Tuesday, November 27, 2012

transitions: the bit

In Australia, most horses are started in a snaffle bit and continue to be ridden in a snaffle. Some dressage horses are eventually ridden in a double bridle (curb bit and thin snaffle), some are put into a Western style curb. Over the last few decades, people have started looking at bitless bridles as another alternative, but it is relatively rare to see horse ridden this way. Indeed, many club and competition rules expressly forbid horses to be presented without a bit.

In other horse cultures, this is totally different. Many horses are started in a noseband of sorts, be it a jaquima (hackamore), bozal, cavecon or sidepull. They are educated in the noseband, and when they are ready, they are introduced to a bit. A curb bit. This often involves a period of time when they are ridden in four reins. This allows the trainer to slowly change the signal over from the reins attached to the noseband to the reins attached to the bit, to give the horse ample time to get used to the new "language".

The young horse must first learn to carry himself properly with the new weight on his back. He must learn to step under to engage his hindquarters. He must lean to relax in the poll, to yield to left and right cues by turning the jaw. He must also learn to lift the base of his neck and increase hindquarter engagement when asked for collection and be light in the bridle in all gaits and through transitions. That's a lot of stuff to learn for a green horse.

The idea of using the noseband is that it keeps all the early training stages away from his sensitive mouth. In the early stages, it is necessary that the horse makes mistakes as he learns to do what is asked of him, and by using no bit, none of these mistakes will take their toll on the bars of the mouth. Aside from that, a well fitting noseband gives very clear instructions to the horse and is an excellent tool in teaching lateral bends and lightness.

Nosebands come in two basic types: those with rein attachments on the side and those with attachments under the chin. The former is the best for teaching horses to turn and yield the jaw, the latter is great for teaching good posture and making horses light by helping them lift the base of their neck. Some nosebands are designed for both, such as the Paso Fino noseband which has rings on the sides, but can be complemented with a chin-piece with low rings. I have even seen horses ridden in four reins on the noseband.

Once the horse has finished his basic education, he is considered ready to transition into a bit. A bit is simply much more precise, and allows for very clearer communication. It is refinement that is sought, not bigger brakes. Much in the same way that a good horseman sees spurs as a more accurate method of communication than heels.

The goal is that we end up with a horse that can be directed with minimal aids. A horse, where a minute lift of the hand or a squeeze of the fingers on the rein will be enough to ask for more collection, and a little lowering of the hand will be enough for a downward transition. That's my goal, anyway.

I'm currently going through this transition to the bit with one of my mares, Zara. To show some of the equipment I'm using, here are some pictures (all taken by Yvonne Lehey):

From the bottom up:
  1. Thin rope headstall for tying the horse up.
  2. Simple neckstrap and noseband attached to a Maestro curb bit. In the picture, the curb rein (grey/black) is attached to one of the top rings to minimise the curb action at this early stage in training.
  3. Headpiece clipped onto a wide noseband with side rings. Reins (black) clipped into rings on the bottom of the chin strap in this picture.
Other comments: the picture was just before I mounted up. I think this was the first time she wore the bit. We are practicing flexing, and you can see that I'm using the noseband to do this. She has already put the slack back into the rein by yielding. I'm more concerned with the quality of the response than with perfect form. I'm watching the inside of her near jaw. Sometimes I put a finger of my free hand on it to help her.

Mounted up, having sorted the reins. How I hold four reins depends on the situation. In this case, I have the noseband rein on top, and the curb rein relatively loose on the bottom, because it is her first time with the bit.

Here I'm just double checking for flexion from the saddle just before we set off. She has volunteered to turn her head all the way around, although I did no ask for it, all I was after was a yielding of the jaw. As a result, the inside reins are completely slack, a slack SHE put in there. You also can see clearly how I have used a lifting hand for the purpose, as opposed to a hand that pulls back or sidewise.

Walking off, on a very light contact, but clearly on a right hand circle. As a result of my lifted inner hand, focus to the left (could by more forward..) and turn of the shoulders, she is stepping her right hind under well and is following my lead. I'm very happy with the outline, which is relaxed and forward.

