De­vel­op­ing a Happy Horse

How to cre­ate a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with your equine part­ner

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Karen Pavi­cic ex­plains how to cre­ate a bet­ter part­ner­ship with your horse

How do you cre­ate a horse that is happy to see you each day and wants to work for you? It doesn’t hap­pen overnight. There are many ways a rider can cre­ate more prob­lems than suc­cesses, re­sult­ing in a horse that seems un­will­ing and confused. This can lead to be­hav­ior prob­lems and cer­tainly an un­happy horse and rider. Of course, a horse’s at­ti­tude also comes from within. Train­ing is eas­i­est with a horse who nat­u­rally has a more gen­er­ous na­ture, but it’s also pos­si­ble to nur­ture your horse to en­joy his time with you both on and off the ground. His gen­eral well be­ing, men­tal calm­ness and re­lax­ation should be as­sessed on an on­go­ing ba­sis. No mat­ter where you find your­self now, I sug­gest that you start by eval­u­at­ing your re­la­tion­ship with your horse be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter a ride. If you feel there is more strug­gle and less har­mony go­ing on de­spite your best ef­forts, what fol­lows will help you plan a pro­gram of change.

Be­gin at the Barn

Look at your horse on the ground with new eyes. A horse’s men­tal state starts with his com­fort at home. For ex­am­ple, are his ba­sic needs be­ing met, such as tempt­ing food with am­ple wa­ter and shel­ter and an ab­sence of pain?

Check out his stall. As­sess his at­ti­tude and com­fort level as he eats and in­ter­acts with other horses. Is the barn noisy? Does it af­fect him? Does he like his turnout? Is he easy to walk on a lead or does he toss his head or pull? What can you do to make his stall time more pleas­ant?

Each horse is an in­di­vid­ual and has his own likes and dis­likes. Some­times you must learn through trial and er­ror to de­ter­mine what a horse’s pref­er­ences are. For ex­am­ple, if a horse is al­ways drag­ging his hay to the back of his stall where his wa­ter is, then per­haps feed­ing him closer to the wa­ter source will make him more com­fort­able (or al­ter­na­tively hang­ing a bucket near his hay feeder in­stead of us­ing an au­to­matic wa­terer).

Bed­ding is an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion as well. Have enough bed­ding in the stall that it en­cour­ages the horse to lie down and re­lax. A horse who lies down is of­ten a sign of a happy horse.

Con­sis­tency is Key

Horses are crea­tures of habit and like con­sis­tency. I had a young horse who was al­ways trou­ble to mount. Whether it was a bad ex­pe­ri­ence, in­ner ten­sion or an­tic­i­pa­tion that cre­ated this is un­clear, but over time he be­came relaxed and obe­di­ent

through con­sis­tent train­ing and cues. I al­ways use a mount­ing block, as I believe it is health­ier for the horse’s back and pre­vents the sad­dle from slid­ing to one side. At first my horse had to sim­ply get used to the mount­ing block near him. Af­ter that, it was im­por­tant to move the mount­ing block to him (and not mov­ing him to the block) to en­cour­age him to re­main im­mo­bile. The pri­or­ity was for him to stand still. I po­si­tioned him near a wall, but not so close that he felt boxed in, with the wall be­ing on the right side to pre­vent him from swing­ing his haunches right. I did this in the same lo­ca­tion ev­ery day.

Once I placed him there, he re­ceived a su­gar cube (or an­other small treat) while I pat­ted him and waited for him to vis­i­bly re­lax. Signs that a horse is re­lax­ing in­clude low­er­ing his head, hav­ing a softer eye and chew­ing on the bit.

At first, I had a friend help by hold­ing on to both reins from the ground when nec­es­sary. Then I prac­ticed putting my foot in and out of the stir­rup sev­eral times with­out him mov­ing. The next step was to put weight in the left stir­rup as though get­ting on while he re­mained stand­ing. Fi­nally, once I was sat­is­fied that all these steps were checked off while he stood still, I mounted softly. When I had both feet in the stir­rups he re­ceived an­other su­gar be­fore be­ing asked to walk on. Over time this process took less and less time, and now it’s a su­gar be­fore mount­ing and a su­gar af­ter mount­ing, and he stands like a statue, relaxed and ea­ger to go to work.

