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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

For The Love Of Money

Sadly, we live in a world fueled by greed. That also goes for the horse industry. Strike that -- it especially goes for the horse industry. Everyone likes money. Money pays the bills and makes life easier. While money doesn't exactly make the world go round, it comes awfully close. But the things that (the love of) money make people do to horses is downright criminal, or at least it should be.

Most of you have heard of rollkur in the world of Dressage horses, unless you're new to the horse world and haven't been on the internet over the past 10 years. Similar practices of hyper over-flexion are pervasive with Western Pleasure horses, too. Many have also heard of the soring practice with Big Lick Tennessee Walking horses. All these things barely scratch the surface of what our amazing equines suffer through on a daily basis at the hands of so-called trainers.

Why, you ask, would people purposefully cause harm to an animal as noble and majestic as the horse? Money. In horse racing, the biggest purses are for the young horses. Triple Crown races are for 3 year olds. Most of the Breeders Cup races are geared toward youngsters. In Reining and cutting, there is virtually no worthwhile prize money past Derby age (5 years). Show and pleasure horse performance futurities are for 3 and 4-year-olds, therefore the pressure is on to make sure those babies are ready well ahead of competition time.

What we must change is that demand for young horses being higher than the demand for older horses. We need financial incentives for mature horses. Now, you need to understand the reasoning for breed registries offering prize money payback is to encourage breeding, therefore increasing registration revenue. And it's trainers who push for large payouts for youngsters in other associations, because that leads to clients seeking out new babies to bring in for training.

All of this boils down to ethics and that brings us back to a topic I've covered before: Choosing the right trainer. Because the love of money causes people to do terrible things and the horse industry is no different. It's vitally important when looking for a horse trainer that you do your homework,  watch the trainer work with horses and clients or students, watch the horses reactions to the trainer, talk to former clients of the trainer as well as colleagues and find out what the reputation is like among real horsemen. Those are the true test of whether or not you should hire a specific trainer

These are subject matters I'm passionate about, you might be able to tell! We will see you in the show ring and on the trail!

~SFTS

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Second Verse, Same As The First...

Building on yesterday's message, the other side of the equation is having a horse the actually builds your confidence up and doesn't destroy it. In other words, you want a horse that's a Confidence Builder versus one that's a Confidence Destroyer. When you're afraid, having a horse that scares you will never help you. So the first step is to find a suitable horse. Wait, let's back up: Get yourself into a lesson program with good school horses and an instructor who helps you instead of hurting you. That's not to say a harsher riding instructor is bad, but timid riders need to be praised, not yelled at.

Everyone who wishes to explore the wonderful world of riding horses needs to first understand, they are animals with a mind of their own. No horse can ever be guaranteed completely 100% safe. They all have the potential of being spooked,  being naughty, or misbehaving in some way. That said, good lesson programs will have the safest horses possible, in a controlled environment (i.e., riding lessons), riders can concentrate on their own skills. I start all my students in a round pen where they are able to focus on their confidence, abilities and correct posture. Once they have the basics down and we reinforce those basics, I'll have them advance to riding without reins (on a longe line), then riding without stirrups. As an instructor, I find these exercises help with dramatic improvement in a relatively short time.

Most of my riders begin to feel safe enough to move into a smaller arena, then a large arena, within weeks of starting their horseback journey. Not all of them, mind you, but most. Being a conscientious teacher who understands their fears and worries is paramount. Once a rider has a frightening or otherwise bad experience, that can become baggage which will never allow them to completely relax and enjoy riding. Minimizing the possibility that such an experience will occur in the first place is one of the responsibilities and signs of being a good instructor.

Let's move on to that moment they're ready to go horse shopping. For timid or frightened riders, this can be a daunting experience and it's a colossal step. Making a list and checking it twice, I'll rule out an awful lot of prospects before actually taking the student turned client out for test rides. Part of my job is to match my riders to horses ideally suited for them. Once we've got a match, I'll strongly suggest the client put the horse in training for at least a couple of months while continuing to take lessons on my well schooled lesson horses. Let me take a minute to explain my reasoning -- In order to do my job to the best of my ability and offer the best services possible to my clients, ensuring their new horse is everything we hope for, and bringing horse and rider together as a team, is my main concern. Everything else is circumstantial. To be sure, there is a cost. But it's well worth it for the rider's safety and enjoyment.

