Monday, June 27, 2016

I Miss Those Big Classes!

We see many issues facing the horse industry today, not the least of which is the shrinking size of our shows.  This phenomenon seems to be crossing all breeds.  There is a strong trend among show management to add more classes, breaking down each class into much smaller, mini-classes if you will.

It no longer seems good enough to have Select or Limit Rider classes to encourage amateurs and there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to fill out the general ATR and AOTR classes.  We no longer break down age groups into broad ranges like 18-35, 40-and-over etc.   So often now shows are breaking classes down to their lowest common denominator where it seems each rider can have a class of their own!

Now I ask: is this the answer to encouraging amateurs?  Does this foster competition?  And I respond with a resounding “no!”  The excitement of winning a big competitive class has gone away for many riders.  The experience of riding the rail with twenty or more other competitors is being lost at most shows.  Instead, the aim of many shows seems to be “how many ribbons can we hand out today so everyone “wins””.  Are the competitors really happy getting a ribbon in a one or two horse class?  Are they happy receiving a Regional Top 5 for a class that didn’t even fill?

We’re not developing our amateurs into the best horsemen they can be because it’s no longer necessary and I think this is short-sighted indeed.  The future of this industry depends on instilling respect for horsemanship and the traditions it rests upon.  Good horsemen, amateurs and professionals alike are carrying centuries of knowledge and wisdom – competition gives them the opportunity to test and grow that knowledge.  Good horsemen are and should be pushing the standards even higher.  Learning and teaching better techniques, developing even better equipment; breeding even better horses (but always with the betterment of whatever breed in mind) and good competition fosters that urge to improve. 

Whatever your discipline, it takes years to hone your skills as a horseman and takes years to garner a deep understanding of horses.  The future of this business rests on people who are dedicated to making and taking the time to improve.  Those riders deserve the excitement of competition and of winning a big class filled with accomplished horsemen like themselves who are riding beautifully trained horses and who have worked hard to earn their place in the ring.

I loved the excitement of winning and watching those big classes and I hope you have that opportunity too!  Talk to you soon, JD

Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Little Gem!

Here’s some advice that I was taught long ago and that has worked for me for years.  I don’t see it being taught much anymore though, which is a shame so I thought I’d take a minute to pass it along to you myself.  And best of all, it’s really very simple – one of those “little gems” that can make such a difference:  When a horse softens to your aids, you must immediately also soften. 

This doesn’t mean you have to “throw the horse away” but when the horse gives, so must you.  It is entirely possible to make a stiff horse even stiffer if you don’t soften when the horse softens to your hand or to your leg.   If you don’t ease up on your “aids” when the horse softens often a battle ensues and it’s not only unfortunate but it’s counterproductive.  If this battle happens often enough the horse will become confused and then resentful and some will even become downright angry. 

This advice applies to all of your aids:  your hands, your legs and your seat.  When you don’t follow the horse’s softening with your own, you become rigid and less able to “feel” your horse.  The beautiful rapport and balance between horse and rider is lost.

Riding is all about balance, rhythm and feel and there is no feel without balance and no rhythm without balance.  I really like to teach all of my riders to ride without their hands on a longe line.  This is an old-fashioned but tried and true way to teach balance.  (My best riders were always able to advance this exercise to include riding bareback on the longe line.)   

Riding without hands on a longe line is a great way to develop or improve your seat, and from there you can improve your hands and other "aids" and your overall "feel".  With an improved feel comes the ability to soften when your horse softens.   I hope this little gem from the past helps you improve your rapport with your horse.  Talk to you later!  JD

Monday, May 16, 2016

Turning to the Future

It was with great reluctance that we recently decided to retire one of our beloved stars from the show string:  VP Midnitestranger+//, better known as “Wes” (or “Wesley” to his many, many friends north of the border!). 

It will be very sad not to load him up in the trailer for that next show but he’s put in many, many miles and brought home numerous National titles so we’re happy to see him enjoy just being a horse again as he ages (and ages very well, I might add!). 

So…. now we look to the future and with horses the future always seems bright.  The future brings a new crop of foals, new shows at which we can make new friends and it also brings new horses into the show string.  While I continue to work with some of my current stars like SS Ekspressev+// (“X Man”) and Montego Bay Star (“Montego”) I really enjoy working with the new stars of the future. 

I have just started a new mare for the show string and she is wonderful but that’s not what is important to this conversation.  She is different and that makes the future very interesting.  Yes, she will be trained with the same techniques that have rewarded us so well in the past but there will be a difference.  She will have her own style and her look will be different than the other horses before her.   She is a new individual and I am so excited about this. 

To get the most out of any horse, you must recognize how that horse is an individual.  How that horse is different from all the horses you’ve worked with or ridden before it.  I love to get to know each individual then work to bring out their strengths, make their weaknesses irrelevant and overall: allow them to shine and be the stars they can be. 

One must keep turning to the future even when it means sadly parting with the past.  Enjoy your leisure years Wes – you deserve them! 

Talk to you later, JD

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bringing a new Horse Home

Often, horses that are relocated – maybe through a purchase or to go into a training barn – have little or no experience with travel or changes in their location or routine.  Horses being the creatures of habit that they are, as well as being herd animals, often suffer from a lot of stress when a change of their “home” occurs.

Horses that have not been hauled a lot can be stressed before they even reach their new home so whenever possible I like to haul new horses with a buddy.  I load up a seasoned campaigner who can help settle their nerves during the trip through their calm companionship.  I also like to provide hay for the ride so they can eat away some of their stress.

When I reach the barn I always make the horses (both new and my campaigners) stand in the trailer for a good 5 to 15 minutes before unloading.  This teaches the horses not to anticipate unloading and ensures good manners.  This valuable training can really help when you stop for a break during long hauls or have to set up at a show before you can unload. 

If possible, I’ll turn the new horse out in a safe place for a short while when I get to the new barn; maybe the arena if it’s empty or perhaps a solidly built paddock if I have doubts about being able to catch them again.  This lets them stretch their legs and start to adjust to their new surroundings without the added stress of being ridden or handled.  I’ll provide water if I’m going to leave them turned out for a while but I don’t worry if the horse doesn’t drink.  Often they won’t drink when they’re excited.

When I put them in their new stall, I always make sure they have a nice big flake of hay to dive into as eating is very calming to most horses.  When I can, I’ll stall a new horse where they’re near or can see experienced, quiet horses.  I personally also like to just leave the new horse alone at this point.  Many people want to hang around the stall to watch a new horse but I’ve found this is usually more stressing than calming.  Unless there’s some safety issue, just leave them be and periodically check to see if they’re eating, drinking and manuring.

With any new horse, I withhold all grain and concentrates, such as pellets, for the first few days.  After that I’ll gradually reintroduce grain or pellets as the horse settles in.  Depending on how much grain and/or concentrates a new horse gets they’re usually adjusted to their full feeding by the end of the first week.  Even if I’m going to end up feeding the exact diet a horse had at their old home, I still follow this same process to make sure they settle in without any issues.

I don’t worry about riding a new horse right away.  I’ll handle them and turn them out for their first two or three days and if they’re quiet I’ll start to introduce them to the sights and sounds of their new grooming area and groom them.   By the third or fourth day of regular handling most horses are ready to start work again.  With older, broke horses, I like to longe them for their first day of work and maybe ride them or maybe not, depending on how settled they are.  If they are having trouble adjusting, I might “bit them up” mildly to get them mentally prepared to work and then I’ll play it by ear from there.  When I do ride the new horse for the first time I also like to give them the company of other riders on experienced horses.  I might even pony a new horse off an experienced, quiet horse to help them settle to the arena.

Each horse is different and each one settles in at their own pace but by realizing that moving is stressful and by managing settling-in with that in mind, you can help a new horse succeed.  Hope these tips help you with your next move!  Talk to you later, JD 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Good Practice Sessions

I like to emulate other good coaching and successful player strategies in my own teaching and training so let’s consider what sports like basketball and football teach us about practice sessions.  As I work through my March Madness brackets (go Huskies!) I can’t help but think of all the practice, practice, practice those players have worked through to get where they are.  They’ve honed their game and built their confidence. They’ve practiced wisely and listened to their coaches.

Just like other sports, good practice riding sessions should increase a rider’s level of confidence in themselves as well as in their horse.  Practice should also allow riders to achieve a mental attitude that is conducive of winning.  But, one of the pitfalls many riders can fall into is a lack of confidence, which often goes back to their practice sessions.  Reality is, many riders practice by themselves and often they do this rather blindly, without guidance or a plan and they often practice incorrectly and fall into bad habits.

To have a good practice session (and I'm not talking about just an exercise ride), you must ride with a goal in mind.  You need to thoroughly understand what you are attempting to do and you and your horse must also have the necessary skills to do it properly.  It is absolutely counter-productive to practice “wrong” – and often when things are going wrong, riders will just practice longer which can quickly eat into their confidence, not to mention “untrain” their horse.

Often my students will ask me for “home work”, exercises they can do between lessons.  I love this, it means they’re thinking about their progress and are enjoying their work but I take care to only give them exercises that are right for their own and their horse’s level of experience and ability and that are unlikely to go "wrong".

During solo practice sessions riders must constantly assess their riding and how their horse is responding.  Riders practicing alone must be extra vigilant and critical of their riding, trying to find ways to improve.  Riders practicing alone must ask themselves: did I use my aids correctly?  Was my timing good?  Did I feel with my hands?  How was my seat and balance?  Did I help or interfere with my horse?  And most importantly: how did my horse respond?  Horses will always show us the way, they will never lie and will teach is to be better horsemen if we listen to them.  Your horse is a great teacher but only when you “listen”, feel and work as a team.

Sometimes good practice will mean taking a step back in the level of difficulty you’re trying to work through.  For example, if an exercise of multiple lope-overs is not improving, go back to a single lope-over or some less complicated maneuver.  Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that grinding away at the problem will fix it.  Back down to something you both do well, then talk through your problems with your trainer during your next lesson.  Only good "practice makes perfect”, practicing "wrong" can eat into your confidence and and undo your progress.

