Category Archives: Equine
A Controlled Burn I'll take this gray rain to soften my jaw, rounded shoulders hang low and honor the loss of a old heart that held mine. I'll take this gray rain to smooth my brow, while rising to meet the ash easing to green, almost but not quite.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
How are the half-halts coming? Does a breath and a light thigh pulse work? Or are your legs exhausted by the end of the ride? Is your horse dull to your leg aids? And by that I mean, have you nagged him into a stupor? (There I go blaming the rider again.)
This first question is deceptive: Are your legs and seat soft in the saddle? Can you tell? It isn’t as easy as it sounds because it’s instinct, once our feet have let go of the earth, to grab on with our legs, thighs tight, and calves tense. It’s a reflex and if we’re a bit timid, then even more so.
Be clear: Instinct and intuition tell us to hold on with our legs. It’s the wrong thing to do, but we come by it honestly. Not that it matters to your horse.
The problem with tense legs is that it means that your sit-bones aren’t deep in the saddle, but rather suspending you slightly above the saddle, making a disconnect between you and your horse. To maintain that position, your shoulders want to come forward and your knees want to hold. As your balance changes, your horse might slow up, thinking you aren’t stable. He’s right, but you might not be aware of much of this. You’re busy using your horse as a ThighMaster –and rock hard thighs is not the message of lightness and relaxation you mean to send your horse.
Surprise! Your horse doesn’t want to go forward. We’ve been taught to kick. Or we’re frustrated, so we kick. There’s no response, because it all feels bad to your horse. So you kick harder; your leg never rests. If that doesn’t work, you try spurs (not the real purpose of spurs, by the way) and a whip (not the real purpose for a whip, either.) So, you complain that your horse is lazy and won’t go forward.
At least you have kind hands. Well, you don’t. If the rest of your body is tense and fighting, your hands are doing the same, which means you’re hurting his mouth. No wonder he isn’t moving forward. And you aren’t breathing in any more air than a chicken. But some jerk has told you that you can’t lose this fight because if your horse doesn’t respect you, all is lost. So you double down.
What do I see from the ground? Your horse is mirroring you. His back is tense and his neck is stiff. As you kick, your thighs tense, pushing you farther out of the saddle. With that extra weight on his withers, he resists more. None of this is good, but worst of all, as your aids get stronger and bigger, I begin to see his ribs tense, and the muscle that runs from his armpit to his flank seizes up. He’s defending himself by tensing his ribs. Defending himself from your leg and your seat. He has no idea what you are asking now; he’s isn’t breathing either.
This was never your intention. You know your horse is sensitive enough to be bothered by flies. He probably feels your legs more than you do. There was an instant where things started to snowball to adversarial; so quick you don’t remember making that choice. A rider is always cuing either relaxation or tension.
Finally, do your horse a favor and show some real leadership. Just stop. Release the reins. Say Good Boy because you attacked him like a mountain lion and he had more patience for you, than you did for him.
Consider doing yin yoga. Become familiar with the Butterfly Pose. Sitting or laying down, soles of feet together, and let your knees open; breathe and let gravity do the work. It will feel tight but you’ll just sit with that. Let an eternity pass. Like two whole minutes.
Your horse doesn’t care about yoga, but if you were inadvertently giving him a halt cue with your thighs (you were), then you need to be introduced to the muscles he feels all the time.
Next ride, if your horse is safe, and naturally, you have your helmet on, begin your ride at the walk without stirrups. Feel your legs long and let your sit-bones move with your horse’s back. Let your hip flexor, or more specifically, your psoas muscle, become fluid and soft. The front of your body opens and your heels hang directly below your shoulder, perfect. Feel your feet heavy and your ankles soft.
As your horse walks, your legs flow with the movement of his flank. It’s a slight sway that travels from your sit-bones through your waist, up to your shoulders, and down to your toenails. You could carry an egg under your knee without breaking it. You don’t move more than your horse does, but most of all, you don’t brace your legs against his movement.
