Monday, August 24, 2009

Whoa! Stopping & Spinning To Win ... and Flying Lead Changes, Too

This is a real oldie, but I thought I'd share it. :)

"What’s the single most important thing any horse, no matter his age, can learn? The stop command, or “Whoa”. It all starts when, as a baby, he must understand how to respond properly when we ask him to stop. That, of course, translates to when we’re teaching him to longe later on, and behave correctly under saddle even later. There’s nothing worse than a horse who does not understand he needs to stop immediately when asked. Not only can it be annoying if they don’t, but dangerous as well.

By the time he’s under saddle, it’s imperative that the horse understands what “Whoa” means to ensure he will become a well behaved mount. We must make certain he learns your body language, too, as you’ll teach him that “Whoa” is coupled with your sitting deeper in the saddle and shifting your weight back, which should encourage him to do the same. You may ask how I’m leading up to stop and spin maneuvers and it’s really pretty elementary -- your horse has to be in tune with your voice and your body in order to perform as he is supposed to.

Some trainers like fairly green young horses to begin as Reiners, while there are those of us who want a pretty fair foundation in place first. I fall into the latter category, though I’ll outline briefly the means for achieving satisfaction with both and the methodology used on each.

The preference for youngsters who haven’t had much education is that the horse will be easier to teach the maneuvers themselves without having to sift through the requisite manners, 'frames' and 'headsets' of a pleasure horse. He ought to know what the bridle means and he’s got to be comfortable with the saddle on his back, but any more than that is thought to just get in the way. For me, I want to be able to ride the horse down the rail comfortably and have him know his leads and how to carry himself prior to any continuing education. Rail manners are a must in my barn -- anything else is secondary, because he still may be asked to be that pleasure horse in the future and more importantly, I don’t like riding a speeding bullet that you can’t point, steer or decelerate very well.

At the outset, once I’m ready to familiarize a horse with the concept of stopping and turning (the precursor to spinning), I’ll practice teaching him to set himself on his haunches and do what we call “rollbacks” against the fence. Initially, he must understand what legs and seat mean, much moreso than hands on the reins. That’s accomplished by lots of circling and serpentines, instilling in him a good understanding of moving off my legs and turning when I shift my hips and my weight in the saddle. I should also be able to freely move him off the rail and back onto the rail while going straight, just by shifting my weight slightly and using my legs. Only then can he progress another step.

He has to understand what I’m asking him to do, so I’ll start by walking him down the rail first, moving him ever so slightly off the rail (about 5-8 feet out toward the center of the arena) and then, not too abruptly, turning him back into the rail using precious little rein and relying almost entirely on the shifting of my weight on the stirrups and in the saddle. As described above, he should already know what that means and he ought to respond properly.

Once he’s comfortable with “rolling back” at the walk, you can start to put him into a gentle jog down the rail and ask for another rollback. I don’t like to work too long in each session on rollbacks, but would rather spread it out over a number of days and/or weeks until I’ve got utter confidence from the horse in what he’s being asked to do.

The idea is that he will be learning how to rotate his weight back onto his hindquarters and begin to almost “sit”, digging deeper with his haunches with the practice of each turn -- and by listening to your body language alone. Should he begin to lean on your hands and rely too much on the reins to guide him, you’re pulling on his mouth and you have to go back a step or two until you can achieve the desired result without so much contact on the reins.

Pretty soon he should be capable of jogging off down the rail and, with the slight shifting of weight, sit his haunches down and turn, moving off your legs with ease. Then you can begin to ask for rollbacks at the lope and, eventually, the gallop. Remember the old adage, you have to walk before you can run! It’s even more true when training horses than just about anything else. A good, well performed rollback will look effortless and give the appearance of the horse and rider working entirely as one. Once the horse (and his rider) have mastered the rollback, you can begin to work on the other aspects of a beginning reiner or working western horse, but that’s the foundation.

When you’re looking to start working on your stops, the most important thing you will need to remember is how well your horse responds to that shifting of your weight. As long as he’s in tune with you and understands (as he well should by now) what it means when you use your weight, hips and legs in the saddle, you’ll be able to get lovely stops out of him with minimal scotching. “Scotching” is what we call the actions of a horse who doesn’t sit deeply at the stop and instead bounces along until he’s come to a halt. A very undesirable trait, indeed, and you’ll want to avoid letting him do so.

