Thursday, August 17, 2017

Give It A Try -- Dressage For Everyone!

Back in 2010 I began hearing about the relatively new and fast growing sport of Western Dressage, and started educating myself. A phenomenon which started in the Morgan breed and quickly spread to the masses, Western Dressage truly is Dressage for all riders and all horses.

All Western Dressage [“WD”] tests are performed on a Dressage court of 20 meters by 60 meters, just as in the traditional variety, but the beauty of this discipline is you do not need a fancy $100k Warmblood to be competitive. There are similarities to both Traditional Dressage movements and to Western Pleasure horses, however, the horse who excels in this sport will be neither. We look for normal (working), collected and extended gaits, just like with any Dressage horse. There should be a smoothness, willingness and ease of motion to both the gaits and performance of the horse. His jog will not be the slow, mechanical variety which is found in Western Pleasure. We want to see a forward, balanced type of movement and the same goes for the lope.

When it comes to training the WD mount, I use the same principles as with any horse in my program. We focus on relaxation, going forward, straight lines, bends, counterbends and circles. I want my horses to learn balance and be able to extend their frame and stride on the long sides of the court before we request them to collect. I have always used Dressage based exercises with all of my horses, because as we know, foundation is key to having a willing and happy partner. How do we build that foundation? By making the right way the easy way and ensuring we follow the building block principles of Dressage. That term, after all, simply means Training, and it is through systematic foundational training that we create a winning ride.

A horse that has free moving, ground covering gaits is essential to be successful in the world of Dressage, and the beauty of WD is, any horse can compete. While that is also true on the lower levels of Traditional Dressage, something I love about this segment of the sport is, extremes are not rewarded and if your horse can perform the basic moves with a solid, quiet demeanor, he will become a winner. While accomplishing this takes time, as with any show ring discipline, if you’re not wishing to compete on a Rated show level and prefer to stick with small local or schooling type shows, getting in that show ring – and making good scores -- can be fairly quick.


If you start with a soft, supple horse that has the basics of walk, trot, canter and go through the process of teaching your horse essential movements such as straight lines and circles, gradually building momentum to have nice lateral flexion (which is imperative in order to achieve a successful degree of collection), you’ll be well on  your way. Keep in mind, and I’ve said this many times, though it bears repeating, collection isn’t merely a headset. Collection comes from the hindquarters and is one of the final steps in the training process.

I'll return to discussing this wonderful sport in the future, but in the meanwhile, if you're interested in learning more check out the Western Dressage Association of America, North American Western Dressage and the United States Equestrian Federation.

~SFTS

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Little Bit More Background On Bits

We have previously, on several occasions, explored the wide world of what we put in our horses' mouths. Most of what was covered in our previous trips down that proverbial yellow brick road has consisted of when to use what bit for what purpose. This time around, my intent is to explain how bits work and why horses respond to bits the way they do.

Most horses begin their formal training by learning to carry a snaffle bit. I've written exhaustively about the benefits of the snaffle and the reasons I prefer to use them for a majority of work on my horses. In schooling show horses, even those destined for Western disciplines where they'll be required to wear a bridle after the age of 5, and trail horses every single time out, I find no reason to go beyond using a simple snaffle bit a majority of the time. In fact, unless we're schooling for an upcoming show, or initially teaching the horse to wear something shanked for a specific purpose, a lightweight, smooth snaffle is my bit of choice.

There are, of course, many variations of the snaffle bit; some are better than others. Each type has a purpose and a special application. As horsemen, we need to know and understand the purpose of a bit is communication with the horse. However, ideally we should be mostly using our body to express our intent and what we expect from our mounts, as opposed to pulling on their mouths. Right? Why are bits even necessary? Think super subtle stealth communication. Reins aren't meant to be pulled on, they're not a steering wheel to manhandle, they are more like a power cord between your hands and your horse's mouth. That current of energy from what your hands wish to convey, travels down the rein and directly contacts one of the most sensitive parts of the horse.

Snaffle bits and curb bits work differently to communicate with the horse. One works off the corners of the mouth, and the other works off leverage utilizing a curb strap or chain  (chin strap). I have said this before, ten thousand times. And depending on what configuration the snaffle is, the message you're giving the horse can vary. Same goes for the many variations of curb bits which are available on the market. I've been asked many times before, why are there so many different types of bits? I wish the answer was less simplistic, but the fact is, marketing and money. Each time something new comes along, everyone has to rush right out and buy it, whether they need it or understand how to use it. There really is no better answer.

If I'm riding or training in a snaffle, I'm wanting direct contact with my horse's mouth, though I expect that the horse already understands my subtle seat and leg cues. This is a tool for directional steering, if you will, though a majority of how I ride is through my weight in the saddle, utilizing my seat and various parts of my legs. All that bit is for will be to encourage the horse to point his nose in a certain direction, then follow with his body. When I pick up a rein or take hold of a rein, my "less is more" theory of pressure on his mouth is critical. Any amount of even the slightest resistance means we have to go back a step or two, until he fully understands what we're doing.

