Saturday, October 18, 2014

Head position - a scientific study

It is great to see that there are proper studies conducted in the area of horse welfare in equestrian sports. It is high time to see dressage and head position on the agenda.

I get fed up to see the atrocious pictures of dressage horses in LDR/Rollkuer position (oh, and the showjump riders use is, too...), and many a respectable person has spoken out against it. I don't like the emotional outpourings of the dressage community, either for or against. The folks against (bless them), are particularly emotional, thereby actually hurting their own cause on occasion.

So it is with great interest and happiness that I see scientific studies that seek to find answers on these subjects. Only through meticulous data gathering and rigorous application of scientific method can we gain a measure of certainty about the things which are good and bad for our horses' mental and physical well-being.

For your reading pleasure, here is one such article:

Prevalence of Different Head-Neck Positions in Horses Shown at Dressage Competitions and Their Relation to Conflict Behaviour and Performance Marks

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Climate change - some proactive measures

On the subject of climate change, it's good to see some folks get their act together.

Horses SA has published some great info over the years, and it's good to see that they continue their good work, as is documented in this Radio National (ABC) broadcast.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

I don't get it....

I know someone who sold horse a while ago. This horse went to a good show home, was brought on slowly and carefully, was campaigned and did well. Belonging to a minor breed, he did exceedingly well in open show classes and people took notice.

He is a great example of a well bred horse who went on to do great things with the right preparation and a lot of effort and dedication from his new owner. He is a source of pride to his owner and breeder, and rightly so.

The horse's sire is no longer around, and he didn't sire very many horses due to what I'll briefly summarise as a combination of peoples' personalities, politics and physical location. Late in that stallions life, he was made available freely to other breeders, and at a very low stud fee. Still, there were almost no takers.Those who believed in that stallion and saw his quality are probably not surprised that his son has turned into such a magnificent horse.

What I don't get is the behaviour of people. Everyone is congratulating the owner, and rightfully so. In comparison, the congratulations to the breeder are still rather thin on the ground. On the other hand, the owner of the dam wasn't shy in coming forward and using the opportunity to promote her other offspring. So good to see that the art of riding on other peoples' success isn't dead.

The other thing I don't get is unrelated, but at least as irksome. The horse in question is currently in "professional training" and a series of photos and a video clip were posted, as the horse is now for sale.

First, the positive things: he is beautifully turned out and the photos and video set a very high standard of production and presentation of the horse. He looks great.

Now the bits I'm not so keen on: The rider has very low hands with bracing elbows. Looks sort of ok-ish at the stop and walk, but the trot pictures and especially the trot and canter video show exactly how braced those hands are, and as a result, the horses isn't moving all that well. It's that modern dressage way of riding I so detest. The horses is ridden forward with a strong driving seat into tight reins. The rider actually leans way back to achieve this. The horse is overbent a lot of the time and the trot picture shows the highest point of the neck being clearly behind the poll. The neck muscle development speaks volumes. I thought that the undesirability of that "frame" was proven some considerable time ago.

But what would be comments be? Of course Oh and Ah! How pretty, what a great rider etc.

Sorry.. No. Just no.

That horse would look 100% more magnificent and happy if he was ridden with diplomatic hands, and no bracing of the seat and arms. He probably wouldn't need a flash noseband, either.

The problem I see is that folks are so indoctrinated by what they see in the dressage and show arena, that they admire and copy this riduculous way of riding.

Sorry, but I just don't get it.

Anyway, it can be expected that the work and time the owner has put into the horse will assure him a great home with his next owner. Further, one hopes that his future training and compeing will go along paths which will preserve his health and enhance his beauty.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Icelandics, gaited riding and Losgelassenheit

I saw an interesting article in German about a gaited dressage kuer in Iceland:
Vorhand frisst Losgelassenheit (published in the Iceland Review On Line Magazine)

There are several interesting points:
  • The title of the article "Vorhand frisst Losgelassenheit" implies that the high forehand action so prized in Icelandic horses works against, indeed kills, a horse's ability to be light and responsive. 
  • The fact that many competition horses are ridden with high head and tight reins is mentioned. A competition rider is quoted as saying that any training that does NOT ask for action and speed will be counterproductive to competition, implying that any other form of riding will ruin a horse as a sports prospect. This view appears not uncommon. Dressage training is often referred to as "Kringelreiten", which is a slightly negative way of saying riding in circles.
  • Despite this, the dressage competition is gaining in popularity, though it is considered by many to be a "women's event".
  • The author expresses the view that the riding and horses on display have improved since the competition began some years ago, now focussing on better riding rather than just speed. 
  • The article mentions an Icelanding trainer whose DVDs I have seen myself, and who struck me as being very classical in his approach. He also had the nicest seat and most diplomatic hands of all the riders in that video.
  • The author suggests that a horse made supple through correct exercises and ridden in Losgelassenheit (light in the bridle, responsive, calm), better Toelt can be achieved. The common way of asking for speed and action by way of restricting the horse and using strong seat, leg and rein aids is much less suited for producing good toelters who are also responsive and useful for other disciplines.
Coincidentally, we watched an Icelandic video yesterday, and many of the points mentioned about competition horses and the type of riding used were clear to see. But we also saw a more enlightened trainer at work, who used dressage to make his gaited horses more beautiful and happy.

a crocodile reformed

The crocodile horse from the last post has come a long way. Not only is the mare going under saddle now, but there is no further danger to life and limbs when in her vicinity.

Polite lips!
In fact, it is safe to touch her mouth, even tickle her lips, or just hold the fingers there. She sometimes carefully feels for the tips of the fingers, but no teeth, and very, very polite.

She has graduated successfully from crocodile-training :-)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

clicks and crocodiles

After another training session, and observing the antics of one of the horses we have in work, I suggested that Yvonne write an article about using food rewards in training, specifically clicker training. She obligingly put the following article together. Enjoy!

When Chris and I (Yvonne) start horses together, there is always Clicker Training involved, as this method (positive reinforcement, using a marker signal, i.e. a click, followed by a small treat) allows the human trainer to tell the horse what he wants in a very clear language: as soon as the horse does something the human was looking for, this precise moment gets highlighted by a click, followed by a small food treat. The horse immediately processes the information and is very likely to eagerly and happily repeat the reinforced behaviour in the following.

Most horses catch on very quickly, and often need just one or two repetitions to understand what is asked from them. It is also a very stress-free method, especially when the tasks are broken down into small steps, thus giving the equine student lots and lots of little successes.

But I was not going into depth with the clicker philosophy, there are other people who have done this very well before...

As there is food involved, I can hear an almost unisono cry from horse owners and trainers: you will create a monster, a pushy, rough, rude, impolite horse that walks all over his human.

Well, not at all, indeed! When done correctly, i.e. when the trainer sets clear criteria, the horse, on the contrary, learns very quickly to respect the human space, and you will be able to stand with your open treat pouch inches from his nose and he won't even try to help himself! Usually the introductory process takes only one short session: with a few repetitions, the horse is introduced to the click, followed by the treat, then very quickly learns to keep his head away from the trainer.

How do we do this? Easy: when the horse starts to mug you (and every horse will do this in the beginning), immediately close your fist over the treat, fold your hands in neutral position over your belly button and wait. If the horse is very persistent, slightly turn away your upper body, with your hands still in neutral position. Now watch your horse closely: as soon as you see him make the tiniest attempt to turn his head away, immediately say "good boy" (if you had already clicked, you don't want to do it again) and hand him his treat. For feeding technique, extend your arm (away from your body, to the exact spot your want his head), rotate it, so the palm faces upwards, open your hand and let him take the treat. Bingo! The horse has understood the rules and will in general follow them from now on. He might need a little reminder here and there, but as long as you stay consistent, you will have a polite horse.

But... from time to time there is one who isn't so easy-going. We call this type of horse "crocodile", because he grabs at your hand very vigourously, so you have the impression that he will swallow your whole hand, including your arm up to the elbow!

With these horses, you have to be extra-precise and persistent. You might only make relatively small progress during the first session, like it is the case here for this young Icelandic mare who came to us for training.

In such a case, don't force it, just wait for a slightly positive moment, then end the session on it. There is always another day. In the case of this little mare, she had indeed processed the information overnight and was worlds better the next day. Much more softness in taking the treat and lots of turning her head away or lowering her head or backing a step (all behaviours we want to encourage).

But, really, the crocodiles are the exception. Normally it works this way, and very quickly:

Big Al - Paso Creole gelding

Once you have introduced your horse to clicker training, you can use it for any part of your training, be it fun stuff, like trick training, be it groundwork, or riding. And for riding, all parts and variations of it. But that's another story...

Chris and I use clicker training to highlight each desired moment during the starting under saddle process, which makes things very fast and easy. In the beginning, I do the clicking and treating from the ground, while Chris sits on the young horse for the first time, then she takes over and clicks the moments she likes, and the horse gets his treat from me. All this is a lot of fun for all involved, including the horse!