A rider curses because her horse refuses to be bridled. He shouldn't make such a fuss, she thinks. The mouthpiece is no bar after all (and therefore not severe). Well. The mouthpiece might be a snaffle but there is more to it: two shanks, to be precise. This combination (a snaffle mouthpiece with leverage) is available in different designs and features - here in Europe it's usually called a Pelham. 

What kind of shocks me is the ignorance concerning its mode of action. This bit combines two functions (snaffle and lever) without the rider being able to apply them separately. This is why this bit sucks for horses. 

A classic snaffle bit. Design: Nadja
Let's have a look the good old snaffle bit. Two pieces of metal, linked in the middle, the left rein talks to the left piece, the right rein to the right piece (a snaffle consisting of three pieces waters up the separation of left and right). This bit is ideal for lateral work - asking for flexion in the neck or giving at the poll lateraly. In general it talks to one side of the horse more than the other. 

Now let's look at the leverage bit like a curb. The mouthpiece is a bar. It's not built to adress one side of the horse's mouth or jaw. If you pick up the reins (which ideally are operated with one hand), the bar rotates in the mouth, the chain around the chin tightens as does the head stall which increases pressure at the horse's neck. This pressure is not lateral, it applies to both sides. The curb is made to tell the horse how to carry his head and neck - give at the poll, bridle up or lower the head in a forward down position. 

The curb is made for vertical aids, the snaffle for lateral aids. As a rider I want to separate that out strictly. And that is exactly what is lost when using a combination bit. When I pick up the reins, I not only adress the snaffle in the horse's mouth but also the lever. Both have completely different meaning to the horse - and my undifferentiated rein aid mixes both up

In my opinion it's impossible to give a clear aid with that kind of a bit. This is why no serious horseman uses or recommends it. 

If you look at dressage, the curb is always combined with a snaffle. The horse then carries two mouthpieces at the same time, and the reins control the bits separately (though some ways of holding the reins make that hard). 
The baroque rider who guides his horse with only a curb uses his seat to give lateral aids (as in flexion of the horse's body or position of the neck). They don't need an additional snaffle. Neither do the Californian Vaqueros - at least if I understood Jeff Sanders. It would make sense: The bosal (the hackamore) traditionally is an important part of the horse's education. And it is not a tool that is ideal for lateral aids. So these cues need to come from the rider's seat and legs as well. 

A Tomb Thomb Bit: The mouthpiece looks
like a snaffle but it features shanks.
Design: Nadja
The combination bit is usually referred to as Tom Thumb Bit. Mark Rashid wrote a clear analysis why it makes no sense (to the horse). Rick Gore's point is the same - he conveys it less profoundly, but very plainly in his choice of words.

PS: My personal favorite display of complete ignorance is a comment under the mechanical hackamore from a German online horse outfitter. It says: "Ideal for hot horses, as the cheap hackamores usually break under the strain". It doesn't get any worse than this. 

PPS: Another sign of little savvy is using a leverage bit on a horse, combining it with a martingal and justifing it with the horse being a chronic rearer. You don't even have to understand the mechanics behind the bit to understand how stupid that is. Just have a look at the words, with the leverage bit also called elevation bit and the martingal also called a tiedown. So using both at the same time the rider basically says the horse: "elevate the neck and lower the head". What would I want to communicate by that apart from the fact that I am absolutely clueless?

A few days ago during a lesson. We had a bag attached to the stick and were waving it in front of the horse's nose and to her shoulder. The owner pondered: "Sometimes I have the impression that she doesn't respect the whip anymore". 

And this is why today's post is about sensitizing and desensitizing (and the mistakes we tend to make). 

"What is she doing with the whip?!" Drawing: Nadja
Desensitizing the horse is a vital part in the training according to horsemanship principles. The horse learns that he can ignore certain stimuli, but needs to react to others (our aids) - which is then part of sensitizing the horse. 

It's often sound or movement that trouble horses and make them spook. Desensitizing the horse we confront him with swinging whips and rustling plastic bags (among others). 
Some may assume that that is not exactly rocket science, but don't underestimate the process! Timing is essential - if we miss the right moment to take away the pressure, we'll easily teach the horse the opposite of what we wanted.

Furthermore it is not enough that our horse can bare certain stimuli without running of. Horses can freeze in the standstill. Us humans assume he is fine because he doesn't bolt, but that is a misjudgement. So standing still is only the first step towards the goal (I know this idiom sucks): A truly relaxed horse accepting us waving a flag or a plastic bag. We want him to think: "Ok, there she is again with her bags and whips. I'll go to sleep in the meantime."

