Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Simplifying Communication: Re-sensitizing the Dull Horse

Re-sensitizing Your Horse To The Aids

We've all been there at some point: rider applies leg, horse ignores. Rider applies leg again, horse ignores. Rider applies leg again, horse ignores... etc.

There is another formulaic process that I, and many others, use with horses who are dull to my aids. No rider intentionally makes their horses dull to their aids, but inevitably at some time it will happen. When it does, I ask-coax-demand-ask my horse for the correct response to my aid.

Going back, once again, to a horse behind the leg – I first use the lightest aid I can muster and I ask. In this case, I am using the smallest shift of my seat, a lengthening of my back, with a firmness in my lower leg. This is the aid I would like my horse to move off of. Naturally, most horses will feel and promptly ignore this aid because it is subtle.

Immediately after I am sure my horse is ignoring this aid, I add a coax - I give the horse a more firm aid, such as a small bump with my upper inside calf.

If, and when, the horse ignores this I move swiftly to demand in which I give the horse an aid it cannot ignore. This is often a quick boot with my calf and a swat with the whip. It is a harsh, quick aid that will startle the horse into response. When the horse leaps off of my leg I immediately reward and politely bring my horse back to the slower gait.

I then ask again, and the horse should anticipate the firm demand and respond quickly to a light aid. If they do not, repeat the ask-coax-demand again. Psychologically, unless there is a more pressing negative stimulus (such as lameness, saddle fit, lack of trust, etc) the horse will ultimately seek to avoid the demand phase and will respond to a lighter aid.

Now, I don't want you to go off smacking an undeserving horse with a whip simply because it won't go. Another quote that I love, when taking about the aids, is "Only use as much, and as often, as you have to."

When you demand a response from your horse, this demand may come in different forms for different horses. I know a young horse who had become so frustrated by his circumstance (ill saddle fit and inconsistent work) that he would utterly refuse to go unless given a miserable crack with the whip. At the same time, you can illicit the same response from another horse simply by flicking the tassel against her thin skin. Know your horse, and use your aids judiciously, but also remember that by being firm and demanding, after asking politely, you are giving your horse the opportunity to learn to respond to a light aid.

If you are consistent with this process, and your horse is free from other major stresses, your horse will relearn his sensitivity to your aids quickly, and then it is your responsibility to use concise aids to prevent the horse from becoming dull again.


Have you had to retrain a horse to be sensitive to your aids? What aids does your horse like to avoid the most?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Simplifying Communication: Analyzing Aid Use

Have you ever gotten the comment that you, or a part of you, is busy? Your legs are busy, your hands are busy, your aides are busy... These are all criticisms that we are familiar with, at one point or another. Even if you've had a trainer speak to you with more tact, a comment like "Get your horse in front of your leg!" or "Stop nagging!" can be seen as being in a similar vein.

Riders are always developing new patterns and habits in their day-to-day. The thing is, when we fall into these patterns without thinking, they can become subconscious, and when they become subconscious, they can become ineffective.

An example of this would be overuse of the leg. When you have a horse that is sneakily behind the leg (for whatever reason), you may find yourself inclined to use your leg more often. At first it may take a couple of nudges to keep your horse at the desired tempo, but if you're not careful before long it can devolve into a flurry of fluttering, tickling, coaxing, nagging leg movements. You've fallen into the trap of "busy legs" and your horse, now used to this constant wiggle, has tuned you out. Your legs have become nearly useless! The same thing can happen with any aid. I often tell my students to think of it like a nagging parent or boss... If your parent/boss is constantly using the same phrase to try to get you to do something you may not want to, you may find that before long it's easy to ignore this phrase.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." – Benjamin Franklin

There are few quotes that hit home with equestrians as closely as this one, simply because we can often actually measure the severity of our aids in weight.