When you finally do put your foot into your stirrup, you’ll notice that it feels constrictive. Yes, a stirrup does make a foot brace a bit, but your job is to continue as if you weren’t using a stirrup. Let your weight be on the outside edge of your foot, almost bow-legged. Your leg should feel as light and loose as a bird wing on his flanks.
Now the process of asking your horse to respond to your leg can begin. He’s gone dead on his sides because the pressure never stopped. Now use tiny cues. Inhale and ask him to walk on. If he moves one step and stops, reward him. Refuse to demean him, and yourself, by nagging.
Ask for a bit more. Jiggle your ankle but don’t use muscles. Let the movement feel like a buzzing bug to him. Think energy, not force. Then reward him again, for giving you a chance to do better.
This is about successive approximation. He’s still waiting for you to kick hard and that trust needs healing. So you reward anything that is an approximately the direction you want to go, while refusing to fight. Once he starts walking, follow his body naturally, but stop cuing. Trust him to do his job without nagging. Let him stride on; let your legs rest. In a few strides, just using your sit-bones, ask for longer strides and when he does that, stop cuing and let him carry it on. Now the two of you are conversing politely.
In order for a horse to be responsive to your leg, your leg has to do less. It’s counter intuitive –just like everything else about riding.
Guest post by Rachael Loucks.
I’m not a real researcher but I may have played one in life!
The headlines were everywhere this fall, “Horses can communicate with symbols!” It was featured in equine and non-equine publications alike. People were sharing the article with me left and right….even my pals who couldn’t tell the front end from the back end on a horse. If you have not heard about this research yet, stop. Read the article here, then come back to my post. If you have read it…continue.
I was really excited when I read this, particularly because it involved a hot topic in our house…blanketing the horses. My husband is pretty “old school” when it comes to the idea of blanketing—as long as there is a shed for the horses to get into and plenty of hay, he sees no need to blanket….ever. I tend to be a bit more moderate and use the rules/guidelines put forth by University of MN. On the other hand, I know many folks who stick to the rule of 30 degrees and blankets go on…..no. matter. What. Needless to say, everyone seems to have an opinion when it comes to blanketing.
The research conducted in Norway really excited me because I always suspected each horse had a preference about warmth. I certainly saw this in my own horses. I have had horses run when they see me coming with the blanket, whether it’s 30 and drizzling or -20. I have had others that are hiding in the barn as soon as the slightest bit of rain or wind and as soon as they see me coming with the blanket they reaching their necks forward and stand stone still as I get them buckled on.
I decided, after reading the research, I was going to try and replicate it. The procedure is laid out in the article very clearly and I have a good understanding of behaviorist principles, so thought it should be pretty easy to follow.
First, I found some scrap wood and cut it in to three pieces in the size laid out in the research procedure. My research assistant (aka…toddler) helped me get the communication boards ready…then we started the training process.
Per the research procedure I was going to teach the horses each symbol one at a time. Considering I had 4 horses, this was going to be a time consuming process. But I started out none-the-less.
Want to know what happens next? You’ll have to wait for the next installment to find out. I’ll give you a hint….it was NOT what I expected.
And should they? After a video of a horse, eagerly eating a baby chick, went viral on the internet it’s a question that seems to be on many horse owner’s minds (you can see the video at the bottom of this post. WARNING – GRAPHIC!).
In 2011, a book was published titled Deadly Equines, The Shocking True Story of Meat-Eating & Murderous Horses by CuChullaine O’Reilly which claims that horses can be vicious meat eaters. The book tells the story of Bucephalus and Alexander with the claim that Bucephalus was fed with raw meat and was the off-spring of the meat-eating mares. While it’s hard to relate that to our modern equine partners, there are more examples. In Iceland, horses are routinely fed dried fish throughout the winter for extra protein, and beef gelatin and bone meal are commonly used supplements in Europe for promoting hoof growth.