But how can the horse tell if we want him to relax or if he is supposed to react?
We help him to tell the difference by presenting the stimuli in a different way

When we desensitize, we swing the rope, the stick, the whip or whatever we are using in a regular, swift rhythm. The regularity helps the horse to tune into the movement and the sound and to accept them as something unthreatening. 
When we sensitize, we start with a subtle cue and little pressure and we increase it until the horse reacts. When he does, we immediately stop the cue. 

"Ok, she is still swinging the thing." Drawing: Nadja
Working from the ground, the horse can also tell by our hands if he is supposed to relax or to respond: Our leading hand operates the rope, our supporting hand the stick or whip. For example, if the horse circles me to the right, my right hand is my leading hand.
When we desensitize, our leading hand is passive. It holds the rope, which has slack, but carries no tension. Our supporting hand does all the work swinging the whip. 

If we want our horse to move by contrast, we lift our leading hand and give the horse some feel and direction over the rope. It's the first cue. If necessary, we support with the other hand and the whip.  
The horse needs to rely on us that with an inactive leading hand we don't ask for anything but relaxation at a standstill. Whereas, is our leading hand active, we'll follow through with the supporting hand and the whip, if necessary.

Common mistakes and solutions

- You want to prove to your horse that he doesn't need to be afraid of the whip. You throw the whip over his back, your horse pulls backwards immediately and you stop. You've now taught your horse that he just needs to pull back in order to make you stop moving the whip.
The solution: Stick to the process (quote: Warwick Schiller). Stay with your horse even if he moves and tries to get away. You are not trying to keep him from moving. Allow him to drift but follow him. Remove the whip when he slows down and comes to a halt. This way, your horse learns that you have an off-button. And he can switch you off by standing still. If he is able to stand still while you are swinging the whip, you can progress working on him not dreading the whip further. You want him to relax completely

"Whatever. I'll have a nap". Drawing:Nadja
How you can tell that he is relaxed? 
I've written extensively about reading horses in my small ebook. You can download it here by signing up for my newsletter

- You want your horse to move out on a circle around you. You start waving the flag like crazy. The horse makes some indecisive steps, then comes to a halt and looks at you. You confused him. 

You did not use your leading hand pointing in the direction your horse was supposed to go. Meaning you told him to stay put. The waving of the flag had no direction but carried a lot of energy - ambiguous signals for the horse. 
The solution: Just be clear. Use your leading hand to direct your horse and support with your whip if necessary. Be serious about it. Some people hesitate to come through and touch the horse with the whip. The horse realizes it and might find it unnecessary to move out in the future. 

What to pay attention to when desensitizing the horse - the summary

- the right timing
- aim for a truly relaxed horse
- strictly separate leading and supporting hand
- strictly separate rhythmic and increasing pressure 

Do you desensitize your horse? What is your experience?

In this video Warwick Schiller adds another approach to desensitizing. He works with a horse that is afraid of a plastic bag.
I used to work as an editor for a regional newspaper. When dealing with freelancers I always tried to grant them as much freedom as possible. I didn't want to order them around or be too narrow with my asks. Just because if I'd been a freelancer I would have wished for being treated like that. I would have wanted the editor to trust me that I will deliver on time - without him having to tread on my toes and micromanaging me. 

My intention was a good one - but it didn't always work out in everyday work life. I made the mistake to project my needs onto others. Of course, some people need freedom and responsibility. But others need clear orders and boundaries - and with my rather lax attitude I didn't live up to the needs of these freelancers.

I think, with horses, it's similar.
There are some horses that demand more room for themselves. And there are others that yield willingly to the human and make way for him to decide for the two of them. 
If I am that type of human who has clear expectations and demands and I meet a horse from the first category, we might end up fighting. Because I am not quite flexible enough to adjust to the horse's needs and to grant him more say then I would like to. I think a horse of the second category will have an easier time to accept strong leadership. 
I, with my "I'll grant you freedom"-attitude on the other hand will probably confuse a horse of the second category because I don't communicate clearly enough. My behavior creates misunderstandings.
Freiraum, Grenzen, Pferde verstehen Blog
Asking questions is part of communication.
 As is being clear. Photo:Nadja

Like a few weeks ago, when I was working with the project horse from the ground. I wanted to send him out on a circle to the right. Instead he came in with his ears pricked, posing a question. I like questions as they prove that the horse is mentally engaged and communicating. This is why I consider it rather rude to answer with a "no, get the hell out of here on that circle!". But if I wait too long giving the horse a pause in the middle with me I create confusion rather then do good to our relationship. Because my initial aid "please go out on the circle to the right" turns into "yes please come in" for the horse. 
If I ask for the circle the next time, the horse will likely offer to come in again instead of traveling on the circle around me. If I then send him out with energy, the misunderstanding is complete. Once I said "go" and was okay with "whoa". The next time I said "go" and insisted on "go". 

