I get very “zen” when I am riding—my mind is clear and my thoughts are carried along with the horse’s movement. Riding is my sanctuary, my restoration and where I come up with my best ideas. I wouldn’t be as good at teaching horsemanship to others, if I didn’t have a personal journey with horses myself. It is while I’m riding my own horses—Eddie and Dually—that I have the time to relax, be creative, and think about new ways to describe the feel of riding a horse.
And so it was while I was riding Eddie in my indoor arena (I sometimes feel more thoughtful and “heady” when riding inside than when distracted by the scenery and trail obstacles outdoors), that I had an interesting thought: riding horses at a high level is just like flying a helicopter. Random, you think? Let me explain my thought process.
A History of Flight
My father was a highly accomplished pilot; it was not his profession but it was his passion (one of many including horses, boating and the great outdoors).. After a few years of flying fixed-wing air ambulance out of Jackson Hole in all weather conditions because my dad thought it would be the ultimate experience as a pilot, he decided flying helicopters would be a good next accomplishment.
I remember him telling me about this experience decades ago—how different a fixed-wing craft is from a whirly-bird and how complicated it was to fly this machine. Since I jokingly refer to myself as “my father’s only son” (at least until my much-younger brother came along), I was the one who was with him for all his flying pursuits. I had learned to fly at a very young age (as well as saddle a horse, bait a hook and dock the boat). When other kids were being taught to parallel park, my dad and I were doing touch-and-go’s in a Cessna 150 and he was yelling at me for landing at too high a speed.
I’ve never piloted a helicopter but I have watched skilled helicopter pilots navigate the back country and mountain terrain while flying with them to heli-ski. What an experience and what a flight to watch firsthand. The maneuvers are amazing; a pilot’s hands know instinctively where to guide the fast-responding aircraft.
What strikes me most about the comparison between helicopters and riding? I remember my dad saying: to fly a helicopter, you have to make constant adjustments to attitude and altitude with two hands and two feet—each one adjusting in a totally different way. That is the precise comment that makes my mind wander and continually compare helicopters and riding horses.
For decades, I have pondered my dad’s comments–especially after he declared that flying helicopters was too challenging for him and he would prefer to stick to fixed-wing aircraft. When I heard my dad say that, after a lifetime of convincing me he could do anything he set his mind to and handle any adverse situation, it made an impression on me. There was something in this world that seemed too much of a challenge. If my dad thought that, it must be a challenge worth thinking about.
Controls in the Arena
Fast-forward to the other day when I was riding my young hose Eddie, snug in the cocoon of my cozy indoor arena—in a hypnotic state of bliss—working at a collected sitting trot in a soft and balanced frame. It felt as if he were on his tippy-toes. Eddie, built more like a line-backer than a ballet dancer and almost finished in his training, was holding himself in this frame, upon my request, with no contact at all on the reins. We were making beautiful, small and bendy circles.
At that moment, he was truly an extension of my body and I felt like I had as much control over his torso, limbs and his feet as I did over my own. To maintain this balance, I would occasionally make the slightest, most imperceptible adjustments with two feet and two hands. My left hand doing something different than my right; my right leg doing something totally different than my left—not with any conscious thought but totally by feel—to adjust attitude and altitude. Release here, constrict there, shortening and lengthening, giving and taking.
That’s when the helicopter association entered my mind. Whether riding at a fine-tuned level or piloting a helicopter, there is finesse and a precision of controls. There is no room for jerking, no room for sharp reactions. While I’d love to compare notes in detail with a helicopter pilot, I think that my own analogy can help you understand and envision the movements and level of control you should strive to have while riding.