Eval­u­ate Your Position and Seat

The first thing to do when you get on your horse is to go through a men­tal check­list of your position. An in­de­pen­dent, ef­fec­tive seat is im­per­a­tive for good rid­ing and for the com­fort of the horse. You can be­gin your self-eval­u­a­tion at the halt be­fore mov­ing on to the walk. I like to start at the top of the body and work my way down:

• Look straight ahead and stretch tall in the sad­dle.

• Be sure your ears, shoul­ders, hips and heels are in line.

• Do some an­kle-stretch­ing ex­er­cises, such as mak­ing an­kle cir­cles, be­fore putting your foot in the stir­rup.

• Make sure to feel the three points of your seat [two seat bones and the pu­bic bone] evenly in the sad­dle.

• Check that your lower back feels sup­ple.

• Re­lax your legs and stretch them down in or­der to use ef­fec­tive aids later in your ride.

• Next, check your position at the walk. Be sure your horse is walk­ing ac­tively for­ward with pur­pose and is in front of your leg. He needs to do this by him­self with lit­tle or no pres­sure from the leg.

• Feel your seat fol­low­ing the horse's move­ment, while your hips and el­bows re­lax and move in rhythm with him.

• Take the time to loosen tight ar­eas in your flex­ors, be and per­form­ing as pick­ing body, sim­ple shoul­ders such an­kle them as drop­ping as cir­cles and up the sev­eral an­kles. lower or your do­ing times, back, This stir­rups one- can hip cles arm All and cir­cles. this get helps your to body warm mov­ing up your be­fore musask­ing is may par­tic­u­larly be the sit­ting horse im­por­tant at to a desk trot or for for can­ter. much riders of This who the day. Con­tinue to re­assess your position

as you ride us­ing mir­rors, videos and/or a per­son on the ground.

The horse is also an indi­ca­tor of the ef­fec­tive­ness of your position and cor­rect­ness of your aids. For ex­am­ple, if you have an abrupt down­ward tran­si­tion, re­mind your­self that this is likely due to too much rein aid. Did the horse curl be­hind the bit and get short in the neck with a stiff hind leg? Has he be­come tense and un­com­fort­able? If you are hav­ing any of these prob­lems, quickly recheck your position. Be sure that your hands are not com­ing back to­ward your stom­ach—they should al­ways be in front of the pom­mel. Check your rein length to see if they are too long.

It’s im­por­tant to pre­pare the horse for smooth and balanced tran­si­tions with the cor­rect use of half halts. You never want to feel like you use more rein aids than driv­ing aids. It may take sev­eral cor­rectly rid­den down­ward tran­si­tions to com­mu­ni­cate clearly to the horse, but he will ap­pre­ci­ate a smoother tran­si­tion just as you do and both of you will be hap­pier as a re­sult.

Also, if abrupt­ness comes in a non­pro­gres­sive tran­si­tion (trot–halt or can­ter– walk), it is im­por­tant to re­turn to more sim­ple, pro­gres­sive tran­si­tions first be­fore try­ing the more dif­fi­cult tran­si­tions again. Al­ways make sure you are rid­ing the horse for­ward and ac­tively into them.

As you progress in your train­ing and your horse be­comes more balanced and re­spon­sive, these down­ward tran­si­tions can be per­formed mostly from the seat. A shift of your weight and a clos­ing of the up­per leg will be enough to re­bal­ance or change from one pace to an­other. Horses are ex­tremely sen­si­tive to weight aids. It can be as sim­ple as shift­ing your weight back slightly to slow your horse or light­en­ing your seat to in­di­cate that you want him to move more for­ward.

Longe lessons are great for mak­ing both horse and rider hap­pier. I love to use longe lessons for riders of all lev­els to work on cre­at­ing more in­de­pen­dent aids. Longe­ing lets the rider fo­cus on cor­rect­ing her position while not hav­ing to worry about the horse. Not only does this pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus on the rider’s bal­ance and re­lax­ation, it is also a chance for the horse to re­lax more with the weight of a rider on his back. When longe lessons are done with cor­rectly fit­ted side reins (not too short or long), it en­cour­ages the horse’s back to come up and be loose, sup­ple and swing­ing, which cre­ates a more com­fort­able place for the rider to sit.

One of my fa­vorite ex­er­cises be­gins with no reins and no stir­rups. The rider’s hands are on her hips. I be­gin by sim­ply ask­ing the rider to feel the rhythm of her horse’s steps through her relaxed hips. It can also be help­ful to place one hand (prefer­ably the out­side one so as not to have the hips dis­placed to the out­side, espe­cially when go­ing faster than a walk) on the small of the back. This way, the rider can feel her back mov­ing with the horse as he walks. Not only does this help the rider re­lax, the horse will re­lax also.