Another picture showing the same principle, but with more "action". Here we are out in the bush, in an area full of sandpits. The footing is "interesting" in places. We have already had a good ride, and I'm basically taking her up and down the little hills, giving her challenges. She is a smart, active horse and thrives when given things to do. You can see how she is following my focus. I'm being very clear in my directions, giving "big" cues as this is quite new to her. But as before, it is the hand lift and my posture which asks for the bend.

On the way home, she is a bit uncertain about something along the edge of the road. Here you can see that I have taken up more contact so that I can guide her, but on the noseband reins only. I am not slowing her forward movement. I am encouraging her to keep moving, but the slightly raised hands signal her to relax and soften again. This can, depending on the need, be a slight hold or half halts. I find this aid crucial. If I were to move my hands low and pull downwards, she would respond with tensing her top line and I would merely create resistance and kill her impulsion.

Nearly back home, coming along the driveway with stallions on both sides. Still bright eyed and bushy-tailed, and none the worse for all the new experiences.

After this ride, we had several more in four reins. Now I am changing to the curb bridle with a noseband over the top without reins, until eventually, we will progress to just the bridle and bit.

For comparison, more pictures to show the various bits and nosebands:

Winter picture of Samba in a sidepull. Sidepulls can now be bought in most Western saddleries. The one in the photo has been modified from the shop bought one by: removing browband and throatlatch and by changing the chin strap from a leather strap to a curb chain. I think the browband and throatlatch are unnecessary. The curb chain is more precise than the leather strap. Also, if I take out a green horse, and we have "one of those moments", the noseband slips up on the nose and the curb chain has a little bit more "speak" than the leather strap. On the other hand, if all is going normal, the chin piece merely holds the bridle in place. This is the bridle I start most of the young horses in. It is simple, light and effective as a means of communication.

Same bridle, different horse. This shows Wotan during one of his first few times under saddle. He looks a little bit more upheaded and strung out than I like, but he was very green and still finding his balance at that time. 

Here I'm adjusting Chewie's bridle. It is the same bridle used on Zara, but here without the bozal over the top. The noseband is simply a light leather strap which is attaches to the bridle headband above the bit. It is snug, but never tight.

Flamenca, burning off excess energy by showing off. Perfect collection to levade with "minimal" contact.

All these horses have brio. They enjoy moving, they are opinionated and love to be challenged. Their progression from noseband to bit is a transition that aims to conserve those qualities. My goal is to have finer communication, where less is more and riding is enjoyable for all parties. We are not perfect, and never will be, but the journey has a clear goal.

Monday, November 26, 2012


I had to think fairly hard to come up with a title for this post. I'm still not sure if it's the right one. Thinking about it gave me a chance to reflect on what I want to say though.

We were working Castellano and Bailador again this morning. They have now both had about half a dozen sessions of groundwork. They have both been introduced to a pad and roller, then the saddle and a little bit of work on the lunge. We don't lunge much, but I find it is a really important part of preparing the young ones mentally. It also gives them loads of opportunity to become familiar with gear. They can show us their personality and how they react to various situations and give us opportunity to help them through stressful moments. For no matter how slow we progress, how much care we take, there is some stress involved. New things always cause stress, but if presented well, they also lead to learning. For the horse and for us.

The way I see it is that as a trainer, I'm acting also as sort of a mentor for the horse. I'm not just teaching him stuff. I am also responsible for his well-being and his progress. Therefore, I never say: we take 6 weeks to start, and in week 1 we do X, in week 2 Y and so on.... Sure, I have a set of exercises I favor, to achieve certain goals, the main one being that the horse is OK with me riding him and accepting my guidance at the end of it all. How I arrive there, which specific path I take, and how long it takes, that depends entirely on the horse.

My responsibility as a trainer/teacher/mentor is to find the right balance between two extremes: applying a healthy amount of stress to promote learning on the one hand, and giving enough peace and quiet time to let it sink in and give the horse the chance to relax on the other hand. My other responsibility is to present the right exercise at the right time to set the horse up to succeed. That isn't always easy. Something as simple as asking a horse to stand still at the wrong time can mean to set him up for stress and a failure, and other times it can be perfect to make him feel OK.

As so often when we work horses, we talk about new things we learn, what we observe in the horses we are working with and weird things we hear about from other people ;-) We are constantly bouncing ideas off each other and critically look at our own and each others work. Sometimes by observing, sometimes by looking at photos we take of each other. I have grown as a trainer since I've had the opportunity to work closely with Yvonne. In some ways we are very similar, in other ways very different. We help each other out, and while we both have some stronger areas, our goal is to become better in all aspects.

Anyway, coming back to the horses we were working this morning, and I have a perfect example to illustrate my point about setting up for success....

We were lunging Castellano. He only wore the saddle for about the third time. He was last worked briefly two days prior. He has not had much human contact in his early life, so he is still finding his feet mentally. He was a bit unsteady this morning, possibly not in the mood to work. He was fully focused on his handler, but he needed to move his feet because he was unsure of the situation. Yvonne recognised that he wasn't settled and allowed him to move on a little. Often enough, a couple of rounds of trot or gait are enough and the settle themselves. But he started to get into a stop/start pattern and was beginning to pop his head up every time she asked him to move forward into a trot. As a result, he was neither settling nor moving smoothly and he lost his bend while trying to evade to the outside with his nose. In addition, the stop/start was beginning to stress him and looked like it was becoming a pattern.

I suggested to take a whip to be more accurate with the forward cue. To walk him only and firstly look for the soft feel on the rope, the stepping under and bend of the neck. To be a little bit more pro-active when he wanted to stop, and to try and keep him in at an even speed. After only two rounds of walking, he looked a lot better. Started to relax, step under and bend. Then I suggested to look for a particularly soft moment (both relaxed topline AND release towards the inside with the nose), and then ask for the trot at that point in time. As always, she asked for the upward transition with only posture and a slight hand signal, and it was nice to see him do the transition smoothly and keeping his outline. A few steps, then she allowed him to stop and gave him a reward. She then walked him on again and looked for that same point to ask a couple more little trots, until shortly after, he did two perfect rounds on each side in lovely self-carriage while following the feel of the bend in the rope.

What a huge effect. Following such a small adjustment. It wasn't anything we don't normally do, but it still was a bit of an AHA! event, as it allowed me to realise the importance of it and to put the whole matter into words.

This is Castellano during a previous session. Nice bend and stepping under 
well. But not the ideal time to ask for an upward transition. Here I'm just asking 
him to keep walking and to relax. Photo by Yvonne Lehey.
This looks better. 
After today's session, he was able to maintain this throughout his walk trot 
transitions and while trotting. We should have a picture next time :-) . Photo 
by Yvonne Lehey.

Bailador is showing what I'm looking for. Moving nicely in gait, he has put a
bend in the rope. His inside hindleg is stepping under. He is in nice relaxed
 self carriage and focussed on me. I need to do next to nothing to maintain 
his outline, bend and speed. Photo by Yvonne Lehey.

Same feel again other side, and at the walk. Photo by Yvonne Lehey.

As trainers, we are responsible for the learning progress of our horses. Finding ways to help him learn by setting him up for success is one of the fun and challenging things we need to think about and become good at. Teaching horses is part science and part art, and it is the little challenges which make us grow as trainers and human beings. The learning therefore is a two-way street, one that never ends.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

ego kills learning

I had a scary experience. I met a closed mind.

"Leave your ego at the door" - motto of many BJJ schools.

"Leave your ego at home" should apply to horse people. Too much ego is involved when we work with our horses, when we go to clinics, when we go to competitions and when we go out riding with our mates.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, ego is: "a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance". We all have it. Some people claim to have none, but I believe it's part of how we define ourselves, and that in itself is a necessary part of us being who we are. I know this is getting into pretty deep philosophical waters (where clearly, I'm out of my depth..). But I posit there is a "healthy" level of ego which everyone should have. Too little is bad and has it's own problems. Too much ego, on the other hand, can lead to conditions such as "egotistical" (a.h.), an inflated sense of self-importance, self-delusion, arrogance, disrespect for other human beings and that most horrible of all problems called a closed mind.

The strange thing is that an oversized ego and inflated sense of self-importance is often associated with a certain fears. Most often, the fear of losing face. Often, this seems underpinned by a lack of expertise or understanding. So on the one hand, there is the need to look good, while on the other hand, there is feel of uncertainty. So what does the big ego demand? A cover-up. No way is it possible to admit that there may be something missing. In fact, the really deluded ego doesn't see the gaping hole in knowledge. How is the cover up achieved? By BS mostly. The ego-driven person lies to self first and foremost, and everyone else also. They will divert attention away, point the accusing finger at their horse, their teacher, the circumstances, their friends or any bystanders, anything. The ego driven person thinks and proclaims they never err, never make a wrong decision. Therefore, they cannot accept responsibility for anything they say or do and choose to play the blame game.

As they already know everything and make no mistakes, there is then no need to attempt to learn anything new. In fact, this reinforces the whole closed mind scenario, because no new facts need to be absorbed, critically evaluated and there is no need to change as a result. A closed mind sometimes reacts with hostility to new ideas. It's like a clam that snaps shut. The only reason I can figure for that hostility is that niggledy uncertainly in the back of the mind about things not being quite perfect. After all, if all was truly as magnificent as the big ego tells itself, then there would be no need for hostility. Magnanimous indifference yes, but not hostility.

All things are not black and white, and on the ego scale, most of us fall part way between too little and too much. Sometimes, we just have a little too much, and we may be able to tune it down when we realise its an issue.

But let's look at learning.

What is a prerequisite to learning? Surely an open mind: a willingness to listen to new ideas and concepts. A willingness to immerse ourselves in the material presented, to critically evaluate what is offered, to try out, test and make mistakes with the new stuff until we find those parts that work for us. Then we integrate that new knowledge and the associated skills with our current way of doing things. And as a final step, we give credit to our teachers, mentors, colleagues, training partners and whoever else helped us to grow.

To begin with, we need to realise that we don't know everything, and that we need to fill a void. Not with hollow fluff about our own self importance, but with real knowledge from people who have gone down that road before and who have things to teach.

The typical learning journey has several important stages. Psychologist have come up with four distinct steps (from Wikipedia):
  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.[2] The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.[3]
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.[4]
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.[3]
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learnt.
The way I interpret this progression is that the closed mind is stuck in stage one. They don't recognise their own incompetence. This precludes them from moving on to the stages where learning really takes place and where they would have the opportunity to develop basic skills and eventually, mastery.

So the next time you hear someone tell you "I understand", "I know", "I see" when clearly, they do not, then be aware that you may not be able to help that person. At least not immediately. Most people are able to change though. I've certainly seen some pretty amazing transformations, and I'm an optimist. Sometimes, just by quietly continuing to do what I do, and offering knowledge in a non-confrontational manner, ego barriers drop. At other times, I just walk away, because I'm not prepared to waste my time. Or suffer the thrashing around of a closed mind which acts like a cornered wild beast when confronted with hard to deny truths.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Good transitions are essential in riding horses. What we are looking for (yes, the order is deliberate):
  • smoothness 
  • maintain or enhance our horse's balance
  • maintain or enhance our hore's lightness
  • maintain or enhance our horse's attention
  • maintain or enhance our horse's "forwardness"
  • maintain or enhance our horse's collection
Picture a horse in self carriage, under a light, guiding hand, with the rider asking for an upward transition. The casual onlooker notices only that the horse now travels faster. The fellow horseman has seen the small shifts in posture and balance by the rider and horse which lead to the upward transition.

Transitions, both upward and downward are usually a result we want. The goal is to change speed and/or gait. However, the experienced rider knows that transitions can also be a tool. Revisit the list at the top. I said there "maintain or enhance". Yes, transitions are a great way to improve balance, lightness, attention, forwardness and collection, provided that the rider has balance, feel and timing. Oh, and lightness!

In a way, transitions also keep things fresh, they provide change and keep the ride interesting and give horse and rider things to do. They can be like a little game: Hey, let's see low few steps we can use before the downward transition is complete. Hey, let's see if half the amount of hand lifting suffices. Hey, let's see if breathing out from the middle will make a difference in the downward transition.

The same applies to work in hand, when the horse is on the circle. I always try to see how "little" a signal will suffice to get the transition. And I find that the more I ask with lesser cues, the more the horse tunes in. Sure, at all times I have to be prepared to ask again, with a more obvious cue. But I always ask with the lesser cue(s) first, as my goal, be it on the ground or in the saddle, is aways to achieve the points in the list at the top.

The transitions I'm really looking for are the ones where I have to do so little and the horse responds so smoothly and looks so beautiful, that most onlookers will think the horse did it by himself. They don't always happen, but they do happen. I do however, constantly aspire to get them.