This is a mistake I make quote often. I want to support the horse's mental engagement and I dont' want to be overly critical. But over this I become wishy washy with my signals. A response like "no, this was not the answer, try again" in the end is more helpful to the horse than having to correct him in the end because I accepted something I actually didn't want in the first place. 

Just to give you another example of this: A few weeks ago I was riding a friend's horse. The mare had experienced some bad handling and wasn't too keen on backing up. Too much pressure on the bit she usually comments with rooting the head. I wanted her to move out from a standstill. But she shifted her weight back and offered to back up. Instead of keeping up my aids until she found the forwards, I released. Because I was happy how willingly she offered the backup. Asking her to move out again, she naturally offered the backup again - and already I had created a misunderstanding. 

Do you also have mistakes that you make over and over again?

Hi there,
I know, it's been a while since the last post. 
The reason: I've been preparing a small ebook for you guys. It will be about reading horses and about 15 pages long. 
It sums up everything I know about reading horses and covers 

- relaxation and tension
- contradicting signals and 
- behavioral patterns.

Most important for you: it is not for sale but a gift for you readers. 
I'll deliver it with my next newsletter in a few days (and the future newsletters will contain a link as well so you can access it whenever you want). 
If you would like to read and/or download it - just sign up for the newsletter (which comes twice a month and is free too).

This is the cover of the ebook. Picture: Nadja

What is most important being with horses? Fairness, patience, leadership skills? The right method with the right techniques?
I think all of these are valid ideas. But for me, the basis is something different: Our awareness and our attentiveness. Not only for the big but especially for the subtle things. For nuances in body language - our own and the one of the horse. 

I find that if we become more aware of our behavior and the behavior of the horse, we observe us and we collect information. Which in return helps us to make good decisions - meaning decisions that enhance our training and our relationship with the horse. 

This is why I recommend to spend time with the horse just focusing on observing and feeling. Don't aim for something apart from attention and having a closer look than usual. I think that is beneficial no matter if you are a horsemanship newbie or an experienced horse person. 

You don't have to do anything, just be with your horse and ask yourself (some of) the following questions. 

basis, good horsemanship
Both horses are attentive but
focusing in different directions. My
legs are relaxed, but my upper body
still has some tension. My belly button

is turned away from the horses.
Photo: Marko
How do I use my body?
Think if you are tense or relaxed and how you breathe. Do your arms and legs hang casually or are they braced? Where have you put your weight? How do you hold the rope? Check if you are looking at the horse or if you can feel where he is and what he does without actually watching him. 

Where am I respectively to my horse's position?
Check if you are close next to each other and if you feel crowded. Are you standing next to your horse's head or further back, maybe at his withers? Have the two of you moved? In which direction does your belly button point (yes, this is important)?

What does my horse do? 
Is he relaxed or does he want to move around? Check where his attention is and how he carries his head. Does he adapt to your movements? 

I think the range of observations we can make without actually doing something is quite amazing. 

Last year, I attended a clinic with Leslie Desmond. The participants were standing next to their horses when she advised one to shift her weight from the leg nearest to her horse to the other leg. Instantly, the horse lowered his head and breathed out deeply. We underestimate the importance of these small details - when we are aware of them that is to say.

Of course, you can observe your horse whenever you want and not just standing still next to you (we actually do it every day). I just think that starting out from a stand still is the easiest way to do it deliberately because you can fully concentrate on it without having to manage anything else. Which would be the case if you'd actively ask something from your horse. 

At the beginning it is not important which questions you ask and which answers you'll receive observing your horse and you. It's also not about scrutinizing or judging the answers
I think the important thing is to observe the horse in different situations, to get used to it and turn it into a habit. In the end, we are not only aware of the horse almost unconsciously, we also learn to react correctly without having to give it much thought. 

Interestingly enough, we don't have to actually look at the horse to observe it. This is helpful when leading the horse, for example. For me it's important to know where he is at (in terms of place and emotions) without  having to turn constantly. Horsemen and -women don't want you to turn your head neither. Pat Parelli says "Don't look back, he won't change color", and Leslie Desmond indicates that a human that turns his head often when leading the horse casts doubt in the horse if he actually knows where he wants to go.  