Again, start at the walk and keep him just a little bit off the rail. He should already be familiar with that “Whoa” command, as well as what the shifting of your weight means, so when you ask him to stop, he’ll do so on cue. Gently lift on the reins, or ever-so-slightly bump him, and move your weight back (rotating your hips essentially ‘forward’ from your pelvis, sitting ‘on your pockets’) and deeper into your saddle’s seat. The desired reaction should be that he immediately ceases all forward motion and you should feel the horse dropping his hindquarters, as taught during your sessions on rollbacks.

Another helpful tip is to remember the rule of legs. If you keep your legs into your horse’s sides while in forward motion, taking them away while requesting a stop will help the horse understand you’re no longer asking for that forward movement and the created impulsion that comes with it. I'm not even going to broach that spur stopping topic here!

Once he’s got the idea, you can move him into a trot and practice more stops. The faster he’s moving, the LESS movement you want with your hands and the quicker he should react when you shift your weight back deeper into the saddle. All it should take is a very slight lifting of your rein hand(s)...not necessarily a noticeable contact with the bit, even...while you sit down deeply, and the horse’s reaction should be immediate. If he is not giving you a nice stop on the haunches and wants to be scotchy, you’ll need to back up again and re-teach some of those steps, because he’s not responding the way you want him to. Doing your homework is important! Repeat as often as it takes for him to give you an automatic response, but once he’s got it down, don’t overdo your schooling. You don’t want to sour him.

Executing spins is yet another extension of rollback work, although some people have the idea you can get there by teaching the horse how to pivot on the hind. Pivoting (both fore and hind) is entirely and vastly different, because you’re using leg alone to get the desired result rather than a shift of weight.

Now that your horse will do effortless rollbacks and has the concept of stopping and sliding etched in his memory, you’re going to teach him how to channel that forward motion into the spin itself. No worries if you start slowly, as he becomes more adept he’ll find more balance and with that will come the speed, but do not make the mistake of rushing him. Go through the steps methodically. He knows how to move off your legs. He understands what the light contact (key word: LIGHT) with his mouth means. He will respond when you ask him to sit and turn with the shifting of your weight. Now is the time to meld it all together into those dazzlingly accurate spins.

We don’t want him to get lazy or misplace his feet, confusing him or making it more difficult for him than it needs to be, so we’re going to take little baby steps here, too. Which means, to start we only want to ask him for a rollback -- sans the forward motion. Don’t reprimand him harshly if at first he attempts to move off as if completing the rollback, but be sure you keep your weight firmly centered in the saddle unlike during a rollback itself, where you’ll be shifting your hips to one side or the other. What will guide him into the spin is your legs alone, coupled with a very slight laying of the rein against, not across, his neck.

Once he understands the concept, you can ask for more of a turn and gradually more speed, but precision is the key to start. If he’s rushing into sloppy spins, you’ll lose more points than you would if he were slower and more steady. It takes time and patience on the part of the rider/trainer, but the reward will be a horse who gives the correct response and does so flawlessly.

The last thing I plan to address here this month is teaching lead changes, and that, too, is easy if you’ve gotten the basics down as described above. All it boils down to is how well the horse responds to the shifting of your weight and using your legs, and it should only take a very slight bump of the reins, if any, in order to get the desired reaction from your horse.

When I begin to teach any horse how to change leads, I’m going to use two different approaches to accomplish that goal. First, I’ll use his own natural instincts and second, I’m going to effectively trick him. If you’ve ever watched horses out running loose in a field or pasture, especially one that has dips and rises, hills and gullies, you should have noticed how the horse naturally changes his lead with each change of direction, and you’ll see the he leans into those turns using his inside shoulder, dropping both shoulder and haunch. So we begin there, giving him the challenge of learning to change when asked utilizing a simple change of lead.

