Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas to all!

As I take a break today between baking pies, roasting peppers and starting the prime rib for tonight's feast, it makes me think what a wonderful time of year this can be if you break your routine and make time to enjoy friends and family and everything else that makes the season great.

I like to break the routine at the barn too this time of year.  The horses all know their jobs, there aren't any pressing shows for a month or two and clients are busy with their own families so I love to let the horses take a break too.  We still work them and make sure to get them out but rides are shorter, courses are less complex and we definitely just take some days off (especially "Seahawks Sundays!").  I think the break in routine is good for them mentally.  We all recharge our batteries a little before the new year starts. 

I hope you can take a break to enjoy the season too and from my family to yours - both two legged and four legged - Merry Christmas!  Talk to you soon, JD.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why it Pays to Think Like a Horse.

I find that it’s really helpful in day-to-day interactions with horses, as well as in my training regimen, to understand how a horse “thinks”.  This understanding is not only an aid in training but often can alleviate or head-off situations that might otherwise lead to frustration or even anger for all concerned, including the horse.

First, it is always dangerous to put human rationale into a horse’s behavior.  Horses are absolutely not rational beings; they do not have the capacity to function that way.  Horses are prey animals who survive by living in herds and by instinct.  They are what are sometimes called “fear/flight animals” and their very survival in the wild depends on instinct, not rational thought. 
Every foal is born as an essentially wild creature.  The training process often begins the day they are born as we humans begin to build their trust.  This is why many people believe in handling foals at birth and why it’s so important that you work with the mare so she is trusting too, of the people who will handle her foal.  It just makes everything so much easier!

Horses definitely respond to the herd leader.  They instinctively follow the lead mare so, when handling horses, we should aspire to be perceived as the “lead mare” or lead horse).  In other words: aspire to be the dominant one in the relationship.  This is why keeping a horse thinking about you when you’re riding rather than say, a spooky corner in the arena, so often works. 

Each time you reverse a horse or change directions, it’s good to remember that the horse often sees things as being completely different.  Maybe everything is going A-ok but then you reverse and suddenly the horse is spooky, well, this is the reason:  Horses have fantastic memories.  They may remember where you are but it looks different, the light is different, the shadows different, it’s just not quite the same (as it might look to you and me) and that difference will usually be perceived initially as “bad”.  Again, this is how they survive in the wild.  They must remember where the winter grass is or where the water is or even, where it’s safest to graze.  This works often to our advantage but if a horse has a bad experience it can also be very difficult for the horse to forget and learn that things are now safe. 
Horses also have very strong powers of association.  They can associate one action with a reaction for a good 6 seconds but after that they have no idea what relates to what.  So, if they’re being disciplined or rewarded, you need to be quick about it or your action might just cause frustration or be moot.

All training is based on a horse’s ability to remember and associate and on a horse’s need to rely on a herd leader.  A leader the horse can trust and respect.  With trust and respect comes the will to accept training and be an enjoyable companion for humans!  I hope this encourages you to “think like your horse” more often.  Talk to you soon!  JD

Sunday, October 4, 2015

How Tight Can You Go?

Or......use your space wisely!  For years, I have been teaching my students that making elliptical or oval figures is more difficult for a horse and rider than just riding an arc that follows a circular path.

Recently, I was giving a clinic and a hunter-jumper friend of mine expressed the concept this way: don't go big to go small.  I thought "bingo!" that's it in an easy to understand statement.  In other words, don't go wide - or out in an elipse - when what you need is a tight arc. 
Most people understand the concept of attempting to make circles that are truely circular, not ovals or egg shapes etc.  But, when you put Trail obstacles in front of riders and ask them to ride a tight pattern, often they start widening. Then they're struggling to put the horse back on track to go over or through the obstacle. and it simply does not work.  Instead, they end up with impossible right angle turns and approaches that are off to one side.

So, in short, keep it simple.  Don't over think the course, ride arcs the way they naturally flow.  Don't ride like you're trying to get the trailer into a tight gas station, instead, arc your horse's rib cage around your leg and see how tight you can go - don't go big to go small!   Talk to you next week.  JD 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Confinement and Containment

I heard an interesting comment from a fellow trainer the other day and the subject just keeps coming up in various forms so I thought I’d start to ponder it with you today.   The comment was:  “I don’t believe in confinement”.
Well, hmm…… that’s an interesting comment because at its most basic: all training is based on confinement.  The very idea of collection is confinement between the hands and legs of the rider.  Asking a horse to load in a trailer, go into a wash rack or even to be stalled is asking a horse to accept confinement.