Also, it's not that hard to sense where and how the horse is walking behind us - we just need to concentrate on and direct our attention to it: We can look from the corner of our eyes, we can listen to the hoofbeats, we can observe the horse's shadow on the road (if the sun is in a good position) or we can just try to sense the dimensions of our bubble and if the horse is outside or crowding it. 

Have you ever thought about the level of your awareness around your horse? Have you tried to feel and watch closely? Or has it become something you do automatically without thinking?

How to make friends with a horse?

„Give him what he needs and he will give you what you want“

I think the quote is by Pat Parelli and it sums up what I think is the basis for a good relationship with our horse: the change of perspective.
In order for the relationship to thrive, we need to put our horse‘s needs first. And I am not only talking about keeping the horse on a pasture with company and feeding it adequately. This is more about what we in our time together can contribute to the well-being of the horse.

If we don‘t walk that mile in our horse‘s shoes and if we don‘t feel responsible to help the horse to be comfortable around us, our relationship becomes onesided. Us humans ask and tell and take, while the horse has the giving part. Constantly. This cannot be a sound fundament for a friendship - who wants to be together with somebody who is only focused on his own issues and advantages and who doesn‘t care about the other that much?

This is how the concept of taking the horse's point of view applies being with horses:

Saying "hello" in a polite manner is part of
a starting a friendship. Photo: Marko
 I not only go to the horse when I want to use him for my pleasure (riding or groundwork). Sometimes I just visit him on the pasture and say hello. Sometimes I bring him to the barn just to groom and feed him and then bring him back to his buddies. I don't want my horse to believe that I only show up when I want him to work for me.

I try to keep him motivated - in our case we rest a lot in our sessions. I've been preaching this for ages but it's a hard concept for some people to grasp. Only if my horse knows that I will allow him to rest, he will not try to do so on his own (breaking gait or just minimizing his efforts). Instead he will be motivated to do what I ask because he can rely on me letting him rest afterwards. 

I try to not make the horse feel bad when he made a mistake (this is hard for me). So instead of: "Come on, how often do we have to repeat this until you finally get it?" or "Can you just for once listen?" I try to say (in my mind) "Ok, that was not exactly what I had in mind. Can you try again please?" or "I am confident that you can do it. Give it another shot". 
I am pretty sure (at least most of the time) that the gelding tries to find out what I want and that he is willing to comply. If he doesn't, often I failed to deliver the information he needed, he is stiff and physically not able to do what I asked - and sometimes his focus is on saving energy (versus expending it). 
I will no reprimand him, up the phases or use the whip but politely ask for another try. Us humans do not always feel fit and we don't always give 100 percent neither (especially not if it isn't worthwhile). I think from time to time we can concede that to our horses too. 

I don't always succeed in putting this mindset into action though. From time to time I become angry and inpatient. But I try to be in control of my emotions. 

Of course, there is way more to building a friendship with a horse. But these three ideas struck me as important. 

How do you build a relationship with a horse?

PS: This text of Anna Blake made me think about the feel I deliver the horse when he does something wrong (in my eyes). It's the inspiration for the final part of this article.

This is the second review of a novel on this blog: Hannah Hooton's "Making the running". You might remember that I already wrote about "Share and share alike", the third novel of her Aspen Valley Series. "Making the running" is part four.

You can read the books individually, they don't base on each other. Still, the novels are interlaced: They feature the same horses and the same people with each book highlighting some of them and the others forming the background and atmosphere for the storyline. This is a structure that appeals to me - and Hooton does a great job diving into the different worlds of the characters, be it stable staff or members of the British upper class.

This is part 4 of the Aspen Valley Series. 
Cover: Hannah Hooton
"Making the running" protagonist Kate Creswell works as a stable lass at Aspen Valley Racing stable. Her dream is to see her favorite horse D'Artagnan run at the famous Cheltenham festival. 
Her attractive and ruthless sister Saskia in the meantime puts all her energy into tempting D'Artagnan's trainer Jack into an affair. She is not interested at all in Jockey Ben who fancies her - and to whom Kate is attracted. That gives her a hard time as she officially is dating Ben's wealthy half brother Nicholas. 
The relationship of the brothers is not the best and also Kate has family issues with a father who left her when she was little and a mother who's an alcoholic. To top it all, she discovers not only a dark side of Nicholas, but also Ben is not what she thought he was. And though D'Artagnan is allowed to race at Cheltenham, it seems he will not be allowed to win. 

