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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Training Pyramid

There are no shortcuts to train a horse properly. There is a proven formula for success.  It is known as the training pyramid or training scale.  Visualize a pyramid with the base of support being rhythm.  This is the first step on the scale to be followed by suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection at the apex of the pyramid.

The rhythm of the horse is the foundation.  This is established when the horse can maintain a rhythmic, steady tempo within its natural four gaits.  The walk is a 4 beat, the trot is a 2 beat and the canter is a 3 beat.  The horse needs to be neither to fast or to slow and moving through the back to the front in a relaxed, supple way.  The rhythm must be established first. Each step of the pyramid builds on the one before it.

Suppleness is the looseness and flexibility of the horse's body.  It can be longitudinal and lateral.  Longitudinal suppleness is the ability of the horse to stretch his top line forward in a relaxed manner reaching into the bit. Lateral suppleness is the amount of sidewards flexibility to make a round circle or move sideways. 

Contact is the horse's acceptance of the rider's aids which include the seat, legs and hand.  Good contact is shown as a happy horse moving freely forward on the aids and willing to accept the bit.  The poll will be at the highest point, the back will be swinging and supple, the jaw relaxed and the nose slightly in front of the vertical.  

Impulsion is seen by the amount of thrust the horse has coming from the haunches to the front.  The hind end engages and the horse has the desire to move forward energetically reaching well under his body with his hind legs.  Impulsion is accomplished naturally when the first three stages of training are solid.  It is light and forward.

Straightness is an important phase of the training scale.  A horse is straight when the hind foot tracks in the hoofprint of the front or slightly beyond.  To achieve straightness the horse must be equally developed and trained on both sides of its body which means going in both directions, right and left.  All horses have a stiff side and a flexible side.  They will tend to do things better when traveling on the flexible side.  It is like us, we are either right handed or left handed and are awkward trying to do things with the off side.  A straight horse is a happy horse.  It has the ability to do what you are asking with less chance of injury or evasion.  

Collection: the ultimate goal of classical dressage. This happens when all parts of the training scale have come together and are solid.  It happens naturally.  A forced collection is not fluid.   When the horse has the strength to collect, the forehand lightens and you have self carriage.  The horse is not leaning on you and is truly carrying its rider in harmony.  You now have all phases of the training pyramid working as one unit.

What is Dressage?

Dressage is a french word which means "training".  Dressage evolved from calvary training for the battlefield, growing into Classical Dressage.   The goal of dressage training is to allow the horse to perform what it does naturally but with a rider.  The systematic training of the horse preserves the natural gaits and strengthens the horse so the weight of the rider is not a hindrance to the beauty and fluidity of the horse's natural movements.

All horses should be started with the fundamental basics of dressage regardless of whether the horse is to be a jumper or a trail horse.  These basics teach the horse how to carry the rider and remain in it's own natural balance.  The horse learns how to bend, flex and move forward properly while listening to aids of the rider.  It is a language that the horse understands.  The outcome is a safe, trustworthy horse that is willing to perform for its rider.  It becomes a partnership.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Think like a Horse

Horses are prey animals.  What this means is they are always on the lookout for predators in the their environment.  They are highly evolved in this way.  If you move a bucket from one place to another, they will notice it and immediately have to decide if this object is a predator.  They are not thinking it is a bucket that was moved, they only know that it was not there before so this is cause for alarm.  Once they are allowed to see that it is harmless they feel safe with it again.  They have to trust their handler for them to be brave enough to explore these scary things.  The more trust they have the easier it is for them to recognize the object and move on.  The same thing applies under saddle.  The more trust they have in the rider the easier it is to get them through those obstacles that may cause them alarm.

The horse is a herd animal.  In this social structure, there is always a leader, an alpha in charge.  That alpha is responsible for keeping the herd safe.   As long as the horse considers you, their rider, handler, trainer etc as their leader, you can build a strong healthy relationship built on trust and the horse will do just about anything for you.   If this connection is not established right away then you end up with horses that bully their way around people.  Horses must be treated like horses.   They are happiest when they know who is in charge of the herd.

If you think like a horse you will understand why they respond or react a certain way and know what to do to help them understand your request.  They are governed by fight or flight instincts.  If they are in pain, they will fight to avoid the pain.  If they are afraid, they will run away from the fear.  If they emotionally cannot handle or understand what you are asking of them they will shut down.

If you are having a training issue, check to make sure you are being clear with your aids, the saddle fits properly and your horse is not in any pain.  It is your responsibility to be precise with your request.  This helps the horse to remain calm and want to perform for you.  Keep your emotions out of your riding.  Your horse will feel your tension and respond accordingly.  Learn to ride well so you are not banging on your horse's back or hanging onto the reins.   Think like a horse when you ride.  This will help you to read what your horse may be thinking of before they have time to react in a negative way.