At another time, I'll delve more in depth to this topic because I believe it's an important one. For now, I'm signing off. Happy trails!

~SFTS

Monday, August 7, 2017

Ride On, Dauntless! Becoming A Confident Rider

Some of you may recognize the above reference to the 2014 hit movie Divergent, however, I so enjoyed the message and the fearlessness of the Dauntless faction that I started thinking about how riders are generally of different groups.

What we're going to focus on today is the timid or fearful rider, and how they can become confident riders. First we have to recognize why they may be timid or afraid. Sometimes there may have been a bad experience (or a bad wreck) involving horses long ago, or perhaps they're simply fearful because horses can be big, intimidating animals. Sometimes there may be a medical issue the rider is facing or must overcome. Regardless, everyone can learn to enjoy horseback riding with the right experience.

When faced with the student who is truly afraid, reassurance is a must. While I can't guarantee anyone's safety 100%, because horses are animals with a mind of their own, I can honestly say I'll ensure they have a good time and will want to keep learning. That's the first step, and it's a big one for the fearful student. If someone isn't having a good time, they generally don't want to repeat the experience. I've had students who were so afraid of the animal itself, they had trouble during grooming. Once they realize that massive animal in front of them enjoys being brushed and petted, talked to and fussed over, they usually begin to relax. Horses are very emotionally connected animals, they are extremely sensitive to how we (feel and how we react).

Gaining confidence first requires the individual to trust themselves before they can trust their horse. With the help of a trusted (...there's that word again!) instructor and on a a confidence builder of a horse, most fearful riders will slowly start to feel more secure in the saddle. There's nothing wrong with walking for the first month. Or two. You don't have to advance on someone else's time frame. I'll never forget a lovely young lady who took one of my horsemanship classes at La Sierra University in Riverside when I used to teach there. She was from an Eastern European country, and while she'd always loved horses, she was terrified of riding them. Her lessons consisted of nothing but walking for the longest time, until she finally got brave enough to start trotting. All she ever heard from me was praise, praise, praise.

There was the woman who brought me three horses for training, and told me how her previous trainer never showed her how to ride correctly to get the most out of her horses, or explained the why's of correct riding. That prior trainer only criticized her and told her how badly she was screwing up her horses. I recall the lady who approached me at a horse show in tears because her trainers were not  helping her only harming her self confidence and asked, could she stable with my barn? She had never won anything at a show before, but with my coaching, won her first Championship in a large division against very high quality horses. Then there was the little girl who, during her Western lessons would become so frightened and frustrated that she would stop in center ring and cry. After a certain number of months, she progressed to riding English, then without stirrups consistently, to where she could lope her little horse around the arena bareback, and was winning blue ribbons in the show ring under my tutelage.

When you're ready to progress, you'll know it. If your instructor is savvy, he or she will not only realize it too, but recognize each of your accomplishments in the saddle. You can become a brave, confident rider who enjoys your time on horseback. Just find the right person to teach you, and let it happen!

~SFTS

Sunday, August 6, 2017

One Bad Apple Spoils The Bunch

Here is a topic that's touchy for sure, and make no mistake, the horse world has more than its share of unsavory characters. Unfortunately, there aren't many ways you can research those you'll be communicating with when you're looking to buy a horse, however, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself. Now, let's be clear. I have nothing against horsetraders in general. They're out to make a living just like the rest of us. Many are decent, honest folks who happen to enjoy buying and selling horses, and interacting with the public. Then there's that other element.

Let's define what a horsetrader is. Generally speaking, it's someone who deals in buying and selling a large volume of horses. Those who honestly portray the horses they're marketing are usually only going to do a cursory evaluation of the horse before offering it for sale. Because as we all know, the longer you hold onto a horse, the more money you're going to have invested in that horse and if you've bought him to resell, your profit margin decreases the longer you own him. Horsetraders usually buy a majority of their horses from low-end auctions or sale barns. This is generally because there are lots of horses to choose from and it saves both time and money not having to drive from place to place in order to fill the trailer with horses to resell. Buying at auction for $200 to $500 and turning the horse over for $1000 to $2000 within a couple of days can be decent money. Of course, the major problem with this is that many things a buyer would notice looking at horses in a private sale setting might be overlooked.