Reading my summary that doesn't sound too spectacular. But to me that is the strength of the book. Storyline and characters are credible, and the reader (at least I) can relate to the protagonist's problems. The plot is not artificially structured or overly sophisticated and neither are the characters. But they don't have to. 

I liked the way Hooton manages to connect all the dots and to close the story quite elegantly. The book is an easy and entertaining read and you'll stick to it until the last page. 
I liked it better than part three of the series - which seemed a bit too crafted to me. But maybe, I just felt more related to the protagonists this time. And what really made me laugh were some plain details every horse owner knows by heart: a horse swishing his tail in one's face, a horse with his whiskers full of grain or the fancy horse names that will be familiar to anybody who ever set a foot on a racetrack. 

Click here to visit Hannah's website. You can download the first part of the Aspen Valley Series, "Keeping the peace" for free.

Dear readers,

please don't wonder: This blog is undergoing a design relaunch (sounds great but it's just me and my humble HTML-knowledge trying to work things out). I am sorry if posts disappear or sites cannot be found - I am working on it.

Lately at the barn: The frisian is defiant, too much energy, he bucks and roots his head. After  a good run, we walk around the arena together. Walking, coming to a halt, backing up, and walking again. I pay attention to him reacting instantly and I correct him rather strictly. 

Same task on the way back to his stall (where grain and hay are already waiting for him). Walking, stopping, backing. He obeys right away and adapts to my speed. We arrive at the stall and I expect (and allow) him to walk in. Instead, he stops with me in front of the door and waits for me to signal him to enter. I take the halter off (he starts to fidget but he doesn‘t try to run into the stall) and he walks calmly through the door. 

Those few minutes of leading him consequently have been enough to make him wait patiently in spite of the food in the stall. 
I think that often we underestimate the value of leading our horses. We do it to go somewhere. And it doesn‘t matter really if the horse just stops for a moment to steal some hay from the rack or to have some bites of fresh gras along the way. In the worst case we drag the horse along some steps till we get to our destination. It doesn‘t make a big difference for us - but it does for the horse

Tania Konnerth wrote an interesting article why leading correctly is vital. Unfortunately, it‘s in German but the main point is: The horse asks us questions when being led. And it depends on our answer how he‘ll react and behave. But often we are not aware of his questions. Or we are not very particular with our answers. And the horse thinks: „Ok, if she lets me eat while leading I‘ll try that on the next trail ride, too“. Being consistent when it comes to the details pays off: It leads to obedience in the big picture.

Leading is possible from different positions - farther back it becomes 
ground driving (which is enormously fun). Photo: Verena

There are different ways to lead a horse, and different trainers favor different positions. I personally pay attention to three things.

1. I don‘t lead holding the horse under his chin. Doing that I‘d make the right behavior (following nicely) uncomfortable for the horse as I‘d constantly put pressure on the halter. Also, with a tight rope, I'd pull him right on top of me. I don‘t need that in a horse.

2. I don‘t want the horse to walk right behind my back. I want him slightly to my side. If he spooks, I can spot that in the corner of my eye - and if he jumps forward he won‘t hit my back. I feel the risk of being run over is higher with a horse directly behind me (and some horses take advantage of that position and try to push the human).

3. I don‘t care if I am walking next to the horse‘s neck, shoulder or even some steps ahead of the horse. What is important though: I need to be able to control the horse from wherever I am and the horse needs to adapt to my pace. 

Some horses will like to lead and other tend to be dragged. If I allow the quick walking horse to be up front, he needs to stop when I stop - even with me being further back. The same applies for the lazy one: He is allowed to walk farther behind me, but I‘ll send him forward if he starts to drag. So if my horse prefers one position over another I am happy to let him choose - as long as he is able to walk on the others too. 
Half an inch can make a big difference: between tension and relaxation, between anger and wellbeing, between confusion and clearness. I am talking about this half inch in length of my project horse‘s lower lip
He is a rather calm horse and not too expressive in his communication. Meaning no big gestures, no sudden changes. So I have to look closely if I want to know where he is at. And his nose and muzzle are tell-tale signs
For one the nostrils show how the horse breathes, deeply or rather shallowly, and in which rhythm. Also interesting is a look at the masticatory muscles and the area that leads to the nostrils. 
If my project horse is indignant, he‘ll frill the skin and it changes from smooth and soft to wrinkles. The masticatory muscles then are tight and clenched. The lower lip is pressed against the upper lip and half an inch shorter (the half inch I referred to above). His eyes are hard and so are his ears. But of course, that can change. Then, eyes and ears become soft, his jaw is flexible again and he will lick and chew. The lips are touching without being pressed together. Some horse‘s lower lip will be so relaxed it slobbers - not his though. 