Anyone who’s spent time at a show has probably seen a horse that happily steals bites of sandwiches, hamburgers, or hot dogs. In the racing world, the Grand National Betting Guide has heard many reports of horses killing small animals, particularly dogs and cats. There are also several startling accounts of meat eating horses in this Carnivorous Horses article.
While it seems that horses can eat meat in small quantities, they also have notoriously delicate digestive systems. Since horses can’t vomit, mold or toxins can be potentially fatal, and while the meat itself may not be a problem it certainly poses a risk. The “better safe than sorry” approach is usually the best option, but it does go to show that perhaps horses’ tastes are much more extensive than we realize.
Have you ever seen a horse eat meat?
It’s an inherited seat;elders and babies ride loose in time,strong and vulnerableand not quite domesticated.Sky-tall and exquisitely tiny;a saddle blends contradictionsinto a familiar sacred stride.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Thanks to a request, I’m writing about the half-halt. Ever notice how every definition you read starts with the disclaimer that it’s the most misunderstood concept in riding? Not very encouraging. It goes on to say that it’s a cue that combines both whoa and go. How hard could that be? There’s squeezing and driving and pulling, but not too much. Eyebrow squint. WikiHow has an article about how to do the half-halt in twelve easy steps. Are you kidding me?
Disclaimer: I love the discipline of dressage, but sometimes they make it sound a little harder than it is. (It’s okay, I’m sure they think I’m a little “simple” from time to time, too.) Dressage uses complex concepts, described with intellectual precision. I learned half-halts this way, but it’s enough to make a rider seize-up in the saddle with over-think-itis, a common dressage malady. Especially if you’re passionate about riding and try too hard, like I did.
The USDF definition: “The half–halt is the hardly visible, almost simultaneous, coordinated action of the seat, the legs and the hand of the rider, with the object of increasing the attention and balance of the horse before the execution of several movements or transitions between gaits or paces.”
It’s an okay set of words. I just wish they hadn’t included hands. Riders tend to over-do with their hands, so why encourage it?
Not surprisingly, horses have a definition that’s a bit more intuitive. I’m bilingual; let me translate for you.
A half-halt is a re-balancing. Can we all agree that balance is way more crucial for horses than we give credit? We want the horse to balance a bit of his weight back, but I hate to say “back” aloud because, again, we tend to use our hands too much to start with. Hands are over-rated; trust your body instead.
The mental part of the half-halt isn’t always talked about but that’s the mysterious part; the part beyond the physical cues. A half-halt is a mental re-balance as well. It’s an instant that affirms the connection between horse and rider in that moment, but also in the near future. It’s a blink of acknowledgment that the two of you are together, as well as a hint that something’s coming …wait for it. The challenge is timing. By the time we remember to half-halt, it’s too late, and the horse can’t respond in time.
To further confuse the horse and rider, there is a long list of actions used to ask for a half-halt, some big and bold, some invisible. Riders tend to like a dramatic cue using several body parts, physical strength, and a few math skills, while horses like the soft, silent kind. They taught me to do it their way.
The first rule about half-halts is that you must do it in time… think of it as a discipline of preparation. You might half-halt to begin to prepare for a transition. One more half-halt to actually prepare, and then the transition. A half-halt asks for his attention but it should feel light and happy to him, like it will be fun. “Oh goody, a trot’s coming…”
The physical part for the rider can be as simple as a breath because a breath resets the body. The inhale realigns your spine, your shoulders slide back as if you have a hanger in your shirt, which in turn realigns your arms and wrists. Let your hands rest. If anything, your hands slow an instant to feel the contact an extra second. Your seat straightens in the saddle. You can think of each of these things separately, because it’s harder, or you can take a big inhale for an upward transition and your body will follow naturally.
An exhale softens your body, stills your seat, slightly deflates your horse’s movement, and like a plane, you glide in for a soft landing. Use an exhale for relaxation or a downward transition, and melt any stray resistance.
If there is no response at all, ask again and perhaps add a slight tightening (upward) of your seat muscles or a loosening (downward). Does your horse respond? Praise him for his attention. Then breathe and cue small again, always trying for less. Think invisible.
