Decoding Your Trainer, Part 1

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Understand elusive riding terminology to get the most out of your ride time

Concept and Written by Julie Goodnight ©2013

You know the feeling. You ride in a lesson and think you understand just what to do then suddenly the trainer throws in a phrase that just doesn’t make sense. The direction is restated as if you should know just what to do. “I asked you to gather him up. Lift his ribs. Get him supple.” You want to do your best and you know your trainer has your best interest in mind, but what do the phrases really mean? The concept is confusing and elusive.

You’ve heard the phrases a hundred times and you’re sure everyone else knows what it means, so you keep your mouth shut and proceed. The truth is, many horse-training terms and phrases are vague and confusing. While your trainer probably isn’t trying to confuse you or sound pious, the language commonly used in horse training circles can prove a difficult code to crack.

What if every term and directive you got from your trainer had a clear and simple definition and could be executed with clarity?In this series, we’ll look at often used, but seldom defined terms in horse training. You’ll make connections between riding theory and practical application.

Once you know the lingo, you can carry out the task. Top trainer Julie Goodnight helps you understand the elusive terms, explains exactly what you and your horse should look like, and teaches you to achieve the look or correct the problem your trainer/instructor first prescribed.

FRAME AND COLLECTION

What you’ve heard: “Gather your horse up.” “Frame him up.” “Lift his ribs. “Lift the shoulders.”

What it means: All of these comments refer to your horse’s profile as he’s moving. When your horse is in a natural and relaxed “frame,” his top-line is fairly level and his head is low. This is also called a “low and level” frame. For collection, your horse transfers his weight from the forehand to the hindquarters as he rounds his frame, brings his nose in toward his chest and lifts his back at the withers. This drops his croup and brings his hindquarters underneath him, while elevating the forehand.

Why you want it: The purpose of collection is to shift the balance of your horse onto his hindquarters–where his power is–and lift the shoulders to free them up for movement. In this “frame,” he has the potential for more power and athleticism. The posture is similar to what happens when you string an archer’s bow. You round the frame and suddenly there’s much more opportunity for power compared to when the bow was straight. Any time you need more power or responsiveness from your horse, you may need to ask for collection. The frame is desirable when you’re going down a steep hill, cutting a cow, jumping an obstacle or performing a difficult maneuver. In the show ring, the desired frame shows the judge that your horse has athleticism and is obedient to the rider.

How to do it (in simple terms): Ask your horse to collect by driving him forward with the rhythm in your seat and legs then gently restricting his forward movement with your hands. You’ll push your horse’s body forward then ask him to round his back in response to the bit’s pressure. When he’s collected, he will lift his back and shift more weight to the hindquarters.

Apply soft, pulsating cues with your seat, legs and hands in time with your horse’s feet. At the walk, sit back and feel the right-left swinging in your horse’s back—that’s the rhythm of his hind legs. As he pushes off with his right hind leg, the right side of his back muscles contract, causing your right hip to lift (and visa versa). When your hip drops, your horse is bringing that leg forward and that is the correct time to use your leg aid—when it you feel it naturally close on your horse’s side.

To ask for collection, use alternating leg and seat aids to drive your horse forward before you apply resisting rein pressure. While keeping track of the right-left rhythm in your head, add alternating rein pressure (slight sponge squeezes with your fingers), in timing with your legs. When your right leg closes on your horse, your right fingers close on the reins. Make sure you count the rhythm and feel when your leg closes because getting the rhythm wrong will make it nearly impossible for your horse to collect and in fact will interfere with his movement.

SUPPLENESS AND FLEXION
What you’ve heard: “Make sure your horse is supple before you attempt the next task.” “Your horse is stiff and bracing—supple him up.”

What it means: Suppling refers to the flexibility and bending ability of your horse and the willingness to respond to soft cues. You most often hear talk about suppleness as if it is something you train your horse to do, but in fact, all horses are very supple; just watch him swing around and bite a fly off his belly. Really the questions are can you bend and flex your horse on cue in response to light aids? Do you have total body control of your horse? Can you shape his body the way you want it and move him in all directions—forward, back and sideways? Does your horse stiffen and brace in response to pressure from the rider?
Why you want it: Your horse can bend and flex both laterally (side to side) and vertically (dropping his head and rounding his back). You want your horse to be relaxed and willing to stretch and flex so he can move his body in any direction or manner you ask. You also want your horse to yield (or give) to the slightest pressure of your aids (your seat, legs and hands).

How to do it (in simple terms): If you slide one hand about half-way down the rein and slowly lift, your horse should bend his neck around and bring his nose toward your foot, creating slack in the rein. That is lateral flexion and it is an easy cue to teach your horse with a little repetition. How quickly he learns this depends totally on the timing of your release.

In the beginning, as your horse learns to give to pressure from your hands, you may have to slide your hand down the rein then lock your hand on the pommel. With this static hold, he’ll feel constant pressure instead of the changing pressure of your moving hand. As soon as he voluntarily puts slack in the rein by flexing laterally, you’ll immediately release the rein and pet him on the neck. In short order, he’ll learn to give softly when you pick up one rein.

Lateral flexion leads to vertical flexion (such as used for collection). If you apply pressure with both reins, your horse should flex vertically and break at the poll and bring the plane of his face toward vertical. This is known as vertical flexion or “longitudinal flexion.” Typically lateral flexion precedes vertical flexion in the training process. Because of this training sequence, once your horse gives laterally to one rein, it’s easy to get him to drop his head and break at the poll when you pick up both reins out to the side, releasing as soon as he drops.

Use your legs along with your hands. When you apply seat and leg aid on one side of your horse at the middle position—right where your leg normally hangs, your horse should bow his ribcage away from you and arc his body from head to tail. Use your leg at the girth area to move his shoulder away from your leg and move your leg farther back to move his hip away from your leg. Remember that when you close one leg against your horse’s side, you should move the other leg away or “open” it to give your horse somewhere to move. Both legs closing on your horse means go more forward.

When your horse can flex both laterally and vertically in response to light rein aids and bend softly in his body from poll to tail and you can move both his shoulder and his hip to the side, he’s considered supple and responsive to your aids.

The language of horsemen can at times be cryptic. Never be afraid to ask, but don’t be surprised if the answer leaves you more confused! Understanding the theory behind skills of horsemanship takes study and persistence—it is a life-long pursuit. Join us on Facebook to let us know what terms you’d like to hear about next.

Shut Down

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Dear Julie,
I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem, since I didn’t find that our instructor found the right thing to do. Instead of finding an answer, he did what a program told him to do.

I have a friend whose horse is a 16-year-old QH gelding and a former roping horse. He still has some trust issues in my opinion and he’s very brace-y when he gets upset. He will lope with her riding him, but he tends to have this “I’m running away from you” lope. He has a hard time in the corners and on a circle, but he will lope. I noticed that she tends to brace in her knees and ankles and that she has her ankles to far forward which of course doesn’t help the horse to lope confidently…

Now, when she tries to lope him on the ground with the 22-foot line, he starts his race trot and carries his head as high as he can and he simply will NOT lope. They were working with him the other day (together with the instructor) for about 40 minutes and all they got was maybe a quarter circle at best at a lope. Her horse was soaking wet and I really didn’t see any real success.

Here’s what they tried: Trot the horse towards the fence and then put pressure on when he leaves the fence. Did NOT work at all! He just ran at a faster trot. Then they tried to bring the horse closer, “reel” him in, lift line, step out, swing and touch hard on his shoulder if he didn’t leave. The horse would make a few jumps and then would race around at a trot, so immediately bring him in again and start the whole thing over etc.

WHAT I SAW:
The horse obviously “shut down” and did not respond anymore besides “running at a trot for his life” (in his opinion anyway). I think his previous owner/s literally beat the crap out of him. It looks to me as if he was abused mentally and probably physically and he somehow learned to live with it by shutting down. I believe that in this state he’s absolutely UNABLE to learn. He braces and tightens up and it makes it even harder for him to get into a lope. I have to add that I’ve been watching the owner for a few months now. I don’t want to say that she easily gives up; she rather thinks she has to live with his antics and makes excuses for him. This of course doesn’t help to turn her horse around. I find that the horse is a mix out of fear and bully, which seems to me especially difficult.

I would really appreciate your input. The owner was heart broken, the horse looked like it’s going to have a heart attack any minute and I really don’t think anything got accomplished! I tried to put myself in her situation and I’m sure I would have told the instructor to stop. At one point he actually got a decent lope off with a few additional steps but he missed the release and felt that he had to “stop on a good note”.

Looking for the Answer

Dear Looking,
You have made some very astute observations with this horse. When a horse shuts-down mentally, he is no longer thinking about his situation and looking for the right answer that will get him the release. Some horses shut down more easily than others. There are many team-roping horses out there with trust issues and a lot of baggage from the high-stress work that they do and the sometimes harsh and heavy pressure put on them. These horses respond well to slow, quiet and clear handling and do not do well with pushing them beyond the boiling point. A team roping horse that has not been trained and worked in a balanced fashion (schooling on fundamentals of bending, turning, collection) and is only blown out of the box, running hell-bent for leather, only taking the left lead and only turning left when it reaches the steer, doesn’t really know how to do anything else. In some instances, the horse has had so much physical pressure put on his mouth and sides and so much mental stress on him waiting in the box and blowing out after the steer, that he has a total melt down when asked to perform. These horses can have a lot of baggage. But it doesn’t have to be that way; there are many excellent rope horse trainers that school their horses more holistically.

When the rider braces any part of her body, especially the knees and ankles, the horse will always become stiffer, hollowed out in the back and more anxious. The reason why is that the rider is no longer absorbing the motion of the horse’s movement and instead is opposing the motion and bouncing on the horse’s back and bracing on his mouth. Bracing or stiffening joints causes the riders legs and hands to become jerky. The increased pressure causes the horse to tense; at the same time the rider is sending a message of tension through her body to the horse (you have to tense muscles and lock joints to brace). Horses will learn that when the rider tenses and braces, that pain in the mouth and back will follow. A horse’s natural response to discomfort is to run away from it, so these horses will generally speed up in a effort to run away from the discomfort. Unfortunately, that will generally cause the rider to brace even more and the downward spiral spins out of control.

In clinics when I am teaching groundwork, I am constantly telling people to move slowly and progressively and never give the horse the sense that you are chasing him. You always want him to be thinking for a way out of his problem, the problem being the mental or physical pressure that you put on him when you ask him to do something. If the pressure (either mental or physical) becomes too much for the horse, his mind shuts down and he kicks into his survival/flight (or fight) mode. From this point, you have very little to gain and much to lose.

In the situation you are describing, it sounds to me like damage was done to this horse and certainly there was no positive benefit from the training session. Perhaps there would have been if the person had capitalized on the horse finally doing the right thing by removing all pressure and leaving the horse alone for a while.

It is an old-school of thought but one in which I believe very strongly: whenever you have trouble with a horse getting something (which probably means you are not a very effective teacher to your horse) always return to something more fundamental so that your horse can find some success and be in a better frame of mind.

There is a dilemma because once you have asked a horse to do something, if you don’t reinforce your request and follow-through; you have trained the horse to ignore you. However, if you are not as effective in teaching your horse or communicating with him and you keep asking something incomprehensible to him over and over again, and putting more and more pressure on him until his mind shuts down, you have taught the horse to be frightened and reactive to you, but he hasn’t learned the skill you were hoping for. Knowing when to push and when to back off a horse is a pre-requisite for being a good horse trainer.

There is no one system that could ever account for all the variances and intricacies of horses. The judgment and horse sense you need to train horses comes from the experience and wisdom gained from working with many, many different horses.

Timing is another essential skill needed to train a horse effortlessly. Although you hear a lot about repetition in training horses, if your timing is good you’ll need little, if any repetitions to train a horse a new skill. It is hard enough to teach people the physical skills they need to work horses from the ground or from the saddle, but to teach them timing is really difficult. Getting people to understand that to the horse, it is all about the release- of both mental and physical pressure. I’ll bet that with this exact scenario, if they had just stopped the horse and let him chill out for a few minutes here and there during the session when the horse made some kind of effort in the right direction, he may have made some progress toward the goal.

Of all the training systems, programs and techniques in the world, the one thing that they all have in common is that ability to give a timely and significant release to the horse and the judgment to know when to press your horse and when to back off. You only have 3 seconds with a horse to reward, release or correct, in order for him to make an association between his actions and the release/correction. It is a well-documented fact that the sooner within those three seconds the release/correction comes, the more meaningful it is to the horse. So by the time you have to think about what the horse did or what you should do to correct or reward, you are well past the optimal time period for training your horse.

Unfortunately, there are lots of horses out there like you describe, with baggage from bad handling. These horses will turn around dramatically, in the right hands with a trainer that is competent, clear, consistent and kind.

One final thought has to do with asking the horse to canter on a 22′ line. This is an awfully small circle for a horse to execute at a slow and balanced canter; it would be less than a 15-meter circle. There are some articles in the Training Library on my website that detail my opinion of cantering a horse (unmounted) in a round pen, which is closer to a 20 meter circle. For most young horses and for all un-athletic horses, this is very difficult, even when they are at liberty. A much smaller circle and the interference from the human on the other end of the rope make it hard for the most athletic of horses to canter, especially if they are untrained. In my experience, you are more likely to cause balance problems with the horse or problems with its purity of gait by working at the lope on a line or in the round pen.

I hate to pass judgment on a person when I have not personally witnessed the event, however, since I have known you for some time and know that you are an astute student of horsemanship, I am taking your descriptions of the event at face value, and it does not seem like the horse left the training session a better trained horse.
–Julie Goodnight

Future Clinician?

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Ask Julie Goodnight

Dear Julie:

I have a 13-year-old daughter who has been in 4H since she was eight years old. She has become a great rider and is interested in learning how to become a professional rider of reining, cutting…or any western type horses in shows. What kind of advise would you give her as far as working towards that goal? She dreams of making it into the publications some day. She is also interested in becoming a clinician and has already begun training young horses with natural horsemanship. She would love shadow someone during her summers. What would make her a better candidate for these types of goals?
Mother of a horse-crazy daughter

Answer: Dear Mom,

First let me say that I admire your daughter’s perseverance, determination and passion. I think it is wonderful when a child has that kind of focus and drive; horses are such a wonderful tool for developing focus, responsibility and accountability in youth.
When asked this question by youth or parents, I am not typically eager to encourage this career path. While there are many great opportunities in the horse industry, becoming a trainer means that you will work long and hard for very little pay (and even fewer benefits) and not many trainers make it to “the big time.”

What I would encourage her to do is to go to college and get a degree that could be useful whether she decides to be in the horse business or not, like a degree in business, journalism or animal science. There are lots of opportunities in the horse industry for people with these skills (and an interest/knowledge of horses), whether it be managing a breeding farm, writing for a magazine or working in the nutrition, pharmaceutical, retail or marketing fields. With a “real” job, she can afford to continue to enjoy horses on the level she is now—as a participant, rather than as a worker.
I work closely with the Colorado State University Equine Program and they offer a variety of degrees and their curriculum is one of the best in the country. It is aligned closely with the CSU business school and in fact, you can get a bachelor’s in equine science with a minor in business, then come back and get a MBA in one year. If I had it all to do over again, this is what I would do. You can get your hands-on horse experience lots of places, but nothing replaces a college education. What makes most horse trainers fail is a lack of business savvy.

Becoming a trainer is a great career for some people, but you have to recognize that it is very physically demanding—long hours and hard days, not to mention hazardous. In the beginning you’ll be riding a lot of tough horses and the toll can be high. With hard work and determination she may get to a level where she can pick and chose the horses she rides, but not everyone makes it that far.

If she is determined to make a career as a horse trainer, I recommend that she get as much experience in as many different aspects of the industry as possible, in order to make her skills more marketable—English, western, racing, breeding, teaching, colt-starting, trail riding, etc., to round-out her experience. Working hands-on will help build her resume and get her the references she’ll need to get somewhere (it is very much a word-of-mouth business), but these positions can be difficult to attain.

Most successful trainers get constant requests for apprenticeships and many of those people are willing to work for nothing just to gain the experience. To get the attention of a successful trainer, you’ll need to be persistent, humble and willing to work hard in any role. Most trainers will initially say no, but if you are persistent, you may get a foot in the door. But what most trainers have learned is that few people have the work ethic and stick-to-it-ness to actually last. So you’ll have to be willing to pay some dues before you get any where.

One thing that will jump-start her plan is to get certified as an assistant instructor when she is 16. CHA offers a hands-on certification that will teach her a lot about how to teach lessons and keep people safe around horses and this could set her apart from the hundreds of other people trying to get their foot in the door as an apprentice. To read more about this process, visit http://www.cha-ahse.org/cert.htm#standard.

Your daughter will need to develop a realistic plan that will involve years of hard work at the not-so-glorious jobs like grooming horses, warming up horses and even doing basic chores like feeding and cleaning stalls. If she can prove herself in these areas, she may get some opportunity to ride some nice horses, but it will probably be a long time before she gets a chance to compete on those horses. It’s pretty easy to get to the “big time” if you can buy your way into the show scene; not so easy to get there based on hard work and desire—but not impossible.

Becoming a “clinician” is something that many young people strive for these days because they see the popular clinicians out there it seems like a cool job. Being a clinician is not really a career in and of itself, but an outcome or result of a career. A clinician is just a trainer or instructor that has years of experience riding hundreds or maybe thousands of horses and teaching hundreds or thousands of riders. A clinician is an instructor or trainer that travels to teach in different venues, instead of teaching regular students in one place.

It would be a great goal to have, to be a clinician, but there are many years of very hard work for very little pay in order to get there. The horse industry is one of the few lines of work where you are expected to work 6+ days a week—you can’t just shut down the barn on the weekend. All successful trainers have very strong work ethics, in addition to their strong passion for horses.

Right now, your daughter has only been involved in the fun side of horses. If she is serious about having a career in the horse industry, she’ll have to see the working side too—the not-so-glamorous side—and decide if this is really something she wants to do. If it is, hard work and determination will get her there—eventually. As Pat Parelli is very fond of saying, he is a “twenty –year over-night success!”
I wish her all the success in whatever path she chooses.

Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician