Friday, March 20, 2009

Back it Up!

Oh my goodness. I hope you have been more consistent working with your horse than I have been in this blog! I knew I was behind, but I had no idea 2 months had passed! :) If you're reading this blog let me know- it's easier to put the effort out to keep it updated if I know people are taking a look at it. If you have any questions you can email them to me or post a comment on the blog.

We've talked about sending your horse forward and about moving the hind or front feet to the left or right... the only direction we have left is back. Backing the horse up is very important. I agree with whoever it was that said you should be able to direct your horse backward as easy as you can lead it forward. Now that takes work! And, as with everything else horse related: as you learn more you learn there is more to learn. In this post I'm going to explain 3 ways to back your horse up. Learn and practice all 3.

1) Handler stands still and backs horse to the end of the leadrope. Stand facing your horse flick the lead rope in a vertical movement (like flicking a towel) with your wrist. If your leadrope is of good quality this will carry a feel (kind of like a shock wave) up the leadrope and signal the horse by bouncing the halter on it's nose. Start lightly, increasing the intensity of the bump until the horse takes a step backwards. As your horse backs up you will need to feed out more rope. Continue until the horse has backed to the end of the lead rope. See how LITTLE it takes to draw your horse forward and repeat a couple times. The key to getting your horse lighter is to ask with less intensity than you know it will take to achieve. For example, on a scale of 1 (low)-10 (high) if I know my horse backs up on an intensity of 4 I will first ask with the intensity of 1 or 2, then follow through with an intensity of 4, releasing when the horse responds. Before long the horse will surprise you and respond at 1. This is true of any maneuver.

2) Backing the horse by your presence (body language). When you approach you horse, it decides to leave, or stay, based on your presence (cues the horse receives from subtle body language). For example, you approach differently if you just want to pet the horse on the head than you do if you want to drive it out of your space. This exercise will help you become more aware of your presence. Start standing 6-8 ft in front of, and facing your horse. With body language that says "move out of my space" (straight posture, square shoulders, direct eye contact) step towards your horse if it doesn't back up, bump the lead rope as discussed above, until it responds. If it does back up, soften your body to give a release of pressure and pet the horse on the forehead. Once your horse starts backing up on just your presence, make sure you can still approach with softness without the horse backing. The goal is for the horse to tune into your body language and sort out when to leave or stay. We don't want the horse backing up every time you walk towards it!

3) Directing the horse backwards with lead rope. This is probably more similar to the picture of "backing your horse" that you have in your head. Stand to the side of your horse head (even with the horse's throatlatch). The hand closest to the horse (you will do this from both sides) is positioned on the halter/leadrope knot with thumb pointing down. The other hand holds a bit of mane at the withers to help keep you body in the correct position (to the side instead of out in front of the horse). Direct the horse backwards, releasing every time it takes a step back. Encourage the horse to stay soft in the poll, backing with its nose down and in.

As your horse is backing, take note that its feet are moving in diagonal pairs (left front moving with right hind and right front with left hind). When you are confident backing your horse is a straight line, start backing circles, figure 8's and serpentines. Do so by placing a front foot out to the side as the horse is backing. For example, if you want the horses tail to go to the horse's right, as the left front is leaving the ground direct it to the outside. At the same time the horse's right hind will step to the right.

Work hard and have fun!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Putting the Pieces Together

At this point you should be able to yield both the hindquarters and the front end in both directions. Now we are going to put both exercises together in what I call Hind/Front.

Lets start with the horse tracking left on a circle around you (at an active walk, of course). As you yield the hindquarters, the left hind leg will cross over the right hind. After a couple steps of hindquarters pause and allow the horse to pause and rock his weight back onto the hindquarters then yield the front end to the left (left front is the leading foot, right front crosses over) until the horse is positioned to track right. Add some forward motion and the horse is now circling you to the right.

At the beginning it can be confusing for people organize in their mind which way they are supposed to turn. In the example above, as the horse is yielding its hindquarters it is looking (or being bent) left. It is going to continue looking (or being bent) to the left as it yields the front. If, after yielding the hindquarters you find yourself straightening the horse's neck and changing the direction it is looking, you are preparing to yield the front in the wrong direction! Remember that the horses stays bent in the same direction for both hind and front.

To start with let the horse complete one of two circles each time you change directions and focus on achieving Hind/Front. As this becomes more comfortable, change directions every 1/2 circle. Be precise about getting the changes of direction at exact points on the circle so you learn to control the timing of the maneuver. Lastly, practice moving your 1/2 circle towards a destination. You will be walking in a straight line with your horse moving on a 1/2 circle in front of you, achieving Hind/Front with every change of direction.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Moving the front end

Now that you have the basics of yielding the hind quarters working for you, lets move on to yielding the front end. It's quite popular to hear talk of yielding the hind quarters and the one-rein stop, but you don't often hear people taking it to the next step. Moving the front end is the balancing maneuver to yielding the hind quarters. It is the "other side of the coin," if you will. We focus on yielding the hind quarters before moving the front end because hind quarters is the step the horse uses to prepare itself for moving the front.

First it's important that you understand what you are looking for. You want the horse's leading front foot (I'll explain which foot the is in a second) to move out to the side and back a little bit. Then you want the other front foot to cross over the leading foot. If the horse is turning to its left, the left front is the leading foot and the right front is the crossing over foot.

Okay, now on to the mechanics of moving the front end. For this example we will move the horse's front end to the left. Start after your horse has disengaged the hind quarters and is stopped facing you. The lead rope will be in your right hand with the tail of the rope in your left. Step to your right (your horse's left). This puts the horse in a "tight spot" and causes it to rock its weight back on its HQ. Then use your left hand to influence your horse into moving to its left. The horse will end up in the position to track right if you were to send it forward on the circle.

To clear up any confusion, I often tell students to visualize an imaginary line coming out between the horses front feet. Step across that line, then move the horse feet. If you want another step of front end you will need to again step across the line, then move the feet.

Remember you're looking for the leading foot to move first, then the other to cross over. You probably won't get a cross over at the beginning, keep stepping to your right (across the line) and moving the feet until the horses hind quarters remain stationary (pivoting on the outside foot) and the leading front foot moves out and back, resulting in a cross over. Pause to give your horse a release of pressure. With practice you will be able tell whether or not a cross over is going to happen by how that leading foot moves. So pay attention. The sooner you can recognize it and give a release the soon your horse will understand and the happier he will be.

If your horse is moving forward you are probably oriented to far back towards the horse's shoulder. Make sure you stay in front of the horse's nose to "shut the front door" and cause the horse to turn instead of coming forward.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Back to Business

I enjoyed taking a break for Christmas... and I hope everyone else did too. But now lets get back to the task at hand!

Now that you that you have life in your horse's feet and it is moving around you at an energetic walk, you should work on disengaging (or yielding) the horse's hind quarters. These terms refer to the inside hind foot stepping up underneath the horse and crossing over the other hind foot. I use "disengage" to refer to the horse taking one or two cross-over steps and stopping; and "yielding" to refer to the horse taking a number of cross over steps before stopping or being released to move forward on the circle again.

Start with your horse moving around you at a walk. Shorten up on the lead rope and tip your horse's nose towards you as you step towards the horse's tail. If you take one step your horse should cross-over and stop facing you (disengagement). If you continue to step towards your horse's tail it should continue to cross-over until you stop walking (yielding). When yielding a horse's hind quarters pay attention to what the front feet are doing. The front feet should not pivot, they should not cross over to the outside of the circle, and they should not move in toward you. The correct movement of the front feet is to take much smaller steps continuing to move forward in a circle. Picture a fat doughnut with a small hole in the center. The center circle is the track on which the front feet move, and the outside edge of the doughnut is the track on which the hind feet move.

Take yielding the hindquarters seriously and practice it diligently. It is important for safety and control of the horse and also for refinement. As you learn to refine the movement it will build softness, flexibility, and coordination in your horse.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Getting Started

Let's start at the very beginning, for that's a good place to start:
Start by getting your horse to move around you on a circle at the end of the leadrope. Begin by facing your horse. If you want your horse to track left have the tail of your leadrope in your right hand and your left hand positioned 5 or 6 feet from the halter. Point to the left with your left hand. Your goal is to have your horse move off in the direction of the point. If that happens, great! Drop your hand down to release the pressure. If not, continue to point, start twirling the tail of your rope, and advance (walk) towards your horse until it moves to the left and forward on a circle. Some horses might require you to hit them with the end of the leadrope to get their feet moving. Aim for the shoulder. This is termed "firming up". Don't be afraid to do it when necessary, just be sure to always offer them a "good deal" first (pointing). If you always offer your horse the point, it won't be long until he recognizes and understands the cue. Be sure to work both directions. Remember the point signals the direction, there is still slack in the leadrope. Think "Drive, not Drag" drive the horse with the tail of the rope, don't try to drag it around the circle with the leadrope.

Once the horse is circling, be working to acheive a lively energetic walk. Many horses will be dull and simply plod along without giving you any effort. A couple walk/trot transitions will help liven these horses up. Do what it takes to get these horses trotting, but don't have them trot very long- go back to the walk. Other horses will keep trotting around instead of walking. Don't let these horses trot more than 1/2 a circle. Keep changing directions with them until they relax and walk.

It is important that you walk forward on a small circle while your horse moves around you in a larger one. Make sure you're not walking backward trying to maintain space between you and the horse. This will cause you to move more than the horse- then the horse is groundworking you! If your horse is crowding you, use the tail of your rope to drive him off your space.

Also notice how your horse is bent when he is traveling on the circle. You want your horses nose slightly tipped toward you. But many horses travel counter bent- looking to the outside. If this is the case bump the horse's nose towards you while you drive the shoulder out. Give the horse some slack (release of pressure) when it is shaped up correctly.

Practice counting the rhythm of your horse's walk and learn to recognize the cadence of his feet: left hind, left front, right hind, right front. This is an important skill that you will build on forever- as long as your forever involves horses, and we sure hope it does!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Before We Begin...

Good horsemanship is about understanding horses and how to communicate with them. It goes beyond different types tack. That having been said however, certain types of equipment are easier to use and more effective than others. I like to use rope halters because they are narrower in diameter than web halters. This discourages the horse from leaning against pressure and makes the handlers cues much clearer. My favorite are those made by Double Diamond. They don't stretch, and I've found the proportions to be such that they fit the most variety of horses. When fitting a rope halter you must be careful that the cheekpiece of the halter is long enough. The noseband should sit well below the horse's cheekbone but above the soft part of the nostrils.

I have my leadrope tied directly to the halter- not connected by a clasp. A clasp will swing and bounce causing "signals" that don't actually mean anything. Thus causing the horse to ignore rather than pay attention to everything they feel coming from the leadrope.

I prefer leadropes 12 feet long and made from treeline ropes. 12 feet is long enough to get the horse moving out and around you, but short enough that you don't have a lot of excess rope to get tangled up in. One exception is smaller kids working with ponies. I will usually make 10 foot lead ropes for them. Treeline rope has a nice weight and feel. It allows the handler to send signals down the rope without having to make direct contact with the horse's face all the time.

If you're local to the Corvallis area, I know that Wilco in Tangent sells both the Double Diamond leadropes and the Buck Brannaman series treeline leadropes. They are also available on

Friday, November 28, 2008

The ABC's of Horsemanship

If you take a lesson or send a horse for training at Raining L Ranch you will notice a commitment to groundwork. Every student, no matter what age does some groundwork, and groundwork is done with every horse, no matter what the experience level. The exercises vary in difficulty and in what they are accomplishing, but you never out grow what you can learn from groundwork. Why the focus on groundwork? Because groundwork is to horsemanship what ABC's are to reading.

I am spending the Thanksgiving weekend with my cousin and his family. He and his wife have three beautiful girls: Bella, age 6, Serena, age 4, and Gianna, age 2. Bella is starting to read sentences. Serena, is just starting to read words. Gianna is learning her ABC's. These skills are going to serve them through High School, college, and even graduate school no matter what direction they choose to study.

Similarly, groundwork is the foundation from which all else in horsemanship builds. The handler learns how to move each of the horse's feet. The horse learns to recognize cues and respond correctly. Groundwork works through resistance and focuses the horse and handler mentally.

There is a direct correlation between groundwork and the subsequent maneuvers a horse will be asked to preform under saddle. Sidepassing, for example, is simply moving the horses front feet and hind feet to the side at the same time. This is rooted in the ability to yield the horse's hind quarters and to yield the front end. This is done separately at the beginning and then develops into the ability to move both ends simultaneously. The same concept applies to any maneuver: the basis is in the ability to accurately move the horses feet. It doesn't matter if the interest is dressage, roping, or endurance... the ABC's are the same.

Check back weekly for groundwork exercises to improve your horsemanship. Also ask me questions or send me topics you'd like to see addressed.