The process of accepting confinement starts when most horses are babies and we halter them for the very first time and when we first turn them out in fenced areas.  And certainly no horse is born knowing how to be tied, bridled or saddled, that all has to be taught. Confinement allows a horse to live with and alongside humans and not only be safe for people to be around, but to keep from getting hurt by us and our things as well.

For a horseman, confinement and containment are interrelated.  A horse that accepts the confinement of being a domesticated animal has taken a big step towards accepting the containment that is “collection”.  Collection is really containment that puts a horse in balance by asking for momentum while using hands to keep that momentum from just going forward.  So, the horse that “collects up” is containing or “compressing” his body.

Another aspect of all this is the mental component of containment.  Horses must accept all these changes in their life, which is quite unnatural in their natural state.  But, in doing so, it allows us to care for them and most horses now live without hunger or thirst, fear from predators or suffering from the extremes of weather.  It will never cease to amaze me how the horses I’ve turned out during the day in their pastures cry to be let back in as the day goes on.  They know their stall means food, water, blankets and generally: a safe place to spend their night.
I guess what I’m really saying is that there is a trade-off between horses and humans, a bargain if you will.  We use horses for work and pleasure and by doing so; horses get a different level of care and attention than they would in the wild.  The trade cannot happen though, without some confinement.

I’ll talk more about this in a future blog.  Talk to you next week, JD

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Man-made Stiffness

I have written often about suppleness in horses and how to achieve it.  I have also explained the concept of each horse having two distinct sides: one hollow and one stiff.  So, today I wanted to write about a related concept:  resistance or “man-made stiffness”.

Often I see people, trainers included, working to supple a horse only to have the horse become stiff and resistant.  The important word here is “resistant”.  When working with the horse, you must always find their stiff side, that’s a given.  If a horse is stiff on one side of the bridle he will also be stiff all through his beck and body on that same side.  And, you should never forget that after softening a horse’s stiff side, you will need to go to their hollow or “soft” side to help the horse balance.  But, you must also remember that there’s what I call a “golden moment” – that instant when the horse softens and the rider must soften as well or new issues start to occur.

Over and over I see people making the mistake of not giving or even relaxing when a horse begins to soften or “give” to the rider’s aids.  Once this happens, horses become stiff in a new way.  This man-made stiffness is because there was no release or “reward” for giving to the aids.  The rider keeps asking and the horse starts resisting and the rider keeps asking, often demanding more and more, and the horse continues to resist, often to the point of becoming angry but definitely to the point of man-made stiffness.  The golden moment of give and take has passed and it’s now an unfortunate battle. 

The basic concept that’s often forgotten here is that when the horse gives, the rider must give back.  It’s a two-way street if you will, and it can all happen – and pass – in the blink of an eye.   True, if a horse “takes” the bridle rein you must “take” it back.  But here again, you must also soften or “give back” to the horse as soon as the horse yields or, you start to create stiffness.  If you’re working on leg yields for example, as soon as the horse softens his shoulder and rib cage while going forward, you should soften the cues and encourage the forward.  Or, if you are just sitting on a horse asking him to give to your leg, stop asking as soon as the horse yields. 

The list of examples could go on and on but hopefully you get the idea.  It’s all about that golden moment of give and take!   Talk to you next week.  JD

Monday, August 10, 2015


To my great surprise I see that many aspiring riders who come to me for help have not been taught what I feel are the fundamentals horsemanship.  Yes, many coaches put students on lounge lines to get their balance and they give their students exercises on horseback to aid in their agility.  But, I’m thinking of something different…

Horses are herd animals and we have become a society primarily of people who have very little or no experience with a herd of anything, let alone horses.  Most people need a lot of help just understanding the basic personality of horses.  There has been a lot of research on how horses learn and how they remember things, etc., but often I find that previous to me, no one discussed this with my new student nor was the horse’s part in all this really even considered.  Just sitting securely is not enough.
Too often, lessons avoid things like discussing and learning about the “feel” of the horse’s mouth in a rider’s hands, or say, how the rhythm in a rider’s seat can affect the gait.   Basic knowledge of how a horse moves mechanically is so often never discussed beyond the basic gaits.  I think it is important to understand why some things work and why some do not.  Why some things work on some horses and on others they are just a disaster.
I also believe all students should be taught the basic mechanics of bits, how bits should fit and why they work in a horse’s mouth.  This leads to a discussion of horse mouths and then onto why teeth are important, and then on to a general discussion of basic, everyday equipment.  Such things as why the basic aids work and why basic rein techniques are so valuable are often left un-taught.  It’s not enough to just tell a student what to do; I think it’s crucial that they understand the “why” and “how” of what they’re doing so they’re not just “doing” – they’re learning!

