Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Trail Training Newsletter - #98 - part 2

Improving Your Riding

If you can’t take lessons for whatever reasons, you can still learn a lot on your own. Get some good books or videotapes and learn exactly what you should look like. Even better, have a companion also learn what you should look like when you are in the saddle. Make sure you and your companion are using the same vocabulary to describe what you are doing and then start to practice. This is how my sister and I did it and still do it.

If the only person you have to help you is a complete ignoramus about horses, give that person a camera to take pictures or video of you so that you can see what you are doing and figure out what changes to make on your own.

By observing your horse, you will also get good feedback. If you are lucky, you will have a horse like Mingo who will visibly improve when you ride well. Chances are your horse will be subtler than Mingo, so look for the little clues. It might be a relaxation in his neck or a smoother stride.

Start out with the walk. Hold your position as long as you can and constantly check yourself or have your friend check you. Some other clues that you are crooked are:

1. One leg lies on the saddle in a different position than the other one.
2. You don’t feel both seat bones on the saddle. One may be floating off the edge of it, or it is floating above the saddle.
3. You keep losing the same stirrup.

I highly, highly recommend the books and videotapes by Mary Wanless. The information that she teaches might sound bizarre compared to the “heads up—heels down” statement you may be accustomed too, but it really works. I’ve used her style of riding with a Western saddle, too, and it is still effective. What she does is tell you how to use your muscles in a very specific way to achieve balance.

One more part of riding that is often abused that you don’t need lessons to fix is rein contact. Watch your hands. Strong and constant rein pressure will just aggravate your horse. I have seen people riding with heavy hands while using curb bits and running martingales. I thought that trail riding was supposed to be relaxing. For trail riding, light contact or a slack rein is the most appropriate. If you need to have tight contact to control your horse, it is time to go back to the drawing board. Your horse needs retraining, and you need to learn to let go. If it is just a case of nerves on your part where you only feel safe with strong control, you will have to train yourself.

We used to keep our horses at a stable where there was a sweet Tennessee Walking mare. She had perfect manners, never spooked and would have been a joy to ride, but somewhere along the line, she lost her brakes. She wouldn’t settle down to walk or do her running walk. All she wanted to do was go, go, go… Her owner, being a novice, decided she needed a stronger bit. She bought a torture device. It was a long-shanked jointed bit with a twisted wire mouthpiece. It slowed her horse down a little bit, but she still needed to ride with a death grip on the reins. As life goes sometimes, she ended up having a falling out with her husband and filed for a divorce. She vanished for quite a while, and her husband was taking care of the mare. My sister thought it was time to make the bit disappear so the husband wouldn’t use it. When he did occasionally ride, he used the old curb bit that was originally used on the horse. Since the mare wasn’t getting exercise, he ended up leasing her out to another novice. Sometimes, a novice rider with an open mind is a good thing. We told him how he could retrain the mare to ride with a loose rein. After a few months of patient work, she was just fine. No one ever did find that bit…

If you are able to ride with a slack rein most of the time except when you want to tell your horse to do something or you feel a shorter rein is warranted, (a snowplow is coming down the street spraying snow all over) take up the rein gently without jabbing your horse’s mouth. There is no use riding with a loose rein all the time if your horse is worried about random mouth jabs. He won’t mind a gentle gathering of the reins, though.

The bit you use is important. They are very powerful tools. Whole books have been written on bits, so I won’t do that now, but here are the bare basics. If possible, it is best to ride in a snaffle because it is more forgiving than a curb (although they can still be abused.) Snaffle bits are connected directly to the mouthpiece—there are no shanks. It doesn’t matter what the mouthpiece looks like. It can be broken or solid. If the reins connect directly to the mouthpiece, it is a snaffle. A few years back, I was at a horse club meeting where the subject was bits. There was a woman from the local tack shop giving a talk. She held up a bit with a jointed mouthpiece and shanks. She asked how many people thought this was a snaffle. I was shocked at the number of people who raised their hands. Many of them I knew had been involved with horses for decades, yet they still thought it was a snaffle. If there are shanks to give the bit leverage and a curb chain, it is a curb bit. This includes all the “cowboy snaffles” and Tom Thumb bits out there.

Snaffle bits will put the same amount of pressure on a horse’s mouth that you exert with your hands. If you pull with 5 pounds of pressure, his mouth will feel 5 pounds of pressure. A curb bit will magnify the pressure of your hands depending on the length of the shanks. They longer the shanks, the stronger the bit. A long-shanked bit can turn your hands into serious weapons unless you ride in a thoughtful manner.

Now, to clear up one more thing. The jointed curb bits with one joint are not gentle—even if they don’t have twisted wire mouthpieces. A lot of people will use them because they think they have that joint are kinder then a curb bit with a solid mouthpiece, but they are one of the cruelest bits out there. When you ask to turn or stop with the bit, because there are so many moving parts, it puts pressure in all different parts of the mouth at the same time. Your horse doesn’t know what you want, and he becomes confused. He may start fussing with his mouth, jerking or tossing his head and it may even lead to rearing. Sure, he will eventually figure it out, but at what cost.

I have never liked this bit, and when my boyfriend starting leasing a horse that was used in this bit, it really bothered me. I don’t think it bothered me as much as it bothered his horse. He was constantly fussing with the bit, and even with a slack rein, he held his neck arched and his nose tucked in to avoid contact. He never seemed comfortable. I think worrying about what the bit was going to do next preoccupied him. My boyfriend was hesitant to change to a different bit because he didn’t own the horse. Finally, a miracle happened. The bit broke. Kevin decided to buy a new bit. Since his horse was never hard to stop, he decided on a Kimberwicki. His horse instantly transformed into a relaxed and comfortable creature. From a distance, I saw them trotting a few days later, and he honestly looked like a different horse.

There is one more aspect to riding well, and that is being physically fit. A person who is not in shape can’t possibly ride well for a long period of time without feeling it in a big way. When you get tired, you will start to ride sloppy and inadvertently cause discomfort for your horse. Someone who rides 5 hours a day, everyday, will get very fit from the riding alone, but if you are like me—you have a fulltime job and/or family to take care of, it isn’t possible to ride like that. There are other things you can do to increase your stamina.

To strengthen specific riding muscles, I have found the Core Program incredibly helpful. All you need is the book “The Core Program” by Peggy Brill and 15 minutes a day. She explains how to do specific exercises that will make you a better rider, though I doubt that that was her initial intention. Instead, she wanted to help people eliminate the pains that we collect as we get older. My sister and I started the Core Program to aid our riding, and we watched much of our soreness disappear. In the meantime, we became stronger, more balanced and straighter. (I actually ended up a 1/4” taller, somehow.)

Being able to breathe steadily while your ride is a very useful talent. Just because we breathe to stay alive, doesn’t mean we know how to breathe properly. If you are interested in improve your breathing skills, try taking a class on Yoga. If you don’t have the time for that, there are some good books on Yoga that will help you to teach yourself.

I also recommend doing some cardiovascular exercises—it’s also a case of something that will help your riding and help your own personal health at the same time. Bike riding, running, roller skating, swimming or hiking are all terrific exercises that can be fun, too. I always tell people that I’m cross training. If you have a dog, increase your dog walks and your pup will benefit, too. In fact, your dog will make sure you stick to a program of exercise once you get him in the routine. Dogs are terrific about that. If all this exercise helps you lose a few extra pounds, I think your horse will be quite pleased with that, too.

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