I find a light pulse with my thighs backs up my breath even better than seat muscles for most horses… so an inhale, and if needed, a thigh pulse for more energy, or an exhale and thigh pulse for steadiness or relaxation.
At first your horse may have no idea what you are asking for. His response to you might feel like a dubious, “Huh?” Cheer his effort! This is about subtlety; a tiny half-cue that creates an energetic half-pause, lays the foundation for a relaxed transition. Give him time to figure that out.
Does your horse ever resist a cue from you because it seems abrupt to him? Perhaps he’s trotting in a relaxed rhythm, when suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s a canter cue –gasp, toss head, counter-bend, throw out a lead leg, and hope for the best. A well-timed half-halt is the antidote.
Then a few strides into the canter, he begins to speed up. Pull on his face if you want, but he’s probably tense in the poll already. Besides, you’re trying to have better hands. Think about a better rhythm in his canter. Breathe. Focus your body. Reset his speed and steady him as your body realigns. Yay, you did a half-halt.
If this seems entirely too easy and you need to make it harder, may I suggest taking up chess? It’s meant to be a war of the mind and there’s an opponent.
Regardless of the gait, and especially at the walk, if you half-halt kindly, with a generous reward when your horse responds, you might feel his back lift just a few millimeters. Reward him with a huge exhale and soft hands, because when he lifts his back a bit, your half-halt is on the way to becoming the cue to bring his head to the vertical without pulling. It’s this instant that makes you really… no, really… believe that a half-halt has mystical properties.
Half-halts aren’t trained in a day. Every horse is a slightly different individual. Every rider has a unique language. Rather than reading even more books about half-halts that eventually put both of you in a complete tense-halt about the topic, breathe and half-halt your own critical mind. Crank up the music, and while you and your horse are dancing, offer a half-halt. Ask your horse what he prefers, and then let yourself be trainable.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Up-and-coming sculptor Charles Elliott and his wife professional showjumper Abbe Elliott nee Burchmore has worked together to create an incredible full size horse sculpture.
Charles Elliott and his team work from their studio in Buckinghamshire producing a wide range of handmade British luxury Sculptures, furniture and ironwork, using traditional blacksmithing and modern metal manipulating techniques.
With help and guidance on the designs, Charles and his wife Abbe have designed and created a full size horse sculpture from 8mm Mild steel. Their new Equestrian Sculpture range inspired by his wives love of horses, has its first edition available to buy. Each Sculpture in the range will be completely unique and built by hand in Buckinghamshire.
Charles says “I would speak to Abbe 2-3 times a day whilst working on my sculptures, to ask her about details of muscle layouts and conformation, whilst looking through piles of close ups of horses in motion. She is very critical of our work and a perfectionist when it comes to the horses, metal or real life!”
Charles has spent months working on the piece and they were both very pleased at the response of its unveiling on their website and on facebook. Abbe, who is currently jumping in Spain, always finds time to call Charles at the Buckinghamshire studio to find out on progress with the sculptures and is always promoting them to fellow showjumper at the shows.
Charles adds “Abbe’s support with the sculptures is muchly appreciated and we are already bickering over which equestrian discipline to create next.”
For more details visit www.elliottoflondon.co.uk
We felt them closebefore we had skin;from an infinite placea deep, slow nickerrumbled, more feltthan heard. The wishwas born first sowe could find our way.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Some of us baby-talk and cuddle our horses like they’re twelve-hundred-pound teddy bears. Some of us enter the pen with enough flags and whips that we look like a lion-tamer at a circus. It’s possible we’re on a behavior continuum not so different from horses.
Human behavior runs similarly from one extreme–very shut down–to the other extreme–overly reactionary. In other words, some of us are passive aggressive and some of us just plain aggressive. Too harsh? That’s what the horses thought about the words stoic and reactive, too.