With a curb, I'm looking for a response to the slightest movement of reins on the bit to elicit a response. I should be able to lift my hand and see/feel a change (when coupled with seat pressure, weight distribution and using my legs) in how the horse carries himself. As we've talked about before, a curb bit works by rotating in the horse's mouth aa well as through degrees of pressure on the bars of the mouth and the tongue. I prefer a Billy Allen, a Mullen mouth or a frog mouth, as all three are easy on the horse with ideal tongue pressure, and I have found them to be the best tools to communicate my wishes. More advanced curbs begin to add more pressure on the tongue, a "cricket" (or roller) to occupy the horse with an overactive mouth, or pressure to the roof of the mouth.

In all this, the bottom line is we have to understand how to most effectively communicate with our horses, and that means choosing the correct bit to use for the job we are interested in the horse performing. If all the pieces fall into place and you have laid a solid foundation, you'll have the most amazing relationship ever with your horses. But you've got to listen to what they're telling you. Happy trails!

~SFTS

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Balancing Act: What Should You Expect From Your Trainer?

I'm always perplexed when new potential clients contact me for an evaluation, and come to find out they've already paid big bucks to someone else posing as a trainer, only to have the result be a horse that needs to be fixed because said previous trainer hss either taught the horse to behave poorly, given the horse bad habits, not correct it a problem or any of a plethora of issues. For many years, I have said training horses isn't exactly rocket science. In fact, it's mostly just common sense. Even young and inexperienced folks can train horses, though that doesn't make them professional trainers. Horses expect us, as riders, to be honest and fair. Most horses simply want to please us, and do their best in that endeavor. All of this is a huge reason why my level of irritation vastly increases when presented with these kinds of scenarios.

Trainers are hired as professionals and as such should always strive to keep a professional demeanor. That means for the entire duration of the relationship with each client, from initial contact, to the completion of whatever training has been paid for. But clients have a responsibility here as well, and that is to clearly communicate to the trainer all your expectations for your horse. Additionally, please let your trainer know what issues the horse is going to arrive with, and if the horse has any bad habits or dangerous behaviors. I've had horses sent to me for training before, who badly injured previous riders. While that doesn't preclude me from wanting to work with the horse and assist the owner in having a solid, safe, well trained mount, it's always nice to know what to expect.

When you call a trainer for an evaluation, try to have in mind exactly what you want accomplished and express that to him or her. Have all terms and everything you expect laid out in writing before any work begins. That way, you both understand the direction each training session should focus in. Do keep in mind that there is no set time frame for training horses, and depending on where your interests lie, the more specialized your chosen discipline, or how bomb proof your expect your horse to be,  far more time may be necessary to accomplish certain goals. As long as you both understand each other's expectations, your journey will be worthwhile and enjoyable. As a professional trainer, that's always my goal.

Then comes the big day, when your horse arrives at the training facility. By this time, you've hopefully taken your time to carefully choose the right place and the right people in order to ensure the most pleasant experience. Since (as discussed above) you will have had these discussions with the trainer long in advance, there should be no surprises, right? Expectations should never be in doubt.

Here are a few other tips in order to have a wonderful experience with a horse in training: Before any training begins, you should have made it clear what you want your horse trained to do. Become a solid trail horse? Learn to pull a cart? Become a show horse in a specific division? And so on. If an issue not covered in your initial contact -- or your contract -- should arise, make sure the trainer understands they must contact you immediately to discuss the situation in depth. There should be provisions in the contract for what happens in the event of illness or injury, and what their responsibilities are. That one should be a no brainer, right? But that's not always the case. Be sure you both have a clear idea of the end goal.

While I cannot guarantee your experience will be flawless and without any issues, the more legwork you do leading up to making the choice of trainer, and to the 'big day' itself when your horses delivered for training, the more enjoyable this journey should be for both you and your horse.

~SFTS

Monday, August 14, 2017

I've Got A Dollar In My Pocket, Let's Go Shopping!

Today we're going to revisit buying and selling horses, with an emphasis on accuracy in advertising. Being honest when you promote what you have to sell is essential. Here's an incredibly important point to remember: "Project" and "Prospect" are very tricky terms, and it's next to impossible to properly convey the idea of potential to most buyers.

That's not to say if someone has a knowledgeable trainer or knows what they're looking for (and looking at) they can't or won't be able to see what a horse might become with some time and money invested. But let's face facts. Many buyers today are in the market for the perfect horse, with a budget of $0. There's nothing wrong with that, everyone likes  a bargain, however, generally you do get when you pay for. In other words, expecting to find a National or World Champion for free is virtually impossible. Note, I said "virtually", because I've gotten (very) lucky a time or two.