Imagine you were up in the air, hovering or flying low and slow, adjusting to the contours of the land. There would be a constant and steady balancing and attitude adjustment of the vessel for acceleration, deceleration, turning or adjusting vertical altitude. To hold that attitude, you would delicately make subtle adjustments with the steering and pedals—someone casually observing probably wouldn’t even notice your slight adjustments—it would all look very smooth. When you’re riding, you are one with your horse and constantly making small adjustments that the finely-tuned horse is quick to respond to. Top riders who look like they aren’t moving at all really are making small corrections and giving the horses subtle cues that the horse is highly tuned in to receive. That ultimate connection and ability to almost “whisper” a cue is the highest level of horsemanship.
I had a very astute student in a clinic who was, in fact, an astronaut and the pilot of two space shuttle missions, who once told me, “Riding a horse is a lot like flying a fighter jet or the space shuttle; it is not the mechanics of using this control or that, but the feeling of strapping the machine onto your own body and flying it as if it were a part of you.”
As you are learning to ride, you must first learn to adjust your balance and rhythm to that of the horse and to use your aids to control his movement—these are mechanics and they must be learned in order to progress–and that takes time. Once you have mastered the mechanics, you and the horse start moving as one and developing the feel of each other and that’s when subtlety and lightness comes into play.
When you watch a highly trained horse and rider perform or see a helicopter land and take off in the most precarious situations, it is as if you are watching a dance between pilot and vessel. Subtle and perfectly timed corrections are at work and the two are moving as one.
Reaching this level in your riding takes time and persistence and a concerted effort to be in better balance with your horse, to communicate better and with softer aids. But even relatively new riders, as they learn to move in concert with their horse and adjust their aids to the horse’s level of response, can learn to feel the thrill of becoming one with their horse. Keep the imagery in mind and make it a goal to give your horse the softest, most precise and meaningful cues—guiding (piloting) your horse with precision.
Enjoy the ride,
The Trail Rider ~ January/February 2015
RIDE RIGHT WITH JULIE GOODNIGHT
Hone your horse’s manners and your leadership skills now for a better ride in the spring with these tips from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
By Heidi Melocco with Julie Goodnight ~ Photos by Heidi Melocco
Unless you’re in the sunbelt, winter may mean less ride time and more turnout for your horse. Until the ground thaws and is safe for riding, what can you do to keep your horse focused on you?
When horses are turned out for the winter—they may quickly revert to a herd mentality. In that mode, horses follow the herd’s cues and aren’t tuned in to your leadership. Make sure to spend quality time with your horse this winter so that you won’t have to start over in the spring.
“If, in the winter, you only see your horse at feeding time –or when you step in to rub on him and bring him treats— and he’s otherwise turned out with buddies, you may be undermining instead of boosting your leadership,” says top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “It’s not that you’re never going to hug on your horse or love on him, but respect has to come first and you need think about how you’re interacting with your horse every time you’re near him.”
How long does it take a horse to be turned out and become part of the big herd instead of part of your horse-and-human herd of two? Goodnight says that as horses approach middle age, they may become more herd-bound, but individual horses react differently with more or less time away from work.
Groundwork done well all year long can help you keep your horse looking to you for leadership. Your horse will continue (or become) a respectful partner who is looking for your leadership and permission.
You can do groundwork in a small space—in your barnyard or even inside the barn. You only need a small area that isn’t slippery and that is fairly level. Outfit your horse in a rope halter and a long training lead with a rope-to-rope connection at the halter.
You can always do groundwork and you and your horse will never outgrow it—just progress to more challenging skills. Over the winter, do these exercises as often as possible. Once a day is ideal, but once a week or once a month is much better than not working with your horse in the cold season.
Here, Goodnight gives you three exercises to work on throughout the winter. Plus, she’ll provide a rope-halter tying tip that kids can practice inside.
Step 1. Body Awareness
Help your horse tune in to your body cues and sign language and begin to have more deference for your leadership—and your personal space. A horse’s spatial awareness is acute—he has a greater appreciation for sign language and body language than humans do. It’s your job to mind your position and body language and make sure that you’re aware of your posture and consistent cues.