Soundness issues are a common theme with auction horses, as many wind up at the sale yard because they're unsound. You cannot vet check an auction horse before purchasing him, and you can be positive that trader won't spend anything deemed an "unnecessary" expense, so never take his (or her) word that the horse is sound. I used to only recommend a vet check with higher priced horses, but you're really better off safe than sorry. Invest in a vet check. A couple hundred dollars even spent on a cheap horse is money well spent if it saves you thousands in vet bills down the road.

There are several things many horsetraders do that don't sit well with me, so buyer beware is always the best policy. In addition to possible soundness problems, you often encounter behavioral issues in a horse sent off to auction (and picked up for resale buy a trader). It's not a huge deal unless the seller deliberately tries to hide such things from buyers. Keep in mind, what you see isn't always what you get -- that good looking horse who seems perfect may have a habit of kicking his stall walls to smithereens, and if you buy, him you're stuck correcting the issue, dealing with it, or sending him down the road again. Here's where my major beef with unscrupulous horsetraders lies: They usually target buyers looking for gentle, safe, well trained and frequently child safe mounts. Then, even after picking up the horse at the previous night's auction, that trader is already advertising him as "sound, safe, bombproof" the very next day, often after not even getting on the horses back once. Inevitably, some naive family will come look at the horse because he's priced so low, and get suckered into buying him, not realizing what they're in for.

Dangerous horses get people hurt. Hurting horses can become dangerous because being ridden causes them pain and they don't understand. See where I'm going with this? When a newcomer to the horse world, or someone coming back to horse ownership from a long absence is injured riding an unsafe horse, an untrained horse, or a horse with pain issues, they often times want nothing more to do with horses or the people involved in the horse world. Those victims of shady horsetraders frequently feel so burned that they give up entirely on ever having the right horse, that they find another venue for the recreational dollars. That affects us all, and it affects the horses we love, because that means fewer homes available and less money being invested in equestrian sports. That's my bottom line being reduced,  folks, interfering with my ability to make a living.

If you are a potential buyer who needs to find that truly bombproof, safe, well broke horse for your family, first find an honest, reputable trainer or horseman / horsewoman you can trust to help you look. Don't discount the joy you'll experience when you purchase the right horse (at the right price).

~SFTS

Friday, August 4, 2017

Walking Tall...Errr, Riding Tall

Most of the time when I discuss riding and how to ride better, I talk about using your seat and legs. That's largely because they're the most important aspect to riding and doing it well. But your upper body can play a significant role in how you communicate with your horse and get the most out of him or her.

We all know about the age old -- ear -- shoulder -- hip -- heel rule if we've been riding any length of time, and the way our bodies should be aligned while in the saddle. But how often do you think about why that is? It's a pretty elementary concept: Balance. One of the mantras I preach routinely to my students is, don't let your shoulders to get in front of your hips, except under certain circumstances Even being able to walk a young very green horse forward, which requires mainly your seat just like with any horse, I still want correct alignment even though I'm urgent the horse forward with my upper body along with using my lower leg.

What's key in using your whole body while riding the horse is to not let your shoulders lead, or allow your hips to get left behind. I want my riders to sit tall in the saddle, look ahead at where they're going, and be aware of how they're communicating with their horses. Every ride, every time, you're teaching that horse something...good or bad. We should always strive for the good. A pet peeve of mine was the trend some years back of Hunter/Jumper trainers having their students ride an entire course in two-point position. No better way to encourage a horse to refuse a fence than that! When your center of gravity is too far forward (i.e., shoulders ahead of hips), you're teaching the horse inadvertently to quit, because that's the easy thing to do. We all know horses tend to be naturally lazy, right?

How can remind ourselves to ride correctly? That's probably the most commonly asked question I receive from my older riders, or those who are returning to riding after being away from the sport for a certain number of years. We all have a tendency to become complacent in our riding, even professional trainers. I have my own bad habits, which is why I took to entering Equitation classes at horse shows again some years back, when I had the opportunity. Eq is judged on the rider's ability, performance, position and precision. Doing so helped me challenge myself into riding my best, which translated into my horses working even better. It was definitely a win-win situation.

Summing up this discussion, don't forget that riding is a pretty uncomplicated endeavour, though doing it well can be quite a challenge. With a solid foundation though (just like our horses), you'll be unstoppable in any discipline you choose to ride!

~SFTS

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Gimme Just A Little Bit!

There are few things worse than having a horse who doesn't want to respond when you ask him to. While ideally I'll be using my seat and legs 1000x more than my hands, responding to the bit or hackamore is still essential for the horse to understand. That's where we begin.

We've talked a considerable amount about lateral flexion and what it means in comparison to vertical flexion. While keeping in mind that a headset is not collection, which comes behind, we still want our horses to soften in our hands and give to the bit (or hackamore). One reason is, especially when working on our suppling exercises, we want the horse to use his body while following his nose. It's really that simple.

To get started, we'll ask for a nice walk with long and low carriage and a lengthened stride. I don't want to even ask for anything remotely resembling a headset for a little while, at least until I have a relaxed and forward walk, then a quiet halt. At that point, I'll pick up my inside rein and request just a slight give. If the horse resists, I'm going to hold light yet steady pressure until I have the slightest response. Repeat toward the outside.

Next, we will walk forward again and I'll ask for the same only slight bend. First to the inside, then to the outside. All I want is the horse to respond when I pick up each rein, inside then outside. Any resistance is met with only light steady pressure until there's the tiniest bit of give. Now, ideally the horse is going to begin giving to the bit as soon as I start to lift my rein and not wait for pressure on the bit itself. Lots of praise follows that response.

When the horse consistently responds the exact same way every time I ask ,both at the halt and at the walk -- it doesn't need to take all that long to achieve -- we'll start trotting while asking for the same give. At this point, I'll have the horse halt again and introduce the concept of taking hold of both reins simultaneously, then asking him to give vertically. We'll then repeat the same steps both at the walk and again at the trot.

Once more I reiterate, what I'm asking for isn't a headset, it's a reaction and response to rein pressure. I don't care so much if the horse looks pretty at this point, my goal in the earlier stages of training (or retraining) is self carriage and a responsive mount. This goes for any discipline the horse will ultimately have as a primary job.

Without flexibility, willingness and responsiveness, riding and enjoying that horse will be an uphill battle. I like my horses to be willing, flexible and responsive. From there the horse can go in any direction, and it doesn't matter whether he's a trail horse, a cow horse, a pleasure horse or performance horse. Foundation is the key!

~SFTS

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

It's All About The Bend

Now that we're back to discussing horses, we can delve back into our training issues and begin to chart our horses' progress. This is a great topic for really Illustrating the whole theory behind "laying the foundation". When you have a horse who's inflexible, you'll never get a decent ride out of him. It's just a fact of life. I've covered lateral flexion, vertical flexion and slow work in the past, however, your best bet to accomplish having a balanced and supple horse is loping or cantering circles, figure 8's or serpentines.

Let's understand, if your horse isn't flexible at the jog or trot, he's not going to comprehend being flexible at the lope or canter, and if he's got an issue with flexibility at the walk, you can be sure that will be an issue at the jog or trot. Always remember to start from the beginning and build your foundation first. Remember also, that your horse needs to have good lope/canter transitions and know his correct leads before beginning these exercises. Every time you ask the horse to move forward, you want him to step up under himself with his hindquarters and lift his shoulders. This doesn't mean you pull on his face! In order to achieve elevated shoulders, a rounded back and a balanced hindquarters with impulsion, you need the horse to understand bending while moving forward. That's where your circles and figure 8's come in.

For the purposes of this article, we're going to use the Western terms of jog and lope. Begin by asking for a nice loose forward jog, you can either sit or post. Request that he stay straight until you encourage a slight inward bend when putting him into a 20 meter circle. By bend I mean his whole body, from his poll through his hips. What I don't want is for the horse to lean on my inside leg, or drop his inside shoulder. Putting your weight on your outside seatbone  (and thus your outside stirrup) allows you to free up his inside shoulder and drive him forward with your outside leg. This will help him stay straighter and more balanced as you continue to ride your circles. After you have nice jog circles with your horse bent properly to the inside -- key words here are "bent properly" -- we'll start a slight counterbend while remaining in that same 20 meter circle, progressing into slightly more bend toward the outside.