I cannot stress enough that people who are inexperienced with horses should never go looking for a mount without having someone who knows what to look for, and what they actually need, accompanying them. That's just common sense. I have found, though, that's not such a common thing these days. I've seen this on a daily basis in the So Cal High Desert -- "Well, we bought some land so we could have a horse in our backyard!" -- then they (or even worse, their children) get hurt, which damages the horse industry further, since that animal will need a new home again, because he's been labeled dangerous. And it wasn't even his fault.

Can I have an Amen?

When you're selling a horse, it is likewise important to do your homework, be completely honest and do your best to ensure a good match with whoever purchases the animal. Chances are, if you aren't operating a high end show barn, you will attract a vast array of lookie-loos, beginner riders, or first time buyers seeking out a bargain. I have found that many buyers who haven't solicited the services of a reputable trainer are not adequately prepared to assess their needs or their compatibility with specific horses. This is where becoming a good seller (or agent) and working hard to match a buyer with an appropriate horse is vitally important.

Pricing horses is also notorious for being a touchy business. If you price too high, especially with a horse that doesn't have a competition or production record, you are likely to inadvertently be turning away a number of great buyers. If you price too low, there's always the danger of a horse ending up and one of those bad places  none of us wants to think about. There other dynamics, of course, not the least of which is the breeder factor: Breeding horses, as many know, is rarely a money making proposition. What can you do to ensure the horses you breed will find an excellent home when it's time to market them? Training, plain and simple.

Here's the bottom line for buyers: Make a checklist of your needs and your wants, define parameters and be honest about your knowledge and ability. Once you have the RIGHT horse, I can almost guarantee your horse ownership experience will be enjoyable. That's the whole point! And for sellers, what you desire most is that your horse find the perfect home, right? So follow the tips above, study what buyers are seeking and rest assured you've helped someone gain an equine partner who will make their dreams of horse ownership come true.

~SFTS

Sunday, August 13, 2017

But Everyone Does It...

Today I'm going to get into topic we all see happening on a daily basis, yet we are sadly becoming pretty much immune to. Abused transcends all breeds and all disciplines. It happens everywhere across the country, in show rings and fancy barns, on the trail and in the paddock of a single horse owner who keeps their horse at home. No horse is immune, no breed is immune, no discipline is immune.

From the "Big Lick" Tennessee Walkers, to the "rollkur" method of warming up a Dressage horse, to trainers "fencing" Reining horses, to the plain old ignorance of the backyard horse owner, there is abuse everywhere in the horse world. I've heard those excuses for poor training techniques like, "But everyone does it!" That doesn't make it okay, folks. Not even close. Isn't that like saying, other people beat their children, so that's ok too? Neither animals or people learn from abusive treatment or techniques, other than undesirable behaviors.

Horses gain knowledge through repetition, and some are slower learners than others. Oftentimes, when you push a horse too far, too fast, the result will be a sullen and irritable horse who at best doesn't know what is expected. This is frequently the beginning of that cycle of abuse. Unfortunately, too many trainers also have too short of a temper, and we all know that's never a good thing when dealing with any animal, let alone a sensitive horse. I'd like to believe that most of the time, poor training practices in the ill treatment of horses is the result of ignorance, as opposed to being deliberate brutality, however I tragically know better. But even ignorance isn't an excuse.

Abusive training is thought necessary by some in order to excel in the show ring, and we can certainly see a clear path leading to abuse because of horse show trends. Trainers want their mounts to stand out, which has led to extremes being rewarded over good, solid performances which follow division rules. It seems like the flashier the Dressage horse, or the slower the Western Pleasure horse or the higher stepping the Saddleseat English horse, or the more low headed the Reining Horse, they are more apt to win. Therefore, trainers see those flashy Dressage horses, those ultra-slow Western Pleasure horses and so forth, which leads them to try emulating those winning animals.

Then we have the backyard horse owners, weekend trail riders, and even the local trainer who's just trying to make a buck instead of trying to compete at a show ring level. Those are frequently the trainers who get the problem horses, mounts that didn't make it on the racetrack, at the horse shows or otherwise and for whatever reason haven't become good equine partners. It is under this scenario I most frequently see some of the worst examples of training, generally because there's a lack of knowledge on the trainer's part regarding why horses misbehave, and how to correct bad behavior.

We all know the difference between a frightened horse and a happy horse -- or at least we should if we pay attention to our horses attitudes and reactions. We should all know the difference between good treatment / training and abuse. There is no reason to resort to so many things I see, both in the show pen and on the trail. As a trainer and a horseman, I want my horses to be happy and enjoy their jobs. Strive to communicate with your horse. Work on understanding what it takes to get the performance you desire. If you need help, seek out a skilled trainer that can assist you. Ask questions, watch the trainer work with horses, and educate yourself, too. Your horse will thank you!