Flared nostrils, thight nose - both can be an indicator
for pain. Picture: Nadja

Last year, my project horse was diagnosed with EOTRH. It's a dental disease that is very painful. I knew there was something wrong with him because I had a hard time bridling him (which led to my riding bitless as I refused to fight with him over taking the bit). But: In retrospect if I had been more aware of his mouth and nostrils, I would have noticed sooner that he was in pain. His nostrils were flared all the time. It wasn't so much about tight muscles but about these wide open nostrils. Plus: He had stopped to touch and investigate things with his nose. As soon as he was out of pain he put his nose on things again. That's when I noticed that he hadn't all the time before. So it is important to have a close eye on our horse's behavior and its changes.

Here you can find some interesting illustration about discerning the pain face in a horse. 

This is what happened to me last year: I led the frisian and one of his buddies through the village to the pasture. The frisian wasn‘t too keen on it and dragging along, the other one excited to finally get access to gras. Still, he looked right and left along the way hoping for some snacks. He was walking freshly next to me on a loose rope but within seconds he turned away from me and dragged me along some steps to an apple tree and some rotten fruits on the ground. 

Not only was I surprised, I was helpless. And that was not only because I hadn‘t been attentive. It was also because of the gear. The horse going for the apples wears a nice webhalter, with the parts over his neck and nose comfortably cushioned with some fleece. Additionally, the rope - that matches the color perfectly - is around 6 feet long and out of cotton. It stretches a lot - especially if the horse pulls hard enough (which he did aiming for the apples). I actually had bought the same rope (because of the color) but I don't use it anymore because it is useless.

being with horses, equipment, rope halter, education
Halter tree. Photo: Nadja
The problem with equipment made of soft broad fabric that seems to be very horse friendly at first glance: It takes options out of your hands. Even if I‘d push with all my strength, stem all my bodyweight against the fluffy halter and even if I shake the cuddly rope till my shoulders hurt: The horse won‘t be overly impressed as there is not a lot impact on it. 

If the horse wore a rope halter, the outcome would be different: The ropes are thin and make leaning against it not a particular comfortable endeavour. The lead rope is heavier and doesn‘t stretch which allows me to deliver a very precise feel. If the horse chasing the apples would have worn a rope halter, it wouldn‘t have stopped him from pulling. But I would have been able to convince him quickly that this wasn‘t his best idea of the day. Not by pulling or yanking, just by holding against the pressure. 

This is one of the if not the big advantage of a rope halter: When the horse stops pulling against it, the pressure on his head diminishes. The halter makes the wrong thing hard - going into pressure - and the right thing easy - yielding to pressure. A normal web halter makes it easier for the horse to pull against it and it doesn‘t offer an adequate release if the horse behaves as it is per se quite heavy and clumsy. 
I‘ve learned that this is why the rope halter is a perfect tool for horsemanship - it sort of empodies its philosophy. 

Sometimes it‘s our equipment that gives us trouble training our horses: That‘s the case when it makes a behavior that we don‘t want easy for the horse. 
Of course, you can still use fluffy halters and cuddly ropes. I personally use them when the horse has learnt not to pull against pressure and is good to lead. 

Have you experienced something similar?

PS: In this video Warwick Schiller explains how a rope halter is supposed to sit and how you tie it. 

Sometimes I become so overly focussed on a goal that I cannot appreciate the small steps anymore that lead to it. I loose my sense of gratitude. Fortunately, there are days when I am more aware of the blessings that surround me - and that are reason enough to make one smile even though the horse might not have achieved the flying lead change or brought home the ribbon from the show. 
This is why this post is about the small moments that can lighten our day and make us happy. 

- My project horse doesn't like to move very much. So for me, it's always something special when he offers something on his own initiative. We had him jumping over some small obstacles with his pasture buddy. Not only was he investigating the jump when we were still building it, he also ran some extra laps and jumped very focussed. 

- Also, I just love to watch how he sorts his legs (he jumps very economically) and how effortlessly he changes leads.

Being with horses, blog, happiness
Rolling definitely makes the horse happy. Photo: Nadja

- Sometimes, I work with the lariat. It has a better feel to it than the floppy lunge line and it is nice to have for bigger distances. I sent the gelding on a circle using quite some energy - he jumped out, tossing his head, bucking and kicking and he caught his hind leg in the lariat. When that had happened the last time, he got scared and ran backwards to get rid of the pressure (which build up on the halter on his head). This time, he stopped, yielded his hind end to the outside and looked at me. I took that as a question for help on his part - and I truly like that. That he turns to me when he is unsure (although he took off few moments before).   