Longe­ing is a great way to build con­fi­dence for the horse and rider, and con­fi­dence builds trust and strength­ens the part­ner­ship. I al­ways say that I want to be one with my horse. This re­minds me to work with him and not against him.

Cre­ate Con­fi­dence

While train­ing your horse, build­ing con­fi­dence comes from set­ting small, achiev­able goals for each ride. Have a clear plan and be con­cise with your aids. When rid­den, your horse’s men­tal re­lax­ation

comes from con­fi­dence in the ex­er­cises be­ing asked of him. How­ever, this is not done by stay­ing in his com­fort zone all the time, where learn­ing doesn’t hap­pen. My goal is that my horse ex­pe­ri­ences his time with me in har­mony.

Ver­bal praise, va­ri­ety in the ex­er­cises and giv­ing walk breaks, even af­ter only small im­prove­ments, are all ways to give your horse pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment, which cre­ates re­lax­ation and con­fi­dence. I give fre­quent walk breaks to my horses through­out my ride. Pro­vid­ing turnout and go­ing on re­lax­ing hacks out­side the arena are im­por­tant.

An­other way I build con­fi­dence is to do cor­rect stretch­ing (long and low) af­ter ask­ing the horse to per­form a more dif­fi­cult ex­er­cise. For ex­am­ple, I may ask my horse for a higher de­gree of col­lec­tion in the trot or a very en­gaged lat­eral move­ment, but I don’t ask him to hold it for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time. Al­low­ing the horse to stretch builds con­fi­dence and it also helps him to build strength by al­low­ing the mus­cles to stretch and re­lax be­fore com­press­ing them again. (See my stretch­ing ar­ti­cle in the May 2017 is­sue or on­line at dres­sage­to­

As we all know, horses have a nat­u­ral flight in­stinct. Some­times, de­spite our best ef­forts and solid position, our horses spook and shy. It is easy to lose your bal­ance dur­ing a spook and catch the horse in the mouth or even fall off. So what can we do when a horse loses con­fi­dence in the rider af­ter a bad ex­pe­ri­ence? Work will have to be done to re­pair the trust and, depend­ing on the horse and the sit­u­a­tion, it may take some time to do so.

Af­ter a spook, the first step is to talk to your horse to re­as­sure him. Next, try to get him to fo­cus on you again through some sim­ple ex­er­cises like leg yields and tran­si­tions. Then once the horse is at­ten­tive, ap­proach the scary ob­ject/place in the arena at a walk. Re­mem­ber that re­lax­ation is key, so ap­proach the ob­ject/place in small in­cre­ments to en­sure suc­cess and don’t rush the process. Also re­mem­ber to re­ward the horse ver­bally even when you leave the scary area.

Rep­e­ti­tion is key. Some­times it can be help­ful to lead the horse by the place/ ob­ject or to fol­low a more ex­pe­ri­enced horse a few times to build his con­fi­dence. Al­low­ing the horse to stand and look at it with­out any pres­sure from the rider can also be help­ful. Pat­ting the horse to re­as­sure him can dis­si­pate ten­sion. My ex­pe­ri­ence is that the more con­fi­dence the rider has, the more the horse be­comes con­fi­dent, too. Horses are ex­tremely sen­si­tive and can de­tect ten­sion and fear in a rider. Don’t for­get that seek­ing the help of a more ex­pe­ri­enced rider is some­times nec­es­sary tem­po­rar­ily un­til your horse has more pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences to draw from. So don’t feel bad if you need to ask for help.

De­velop Sup­ple­ness

An­other way I cre­ate a part­ner­ship with my horse is through sup­pling ex­er­cises. I want my horse to be loose, swing­ing in the back and re­act­ing in­stantly to my aids. He needs to con­cen­trate on what I’m ask­ing, work­ing for me not against me.

One way I like to cre­ate sup­ple­ness and obe­di­ence is to do sim­ple walk–halt– walk tran­si­tions near the be­gin­ning of my ride. I get a lot of in­for­ma­tion from these seem­ingly sim­ple re­quests. For ex­am­ple, I learn how re­spon­sive the horse is to my leg, seat and rein aids. In this ex­er­cise I can de­ter­mine if my horse is ac­tive and in front of me yet still at­ten­tive.