Define your personal space every time you are near your horse. Stretch your arms out around you in all directions. That is your space and space your horse should not enter without permission. Free yourself of the need to be in your horse’s space all the time. That’s beneficial for you but not helpful for your relationship with your horse. If you enter your horse’s space all the time—kissing and hugging—your horse will not have a clear idea about your personal boundaries. While you sometimes want to love on your horse, start with a clear boundary and only allow that closeness after you have set up a clear expectation of his space and yours.
Practice your body postures. Away from your horse and in front of a mirror, practice your submissive and more aggressive postures. If your shoulders are rounded and your toes are pointed away, you’ll appear unthreatening to your horse. If your shoulders are up, your chest is puffed and your chin is high, and you look straight at your horse, he will take that as an aggressive or admonishing posture.
Think about when you’ll use each posture with your horse. If you want your horse to have a break and not be reactive to your every move, you want your posture to be less threatening. Roll your shoulders forward and divert your eyes to take the pressure off your horse—or to help your horse know that you’re not an aggressor if you are trying to catch him in the pasture. When you get ready to move with your horse, you’ll want to appear active and confident.
No matter what posture you adopt, know when and how you are moving.
Step 2. Stand Still
When you ride in the spring, you want to know that your horse will stand still for mounting, you also want your horse to stand still if you need to hop off and help another rider. Standing still is beneficial for many trail applications and learning to stand still reminds your horse to focus on you.
Your horse needs to be focused on you. Your horse should get in the habit of reacting to your cues—instead of looking for something to spook at or focus attention upon. Your horse needs to look at you and think before making a move. That mindset taught now on the ground, will apply to your saddle time in the spring. If your horse knows he needs to look to you first, you’re training him to listen and obey whether you are on the ground or in the saddle. You don’t want a trail horse to look around and react to external stimuli. You want him focused on you and the trail ahead of him. Teaching him to stand still and ground tie will help him stay tuned in to you.
As a bonus, adding in the command to “whoa,” will teach your horse to stop and focus on you—no matter where you are. When you’re on the trail next season, you’ll solidify your horse’s ability to focus on you. If he does spook when you’re riding, you will have a horse that knows that whoa means stop now. You’ll program in a command that may keep him from running off on the trail—and instead he’ll focus on you.
If your horse has been cooped up and confined, you might start with an exercise that allows the horse to move around, but if your horse has been turned out for the day and has moved a bit on his own, this is a great place to start.
This is an exercise you can do most anywhere. You’ll ask your horse to stand still like a statue and not move a hoof. Place your horse where you’d like him to stand then turn and face him—make sure you’re not standing too close. You don’t want to hold your horse still, you want him to know that he must listen and choose to stand still. Stand about 6 feet away and point your toes toward his left shoulder. Make sure you’re not standing directly in front of him, but just off to the left side of his body.
If he moves a hoof or turns his head so that his nose passes his shoulders, issue an immediate correction by sending a wave through the lead line so that it puts pressure on the rope halter. Use the amount of pressure needed to get his attention. Some horses need only a small movement of the rope to remind him to listen.
Your horse will quickly learn that every time he moves a foot without your authorization, he’ll get in trouble. That lesson happens quickly, in the very first session.
When your horse obeys, heighten the challenge. Step farther away and eventually lay the middle of the rope on the ground while you hold the end. When your horse is listening well, you can lay the rope down and teach your horse to ground tie. That’s an invaluable skill on the trail and something that will easily apply to your summer rides when your horse is saddled up.
Want more of a challenge? Ask your horse to stand still when he doesn’t want to—before it’s time for turnout or when other horses are moving into the barn to eat. Your horse needs to listen to you no matter what the horse herd is doing around him. Once your horse knows the lesson, it doesn’t matter how much energy he has-he should stand still when asked.
Even if you only ask him to stand for 30 seconds, you’ll strengthen your relationship as your horse looks to you to know what to do and how to act. Work up to 10-15 minutes of practice a day and you’ll have a horse who can successfully ground tie before spring.
Step 3. Leading Manners
Ground manners are paramount on the trail. You might be riding in an uncontrollable environment. If you one day need to pony a horse, lead line lessons will translate to being able to ride next to another horse. There are also many times when it may be safer to get off and lead your horse across difficult terrain. If your horse knows how to follow you well when you’re leading, it may help you both stay safe on a narrow or cliff-lined trail.
Sequence your cues so that you always do the same thing in the same order. Break down your cues into step 1, step 2, step 3. First you’ll look up and lean your shoulders forward then you’ll move your feet, then he’ll get a pull on the lead if he doesn’t move.
This is an important lesson for you as the handler to practice. If you can understand how to break down your cues and sequence every cue you give your horse, you can apply that skill to any lesson you’d like to teach your horse. When you learn to sequence your aids, your horse will learn and respond very quickly. You’ll build your relationship with your horse over the winter so that you’re ready to teach your horse anything new when you’re back in the saddle. Let’s apply that sequencing to teaching your horse how to maintain a respectful position as you lead him.
Get your horse to focus on your movements and maintain a position by your side—no matter how fast or slow you move and no matter what direction you turn. This is similar to teaching a dog to heal—there is a correct position where he should be and a line that he shouldn’t cross. You don’t want your horse to move into your space or move ahead of you.
Move deliberately and be consistent with your body language. When you start to walk, lean your shoulders forward and use a verbal cue to tell him to walk on. That movement comes before you pull on the lead. Don’t hold constant pressure on the lead, but hold the lead loosely so that your horse learns to follow your body language without expecting a pull. You want to teach him to move with you—not depend on a tight lead line.
Your horse’s nose shouldn’t move past your lead hand and his shoulder definitely shouldn’t move past yours. If your horse crosses the boundary, snap back hard on the rope, turn around and face him, stomp your feet and cause him to back up; admonish with your voice.
Use the amount of pressure that causes the horse to think “what did I do and what can I do so that doesn’t happen again?” Some horses may only need you to turn and look at him with a stern look, other horses may need more pressure and need you to stop, turn and back him up a few steps with authority. If you’re using enough pressure and good timing, your horse will learn the precise place he should be very quickly. If you find yourself constantly pulling or initiating a correction multiple times, check to make sure your corrections are consistent and escalate the pressure slightly and add a verbal admonishment.
Note: Make sure you aren’t pulling back on the lead line to hold the horse back. If you pull on the lead all the time, the horse will forever rely on that pressure to tell him where to be. You’ll constantly have to hold him back. You need to give him the responsibility to keep himself in the proper place.
If your horse doesn’t want to move forward enough and lags behind, you’ll also need to change your body language. When you move your shoulders forward (telling the horse that you’re about to move) then move your feet, your horse should step with you. If you have to also pull on the rope, bring your arms in close to your body and lean forward hard on the rope. Make sure your are not too close to your horse. If you lean forward quickly as a correction (and not as a constant pull) you’ll teach your horse to pay attention to the body language that came first instead of waiting for the pull.
Some people turn and swat the horse with the end of a lead if they don’t move forward. This can be confusing for the horse because you’re actually turning around and changing your direction. If your horse doesn’t move forward, spend more time asking your horse to move forward (especially into the trot) and make sure to lean your shoulders first, start to move, then lean forward into the rope to make the correction. Praise the horse when he moves into the trot then ask him again. Soon he’ll learn that when you first lean forward, he better move or he’ll soon feel much more pressure on the halter.
Escalate the challenge by changing speeds, turning (always moving the horse away from you and out of your space instead of pulling him toward you), then turning at different speeds and degrees. To turn, simply walk toward the direction you want to go. If your horse doesn’t move, pick up your hands and defend your space—waving your hands just behind your horse’s eye without touching him will help him know to move away from you.
Soon you’ll be able to walk in all directions with little to no pressure on the rope and only with your body language. You may even choose to work with a neck rope instead of a halter and lead to test your horse’s obedience while maintaining a way to correct him if needed.
The more you work with your horse over the winter, the more he’ll be focused on you when it’s time for more saddle time in the spring. Plus, you’ll keep up your own horsemanship skills and learn to be aware of how your body position and sequencing of cues helps your horse to learn quickly and easily. With that lesson learned, you’ll be able to teach your horse most anything you’d like to for great trail rides.
For more training tips from Julie Goodnight and to access her free online library, go to www.juliegoodnight.com.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from HorseBooksEtc.com.
Tying a rope halter can be a challenge. Goodnight says she often sees rope halters tied with an incorrect knot and the excess “tail” aimed toward the horse’s eye instead of his tail. It’s time to practice tying so that you’ll always tie the rope halter correctly.
Take your horse’s rope halter inside and practice haltering a stuffed horse or have your parents hold the halter as if it were on a horse’s head.
Tie the halter knot by bringing the crown piece down through the halter’s loop. Then tie around the bottom part of the loop, making a figure eight appearance and ensuring that the excess strap is pointed toward the horse’s tail.
Need more help? Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPYy-3A8s8k
Question Category: Riding Skills
Hope all is going well for you. I’m continuing to enjoy teaching kids riding lessons. My question this time: What’s the best way to teach advance kids how to do flying lead changes? I’ve tried the use of the pole method (in the center of the adjoining circles) and I’ve tried using an “x” at the trot, getting shorter and shorter to give the horse the idea of the pattern, and the switching of leads. When I was a kid, we were taught to “crank” the horse over in tight circles, changing directions. This method I know is neither safe, nor good training for the horse. What would you suggest?
Flying lead changes, Sheesh! Everyone wants to do them but no one wants to put in the time and gain the skills needed to execute proper lead changes. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest disservices we do to the sport– to let kids that are no where close to having the necessary skills compete in classes like Western Riding, where flying lead changes are required.
In our instant gratification society, everyone wants to be able to do everything right now. This leads to short-cut methods and poor execution. Before a rider and horse can properly execute the flying lead change, the following skills must be solid:
1) Thorough understanding of leads and the footfalls of the canter
2) Smooth canter departures from the walk and halt, getting the correct lead 100% of the time
3) Rider being able to feel which lead the horse is on (no looking)
4) Flawless simple lead changes with only one stride of trot, on a straight line
5) Total control of the horse’s haunches; able to walk and trot haunches-in in both directions
6) Able to leg-yield or two-track at walk and trot in both directions
7) Able to sit the canter/lope in a balanced seat and have independent hands and legs
8) Horse can maintain collected canter/lope in frame, going straight
There are probably more things required but these are just off the top of my head. The horse begins the canter/lope with the outside hind leg. Thus, when his haunches are to the right, most of his weight comes on the left hind and he strikes off with the right lead. A flying lead change is done by moving the horse’s haunches during the moment of suspension so that he can switch hind legs and change to the other lead.
The rough (but commonly used) method you describe of jerking the head to the new direction throws the horse onto his forehand and may cause a change of the front lead, leaving the horse in a cross-canter (one lead in front, other lead behind). To execute a flying lead change properly, the horse must change from behind first. Thus, the need to have total control of the horse’s haunches.
As you may have noticed by now, this is a pet-peeve of mine 😉 No one wants to do all the hard work to prepare for such an advanced skill; they just want to know it now. It may help to have a list of necessary skills for the riders to work on first, such as the ones listed above. When they can do all these things, they are ready to work on lead changes. Then the exercises you describe above may work. Loping over a pole in the middle of a figure eight is a useful and commonly used exercise, but will only work when the rider has adequate skills.
An age-old piece of wisdom says that the best way to improve the canter/lope is to improve the trot. So, as usual, go back to basics. Work on position, use of the aids (more seat-less hands), transitions, haunches-in and knowledge. There are no quick fixes. Good luck!
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.