- Well, I don't know if you can relate to that, but I am happy when I see the gelding roll in the dirt like he was 5 years old - and not 4 times that age. 

- As he is a rather independent horse (and not too enthusiastic about humans) I am always happy when he comes to greet me on the pasture. Or sometimes, when I am talking with somebody, he walks over and just stands there relaxing next to us and choosing our nearness. 

- When I come to the gelding, I usually stretch out my hand and offer him to sniff it. It's a ritual, like saying hello. Sometimes, when I lead him somewhere and he becomes distracted or even a bit tense, I also offer him my hand. Often he will lower his head and touch it - it refocusses him and it relaxes him almost immediately. 

- I also love it when we pause together and he rests his forehand on my knee or leg. He does not seek contact very often. 

Do you also appreciate these small moments of bliss? 
I have to confess: I don‘t always have a plan when I come to the arena with the horse. Sometimes it isn‘t even decided whether I ride or work from the ground. Usually, I prepare for riding from the ground  - and if something‘s wrong or I feel that the time is right to teach something new or to improve something old, I will do that and forget about riding. My plan evolves being with the horse. The same often happens with communication. 

A few weeks ago I wanted to do groundwork and use some poles that were already set up from previous lessons. 
The gelding knows a variety of exercises you can do from ground, and so it can be a challenge not to ask for the same maneuver for the hundredst of time and bore him to death but change the task and make it more interesting. 

groundwork, being with horses blog, conversations
You can do a lot with just 4 poles.
Image: Nadja

The poles were layed out as an L and this is what we did with them:
  • I was standing some feet away from him and asked him to yield his forehand for quarter of a circle. From this new position I sent him forwards or backwards. 
  • I sent him through the poles and played around with his speed: walk inside of the L, trot coming around it, walk again entering it. Or trot inside it and canter outside. Or trot outside and coming to a halt inside.  
I really liked the session because he was fully engaged mentally. He connected the different gaits to the L and he reacted faster and faster. I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to not only exercising the horse‘s body but also his mind. The conversation about the poles achieved the latter: The gelding responded immediately and precisely and I could lessen my cues more and more. 

How precisely can you influence your horse‘s feet?

Something similar I experienced with the frisian few weeks ago: Groundwork is no end in itself. But a test how clearly your message is understood by the horse. Can you direct his feet precisely standing several feet away from him? Can you deliver a feel for the speed and the direction you want - with your body and the rope ? 
The frisian for example was worried about sidepassing with a pole under his belly. He wanted to cross it in huge steps. Also, he wasn‘t sure of being able to move forehand and hindend seperately. So I shortend the rope and asked him step by step to move over. I tried to help him understand that he was capable of sorting his legs and there was no need to rush. 
Working on the details, when precision is necessary, reveals the quality of our foundation. In our case it showed me that I still needed to work on separating front and hind clearly. 

groundwork, being with horses blog, conversations
It doesn't get any simpler. Image: Nadja
With the frisian, the set up of the poles was as simple as it gets: just two parallel to each other building a lane
I was standing some feet away and tried not to leave my spot. 
I asked him to sidepass behind the pole furthest away from me.
Also, I tried to send him to the outside of the faraway pole, between the poles and between me and the nearest pole by using rope and energy and not the stick. My aim was to deliver a feel for direction and space where I wanted him to be.  
We also worked on coming to a halt from all gaits in different positions: behind, between or in front of the inner pole. Plus backing up.  

I find that we can use simple layouts and poles to have quite complex conversations with our horses.

Do you like groundwork? What to you usually work on? 

What do we do if our horse breaks gait? Most of us will probably be annoyed, whack the horse and tell him to speed up again. Still, there is something in the mere act of breaking gait that‘s worthwile to think about.