After mastering the task of counterbending on a circle, we'll start riding 20 meter figures of 8 in that same forward jog. If you're posting, don't forget to change your diagonal! All a figure 8 truly is, is two opposing circles connected by a change of direction at the center meeting point. During your figure 8's, keep the horse on an inward bend by using your seat and legs. Then we move into serpentines (loops) doing the exact same. Once your horse is performing correctly at the jog, you can ask for the lope and continue enhancing his performance. Once again, you want to make sure he's got solid lope transitions and knows his leads. Those 20 meter circles while loping are very basic, as are the counterbent lope circles. If you've laid a solid foundation, the next steps are easy.

When loping figures of 8, we will utilize simple changes of lead ( even if your horse has flying changes). While you should already be familiar with them, a simple lead change is one where the horse drops down to a trot in the middle of the 8 before picking up the opposite lead. We'll do the same with our loping serpentines. On those simple changes, I only want 4-5 jogging strides at the very most, ideally just 2-3. But, there must be a clearly delineated jog. Why, you might ask, would you insist on a simple lead change as opposed to a flying change? Because our focus here, and thus that of the horse, must be on maintaining correct momentum, proper carriage and the right trajectory during this exercise. We're not working on the lope here, nor on the lead changes. We are focusing on the horse's body and how he carries himself.

Finally we will start counter canter work, which begins out of our circles down the long sides of our arena and requires a responsive horse that trusts his rider and will pick up the asked for lead regardless of the direction of travel. I've had horses thought to be highly well trained that would switch leads when asked to counter canter, but that's not correct! If we're traveling clockwise and I request the left lead, I want a left lead! So, by now you and your horse should have a clear concise idea about circles and bending. With the exercises outlined above, your communication and performance should be well on the way to being stellar.

Remember, training is a process and there is no end to it. We are constantly seeking to improve our horse's performance and our communication with the horse.

~SFTS

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In Need Of Rescue!

Cold, Hard Realities of the Horse Industry.

For my first foray back into actual equine subject matter, I've chosen to talk (write) about where the horse industry is headed. It's no surprise to those of us who have been watching trends over the past 10 years that were in very real trouble. We actually have been for a long time, due to economic shifts and the widespread influence of modern technology. At our fingertips we have so much visual stimulation, just sitting on our behinds inside, from cell phones and tablets, to computers and videogames -- it's sensory overload.

When I was a child, my mornings were filled with feeding and riding horses, my afternoons were filled with chores like cleaning stalls, stacking hay, cleaning tack and more riding, my evenings were filled with dreaming about horses. They were an all consuming passion and I couldn't have imagined life any other way. Most kids today don't understand the commitment to these majestic creatures and cannot comprehend how magical life with them can be. But unless you've given your heart to a horse, you won't feel it either.

Let's get down to brass tacks, shall we? Our world has changed. In actuality, our world is ever changing. Horses are no longer a necessity,  they are luxury. And in a struggling economy, luxuries are the first things to be cut out of our lives. But how about when that luxury "item" is a living, breathing animal that's too big to live in your home with you, requiring a large piece of land and special outside accommodations? It's not that difficult to understand why our industry is suffering.

What are the answers? How do we improve things for the horses we love and the future of the business of horses? Some say we are being harmful to these animals by having built an industry around their presence in our lives. But the way I see things from my perspective, because of the desire we humans have to ride horses, there will always -- at the very least -- need to be folks who can train them and folks who can teach others to ride them. Hence, the horse business. Add in the support portion of this industry (feed, tack, barns & corrals, farriers, veterinarians and so forth) and you have an entire segment of the economy. When the country, and the world, suffer financially, so do the horses.

Many of us who devoted our lives to horses and who've been involved in at least some aspect of the horse rescue world understand things aren't good. There is turmoil in our pocketbooks and holes in our hearts, knowing we cannot possibly save them all. Change needs to begin with breeders. By choosing your bloodstock carefully and breeding for a specific purpose, the horses you produce will become more desirable to buyers. By ensuring your young horses have at least some training (halterbreaking if they're too young to be saddled) before they enter the market place, they'll stand a far better chance of finding good homes.

This indeed is a multi-faceted problem which needs to be addressed by a majority of owners, whether or not they breed, whether or not they are professionally involved with horses and some capacity, or whether they simply enjoy owning these amazing athletes. I don't think I have ever heard a more fitting or appropriate use for the phrase, "It takes a village."

~SFTS