to start it.  Yikes!  I could go on and on but I'd probably bore you!
    Here's the thing though, the future of the horse industry really depends on good training and solid teaching practices.  As we are scrutinized by "outsiders", we must rely on solid basics, not gimmicks for our wins.  True training takes time.  I have spent my lifetime thinking and learning and just plain trying to understand how and why it all comes together.  Why and how some techniques work and some don't and how they are related.  The more you understand, the easier - and simpler - everything becomes.
     Training horses is not just about being a good jockey, it's about technique and it's about understanding the way horses move.  It's about learning the basics, learning all you can about equipment and, learning to have soft hands and being wise about how to use them.  In the end though, it's about KISS.  Look, listen, learn, ask questions and KISS..... "keep it simple, smart!".   Talk to you next week, JD

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Right & Left

     Some people seem to believe that horses are only more left sided than right sided because we primarily handle them from the left side.  I don't believe that to be the case.  I've seen horses that are more right sided than left though the left does seem to often be their more preferred side, just as the right is in humans.
     What is interesting to me, and helpful as I train, is that the side the horse prefers is his stronger side - whichever that is.  The opposite side - often the right but sometimes the left - is typically more supple or the "softer" side.  Now, this is important.  Horses are not as one sided as most people are and some show little preference for the right or the left.  It seems the more athletic a horse is, the more "ambidexterous" he will tend to be.
     So, how all this works out is:  horses have what is called a stiff side and a hollow side.  Often the horse that is naturally left leaded will turn better and easier to the right, and, for example, will do a flying lead change easier to the right.  That horse changes easier into his softer, more supple side.
    As trainers and riders, our job is to make our horses more evenly sided.  As I mentioned, very talented horese don't show strong prefrences and are often much easier to train but the majority of horses do have a clear supple versus stiff side. 
     By understanding which side your horse is supple on and which side he's stiff on, you can focus your work accordingly.  Perhaps starting excersises on the stiff side, then going to the supple side, then ending on that harder side until the day you find that you can't really tell the difference!  I hope these thoughts help during your next ride!  Talk to you next week, JD.