Maybe you know the quote „Let your idea become the horse‘s idea“, which is pretty well known in horsemanship circles. We not only want our horse to follow the feel and understand the aids. We want him to understand what our focus and our intention is

Say, we are heading straight in the direction of a cone. The horse understands that he should not swerve left or right but stay straight - he accepts the limits we set with the reins and the legs. At the cone we let him rest some time. If we repeat that several times, in the end our horse will aim straight for the cone with no need for us to restrict or guide him. He understood our idea and our focus. 
Imagine what a subtle communication can be possible if we direct our horse only with our thoughts and focus and wouldn‘t have to use physical aids anymore. 

engaging the horse's head, beingwithorses blog
It's all about the horse's head. Photo: Marlies
And there we are with the breaking gait problem. My project horse drew my attention to it some weeks ago. I wanted him to come down to a trot from the canter (working at liberty), smoothly and softly. I let go of my breath, let my energy sink to the ground, the horse slowed down falling on his forehand and jolted in the trot. Not exactly what I imagined the transition to be. I asked him to canter again. This time he broke gait on his own - but he did it elegantly and without using his front end to slow down.

So there is quite a difference between the two transitions. The reason for the different quality lies in the horse's head. The first time I surprised him with my asking to slow down. He obeyed but he wasn't prepared well and also not very attentive. My idea wasn't his idea. The second time though, slowing down was his idea and he performed it accordingly.

This is another example why I am sort of fanatic about not only training the horse's body but also his mind. If the horse engages his mind and tries to find out what we want, the way he exerts his body will become healthier for him. Also, together we can achieve more - instead of me telling him and him complying. 

This is how I fixed the canter-trot-transition: I always asked him to slow down at the same spot. This helped him to recognize a pattern and to tune into it mentally. Additionally, I did not insist on him making the transition within a second or two but I let him find his way down to the trot. That helped a lot to soothe the transition.

In general, the gelding needs to be with me mentally if I want a trot or canter that consists of more then three dragging steps. If his mind is absent, I would have to ask for every single step (which I don't). That is no basis for work - and has nothing to do with good horsemanship. 

So it's my job to help him stay attentive and concentrated. Therefore I will not ask for 20 laps at once and nag him with the stick in order to prevent him from breaking gait.

He needs to know that there is something in it for him too. If he does a good job, I'll allow him to come in to me and rest. This way I make sure that he likes coming to me because with me in the middle of the circle there is peace and relaxation.

Buck Brannaman Clinics are fun. Especially, when he states his opinion in a very direct and pointed way - like in Cologne over a year ago. A participant of the clinic had asked what he thinks of voice cues. Not a lot. He doesn‘t use them because he doesn‘t want other people to be able to communicate with his horse. And because they annoy the horse. 

What he basically said was: Go to a show ring, ride around saying "cluck, cluck, cluck" and then see how many horses you can get swishing their tails and pinning their ears. For him, this habit is like tourette

What I find difficult about voice cues: There are often used without teaching the horse what they mean in the first place. So the human simply orders „stay still“ or „pick up that foot“ assuming the horse knows what he wants. Of course, the human's body language underlines the voice cue and thanks to that the horse usually figures out what the human wants. But if I need body language to help with the voice cue, I can skip the voice cue as well. Even worse: It doesn‘t cross some people‘s mind that the horse could not be able to understand new voice cues. They apply them and expect the horse to obey naturally. Well, that's not going to work!

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Serenity. Silence. Photo: Nadja

I made that mistake myself. I wanted to drive my horse from the ground with two long reins. As I am directly behind him where he cannot see me and my body language, I tried to establish the voice cue „move out“ to signal him to start moving. I started standing next to him to help him link the cue and my body language. He managed that quite well. So I tried from behind him and failed. The cue hadn‘t been established yet. I set the horse up for failure. 

Then, there is people who talk to their horse in whole sentences and incessantly believing the horse understands every word they utter. „Can‘t you just stand still for one moment?“ „Can‘t you just get yourself together now?“ I am sure the horse senses the emotions that come with these words - in these cases anger and impatience. But just because he knows that the human is in a bad mood, does not mean he can read the human‘s thoughts and therefore comply to his wishes. 

Sometimes I talk to my project horse and other horses in whole sentences too. If I do because I am not happy with a horse‘s behavior („can you for once stop pulling on that rope?“) I correct the horse at the same time. I don't rely on the voice cue
I also talk to the horse before or during a certrain maneover but not to tell him what (exept from driving from the ground) to do or expecting him to understand what I am saying. Talking just helps me to stay focused and position my body in a way that underlines what I am asking from the horse. So I basically talk to myself not to the horse. Honestly, I don‘t like that habit too much and am trying to reduce my comments as much as possible.  

In general, I prefer the moments when horse and human become quiet (usually the horse already is). Those are the most harmonious ones to me. When communication is non-verbal. You share time, space and focus with the horse in mutal agreement. Unison without words. I find that if we humans become as still as the horse, it brings us closer together. 

PS: In this video Warwick Schiller explains the difference between horses and pigs (and yes it is related to language).