Then one last assumption: If you were the sort of screeching, hard-handed, bone-crushing, slimy-reptile Neanderthal who was brutal with horses, my bliss-ninny positive training blog would have bored you to death years ago.
That just leaves us passive aggressives left. And it didn’t start out being our fault. Most of us are women; we were raised to be polite and quiet. We were rewarded for being good girls.
I, myself, am a recovering good girl, so if I want some wine, for instance, I take a breath and say, “Please bring some red wine home. Thanks, Sweetie.”
A passive aggressive good girl might say,”Excuse me, Sweetie, if you have time and it’s no trouble, perhaps you could detour on your way home, only if you want to, for some wine, if it isn’t out of your way, but if it doesn’t work out, it’s no trouble for me to go later, Honey, even though my foot is swollen and I’m a bit congested, I can limp out later after dinner, I was just thinking you might be able to get a nice Merlot, but it’s fine, just fine, either way.”
Just. Say. It. Already.
And to be clear, it’s okay to be passive aggressive out in the world. I’m just saying horses hate it.
Horses are prey animals, and coyotes (or people acting like coyotes) are their sworn enemies. Coyotes stalk them, passively aggressive, skulking around in the shadows, lurking and feinting. Circling their prey, just out of reach but relentless. They might tip-toe with a halter partly hidden behind their back, or nag-nag-nag with their feet in the saddle, or be twitchy with their hand, or maybe just lurk on the stiff-side rein. They might give a cue, contradict that first cue, then give a different cue, and still not pause for an answer, busily talking to themselves, up there behind their horse’s back.
Or worse yet, we might have so much compassion for our horses that we listen and listen, and never really say anything to them at all. We crane and squint and worry, wondering how they are responding, and is this what that blog meant? In the meantime, a horse picks up on the doubt and confusion and they can do nothing but lose confidence. We chatter down to them, over them, beyond them, until nothing we say has meaning. In other words, if we often stop and start, walk on eggshells to keep them calm, or over think everything in the saddle, we’re stalking them.
Do you find this prattle confusing? Imagine you’re a horse.
Bottom line: We lose our natural rhythm when we try too hard. We’d hate to consider ourselves abusive so we whisper, and even if we know horses are confused, we tend to commiserate with them about it and not clarify. They see a dog answer a sit command and get a cookie, and wonder why they have it so hard. It’s enough to make a stoic horse to shut down further or a reactive horse start to scream.
Truth: A horse will never confuse you for a horse. You will always be either a coyote or a human. Sorry for the bad news, but now let’s set about being a better human; honest communication is appreciated because it’s understandable. Think short sentences, with a thank you at the end.
Horses are looking a quietly confident leader who respects their intelligence. Let your body be still. Listen without expectation of good, bad, or otherwise. Breathe. Plan ahead. Ask for a transition with awareness in your body. Then breathe again. Wait for his answer. Reward him.
If he’s wrong, reward him for trying. Then “re-phrase” the question more simply. Go slow so that he can reason the answer. Slow yourself down so that you are clear. Be patient because there is nothing more important than a foundation of understanding. Speed is easy but real trust takes time.
Let him accept you for who you truly are, and if that’s a bit of a mess, don’t give him a whiny apology. Instead, smile, relax, and try to do better. Trust that he can tell your intention is good. Horses absolutely know honesty when they see it.
Horses not looking for groupies and they don’t want to be put up on a spiritual pedestal. They don’t need adoring humans to give them purpose. They want a whole lot more from us than treats.
Scientists tell us that horses have feelings similar to humans, but that is not the same thing as feeling what we do in the same situation and we’d be arrogant to think so.
Try to find the middle of our human continuum. Horses are drawn to calm leadership. They like a herd that feels safe; they appreciate emotional clarity. Leave your puny insecurities and your frail feelings in the house. No baby talk, no coyote stalking, no apologies. Square your shoulders and speak your truth clearly. They expect us to be nothing less than their equal.
Dreams are only transparent.Let my lungs fill,here, now,in simple praisefor ordinary momentsof wanting what I already have.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm