Trainer Julie Goodnight explains what to do if your horse is misreading the cue to canter.
Trainer Julie Goodnight explains what to do if your horse is misreading the cue to canter.
While shooting a Horse Master episode on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts I was introduced to a woman, Vickie Thurber, who had an accident with her young pinto eventing horse and wanted help introducing “Poco” to new possibly scary stimuli. She wanted to make sure he—and she—knew what to do if he spooked again. In their initial accident, Poco spooked and Vickie injured her arm. I decided to take Poco to the beach to introduce him to the surf. Though he lives on an island, the surf was new to him. Although not everyone can ride their horse on the beach, the technique I use to help Poco face his fears can be used to approach any scary object or scene. Read on to learn more about “advance and retreat”. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html
Advance and retreat: These days, with military actions and wars consistently in the headlines, thoughts of aggression make it easy to think of “advance and retreat” as an aggressive move. But in case of horse training, advance and retreat is an important concept to understand and when utilized properly, this technique can effectively train your horse to quietly and peacefully accept all sorts of scary and uncomfortable stimuli.
When training a horse to accept a scary or adverse stimulus, whether it be clippers, fly spray, the water hose, the bridle, or taking a horse to the beach for the first time, it’s important to understand the theory of advance and retreat. First, you must understand that whatever a horse is afraid of, be it a sound, a feel or a touch, that factor is considered a stimulus. A stimulus is an environmental factor that motivates the horse to action. If the horse is afraid of the stimulus, the action will likely be to snort and run away.
The advance and retreat method of horse training is a way to desensitize the horse to a scary stimulus and teach him to respond to the stimulus with willing acceptance. Let’s say, for the sake of explanation that the scary stimulus is fly spray, although this method will work with any type of stimulus. The first step, in any training process, is to determine what the desired outcome is. In the instance of fly spray, the desired outcome is that the horse stands still and relaxed while you spray him.
With the case of fly spray, as with just about any scary stimulus, there are many different sensations that may frighten the horse. It maybe the sound of the spray bottle, the smell of the chemical or the feel of the droplets on his body (or all of the stimuli combined) that causes fear in the horse. Regardless of what actually causes the fear, it’s an honest emotion of the horse and he should not be reprimanded.
The theory of the advance is that you approach slowly with the stimulus, starting far enough away that the horse is not uncomfortable and advancing slowly until you reach the place that causes discomfort or a slight tensing in the horse. It may be that just spraying in close proximity to the horse causes him to tense and become frightened (helpful hint: use a bottle with water in it so you don’t waste your fly spray). Only advance as far as you can until the horse becomes tense, advance no farther but maintain your ground.
Continue applying the stimulus, at the distance that caused the horse discomfort and let him move as fast as he wants in a circle around you. Do not try to hold him still, don’t impede his forward motion; keep his nose tipped toward you so that he has to move in a circle around you. It’s important that he is allowed to move his feet because that is his natural reaction to a scary stimulus.
The theory of retreat comes into play once the horse voluntarily makes the right response, which is to hold still and/or relax. As soon as the horse stops his feet or relaxes, even if it’s very briefly, immediately remove the stimulus (stop spraying). Turn your back on the horse and take a few steps away and allow him time to relax and take a deep breath. Removing the stimulus when the horse makes the right response rewards him for stopping his feet. Timing is everything, as with most aspects of horse training.
Apply the stimulus again (advance), as close as causes discomfort and remove it the instant the horse stops moving his feet or relaxes (retreat). In very short order, the horse will make the association that if he holds still and relaxes, the scary thing will go away. Once he makes this association, it will diffuse his fear altogether.
It’s critical in this training technique that you not advance beyond whatever causes discomfort to the horse. Once he stands still and accepts the stimulus (because you have retreated a number of times), then you can advance farther. I have seen too many horses traumatized by people advancing too far initially and overwhelming the horse, sending him into terror and panic. Then often, the person removes the stimulus when the horse is reacting poorly, thus rewarding his behavior.
Advance and retreat, when applied with good timing and a calm and humane approach, will help the horse learn to stand still and accept scary stimuli. Furthermore, once a horse has been desensitized in this way to a number of stimuli, he learns to carry over this response to new stimuli as well and to think his way through a scary scene.
Gears of the Seat
Question: Hi Julie,
I got to watch one of your clinics at your horse expo last weekend about using your natural aids and how your pelvis has 3 gears: forward, neutral & reverse. I just read your article about “How to open your pelvis for smoother riding”. I guess I have a couple of questions I’m trying to sort out in my head.
1) I’m working on my Parelli Level 1 right now. He says we are to “smile with all 4 cheeks”. Is your “forward gear” & opening your pelvis basically the same thing?
2) When I use my psoas muscles like you described that feels more like what I would call a “driving seat”. Is that correct?