This is where intent and analysis come into play. If I am working with a green horse, I often spend the first several minutes of a ride making deliberate movements to implement my aids. I break it down into a tediously slow process of analyze-process-react, wherein I ask myself "What is lacking?" and then answer myself something to the effect of "My horse is crooked at the base of his neck." I then consciously implement my upper leg and give my horse a very clear, concise aid to straighten himself. The intent behind an aid needs to be clear and concise, not simply for the sake of the horse, but so that the rider clearly forms a process of using the aid. When riding with intent, there is a new level of focus and clarity to the movement of my body. If I simply think "use inside leg to step horse out" I am focusing on the aid and not the intent. If I analyze the goal and add intent to this process, I find I will use my body as a unit - my inside seatbone sits down, my inside leg stabilizes and I shift my core to better accommodate my horse's shifting weight. It's a considerably more natural, clear way to communicate with your horse.

Remember: Your horse speaks in body language almost exclusively, and you are sitting on his spine. This means that every shift of your weight, every tension of your muscles, becomes a language - whether you intend for it to, or not! By pausing to analyze the use of your aids, you are giving yourself focus and clarity in the way you communicate to your horse.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Correctly Sitting The Trot: Additional Tips for when Life gets Bumpy

Do you have any other favorite tips for riding the sitting trot? Below I've compiled several sitting trot training tips, which are all of great value - especially if you can plug into your horse's diagonal pairs while doing them! 
  • Perfect Practice makes Perfect: This is one of those phrases that makes me cringe, primarily because it's just so. darned. true. The fact is, you should practice your sitting trot... The more you practice your sitting trot correctly, the stronger your muscles will become. The stronger your muscles become, the more stable your core becomes and the more your sitting trot improves!
  • Breathing deep into your core to release tension is another great way to get your seat to stay connected. In order to sit the trot, we have to follow the horse's movement in perfect sync. The easiest way to do this? Relax! Breathe deep into your abdomen and with each exhale, try to release tension around your hip flexors and in your glutes.
  • Let go of your glutes! When your glutes engage and you "squeeze your buns" you are creating tense, bouncing muscle as well as firm barrier between your seat bones and your saddle. Exercise some self control and releeeeease the glutes.

  • "The Plank Challenge" is a great way to get a jump start on stabilizing your core for sitting trot. By starting with a manageable plank and increasing by 10 seconds daily, you can strengthen your abdominal and back muscles in just a couple minutes a day.
  • One of my favorite tips to teach my young students became "Ride like a Beanie Baby, not a Barbie!" Imagine you have a hard plastic horse and you sit a beanie baby and a Barbie on them. You make the plastic horse gallop around and what happens? The Beanie Baby, being loose and flowy, follows the movement of the horse and stays on for a bit, while the Barbie immediately falls off because she's rigid and unforgiving (lol). Let go of your tension, drape your legs around your horse and try to go with the flow.  Feel the bounce; embrace the bounce; become the bounce.
  • Lift your feet/bend your knees and imagine you are sitting on a balance beam (this works great for the canter as well) so that you aren't bracing on your feet to protect your bottom. More often than anything, I see new riders trying to push into their seat to take some of the pressure off their bottoms in the trot. By lifting some of the downward pressure out of your feet and bending your knees, you not only redistribute your weight into your seat but engage your calfs as well. Make sure when you do this that you don't pinch in your knees or thighs, as that will make you bounce even more.

I'm sure there are loads of other sitting trot tips out there. What are you favorites? 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Correctly Sitting The Trot: Plugging Into Diagonal Pairs

Have you ever ridden that one horse who made sitting trot seem like some sort of medieval torture? Do your seat bones (aka sitz bones, sit bones, etc) ache and your leg muscles shake just to think about it? We've all been there.

The first horrendously choppy horse I ever had to sit the trot on was named Dexter. He was a quarter horse whose previous work had been as an amish cart horse, and we used to joke that the reason he was used for the cart is because no one could stand riding his trot. Sitting his trot was hell. Actual hell. On the first bounce, I'd get pitched forward; on the second bounce I'd tense my thighs and glutes and bounce higher, and from that point on I was a complete and utter mess. My instructor would tell me to "sit deeper" but at that point, with very little attention to rider biomechanics, there just wasn't much help for it. 
Over the next several years, I picked up several "tips" to get a more connected sitting trot and I learned to sit some pretty awful trots. It wasn't until many years later that I was introduced to the concept of "sitting the diagonal pairs with alternating seat bones"... 

Alright, let me set this up right. Several years ago I purchased an Arabian mare with beautiful gaits. She had suspension, reach, power... A young trainer couldn't ask for more. I showed her locally on the Arab circuit and when I got her to first level I was faced with a horrible truth. 

First level tests were, at the time, ridden only in sitting trot. 

Perhaps I should've said that this horse had beautiful gaits to look at because, presumably because of slightly long, upright pasterns, her trot was (and is) incredibly jarring with very little shock absorption. She has literally bounced little kids right off of her back. I showed her at first level for a season, and I scored in the low sixties in each test that I rode, but I could tell that I was stuck, and stuck good. There was no feasible way for me to progress beyond where I was, simply because I could not ride my horse's gaits and be effective (never mind my training was also full of many flaws that would have prevented me from progressing much further at the time, anyway.)

Over the next few years I became very defensive while riding her, and I ultimately turned her into a school horse so that I didn't have to think about the fact that I couldn't ride her effectively. It was embarrassing and disheartening for me. 

On a whim, I rode her in a local dressage clinic and asked the clinician to address my physical and mental tension and my general inability to ride her. Over the next forty-five minutes, I learned to ride my horse's trot and have been comfortable and progressing ever since. With tears in my eyes (like the big emotional sap that I am) I thanked the clinician for returning my horse to me. It was a life-changing ride in several ways. 

The following is what we worked on in the clinic, and it's one of those concepts that I'm embarrassed to say I didn't already grasp:

The horse, obviously, trots in diagonal pairs. When we sit the trot without consciously separating our two seat bones, we sit on the horse as one unit. As the diagonal pairs move, one pair is always pushing, while the other is reaching. Because of this two-sided movement and single-unit seat bones, one of the rider's seat bones will always be pushed up and out of the saddle. 

So what happens if you add a little swivel, or one-sidedness to the seat? By alternating the rise and drop of your seat bones individually, you can actually conform your movement to the contraction and release of the horse's back muscles. This doesn't have to be an obvious movement, nor does it have to be something you do all of the time, but it does "plug you in" to your horse's movement so that your body is moving in perfect harmony with the horse's back. This isn't just about sitting down, it's about acknowledging that the sitting trot involves complex movement of the pelvis, rather than just "sitting" as some would lead you to believe. 

If this is new to you, give it a shot! Next time you ride, try riding with alternating seat bones to plug yourself into your horse's movement. You may need to start with large swishing movements of your seat bones just to get familiar with the flow of things, and it may start out awkwardly, but by experimenting and working to follow the movement subtly you'll find that a new connection occurs. Not only will it help you follow the bounce of his trot; it will allow you to synchronize your aids for transitions and subtle changes within the gait. If you find this is particularly difficult, pay close attention to your lumbar muscles to make sure you aren't bracing there; it's an easy defense mechanism to develop. 

Yes, this introduces the concept of TWO seat bones to worry about, but when it becomes fully incorporated into your daily riding position it will become second nature. 

Do you ride with alternating seat bones? What are some other sitting trot tips that you know of?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Mindful Rider: Introductions

I figured it was time for an introduction post, to give a little information about myself and the things you can expect to pop up here on www.TheMindfulRider.com

Mindfulness and the Equestrian:
When I talk about Mindful Riding, I'm referring to a whole host of things. The Merriam-Webster definition of Mindful is "inclined to be aware", while the definition of Mindfulness is "a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations." 

When applied to horseback riding, I think that being mindful implies that you are aware of your focus, emotion and (most of all) empathy for the horse beneath you. Riding with mindfulness, however, seems to be almost a state of meditation.  It becomes a sharp control of this focus, emotion and empathy, with a removal from your conscious "outside" self. 

Honestly, anyone who has ridden in a really intense dressage lesson will know that, while the beginning of the ride may be subtly affected by the baggage that you bring to the arena, by the time you're full involved in your ride you have no time to think of the outside world. Your Monday blues disappear and your concern for what's for dinner flies right out the window. 

You ride, and live, in the moment, with focus and empathy.

The Blog:
This blog is a place for daily musings as well as a collection of information relating to mindful riding. We'll be focusing primarily on dressage concepts, but also equine biomechanics, holistic equine healthcare, riding exercises and guest posts.

My name is Emily Jenkins and I am the primary writer, here at The Mindful Rider. I am a lower-level dressage trainer from southeast Michigan and I've been riding for twenty years and training horses professionally for just shy of thirteen of those years.

Since I first stumbled across the concept of  biomechanics for horse and rider, I have done nothing but soak up information about it in any way I can. I have read books, articles and published papers on various theories and practices; I have ridden with trainers who use biomechanics as the basis of their training, and ultimately I've redeveloped my own training philosophy to reflect the fact that I've never seen anything improve so many horses and riders, so quickly, as teaching with an awareness of the biomechanics involved in dressage. It's through this passion for biomechanics and holistic horsemanship that I began to find myself becoming more mindful of my riding, and in fact, all of my equine interactions.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Riding Without Your Eyes

Have you ever had one of those rides where you can see your horse isn't in the correct bend, carriage or frame and you just can't get to the root of it? You may be working on a test movement, or a new exercise, and try as you might things just aren't going right.

As riders, we are perhaps more aware than other people of the fact that our hands dominate our beings. Most sports, hobbies and careers don't require us to abandon our innate need to grab, hold and pull and replace it with core, isometric strength and balance. Even more tricky is when we realize that it's not just our hands that we rely on too heavily; it's our eyes!

What could be more natural than using your eyes? They are one of the most important receptors of information that we have, as human beings, but what we don't often think about when riding is that our eyes lie.

Forgive me. I'm going to go all sciencey on you for a minute here...

Imagine this for a moment: 
You look down at your horse, or across at the mirrors, and see that your horse is carrying themselves with the tiniest of faults. This information has come to you via reflected light that bounces from your subject to your eyeballs. Your eyes then send signals to your brain, which has to flip everything around and make sense of it, before telling you what you've seen. You then decide if/how you want to address what you've seen; you sort through all of those tools in your rider repertoire and select the ones to use to fix what you saw. Your muscles prepare to contract, your balances shifts, and you move your body to respond to the image that you've seen, seemingly in the very moment that it occurs. The problem is, that moment has completely past! It may have been a nanosecond ago, but it's gone. Forever.

When we allow our eyes to do the "feeling" for us, precious time is wasted in the process.

I see this a lot with students learning about connection for the first time. Their hands are almost moving in unison with the horse's mouth, and the reins are almost still, but they're not. Rather than feeling the movement and allowing your brain to respond without the visual input, their eyes are feeding them information a nanosecond behind when the information is actually present.

How to overcome your eyes:
The best initial exercise to really feel this is to ride (safely) with your eyes closed. I highly recommend having someone lunge you in the arena so that you can try closing your eyes and riding from your feel. Be careful, though! Some riders rely a lot on their eyes for balance and you may find that by closing your eyes you feel completely off-kilter. This is just an indication that you may want to practice getting out of your eyes and into your body more often.

After you get a feel for riding without your eyes, you can train yourself to ride with "soft eyes" which I'm sure some of you have heard before. Soft eyes implies that you are riding with your peripheral vision, without specific focus. When I first learned to do this, as a kid, I had a trainer who had the great idea to have her students cross their eyes. It was safer than closing your eyes, and all you had to do was then relax your eyes after crossing them and BAM! You had unfocused, soft eyes!

By riding with this zen-like lack of visual focus, we can get our focus back into the feel of the moment, instead of dwelling on the fleeting past. In addition to that, this also helps keep riders from dropping their chins to stare at their horse's necks (you know who you are!)


Try riding without your eyes for a few minutes this week and let me know what you think! 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Taking Charge of Your Focus While Riding

While teaching a first level dressage student the other day I found myself frustrated by her repeated fixation on the horse's head and neck. I'm sure anyone who has taught, or even ridden, classical dressage knows the feeling...

You're supposed to ride the energy from hind end of the horse, and you know it and you think you're doing it and suddenly you realize you're staring at the horse's head and neck and fiddling with the reins again - for no good reason, at that!

After my student began fiddling with the reins again, a phrase popped into my head so loudly that I found myself yelling it across the sandy arena.


It was the perfect phrase to summarize all of those twitchy little half-thoughts floating in my head as I tried to help my student get past her fixation on the front of the horse. As a rider, she was struggling to keep her focus in the correct spot. The horse's slight resistance in her jaw had caught the rider's attention and she had shifted her focus from correct back-to-front riding to the horse's head and neck - a mistake fatal to self-carriage.

I often see riders on the cusp of balance and harmony. The horse is just a breath away from greatness and the rider panics and loses control; the rider momentarily fixates on the appearance of the horse, all self discipline flies out the window and a yank or a tug happens here or there. The horse responds, reasonably, with tension. The moment is lost.

As equestrians, we have to have intense self-discipline, both physically and mentally. It's very easy to pop into our physical selves and use muscle memory to ride our horses round-and-round the arena, but it's the riders who are also able to stay mentally focused not only on the goal, but also on the source of the goal, that find true harmony with their horses. We also must remember that the goal is almost never a change in the horse's appearance; the goal is a physical response that causes a change in the horse's appearance (ie. the goal isn't to tug the horse's head and neck into a frame, it is to properly encourage self-carriage and the horse's head and neck will fall into place as a consequence.)

When you can regularly take charge of your own focus, and drive those tricky thoughts of cutting corners out of your head, it becomes as natural as muscle memory and just as easy to replicate.


Do you have moments where your focus seems to flit away from you without your control? What helps you to stay focused on correct riding? 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

When Good Horses Go Bad: the stressors behind bad habits

I'm going to step up onto my tallest soap box for this one...

Carrying a rider comfortably may seem like a simple thing that any horse can do, but in some cases our horses may be struggling, and often without our knowledge.

Why Horses Develop "Bad Habits"
In all the time that I have been riding and training horses, the one thing that I have come across more often than anything else is clients misinterpreting the negative behavior and habits of their horses.

I cannot even keep track of how many horses I have seen with undesired behavior that the owner has written off as "bad" or "stubborn." The fact that it really boils down to is that a horse, being by nature a quiet creature with typical prey instincts, only exhibits negative behavior or poor movement when they have been conditioned to do so, whether through inadvertent training flaws or through a series of discomforting or painful experiences.

It's as simple as classical conditioning; if the horse is made physically or mentally (or possibly even emotionally) uncomfortable by something in their work, they will avoid that "something" by beginning to experiment with other behaviors until they get rid of the "something."

Case in point: Years ago, a horse that I had in training came to me with lumbar scoliosis, an ill fitting saddle, navicular and a poorly balanced, heavy rider. (Mind you, I have absolutely no problem with heavy riders, provided - like all riders - they work to become body-aware and strive to make themselves uncomplicated to carry.) When she first got him, the horse went smoothly for her first couple of rides, trying to please his new owner. On the third ride, the horse was in considerable discomfort so he stopped and refused to go forward. The rider kicked and kicked and he still refused. She got out her whip and spurs, and the horse, now faced with the choice between one discomfort or another, began to move again, his trust in his rider now lost. Flash forward to a handful of rides later, the horse was in severe pain at this point and their relationship had deteriorated to a spurring, whipping disaster. In the horse's mind, he had no choice but to relieve himself of his rider. With one swift buck from a stand still, his rider was on the ground - unfortunately with several broken ribs and a broken hip. Weeks later, the horse was sent to me for training where we discovered the scoliosis, saddle fit issues and ultimately the career-ending navicular. He was retired and still lives at their house as a pasture buddy for their new horse, which is a happy ending that many horses in this condition aren't offered.

Horses have a limited vocabulary with which to express discomfort. They may use head-shaking, teeth, hooves, weight and non-compliance to describe their discomfort, and if we are not listening closely we will not hear the things they are trying to tell us. Often our horses are so apt to please that they stifle their natural vocabulary and create compensatory behavior to protect themselves rather than lashing out.

Addressing a "Bad Habit"
Of course, my example at the top is an extreme case. Often times horses will express their lack of mental or physical comfort like the horse in the photo directly below, who was just learning to trust her new saddle fit after having an ill-fitting saddle for several weeks. The photo was taken mid-head-shake, so no, she wasn't going around the arena with her head on sideways. ;)

Because this mare had previously been in a saddle that caused her discomfort, she had been conditioned not to trust that the saddle, and ultimately the rider, would cause her discomfort. After being fitted with a new saddle she spent the first two rides showing a toned-down version of the behavior that led me to suspect saddle-fit issues in the first place. As she learned to trust that the discomfort was gone and wouldn't readily reappear, the behavior quickly disappeared and she returned to moving joyfully.

Initially this mare's old saddle had become too wide on her back due to her topline muscle narrowing as it developed. It was slipping forward onto her shoulder blade, especially in the canter. She responded initially by moving with a tight shoulder (which should have been my first clue), and ultimately she began shaking her head violently when in the trot and canter. She also became considerably spooky, but I'll be addressing why horses become spooky when their saddles don't fit, in next week's post.

Because of her tight back, the rest of her body suffered and she quickly became a very unpleasant creature. Her gaits were short, she began to tightrope with her front legs, she was girthy, difficult to catch in the field, and even a little bit nippy. It took her a week off, some body work and a newly flocked saddle, as well as several shortened, "positive" rides to show her that she could, in fact, trust her saddle and rider to no longer cause her discomfort. Regaining trust is perhaps the hardest part of the process, as fear of pain is very hard to overcome. 

Over the past few years I have had the chance to work with a number of horses who have, in one way or another, developed compensatory behaviors that were detrimental at first to their movement, and later to their muscular and mechanical soundness. It's alarming how quickly things can escalate, in some cases. Often, what begins as a poorly fitting saddle or pushing a horse through a "stiff day" will slowly devolve into a whole myriad of problems including lack of suspension/impulsion, bracing in the neck and back, gait abnormalities and even muscle wasting and loss of topline, leading to further, sometimes more traumatic injury.

Anthropomorphizing vs Evaluating
I'd like to put forth that by calling these behaviors "bad" we are anthropomorphizing our horses, and simply covering up the infinitely more difficult to understand truth. We simplify the complex problem of "fear of pain" by giving them humanistic labels such as "sassy" or "naughty" instead of finding the root of the problem. Our horses will only develop these habits because of stress, whether it is physical, mental or even emotional, and the only way to truly get to the root of the undesired behavior is to evaluate our horses for negative stressors.

It could easily be saddle fit; it easily could be a misinterpretation of training. It also could be something as complex as a social stressor (such as a dominant horse stealing another horse's companion in the field) or even a mental stressor (such as lack of social interaction due to prolonged stalling) or even an innate prey-animal fear with a lack of exposure and trust. Each of these possibilities must be considered when dealing with a new habit or response that your horse has picked up. 

On the other hand, however, the horse may be responding to a stressor that we know can be overcome, such as stiffness at the beginning of work or weather conditions, or confusion due to being asked for a new movement. That is why it is important to stay in tune with your horse's responses to various stressors. Obviously it is for you as the rider and owner to decide if the horse's stressor is worth working through or not.

Next time your horse offers a response that you would like to label "naughty" or "bad", I challenge you to pause, evaluate and try to identify the stressor, before reacting.


Have you ever had an "Ah Hah!" moment when you've realized that your horse's "bad" behavior was actually a response to a stressor in his life? Let us know about it in the comments below!