If I feel that the horse does not re­spond quickly enough to ei­ther the down­ward or up­ward re­quest, then I need to ad­just my aids ac­cord­ingly. For ex­am­ple, if the horse seems dull to the leg when ask­ing for the up­ward tran­si­tion, then I need more leg even if it mo­men­tar­ily dis­rupts the rhythm of the walk. If it’s the down­ward tran­si­tions that need to be more hon­est, then I may use only a few steps of walk be­fore im­me­di­ately ask­ing for a halt again and re­peat­ing this sev­eral times.

I em­pha­size that the horse halts

straight and square and re­mains im­mo­bile each time. Af­ter halt­ing, I ask for a prompt re­sponse to move out of the halt into a walk, start­ing with the hind leg. This ex­er­cise can vary a bit depend­ing on how the horse feels on a par­tic­u­lar day. If he is too fresh and not men­tally relaxed, wait un­til he calms and feels ready to work.

Leg yield­ing is an­other ex­er­cise I use to cre­ate sup­ple­ness with my horses at all lev­els and ages. Here is a vari­a­tion I use: At walk, let’s say on the right rein, I leg yield down the long side of the arena with the head to the wall at a 30-de­gree an­gle. I even do this on a long rein, em­pha­siz­ing that the horse stays straight from the poll to the tail while he crosses his left hind leg for­ward and side­ways across his body. It is im­por­tant that the horse is be­tween my two legs, be­cause I want to feel that his hind leg lifts and crosses. A slight flex­ion away from the di­rec­tion that you are go­ing is cor­rect, but be care­ful that you don’t have too much bend in the neck or the horse will step too much to the side.

I don’t nec­es­sar­ily ask for a leg yield for the whole long side. You may only want to ride a few steps, if the horse is obe­di­ent be­fore go­ing the other di­rec­tion. You want to feel that the re­sponse is the same go­ing both direc­tions, so you may need to re­peat it more of­ten or for more steps on the more dif­fi­cult side.

The turn on the fore­hand is also a use­ful ex­er­cise. Per­haps I only ask for a quar­ter turn or maybe I use a full turn depend­ing on the re­sponse I get. If, for ex­am­ple, the horse moves read­ily off my leg to the side, then a quar­ter turn may be suf­fi­cient.

I use this ex­er­cise of­ten in my train­ing not only to test the re­spon­sive­ness of my horse but also to check on the tim­ing of the ap­pli­ca­tion of my aids. This varies with each horse, but I like to be able to whis­per an aid to my horses. If I feel that I have to give a stronger aid, it could be that my tim­ing has been off. Be sure to ap­ply the leg aid when the horse’s hind leg is com­ing off the ground. Then it will have the de­sired ef­fect. These re­sponses may need more at­ten­tion be­fore ask­ing for some­thing more dif­fi­cult like a fly­ing change.

A Bet­ter Part­ner­ship and a Hap­pier Horse

Hav­ing a happy horse is part of your daily work. Horses do not think about the fu­ture, but they do re­mem­ber past ex­pe­ri­ences good and bad. Stay happy your­self when you ride. I know that if I’m happy it is eas­ier to be in har­mony with my horses and there­fore eas­ier to be an ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tor. Re­mem­ber, in dres­sage you are ei­ther train­ing your horse or un­train­ing him ev­ery time you sit in the sad­dle. If you start with hap­pi­ness and har­mony day to day, you will have more suc­cess whether or not ev­ery­thing went per­fectly dur­ing your ride.

Look at your horse on the ground and from the tack with new eyes. A horse’s men­tal state starts with his com­fort at home.

The first thing to do when you get on your horse is to go through a men­tal check­list of your position. Look straight ahead and stretch tall in the sad­dle. Be sure your shoul­ders, hips and heels are in line. Make sure to feel the three points of your seat evenly in the sad­dle. Your lower back should feel sup­ple. Re­lax your legs and stretch them down in or­der to use ef­fec­tive aids later in your ride.

Leg yield­ing is an ex­er­cise that can cre­ate sup­ple­ness with any horse at all lev­els and ages. I leg yield down the long side of the arena with my horse’s head at a 30-de­gree an­gle to the wall. It is im­por­tant that the horse is be­tween my two legs be­cause I want to feel that his hind leg lifts and crosses. A slight felx­ion away from the di­rec­tion that I'm go­ing is cor­rect, but

I’m care­ful that I don’t have too much bend in the neck or the horse will step too much to the side.

Use the turn-on-the-fore­hand ex­er­cise to test the re­spon­sive­ness of your horse and the tim­ing of the ap­pli­ca­tion of your aids.

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