Yes, I am on a soapbox here but, horse ownership is dwindling, registrations are down in nearly all breeds and horse show attendance is shrinking.   I believe by teaching the art of horsemanship and not just telling a rider how to sit for a few laps around the ring, we can get and keep more people interested in horses and all that’s involved with them.   What a wonderful thing for all of us, and for the horses that depend on us!

Horsemanship can be a life-long pursuit – it certainly has been for me!  Next time you have a lesson, make time to ask "why" and "how".  It will be the start of a wonderful conversation that I hope will last you a lifetime too!  Talk to you next week, JD.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Fast Growing Event: English Trail

In the horse show world nothing is static.  Events develop, new events are added, rules change and rules are added as needed.  The relatively recent addition of English riding styles to Arena Trail.  English Trail is still in its infancy as an event and is sure to evolve as more people participate.  Today we’re seeing primarily hunter-type horses join in this new event but it’s open to any English style horse so I expect we’ll see Saddle Seat, Show Hack and other English styles join in as riders learn how fun this challenging event can be!  

English Trail is a working class with between six to eight obstacles which the horse and rider must maneuver around, over and through while exhibiting confidence, curiosity and athleticism.  Obstacles are taken from the original Western class so include bridges, gates, back-throughs and of course walk-, trot- and canter-overs.  That said though, English Trail is not just Western Trail in an English saddle; the courses are usually spread out more than Western Trail to accommodate the longer stride of an English-type horse.  
 The event is designed to show the athleticism, willingness and overall training of the horse.  It takes a lot of practice at home so your horse is prepared for the obstacles it might encounter at the show.  The English Trail horse should be solid in its walk, trot and canter gaits and bold enough to get through the obstacles before starting out in this new event.
 English Trail gives an excellent opportunity for an English type horse to perform in a working class that is not a jumping or driving course.  To excel in this event, horses must be able to stride out to a 4’ to 4.5’ trot and a 7’ to 8’ canter.  Riders who typically work to that stride on the “flat” should also be prepared for a small jump, typically a cross-rail of no more than 2 feet (1.5’ for amateurs, 2’ for open classes).  And of course, various other poles may be raised just as in the Western version of the event. 
As with other English events, the horse is shown with two hands so this class is an excellent opportunity to work an inexperienced Trail horse that is beyond its junior horse years.  Additionally English Trail horses need not be as collected as you’d expect of say, a Hunter Pleasure horse.  The horse must be collected yes, but to a degree that gives them freedom to use their head and neck as they travel over and around the obstacles.  English Trail can also be a welcome change for that ring-sour horse that’s learned to anticipate the announcer’s call!

To meet the requirements of this event, one must be in proper attire, meeting the USEF or breed specifications for the “flat” version of their English discipline.  Today, a strapless hunt cap or derby is generally accepted but protective headgear may be worn without penalty.  The horse must also be tacked up in its corresponding and proper flat class equipment.  You’re currently not required to braid as you might for a flat class.  This may evolve but I prefer not to braid as a tightly braided mane might inhibit a horse’s ability to lower his head in a walk-over or bridge.
To post or not to post is also an evolving topic.  Poles in trot-over obstacles will usually be set accommodate a posting English trot but I advise my riders to sit the trot when executing serpentines or any other trotting obstacle that requires arcing, circling or is too compact to accommodate a solid posting stride.

English Trail will continue to evolve out from under the shadow of Western Trail so if you’re looking for an event that can help you add miles to your green Trail Horse or that challenge the abilities and intellect of you and your old partner, check out the English Trail classes at your next local show.  Talk to you next week!  JD  (And to see pictures of English Trail in action, watch for coming pics of Gina Heinricks and Montego Bay Star: Region V Champions in PB Western Trail AATR, English Trail Open and English Trail AATR - Congratulations Gina & Montego!)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Backsliding (Regression)

     Sometimes horse just go backwards in their training.  If it happens to you here are some things to consider.   Horses, like some people, don’t learn on an even trajectory.  There are many ups and downs and plateaus. 
     After a horse has regressed and then proceeded to “relearn” something, the horse will usually be more solid in his learning or mastering of a maneuver etc.  I’ve experienced this first hand many, many times but it’s actually been proven in laboratory tests too – with mice though, not horses – but the proof is in the results!   When horses come back after a regression they often exhibit more confidence.  Many times even seeming “happier” with the work they are asked to do. 
     I think it’s important to figure out what caused the horse to regress in the first place.  Sometimes it’s as simple as they need a break from hard work.  Other times it can happen after a long show or tough competition where the work was demanding and maybe a little over their comfort zone.  In some cases I change up their work for a while and then go back to the “old” work and viola!, we have good results.  In other cases I may decide that more of a change is needed and I’ll even back down on their bit, or spurs or whatever’s needed to get them back to a level they’re confident at, then we patiently work our way back up from there.
     Just break things down to a level the horse is confident in and be patient.  And, more likely than not, he will be a better trained horse than before the regression.   I can’t say it enough though; the most important thing here is to be patient, to not get frustrated with the backwards step.  Just calmly go back through the work, retraining patiently as you go, and you’ll be surprised how fast you’ll be back where you want to be.
     Horses learn by repetition, and they learn by making mistakes.  They learn in an uneven pattern but they will always go forward if you take the time to help them through whatever difficulty they are having.  Remember: it’s all about building confidence!  Talk to you next week, JD

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Know the Rules

     I'm at the Region 5 Sport Horse Championships this week and can't even begin to count the number of times I've watch the TD (steward) call people out for various rule violations - some minor and some fairly serious - and in every case avoidable if only people had read the rules. 
     Before you enter a show or a specific class, be sure you know the basic rules that apply and what will be expected of you.  All breeds and associations have rule books - almost all are online now - that allow you to easily check everything you need to know.  You can read up on everything from allowable length of hoof, legal bits and equipment, and even placement of numbers and proper attire and, so much more.  Read the show's premium materials carefully too to ensure you understand the rules of the show ground and how the show will be conducted.
     In show after show I see good horses disqualified because their bit was illegal or something as simple as a chin strap was wrong.  I have seen riders score a zero (no score) for handling a gate improperly in a Trail class or disqualified for accidentally riding on course before the class.  I've watched stewards (rightly so) remove illegal martingales and other schooling equipment.  I've watched exhibitors be asked to leave the grounds because they violated a show facility's rule, and on and on and on.....
     It is advisable to not only read the rules carefully but to also seek help to interpret them from someone who has a deep working knowledge and understanding of the type of show or classes you wish to enter.  I also advise everyone to watch a few classes before entering them as this helps you get a "feel" for what will be expected of you. 
     By watching classes you'll get an understanding of what is expected in terms of tack and attire, right down to little things like where to properly pin your number.  The old saying "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" is good advice!  This advice also applies if you are changing the breed you are showing.  Each breed has it's own particulars and even peculiarities.
     Not knowing the rules is disrespectful to the other exhibitors, the judge and the class itself.  If you're going to show, set yourself up for success by getting ready both on and off your horse.  Always work on improving your riding but, also make time to read and understand the rules that apply to the discipline(s) you've chosen.  Talk to you next week!  JD

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Starting Your Horse in Arena Trail

As I mentioned last month, Arena Trail is all about a willingness to negotiate obstacles and most importantly, agility.  The Arena Trail horse must negotiate obstacles with style and ideally never touch a thing.  Horses must be able to work over and through obstacles and turn and circle in tight spaces – all of which can be very challenging.  Working up to and through the maneuvers of Arena Trail can be very rewarding for both horse and rider no matter whether you just want to vary your work-out routine or your goal is to show your horse.   

To get off to a good start in this exciting event, your horse must already have solid, consistent gaits.  For Western horses, a lope with a 6 to 6.5 foot stride and a jog trot of 3 to 3.5 feet is ideal; with an English horse I add at least 12” to each.  The walking stride for all disciplines is typically a 1’ to 1.5’ but you should be able to shorten or lengthen your horse’s stride at a walk as needed (and don’t confuse short with slow.  Short means a short stride, possibly even a hoof’s length in distance.).

 The beginning horse should also have all the basic moves you’d expect of a “well broke” horse.  This includes a back-up, side-pass, turns on both the haunches and forehand.  The horse should circle well and turn easily, showing little or no resistance.  The horse will need to be supple in order to do good Arena Trail.

 I like to start my beginning horses with a simple jog/trot obstacle to negotiate.  The jog or trot is a good training gait and helps a horse achieve cadence and well as confidence over poles.  The first time I ride a horse over poles I set out just three poles.  A single pole with two poles about 20’ away that are a jog (3’) or trot (4’) stride in parallel, depending on what horse I’m riding.  Then, I jog/ trot the horse into a well cadenced gait and when I have it, I jog over the single pole and around and through the open space between the two parallel poles.  