3) Is your opening your pelvis similar to Centered Riding? I want to be a better rider for my horses and I want to be as natural as possible. Sometimes some of these things seem contradictory, but maybe it’s just the way they are worded. I really enjoyed your clinic and thought you were a terrific clinician. Keep up the good work!
Thanks for your questions and I think I can help clarify things for you. As for your question regarding Parelli’s teaching technique of having riders “smile with all four cheeks,” I am not sure exactly what he means. Although it’s a clever and amusing thought, it does not really explain what specifically you’re supposed to do with your seat when you ask a horse to move forward. To me, it implies clenching your buttocks muscles, which you definitely don’t want to do. Clenching buttocks muscles sends a message of tension to your horse and it will often cause a horse to tense (butt clenching riders make for butt clenching horses). I think that what he may mean is to increase the energy in your seat and legs to ask your horse to move more forward, and in this regard, it’s similar to what I teach.
I use the “gears of the seat,” as a simplistic method to teach people to use all three of their primary natural aids: seat, legs, and hands, in a consistent and coordinated fashion to signal your horse to slow down or speed up. It’s also a technique that teaches people to use their seat/weight aid first and foremost and to use the legs and hands secondarily, in response to what the seat is doing. Your seat/weight aid is the most important natural aid, the aid that is in the most contact with your horse, but unfortunately the least likely to be used since most riders rely on their hands and legs. So often, riders are confused in their aids and are giving conflicting signals like pulling back on the reins to stop at the same time their weight is moving forward, which causes their legs to move back and close on your horse. So the hands are saying, “stop,” while the seat and legs are saying, “go.”
I like to teach people to ride in neutral gear, in the vertical position with the pelvis open (back flat), which tells your horse to keep doing what he is doing. You ride in neutral gear almost all of the time, using forward and reverse momentarily when you want your horse to speed up or slow down. The “gears of the seat” technique gets your horse and rider both to feel the rider’s center of gravity move as the primary signal to stop and go (forward and reverse gear). For instance, when you shift into forward gear and you relax your stomach muscles and let the top of your pelvis tip slightly forward so that there’s a little bit of weight on your crotch, this moves your center of gravity forward, a clear signal to your horse that you want him to move more forward (at the same time your hands move forward giving a release on his mouth and your legs move back, closing on your horse’s sides). When you want your horse to stop and you shift into reverse gear by exhaling and compressing your shoulders down toward your spine, it moves your seat bones forward and down at the same time your center of gravity moves back and this asks your horse to slow down and drop his back, bringing his hind end up underneath him and stopping on the haunches (at the same time your legs will relax on your horse’s sides and your hands will come slightly up and back, applying resistance to your horse’s mouth). As a rider advances in her riding, she will learn to use her aids in other combinations for more specific transitions, collection and lateral movements.
Using your psoas muscles to engage your pelvis is basically the same thing as using a “driving seat,” because it’s asking your horse to engage his hindquarters (which he needs to do for both speeding up and slowing down) but it depends on what you do with your other aids (legs and hands) that will cause your horse to move more forward, to move into collection or to stop. In other words, once you engage the seat, you could apply resistance with your hands and relax your legs and your horse would stop. Or you could apply legs and resist with the hands and your horse would drive up into the bridle in collection. Or you could apply legs and release slightly with the hands and your horse would drive more forward. The important thing to keep in mind is that you do not use your buttocks muscles (or cheeks) to engage your seat bones. Instead, you use the abdominal muscles, more specifically the psoas muscles (similar to the muscles you use to cough).
You will find the technique of opening the pelvis in many riding theories because it’s an essential part of proper riding position; it’s not necessarily a cue. It’s only through an open pelvis (opening the angle on the front of your hips between your hips and thighs) that you can learn to absorb the motion in your horse’s back and learn to use your seat aid to communicate with your horse. Some of the confusion you’re having has simply to do with semantics. If you tip the top part of your pelvis forward, the bottom part goes back; if you tip the top part of your pelvis back, the bottom part goes forward. So sometimes people refer to moving your pelvis forward or moving your pelvis backward and they actually mean the exact same thing, they are just talking about opposite ends. When you tone your psoas muscles, it will cause your pelvis to open and your seat bones (the lower part of your pelvis that is in contact with the saddle) to push forward and down. When you relax your psoas muscles and push your stomach out, it causes your seat bones to lighten and weight to come onto your crotch.
Although there are varying techniques in teaching riding, for the most part clinicians are saying the same thing, just explaining from a different perspective, some more clearly than others. My approach is always first and foremost to help riders understand the theory behind what they are doing and how to use their aids in a natural and relaxed manner. The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re studying a variety of techniques is to keep your mind open, try new things, but come back to what works best for you and your horse. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician