I hope life is treating you well and you are getting some good quality horse time. I have recently just had a great 3 weeks at home where I could really get some consistent sessions in with my horses and keep progressing their postural development. I have been continuing with my experiment to explore more exercises on the ground and more creative ways, to help horses improve their strength, balance, self-carriage and more optimal biomechanics for health, soundness, happiness and performance. I have really enjoyed the process, as have the horses. Not only is it really helping their bodies but it is incredibly relationship building.
The more I evolve, the more I see the need to help horses through groundwork to develop themselves physically before they are ridden. This has been a focus for me for a long time now but I wanted to take it further, get better at it and find better ways. I have had a lot of fun doing this as have the horses, and it is very relationship building when we do it right. Using a lot of positive reinforcement and marker training to keep them inspired to practice repetitive things and also pinpointing with the marker signal, all the subtle little muscle activations or positionings required to develop their posture, to make it clear, interesting and fun for them. I have also been doing some of the more advanced exercises at liberty where the horses could have choice about doing the exercise and take time out when they felt they needed to.It was interesting to see that when the horses had the choice to leave or take time out to process or have a mental break, they did, and then within a minute or two they came back and were ready and offering to go again. It made me realise that we are often mentally as well as physically asking too much too fast and the horses need more processing time. I consider myself a pretty non-pressuring trainer that breaks things down and gives the horses time but through doing more at liberty, my horses showed me they needed more clarity and more mental breaks. It’s interesting also because quite a few mths ago one of my horses, Advent, kept sending me a picture of a small brain. Everytime I would think of him I would see a small brain. He is actually a pretty switched on fast learner, so it was not that he was a particularly slow learner but rather that all horses needed things to be simple and processing time. It took me a while to work out what the message was with the small brain image, but over the mths doing the groundwork program with liberty and positive reinforcement, I worked it out.
I am really excited about the results I am seeing in my horses physically as well as the softness in them mentally and emotionally. And, I am enjoying supporting others in the process of developing their horses. I believe this is such a worthwhile investment and the rewards reaped will be that we are leaps and bounds ahead and end up with a happy, healthy, athletic equine partner with good biomechanical function. A partner who is strong, ready and able, mentally, emotionally and physically, to be ridden.
One of the things I recently became aware of through listening to a professional in the field of conditioning horses into fitness was that horses are incredibly slow to develop and build muscle strength. Cardiovascularly they are very efficient and they build cardiovascular fitness very fast (a necessary requirement to survive as a prey animal). They build cardiovascular fitness much faster than humans do but they build muscular strength much slower than humans. When we think about how long it would take a human to build muscle strength – it is a slow and very gradual process – and then know that the horse takes quite a bit longer, then we can start to appreciate that horse training in the physical aspect is indeed a very slow and gradual process.
When we ask a horse to become more engaged (that is carry more weight on the hindquarters in a healthy biomechanical way, we are essentially asking them to become a weightlifter. I think it is also important to note that they can carry more weight with their hind quarters in an unhealthy way. When we add the weight of the rider and a saddle, we are not only asking them to carry the weight of their own body and in particular their own forehand with their hindquarters but also the additional weight of a rider and a saddle. If you were developing yourself to lift weights you would need to start with a small weight and build up slowly – only doing enough repetitions until you reached the point of fatigue. But that is not what generally happens with horses. We ask them straight up to carry a large amount of weight and we don’t stop when they are fatiguing. Their request to stop when they are fatigued or uncomfortable gets labelled resistance, laziness, no work ethic, disrespectful or similar. They get pushed on and even if they were using the correct postural muscles before fatigue, which many probably weren’t for various reasons, they then start using incorrect muscles as the correct ones are too fatigued.
My dream is to have horses that are so soft, willing and “offering” to do high level dressage movements, in a perfect state of balance with a mental connection of oneness and emotional state of calmness, confidence, self-assurance and composure. I want them to be proud and majestic and to truly enjoy and want the experience just as much as me. I know this is only possible when the horse is correctly developed in their physical body, which takes a long slow foundation of development. I also know this is only possible when the horse is never forced or pressured in the training process and always listened to and respected. The most important thing that creates and maintains connection (a great relationship with our horse) is “Caring MORE, about how a horse FEELS about what we are asking them to do than achieving the goal or outcome”. As soon as we put the goal ahead of caring about how they feel, we will never achieve the ultimate state of union and communion that I dream of with a horse. When we have a horse that is truly a willing partner, the feeling for us, the joy, is so much greater than it will ever be when we are pressuring a horse, or working with a horse that has been pressured into doing things.
Even if your goal is lesser than high level dressage and all you want to be is a trail rider, there is still a certain amount of physical strength and biomechanical correctness needed for that to be a good experience for the horse. Trail riding is actually quite taxing on horses as people are often sitting in the saddle for a long time, and often in the walk so there’s no relief for the horses back, and then there might also be hilly terrain. So, no matter your goal, developing your horse’s posture and strength is of importance.
A HAPPY HORSE makes for a HAPPY RIDER. We ask horses to give us so much. I don’t think people appreciate, even remotely just how much we ask horses to give through the process of riding. It is the least we can do for them, to take the time to build the foundation of strength that they need to be ridden in a way that is healthy, comfortable and enjoyable for them. This is how we can give something to the horse. When we take the time it takes to build this foundation correctly and without pressuring the horse, it takes less time to get where you want to go and you will build the connection and relationship that you dreamed of.
I really hope you join me on the path, or continue with me on the path, to creating HAPPY HORSES and HAPPY HUMANS. I have been experimenting with an online support group for people wanting to develop their horse’s physical body. It has been going great and will soon be opened up for others to join, so stay tuned 🙂