In a natural position, the horse carries 60% of its weight on the forehand and 40% on its hind legs. Because the muscles over the hind quarters are big and strong, we need to educate the horse to be able to carry more weight on these muscles. This will result in the horse carrying 40% on the forehand and 60% on the hind quarters.
The nerves through which we communicate with the horse are situated in the skin. These send messages to the brain via the spinal cord and back to the muscles, causing contraction of the relevant muscles. This nervous impulse is called a reflex, which causes a quicker reaction in the muscle. There are two types of reflex – natural reflex (fright, flight and moving away), and conditioned reflex (trained reflex). We use the natural reflexes to bring about reactions that enable us to teach the horse to respond in a certain way, becoming a conditioned reflex.
The elevation of the neck causes a reflex reaction to the positioning of the hind leg, while the flexion at the poll causes a parallel reflex reaction to the flexion of the hock and stifle. The back muscles are also involved in the active role of the hind legs. A tight back leads to a stiff hind leg and high croup so the hind leg doesn’t come as far forward under the horses centre of gravity. The flexor muscles in the hind quarters are weaker than the extensors, which provide the propulsion and control the flexion of the hind limb when the leg is loaded. The hind quarters, assisted by the abdominal muscles, cause the loin to round, allowing the hind leg to come further forward under the body.
There are 4 types of reflex relationships between the head, neck and hind quarters :
The ‘effect of the aids’ is the result of a positive response, brought about through education and training. The ‘engagement of the hind leg’ is the effect of a positive response to the riders leg aid, causing the hind leg to step forward and under the body. This is also the reason why dressage test sheets include marks for the rider on ‘effectiveness of the aids’, ‘position and seat of the rider’ and ‘correct application of the aids’.
Timing is everything!
We as humans are allowed to express our feelings and emotions as and when they arise, yet horses are often discouraged from doing so. When the horse is in the stable we expect them to be calm and pleasant. If the horse is agitated they are often reprimanded for not standing still. Getting excited or bucking playfully is discouraged. Is it any wonder that some horses become bored or withdrawn from their environment if they are never allowed to show their true feelings and emotions.
I had a horse come to me several years ago to bring on and compete after he had been ‘broken in’ by someone else first. After several weeks had gone by and the date of the horses arrival had been and gone, I decided to contact the owner. She told me they had had some problems with him and his attitude but it was all sorted and the horse would arrive the following week.
The day the lorry carrying the new horse arrived on the yard I was greeted by a tearful owner. She hadn’t seen the horse for several weeks while he was away being broken in, and on collection to bring him to me she was greeted with a skinny, depressed and scarred horse that had been broken in more ways than one. He would stand at the back of his stable, head hung low not really interested in anyone or anything. It took over 12 months for that horse to come out of his shell and enjoy life. He was sensible to ride even though he liked to be extravagant sometimes, but he had a beautiful personality, kind gentle and had forgiven enough to trust people again.
Another horse called Sonic was turned out with his friend Corelli as they were growing up for a couple of years, and when it came time to start his training he was moved to another yard. For the first week or so he was understandably not happy. The last time he had been separated like this was when he was taken from his mother, so not surprising he was upset. We gave him a new friend who was older and they got on well for the 2 years he was there. Then came his next move, to a yard of lots more horses.
The first day was a nightmare! He was rearing in the stable ( to the point where I couldn’t get out the stable door and had to escape over the wall into the next stable). I left him to get on with it for a while and eventually he settled down for the night. The separation anxiety was getting less with each move of yard and proved he was starting to cope.
Sonic was later turned out with a group of horses and to our surprise he became best friends with an old mare known for being very grumpy towards other horses!. The older mare was called Tempest and as time went on Sonic was happy to leave her to go out on his own. He would call to her on his return and she would wait for him at the gate before going off together. Tempest being the old mare that she was, was not in the best of health. She had a heart murmur and huge melanomas on her dock. We knew at some point the time would come when we would have to say goodbye to her.
I worried about Sonic’s reaction to losing another friend so took the decision that, when the time came, I would let him grieve and deal with his emotions as naturally as possible.
That day came this winter. Tempest’s melanomas had ruptured and it had put strain on her heart. Sonic knew the situation and had spent all morning with his head over into her stable with his eyes half closed and a very quiet manner. The decision was made by the vet to put her to sleep.
Tempest was led out of her stable as Sonic called to her, to an open space where she was to be put to sleep. Once she had gone, I led Sonic over to where Tempest lay. You could see the emotions running through him as he tried to understand why his nuzzle didn’t stir her nor the paw to encourage her to get up. He then moved to her head and sniffed her face and mouth. He stood still for a while and then slowly started to graze by her head.
For about two weeks he would look for her but carry on with life in a quiet way. It’s as if life is different for him now, he has grown up. Leaving the yard or other horses isn’t such an issue any more, there are always friends to come home to.
Sometimes you just have to let a horse be a horse….
If we watch horses in the wild, or just in a group turned out in a field together, how do they communicate their feelings to one another? Those who have a close relationship will nuzzle and groom each other. Some might put ears back or shove the other to move them out-of-the-way. Only if there is conflict does the ‘touch’ between two horses get hard or brutal even.
When we first start to train our horses, we give praise by either voice or a gentle pat. Even the great horse whisperer Monty Roberts says to ‘give your horse a gentle rub on the horse’s head as a reward.’ But why is it that in competition, the excitement of a great test or jumping round do we see some horses being slapped quite hard across the neck or even hit on the head?