This may sound simple but it can prove challenging enough for the beginning horse and the goal is to build confidence.  If all goes well, I’ll start to build on the routine - going over the parallel poles then around and through them, developing a good arc and maintaining cadence.  I may go over the two then loop back around and halt between the parallel poles to work on a balanced halt.  In a later session I may back between the two poles to work on a straight and unresisting back-up.   
These exercises are also good for riders.  The poles can help with your “aim” (always work the center of the poles). Poles help improve rider’s legs to keep their horse arced and striding evenly.  And, riders need to look ahead in Arena Trail so practicing turning your head, but not your body, to look at the next obstacle can help with overall “feel” for a horse.  Look up, look where you’re going next, aim for the center of that pole.  (It’s helpful to paint stripes on your poles or wrap them with colored tape.  This not only helps the rider “aim” for the center, it gets the horse used to seeing and working around different obstacles.)
As my rides develop and I think the horse is ready, I’ll set up a lope obstacle.  Unlike the trot/jog poles, I’ll start with just one pole, somewhere about five or six strides off the rail and at a right angle to one of the arena walls.   When the horse easily lopes that one pole, keeping a correct stride, relaxed frame and of course, not swapping leads, then I’ll add a second parallel pole about 6’ (lope) or 7’ (canter) but I’ll also keep a single pole somewhere nearby to go back to as either a warm-up or as encouragement if the double poles prove to be more of a challenge than I expected.
I like to then add all those poles – the trot/jog and the lope/canter – together as the horse and rider develop and get ready for transitions between the poles.  Jog/trot to lope/canter and vice versa.  And all the poles can be jogged/trotted at any time if you need to back down a bit to rebuild some confidence.

I work all my beginning Arena Trail horses with two hands because I can control their shoulders easily that way.  It’s important that the horse be “good in the bridle”.  If the horse is pulling or rooting with his nose, it will be impossible for him to go over poles in a pleasing manner and as obstacles get more complex, it will just be impossible to do the work.

About this time, I like to set up cones to jog the horse around and through.  I set them up wide, about 9’ apart to begin with, then serpentine through them.  I also add in side passing over a single pole and stopping and standing quietly by the gate.  Until the horse can stop at a gate and stand patiently, I don’t go any further.  The next step will be opening and closing the latch (or rope) while the horse stands still and, separately, side passing up to the gate and standing still.

During this beginning phase, as the horse develops, I add lots of small and large circles with stops and pivots.  I add back-ups in an “L” to both the right and left as.  I’ll continue the serpentines at a jog, setting the cones more narrow as the horse’s skill grows and I’ll start to teach a nice, simple lead change – and later a flying change – because it’s not just great for Arena Trail, I think it’s the hallmark of a “well broke” and “handy” horse!   Talk to you next week, JD

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ride With a Plan

(Hi everyone - I've been tied up with some other things lately so got a little behind with the blog but all's well and I'm back now and have several more written and ready to go so........ read on!)

     Those of you who know me know that I strongly believe that everytime you touch a horse "you're either training it or untraining it".  So whether you ride for fun or for show, it's can be really beneficial to have a plan in mind when you begin any ride.  First, you must have a general goal or aim in mind.  Maybe you just want your horse to walk when it's on the trail next time it's out with other horses.  Or maybe you need to work on improving passing on the rail or backing up in a straight line before your next show.  Ideas can run the gamut so look critically at your rides and determine what part might benefit from a thoughtful strategy.
     I advise people to identify problems or weak areas but there is also always room for improvement on most everything and since horses are animals, not machines, they are always changing.  Horses are not static so they're never fully "set".  And riders keep learning for their entire "riding career".  Even the best broke horse and most accomplished rider can benefit from a "tune up" ride.
     So, after you have identified your goal, you'll need to think of the exercises - for horse or rider - or perhaps the patterns, that will help you and your horse achieve the goal.  I also really like to vary my rides.  I find that horses blossom under training regimens that differ daily, offering different challenges for their body and mind.  This really helps keep a horse "fresh".
     Those exercises might include reverse arcs to help with shoulder issues, or backing up a step at a time to overcome an issue with rushing.  Exercises might be for you too - such as riding without stirrups to work on your posture or looking up and "aiming" at something in the distance and riding a perfectly straight line to it - feeling your horse and making sure they never lean on your hands or legs.  Or, you might ride with a focus on your own shoulders to make sure one isn't drooping to the inside.  Exercises for your horse could include putting out a cone and attempting to ride a perfect large circle around it, then spiraling down to a perfect small circle (harder than it seems! Don't let your horse lean in - everything must remain balanced!)
     Side passes, shoulders in (or out), canter/lope a circle-halt-pivot-canter/lope-repeat, shorten a walking stride to one step-count to five-one step-count to five, trot or jog over a pole and on and on and on - the possibilities are nearly endless but different exercises and routines all accomplish different things. 
     To incorporate a plan into your training ride you must also understand what the different routines and exercises accomplish and you need to be able to ride them properly so ask your trainer or a professional to suggest some "home work" if you're not sure where to begin.  And remember that something that works with one horse may not work well with another.  You'll also find that given your horse's discipline, some exercises just are not appropriate, maybe even counter productive - like trying to teach an English horse to do roll-backs.
     I hope this gives you ideas about how to ride with a plan next time you're enjoying your horse!  Talk to you next week, JD.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Arena Trail 101

     Arena Trail is about negotiating obstacles such as poles or logs and bridges.  It’s about handling gates of all shapes and sizes and occasionally even negotiating water hazards and dragging things.  Often courses are decorated with flowers, plants and bushes or other items to pique a horse’s curiosity.  Sometimes courses will even have a theme such as a farm (visualize toy tractors everywhere – yes, I’ve seen it) or even old cars! 

     Whatever the Trail course or its obstacles it can be a blast to watch the “go” of a well schooled horse that is confident and trusting, curious and athletic.  Trail is not only fun to watch, more importantly: some amount of training for this event is of benefit to all horses and riders – be they Western or English – and regardless of whether you show or not. 

     Most horses like the change in routine that Trail schooling brings.  It can help others gain confidence in the arena and working over poles can improve nearly every horse’s striding.  Arena Trail also gives riders a chance to vary their work, add new warm-up exercises to their routine and often improve their “feel” and general riding skills.  No matter what your goal, schooling for Arena Trail can help you become a closer and better partner with your horse – and you’ll have fun in the process!

     Modern Arena Trail is all about maneuverability, willingness and most importantly, agility.  The Trail horse must negotiate obstacles with style and ideally never touch a thing.  Horses must perform back-throughs, side passes and must be able to turn and circle in tight spaces which can be very challenging.  Trail horses must walk, trot, lope and halt when asked, with no resistance.  Often the courses are tight and transitions must be exact. 

     So…. Sounds like fun, yes?  But where do you start?  Arena Trail is an event that takes time and patience to train so it’s best to start out with simple maneuvers and build over time – much like teaching someone to read, you start out with the ABC’s, then a simple word, then get more complex as the student learns.  No matter what your horse’s true age, if they’ve not negotiated Trail obstacles before, they’re a new student and you not only want them to learn, you want to build confidence!

     I like to begin with one or two jog/trot poles or one lope/canter pole.  Trail is judged, in part, on striding over the poles and sometimes between the poles so, the jog poles for Western horses should be set 3 to 3.5 feet apart.  For an English horse, you’ll want to widen that to 4 feet.   As a horse grows more skilled in Trail the measurements can be more approximate but when I’m schooling a beginning Trail horse I take great care so the measurements should be as close to “perfect striding”  for the average horse as possible.
     I’ve had some beginning Trail horses that were curious and interested while others weren’t so sure about the obstacles.  Starting simple gives the horse the confidence it needs to build up to other, future obstacles and this simple start gives both horse and rider a good exercise in collection, striding and balance, used in a practical sense.
     During this starting phase those two jog/trot poles make a good starting back-through obstacle (though sometimes I have to widen them to build confidence).   I find it’s best to start teaching the back-through by walking the horse forward through the parallel jog/trot poles, asking them halt, then slowly asking for a straight back-up.  I’ll save teaching the horse to back into the actual obstacle for later, when they’re confident backing through simple obstacles. 
   A great thing about starting out with Trail though, you can always reduce things to their simplest common denominator.  Firstly, a horse must always be able and willing to do maneuvers without poles so I never teach maneuvers over poles until a horse is comfortable without poles.  For example, until a horse can lope or canter correctly, I’ll not lope or canter it over poles; the same thing can be said of the jog/trot and even the walk.  Until a horse can back up nicely, in a straight line, without rushing, I’ll not try to teach them to back through an obstacle.  You get the idea.  And, if a horse is afraid of the poles, I just encourage him or I’ll have him follow a veteran over or through an obstacle and before you know it, he’s doing it on his own.  I never punish an inexperienced horse over poles, I believe in letting the poles teach the horse!  And most of all, I believe in having fun while you learn and I hope this article makes you want to learn more about Arena Trail. 
     Talk to you next month with more on Arena Trail!  JD 

Monday, March 16, 2015


     There’s an old cowboy saying…. “a bit should fit a horse’s mouth like boots fit a cowboy’s foot”.   So, if a bit hangs too low or is jammed to high both can be uncomfortable and can discourage a horse from learning to “carry” the bit properly.
     Many people including professionals often don’t understand that a young horse has a shallow mouth because its teeth have not grown.  So an older horse might very well be comfortable with a thicker bit but that same but can be too much for the younger horse’s shallow mouth.   I usually bit up young horses with an average or slightly thicker-than-average bit.  Some older horses benefit from thicker bits depending on what you are trying to accomplish.  A note here:  You can usually tell if a horse is comfortable or not by how much he is chewing and adjusting the bit in his mouth. 
     Horse’s mouths change with age and they also change with training.  Horse’s mouths become educated and they learn to accept bits as their training progresses.  I’ve found that wet mouths make for better mouths but it’s not necessary that a horse be “drooly” to have a good mouth.
     The conformation of individual mouths must be considered also.  Some horses have narrow, shallow mouths with thin lips and some have wide mouths with lots of depth.  Some are small and some are large.   The thickness of their tongue should also be considered as well.  Horses with thick tongues will need bits that offer tongue relief.   
     Young horses often do well with bits that have some play and “pre-signal” in them.  It is just the opposite though for finely-tuned older horses.  The discipline you are training for also makes a difference.  Some horses just need to pack the bridle willingly and quietly while others must do complex maneuvers.  
      When fitting a curb, I look for one or one and a half creases at the corners of the mouth.  Classically, the curb strap should be adjusted so two of your fingers can fit between the strap and your horse’s jaw and the curb shanks should have a 15 to 30 degree swing but the mouthpiece should not rotate too much in their mouth.  And, with a snaffle I look for one to two creases at the corners of the mouth.
     With any equipment, the user – in this case the rider - is a major factor.  With the bit, the rider’s hands can be an issue.  Some bits are just not appropriate unless or until the rider has developed “soft hands” and has a real feel for a horse’s mouth.  
     I expect to and do change bits, sometimes frequently, as my horses age and develop and as they evolve through their careers.  Take a good look at the bits you use and if you’re not sure how each one is designed to work talk to your trainer to learn more.  Bits aren’t just common pieces of equipment; they can be fascinating studies in leverage and pressure and often, workmanship too.   I hope you enjoy learning more about them!  Talk to you next week.  JD

Monday, February 2, 2015

More on Positioning.....

    We talked about positioning the rider last week so now...... what about the horse?   I love how the great trainer Bob Avila said it: "if you control the rib cage everything else will follow".  Oh, how true but let's talk about this a minute because the devil can be in the details of that seemingly simple statement!
     A horse is basically built as a trapazoid so whichever way the shoulder goes, the hip will go to the opposite side and vice versa.  And, if a horse is yielding in his rib cage it's impossible for him to drop his shoulder.  This simple truth is often overlooked by horse people.
     Like all good trainers, I keep my horses supple and I do all kinds of exercises to achieve that suppleness but in the end, a horse must yield his rib cage to the rider's leg!  This allows the rider to ride the whole body of the horse.  While it's absolutely important to work on individual body parts such as a soft poll, a lifted back and shoulder, a rounded body etc.; the ultimate goal is to have the horse balanced throughout his body - i.e. collected - and the rib cage is the key.
     Focus on your horse's rib cage during your next ride to see what a difference that control can make.  To start, the horse should never lean or pull on a rein or lean on a rider in any way.  If a horse is even slightly leaning then he's not balanced nor can he be collected.  Hope this short thought helps during your next ride!  Talk to you next week, JD.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


     Whatever your discipline, how you position a horse’s body makes all the difference so it is of paramount importance that you understand the demands and needs of the discipline you are riding.  Positioning a horse’s body for barrel racing, for example, is very different than getting your horse correct for Trail, Western Riding or Reining.
     But…… it’s not my intent here to explain or go into the details regarding the needs of each of the aforementioned disciplines but rather I want to discuss how the rider influences the body position of the horse. 
     I’ll give you one clue to where I’m heading with this:  you must have your own body correct or nothing else can be correct.  In short, nothing really works correctly until you do.  Typically for most disciplines correct for you will mean: well balanced, heels deep, straight and square through your rib cage and shoulders and never stiff or arched in your back – remember sit up straight with your stomach muscles and hold up your chest and your back will follow without becoming hollow or arched).  If you are not sitting correctly you can interfere with your horse and in no way are you be able to help put the horse in the proper position that he needs to be to work his best. 
     Hand position is very important as well.  So often, I see horses dropping their shoulder because they’re “just following” the rider’s poorly placed hand.  You must be able to activate the correct rein and relax the opposite one when needed to allow a horse to have space to move while you still remain even and balanced. 
     The position of the rider’s legs is also so important.  I see riders attempting to collect their horses yet their own legs are way out in front, or they just have what I call “noisy” legs, meaning legs that are just not stable so they cause annoyance and possibly even confusion for the horse and an unstable seat for the rider. 
     In horses as in everything else, there is a direct relationship between cause and effect!  All horsemen must be effective and stable riders and to achieve this they must be aware of their own bodies and body parts and how those parts can positively or negatively affect their horse’s ability to perform well.  Now that I have you thinking about positioning, we’ll talk more about this at a later date!  Talk to you next week, JD

Thursday, January 8, 2015

To Wrap or Not to Wrap, That is the Question!

     Christmas may be over but the season made me think of wrapping - wrapping legs that is!  And, let me first state: when it comes to wrapping legs it's very important to learn to wrap correctly because incorrect wrapping can cause damage and do more harm than not wrapping at all.  Your vet can show you how to wrap or an experienced groom or your trainer can take the time to help you practice wrapping correctly.  There are also many good articles with pictures on the subject that can help.  Good wrapping takes practice though - it's a skill everyone should learn!  And now, on with this discussion.....
     There are many reasons to wrap.  The general idea is to give support and to give protection against bumps that may cause splints.  Wraps are also used to reduce swelling and tighten legs, especially before halter and in-hand classes.  Often standing wraps are applied to give support after a horse has been worked hard in an event such as jumping.
     I personally prefer splint wraps for just protection against bumps that may cause splints.  I think good splint boots, because they are heavier, provide more protection than polo wraps.  They are quick and easy to use and wash up really nicely - often they just need a quick rinse.  And, best of all in my opinion: they don't need to be rolled!
     For horses such as reining horses, I have used polos but often also use splint boots, again because they seem to provide a better cushion against bump and strikes.  There are some "sports medicine" boots that give a lot of support as well.  Mostly I like to see what a horse perfers to work in.  I sometimes have used polos with quilts to give added protection and some horses really do well wrapped this way.  Much like a top human runner though, who's particular about which brand of shoe they wear, I've found that some of my Reining horses can be rather fussy about what you wrap them with.  On the other hand, my Western Pleasure horses don't seem to care what I wrap them with.  In any case, never forget that your "rail horses" - Hunters, Western Pleasure - and Trail horses, can not be shown with wraps on - of any kind.
     As a general rule, I don't haul in wraps.  If you're not using the new ice wraps, I find that horses seem to heat up during the long hauls that I frequently make.  I must add that I do haul in about four inches of shavings to give plenty of cushion for their legs and it also helps keep down the amount of heat coming up from the road which is very important.  A hint here:  If your shavings are too deep, they just bank up in the front and back of the horse and are wasted.  I do though put on wraps and bell boots if I'm hauling a horse with built-up shoes or if I'm not sure of a horse's hauling manners.
     I'm also not a fan of wrapping horses each and every time I ride.  If a horse is mature, shod properly, conditioned and sound and is being shown in an event that does not allow wrapping, I actually believe it's better not to wrap.  Horses that are used to always being wrapped and then are shown without wraps are more prone - I believe - to injury when showing.  Now, I know it's really popular to always wrap but I have had 100% success with the management I have described here.     With my Trail horses, I again prefer not to wrap because I want the horses to occasionally feel the poles and therefore learn to be "careful with their feet". 
     It's always good to consider when a horse is most likely to need wrapping.  Longing is a good example.  Also, horses that are carrying built-up shoes need more protection, including wraps and probably bell boots.  Younger horses that are learning how to carry their bodies correctly as well as balance under a rider's weight are good wrapping candidates.  And even youngsters, when they're turned out, if they're being "fractious" and playing and running hard, are good candidates for good wraps to avoid splints.
     Wrapping can and should be geared to what a horse needs and whether it will benefit from the wrap.  Wrapping with polos and track bandages (I only use polos) is an important skill that all horsemen should learn.  Take the time to learn to apply wraps correctly and to learn what type of wrap or boot is correct for you horse's needs.  And two last thoughts:  Polos and boots must be kept clean - I'll never re-use a dirty boot or wrap - and, I believe that all polos should be taped.  A little duct tape applied to the last wrap will help keep the wrap in place.
     I hope this discussion helps!  Talk to you next week.  JD