Work with your coach or trainer to decide what exercises are best for you and your horse to ensure your practice sessions take you and your horse where you want to go!   Talk to you later, JD.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Venus, Mars and Pluto

Mares, stallions and geldings that is; yes, mares are from Venus, stallions from Mars and the geldings must be big boys from Pluto.  What I mean is, mares and stallions have very different behaviors and geldings live in a slightly different world unto themselves.   I love the old adage that goes “you tell a gelding, ask a mare and suggest to a stallion”.  There is so much truth in that old statement!

Horses are each very unique individuals but often I find that geldings are usually pretty easy to deal with because they are not as complicated as mares and stallions and they aren’t dealing with raging hormones.  Not all geldings are easy of course.  Their temperament can be affected by many factors such as prior handling and how old they were when they were castrated.  Some geldings will retain much of their stallion aggressiveness but most geldings show little or none of that aggression.

A down side that I’ve found to geldings is that they don’t usually have that extra “try” when the going gets tough.  Things like a late, late evening class or a minor discomfort might put off a gelding where a mare or stallion will usually “tough it out”.  I find that generally, geldings just don’t have the heart of a mare of stallion but they do retain the playfulness of “the guys”.  In their play geldings usually really like to face-fight, rear, and pretend to strike.  For this reason, some geldings do not do well if turned out with mares.  I personally like to keep geldings and mares separated.

Now mares: apart from estrous cycles, they too exhibit their own behavior.  They can definitely be opinionated.  Mares are more likely to kick when expressing themselves.  Mares will kick up their heels when turned out, for the pure joy of it all.  They’ll also kick as a defense behavior or when they’re just plain mad.  There are more problems grouping mares together than grouping geldings.  Finding a single dominant mare that will nicely rule and manage the herd is definitely an advantage.  Most herds of mares (anything more than two should be considered a herd) also consist of a second-in-command, a lieutenant so to speak and there are very definitely pecking orders in a herd of mares: top tier, middle tier and bottom of the herd.

And as for stallions, of course it’s always about getting the girls!  So often I see people either being too lax and letting their stallion get into dangerous behavior or they over discipline their stallion which can make them angry and frustrated.  Frankly, I don’t believe that most people should handle stallions but all stallions are different, just like all mares and geldings are unique.  The trick is to know the horse.  It also makes a big difference if the stallion is being bred and how frequently.  What is allowed in the breeding shed should never be allowed outside that area.  Stallions “talk”; they nicker and neigh to mares and geldings and this can quickly lead to more aggressive behavior.  The girl smiles and the guy flirts harder….  Allowing a stallion to talk can be the beginning of a very dangerous escalation.  Stallions are always fighting primal urges and can quickly start fighting with their teeth and front legs. 

Stallions also want to control mares.  During breeding they control the mare by biting a nerve in the neck so biting is part of a stallion’s natural behavior.  Biting towards humans must never be tolerated as it can very quickly get out of hand.  Stallions also play aggressively with their head and neck so when disciplining a stallion from the ground it’s important to make sure the horse doesn’t think you’re just playing with him.  All that said, stallions can have long and loyal relationships with their  humans when there is respect and the right amount of control and discipline.  I think too that they will give more “heart” when asked, if you have a good relationship with them.

All horses are their own individuals but stallions are even more pronounced in their proclivities.  Stallions must have regular work and exercise.  It helps release their sexual tension and is a great aid in getting them to relax and then focus on whatever it is you need them to do.

It’s all about individuals – both in the horses and the people who handle them.  Some of the worst “mares” I’ve known were geldings, some of the strongest hearts I’ve seen were in mares and one of the most affectionate horses I’ve known is a stallion.  So whether you like Venusians, Martians or the boys from Pluto, get to know your horse and celebrate him or her as a unique individual but never forget the indelible traits that he or she carries.  Talk to you later!  JD

Sunday, January 31, 2016

It's a Process

To quote Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson "it's a process".  Oh, how true. You must respect "the process" and go through each and every step of that same progression with your horse, showing patience all the way through.  This is how champions are made!

Too often, people want to rush their horse's progress and, just like a quarterback who's unsure of himself runs out of the pocket before letting the play develop, the results are usually not great.  Just like that play, horses take time to develop - sometimes, a lot of time.  But, the discipline it takes to give a horse the opportunity to develop properly will yield many benefits, not the least of which are dependability and longevity.

This philosophy goes along with another Seahawks axiom: "learn the fundamentals and do them as well as you  possibly can".  Strong fundamentals are so important for both horse, and rider.  It can be tempting to jump ahead and start doing things you see others doing but, without understanding the fundamentals that the technique is based on you have no foundation to build upon.  The better you are at the fundamentals then the more solid everything you build onto them will be. You and your horse will make true forward progress.

In short, there really are no short cuts in horsemanship.  It's taken Russell Wilson a lifetime of play and four years with the team to develop into the quarterback he is today.  Don't rush, respect "the process", go through the steps and use your own off season to improve both your and your horse's fundamentals!  Talk to you soon, JD