Simple changes vary from flying changes on the basis of how the horse’s feet move when he leaves the ground. In a simple change, you put the horse into a canter or lope and bring him down to a trot or jog before requesting the opposite lead when you ask him to pick up that canter or lope again in another direction. Take a figure eight, for instance. Begin the circle to the right and when you head toward the center of your circle, instead of addressing the circle in a perpendicular fashion, you’ll arc across the arena heading straight for the opposite corner. Once you get to that corner, of course, you’ll need to be on the opposite lead as well, before you head back into your circle to the left. “Perfect” figure eights may have perfectly round circles on each end of the eight, but that can come with time. First we need to teach the horse how to give us those lead changes we desire. He already knows how to complete a nice, round circle, right?

When you near the center of the arena on your path into the middle of the eight, you’ll bring him down to the trot or jog for anywhere from six to ten strides (no more, preferably no less in the beginning) before asking for the alternative lead which you’ll need before heading off into the next part of the circle to complete your eight. I’m ordinarily going to ask for perhaps seven or eight changes of lead during a series of figures of eight in a single lesson before wanting to get my elapsed time between the actual change itself narrowed down. Being smooth is more important at this time than getting closer to the end goal. If the horse is rushing too much or has a tendency to disobey, I won’t ask him to lessen those trot or jog strides just yet. He needs to be completely comfortable with what I want him to do and what I’m asking of him before we’ll progress.

As I ask him to pick up each lead from the trot or jog, I’m going to be sure to not only use my legs but also my weight in the saddle and in the stirrups, just as in other maneuvers described above. It should become automatic that he understands a shifting of weight means a change of direction, and going back to your rollbacks, have you noticed how the horse will *automatically* take the opposing lead when he’s completed each rollback and is sent down the rail by his rider? Why do you suppose that is? If you guessed because he’s trying to stay balanced naturally, you’re absolutely right. The same concept applies to lead changes.

Once he’s confident in the figure eight and giving me simple changes of lead, I’ll start making the circles smaller and gradually asking for fewer trot or jog strides between those changes. Here’s where the “tricking” part comes in. Now I’ll add in a ground pole at the center of my eight.

The horse knows what I want, he is aware that when I request a change of direction at the canter or lope I need him to be on the opposite lead when we move toward the completion of each circle. He understands my cues as asking for him to change. The pole is simply a little bit of friendly persuasion, and it gives him a reason to lift himself and, most important of all, to think. If I bring him down to that trot or jog just before the pole and ask for the change of lead right after we cross the pole, he’ll begin to associate going over the pole with changing his leads. Of course, I can’t forget to use the cues we’ve taught him!

Soon I have a horse who will change in mid-flight (a flying lead change) as we travel over the pole, and soon I can remove the pole altogether and he’ll respond by changing leads for me as soon as I cue him to. Then I have a horse trained in the art of the flying change of lead.

Remember, this should all take place over a number of lessons, don’t try to get everything in one day and burn him out! I tend to prefer not to spend too much time each lesson on any one thing, as mentioned earlier, and the above described maneuvers are no exception. Spread your lessons on each maneuver or concept you’re instilling in him out over a number of work sessions, so he doesn’t get bored. You can always add in new things while continuing to work on what he’s already mastered, so don’t let that be a deterrent when planning out what you want to do with him each day. There’s no harm in keeping him guessing.

I’m also one of those trainers who subscribes to the “less is more” theory in training horses, and I’d rather work an individual horse for a brief twenty minutes (after warmup) before cooling him down and putting him away if he’s responding perfectly to everything I’m asking of him. There’s no sense in picking a fight by asking for the same thing over and over again, especially when he’s being perfect as a horse can be. He may get resentful and not understand why you’re drilling the same thing into his brain time and again right in a row when he believes he’s not misbehaving. Ask him and give him a cue a couple-few times, and if you get the desired response, move onto something else.

If you encounter trouble in any specific area, work him through each of the steps necessary to get what you’re requesting from him, then praise him wholeheartedly and dismount. But remember also, if you just can’t get what you’re asking out of the horse, there might be something wrong, either physical pain or he just didn’t “get it” well enough in your earlier lessons. Of course, it could be that he simply wants to be a stinker, but you’d better be able to recognize what the real problem or issue is on the spot. If there are holes in your training, it will eventually show up, so you’re going to want to have those rough spots ironed out long before you ride into the show pen.

Now that you (and your horse) are ready, go take on the competition!"


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