~SFTS

Friday, August 11, 2017

Won't Get Fooled Again...Experience Counts!

Few things upset me more than folks getting ripped off. When those who call themselves horse trainers fleece clients, steal their money, ruin horses and generally wreak havoc, they give all of us in the profession a bad name. Nowhere is this more apparent, or more prevalent, than the High Desert of Southern California -- my proverbial backyard. I don't want to insult folks, but some people tend to be, well, cheap. There's nothing wrong with liking bargains, and I'll never complain if someone wants a good deal, but in certain instances that old adage of you get what you pay for really does ring true. Particularly when it comes to the training and welfare of your horses.

A good, experienced, knowledgeable trainer spares no expense for his or her charges. They also know what type of equipment is necessary to get the job done, they know how to fit a saddle and adjust a bridle. They also have an experienced,  professional, knowledgeable team of veterinarians, farriers and oftentimes equine chiropractors and dentists to help ensure their horses well-being.

If someone proclaims a certain number of years in the industry, they should have at least been twelve or thirteen years old at least before that experience really began, when speaking of professionally training. An 18 year old kid who says he or she has 10 years of experience may not exactly be lying, they might have been riding horses for 10 years, but that's not professional training experience. That young 20-something who proclaims he or she has been training horses for "years" can't have more than an honest say 10 years real experience, if they're twenty-two to twenty-five years old. And at that age, I'd expect they were honing their craft, working for real trainers, not pretending to be trainers themselves.

Many of us have paid our dues. Most real professionals spend our first years as trainers working under true long time pros who gave us mountains of knowledge, allowed us to gain loads of experience, and taught us what we're supposed to be doing. My mentors were all great horsemen, multiple National and World champions in a variety of disciplines, and drilled into my brain how to do things right. I also learned much about how not to do things during the formative years of my career. But my greatest teachers have been the horses themselves, though a disclaimer here -- many people will say that, but the proof is in the pudding and the results they produce.

I'm what I call a Serial Watcher. I could sit in the grandstands all day long at any number of shows and competitions to just watch horses work and observe their riders or trainers. I'm a knowledge sponge, even though I've been doing this now for more than 35 years (yes, professionally ... getting paid to do it). There is no better way to learn than by asking questions, too, and that's something I have spent a great deal of time doing myself over many, many years. Even now, I'll occasionally see a technique I'm not familiar with, or have an issue crop up that I'm not entirely sure how to fix on a horse. There will always be someone with more experience, more skill, or even just more innovative ideas to bring into the training barn.

This is a subject I could write volumes about, but I'll close now with this parting bit of wisdom: Pay close attention to anyone you may consider hiring as your trainer. Do keep in mind, you're paying this person for their knowledge, their experience, their expertise, and entrusting both your safety (as well as your pocketbook), and your horses welfare, to them. It should never be a decision you make lightly or based solely on cost. Best of luck to you all!

~SFTS

Thursday, August 10, 2017

But, I've Got Blue Ribbons!!

Today's post is going to be short, but sweet. This is essentially my big pet peeve, so bear with me. I may appear to be on the verge of a rant or two!!

If you're like me, there is nothing more fun or more exciting than winning a blue ribbon at a horse show. Shows are places where someone who's highly educated in the art of horsemanship will score or place horses based on a number of factors, not the least of which is their performance. Judges are important people in our world, they can make or break your career. Which is why I've always taken my responsibility when judging very seriously.

Being pinned first in a class deep with high-quality horses is the pinnacle of competition. To be honest though, I'd rather be placed third behind two incredible horses than win a class full of lower quality animals. But by far, the worst is competing in a one horse class. Sure, you get the ribbon and trophy, and you won it honestly. I just can't bring myself to get the least bit excited about that whole scenario.

Then we've got some folks who actually call themselves professional trainers and brag about such wins! Okay, being proud of a good performance from a tough horse is one thing. Bringing along a horse that no one believed in, or that was a little difficult to deal with might rate a smile (or a sense of relief...). I can even think of a few times I might be tempted to be happy just to get through a class with certain horses. But you're never going to hear or see me shouting from the rooftops about winning a single horse class.

My proudest moment in this entire lengthy career -- spanning four decades of showing horses -- was being pinned 5th and an English Pleasure Novice horse class at a Class A Arabian show in Del Mar Circa 1980. I was still competing in the 13 and under age division, I was showing a lone Huntseat horse in a world of Saddleseat horses, and every other entrant in the class in question was a long time, well known and well respected trainer. That PINK ribbon I'd gladly brag about!!

Don't over exaggerate your record. Be proud of what you've accomplished, but temper your pride enough to know when enough is enough. That's all folks. :)

~SFTS