Seeing the expression of shock on the horses face (even fear in some) makes me ask myself ‘What does that communicate to the horse?’ It must be confusing for a horse to jump to the best of its ability, and although sensing the riders pleasure with the effort, is subsequently hit around the head.
A horse can take firm pressure and quite enjoy it in the form of a massage or physiotherapy. But even when doing a massage we build up the pressure slowly, starting with long gentle strokes to relax the horse and the muscles. We don’t dive straight in with firm pressure, as this just causes tension and discomfort for the horse.
It has certainly made me look at the way I praise my horses. I do still pat them on the base of the neck or shoulder but in a gentle way, sometimes choosing just a long stroke down the neck and a friendly scratch on the withers. When I start off the young horses they are patted all over with a cupped hand (which makes noise but will only send a gentle vibration through the muscle) to help desensitise them. Firm pressure is only used to reprimand unruly behaviour and should be used sparingly but in a sympathetic manner.
Here are a few M.I.N.D.F.U.L. strategies for riding, (click on the diagram below).
M– Manage Your Emotions. Fear, a crisis of confidence, performance tension, frustration, anger, to name just a few, are all emotions horse riders experience at some point or another.
Our internal dialogue has a big impact on the outcome of a situation. If someone commands us to “Don’t do….”, our attention is immediately focussed on the thing we are not supposed to do.
Repeating a ‘mantra’ or ‘affirmation’ in time with the horse’s stride can help to alter our state of mind and emotions. Saying ‘Calm and Confident’, or ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ – or whatever state of mind you want to achieve – out loud and with purpose, will create a more positive attitude in both the rider and their horse.
Warm up exercise, such as going for a walk or run before riding, has helped clients to reduce anxiety and to release ‘feel good’ endorphins.
Negative memories of a bad experiences can be transformed into a positive in a short space of time by changing the meaning of the stress inducing memories. Seeing things in a different way means fear, lack of confidence or frustration no longer need to be part of our riding.
I– Intention, Attention, Attitude. At the start of a ride or training session we need to set an intention. Whether it is going for a quiet hack around the block or teaching our horse a new movement we can visualise our intention after asking the question, “What would I like to achieve today?”
As James Baker reminds us with his 5 ‘P’ principle:
‘Prior preparation prevents poor performance’
Then we need to give attention to the equipment you will need, planning a route, deciding what pace to use and whatever needs to be done to carry out the intention.
Then we need to engage our attitude. A positive, happy attitude gives a different feel to you and your horse, than one that is forceful and agitated. Enjoy what you are doing and…smile!
N– ‘Notice What Happens When…’ The book: Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Galway uses the technique of focus to improve ability.
When riding, it is useful to pick something to channel your focus on to. Feel is developed by noticing what happens when we ride and how little shifts can affect the horses way of going. We can scan our bodies for areas of tension and consciously relax those areas.
How does doing that affect the horse or your position? (Horses tend to mirror us so by relaxing ourselves, the horse will relax too).
“What happens if I lift my focus up and in front of me instead of on the horse’s head or neck?”
By experimenting with different things, we can decide what feels more comfortable and right. Also, learning to develop our focus and block out things in the environment that could interfere with our performance, is great preparation for competitions.
D– Divide the task into manageable chunks. A good way of learning something or teaching your horse a new movement is to divide it up into smaller chunks to learn, then build them up together as confidence grows. Like when learning to jump and understanding the 5 elements of a jump – approach, take off, flight, landing and get away. Working on each element separately, then joining them together at the end teaches us to jump better. Similarly, if there is a lack of confidence in something, breaking it down into smaller parts and giving time for the confidence to grow before moving on to the next part.
F– Focus on excellence not perfection. The saying: ‘Competitions are won at home’ is true. Aiming for a higher standard in our practice than we intend to compete at, sets us up for a better outcome when the pressure is on. Treat everything as feedback, if something isn’t working then try another way. The person who is most adaptable enjoys more success because they keep taking small steps on the path towards excellence.
U– Unify your breathing. Focussing on your breathing, as is done in meditation, will naturally calm you. This also aids relaxation in your horse. Breathing in sync with your horse creates a ‘spiritual’ connection with each knowing what the other is thinking and feeling. Letting go of expectations and being in the present moment, will help build a deeply rewarding relationship with your horse.
L– Loving Kindness. Have compassion and respect for yourself and your horse when mistakes are made. Remember life is a journey so don’t get into the blame game. Accept the situation, move forward and leave the past where it is.
Show loving kindness to your horse. If they don’t understand, don’t punish them. He will get things wrong sometimes but it’s okay. You didn’t learn everything on your first day at school either so be patient. Horses tolerate a lot from us humans. Most of the time in a different language we expect them to understand.
Be mindful and respectful of your horses feelings as well as being a leader for them and you will be shown what true loving kindness is…by your horse.
Riding mindfully can have different meanings for different people. These are just a few of my own. I hope that in the future these too will evolve to give horses and riders a greater connection, communication and understanding with each other.
‘Horses are the mirror of your soul, of who you really are. It is your reflection that you see through their eyes. Through them, you can more easily come to know yourself. Through you, they can more easily come to fulfill themselves. ~ Dominique Barbier – Meditation for Two.