rider responsibilities

There are some rider responsibilities that are pretty clear cut: a rider needs to ensure that their horse is clean, healthy, well fed, well watered, and well cared for.  Whether you take care of this by doing it yourself or by employing or paying someone to do it, this is indisputably a rider’s responsibility.  The Boy Scouts’ campsite rule is a good baseline: you should aspire to leave a horse in better condition than when you found it.  Of course, there are different levels of responsibility for different levels of riding — a weekly rider on a lesson pony might only pay attention to their horse’s cleanliness, legs, feet, feed, and water for the hours they are at the barn, but the more you ride the more responsibility you take on.  For someone who rides two or more times a week, especially the same horse, you start to have some responsibilities in terms of correctness* of training.  But what about a rider’s responsibility to themselves in terms of understanding their training?

2015-01-21 21.23.00 * Whatever your definition of “correctness” is, which we can discuss ad infinitum, and probably will later.  Correct like desensitizing your horse with a hipster panda scarf.

I’ve always been very interested in the theory behind training, and I know that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  There’s even more than one correct way to skin a cat.  And since cat skinning is actually a really gross analogy, let’s just go back to talking about horses, and dressage specifically (though perhaps I will pepper this with some jumping examples as well).  I think that anyone who has a basic understanding of the theory and history of dressage understands that we train horses in dressage not only to achieve beautiful, fancy, borderline-ridiculous horsey dance routines, but also to get them to use their bodies more evenly, develop flexibility and strength, and carry themselves well.  And there isn’t just one way to train a horse to do those things, there are lots of methods that have successfully trained horses to carry themselves uphill, and become more symmetrical, supple, and strong.  All of these training techniques involve a long-term commitment, but there are lots of gimmicks, tricks, and cheats that people can use to make a horse look or feel like they are working correctly even if they are not.  We can use tricks or cheats to cover up holes in the short term — for example, I have a show coming up and Murray struggles to stay connected down the long sides, so I put him into a bit of a shoulder-fore to help him stay connected — but in the long term, these things just leave holes in training.

holes like this doggy hellmouth!

So when does it become a rider’s responsibility to understand differences such as these in the way they are being trained and how they are training their horse?  As someone who thinks pretty deeply about these things — as do, in my opinion, most bloggers (and therefore most of the people reading this?) — I obviously think that a rider should aspire to understand as much as they possibly can about their riding and training program.  Why does your trainer have you ride like that to fences?  Why do you want to push your horse up into the bridle, instead of pulling his head down towards his chest?  Why did your horse cram an extra stride in before that fence, and what can you do to help him get a better spot?  What bit are you using, and why?

As a blogger, and one who is extremely interested in theory and training, I obviously take this responsibility upon my self whenever I’m with any trainer.  I ask a lot of questions, I try to get a lot of feedback while I’m riding, and I want to know if what I’m feeling is what I’m supposed to be feeling.  Sometimes this makes my lessons pretty chatty, but I’m also good at asking questions while I’m riding* , so I don’t think I lose out on too much riding.  I like to know exactly why I am doing things, and whether what I’m doing makes sense or not.  I want to understand why pushing like this or holding like that achieves the end goal, and I want my trainer to know what I’m feeling if I’m not getting it right away.  If I’m questioned by a trainer or even a fellow rider I want to be able to explain exactly what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, beyond the basic “because it works.”  I am all about the rider understanding.14627101506_4b0c8518f2_o

* When I was a kid I used to play piano and have conversations with my mom, so apparently I developed the ability to multitask early on.

But on the other hand, I also think that riders should be able to have a reasonable expectation that they can trust their trainer to do the right thing by both rider and the horse.  Trainers should not be teaching gimmicks or tricks as long-term solutions*, and they should be engaging their riders and encouraging them to understand things beyond “I hold the outside rein and flex the inside rein because that’s what I was told to do.”  And sometimes trainers teach you to do things that are a little odd or counter-intuitive because that’s what you and your horse need at the time, and as you get stronger/more precise/more knowledgeable/more developed you can transition to something that is more intuitive and precise.  For example, grabbing mane is not a release — but it is a good trick that taught me both how to get out of my horse’s way and how to get out of his way quickly if I need to.  Plus, now if I get in a sticky spot the muscle memory is already there to just grab some fucking mane, quick.

IMG_3151* This doesn’t mean that there are no trainers who teach gimmicks as a long term strategy, or who are more interested in scores/flashy movement/jumping huge than in long term physical health of the horse.  But for the most part, I believe that people are good and at least think that what they are doing has the best interests of their charges in mind.

Obviously horsemanship is a process, but I find myself bothered when I hear riders saying things like “my trainer taught me wrong,” or “well, I was told to hold onto the right rein so I’m hanging on for dear life!” or “I don’t know why I was told to do that, so I just don’t do it*”.  Sometimes it makes me want to slap people!  Following someone’s instructions completely without understanding why you are supposed to be following those instructions is just as bad as discarding good advice because you don’t know why you’re supposed to be doing that either!  They both suggest that the person saying them is not being a responsible student.

* Oh my god, the number of times I’ve heard people tell me they have never grabbed mane when instructed to….

IMG_7297So what is the responsibility of the rider, and to what level should a rider reasonably be able to just totally trust what their trainer is teaching them?  A good rule of thumb seems like anything you are willing to school on your own without your trainer you should have a pretty good idea of a) how to do that thing with some semblance of correctness, b) why you’re doing that thing, and b-part-two) why you’re doing it the way you are.  Talk to me about it.  Tell me your thoughts. GIVE ME YOUR IDEAS!  I WANT TO LEARN.

better quality problems

Tonight’s writing inspired by this facebook post and finding wine in the pantry.

When I first started riding Murray we had all kinds of problems.  Going in a straight line problems.  Using the corners problems.  Turning problems.  Circle problems.  Square problems.  And those are just the steering problems.  Let us not talk about the problems associated with contact, gait, or jumping.  Oh yeah, and tacking up.  That little thing.

DSCF9901(Look, we were so good at dressage!!!!!!!!!)

We have had so many problems.  But those problems have changed a lot over the 2+ years that Murray and I have been together.  More to the point, those problems have changed qualitatively to better problems.

Seriously, I no longer have to struggle just to go deep in the corners or turn left when I want to.  I mean, sure, sometimes it’s hard to turn left, but it’s not because Murray is like “WTF IS TURNING”, it’s because he knows that a left twist in my body doesn’t always mean “go that way” it might just mean “move your shoulders that way”.  My problems these days have to do with getting my horse to really stretch over his back and use his whole body correctly, not just getting him to relax for one or two steps at a time.  Or using his body evenly on both sides, and not just compensating for his right-side tension with his left side.  Or trying to get the bend and lateral movement right to school half pass — oh yeah, we can school half pass now.  It’s not beautiful. In fact, it’s down right ugly heading left.  But we can school that shit.

And bucking.  Still sometimes bucking.

I literally do not even care that the last time we jumped we struggled to get overDSCF0881 an X without rushing/bolting/pushing/balking/garbage, because I know that we can get past that.  We have before, and we will again.  (And also, I sound like Sprinkler Bandit.)

And all the other little stuff is just noise.  Porpoising because I asked him to go forward?  Fine.  We’re going to go forward no matter what, porpoise or not.  It’s a hell of a lot more forward than a year ago when we had those fights, or two years ago when we had those fights.  When Murray’s trot strides were about six inches long and staying round through a shoulder-in was a world-class problem.

It’s a neat way to think about training.  There will always be problems, or holes, or struggles, or room for improvement — whatever you want to call it — but those holes get a) smaller and b) cooler.  How cool is it to have a problem with half pass, when before you couldn’t even do shoulder-in?  How cool is it to struggle to open the canter to a 2’6″ fence when you previously found yourself buried to everything?  PRETTY COOL.

Training a horse is really, really cool.  Sometimes, you just have to be okay with lots and lots of problems.


the half halt

When I’m not traveling and succumbing to the subsequent jet lag, travel blues, and general hatred of all things associated with leaving my house, I think a lot about half halts.  Shit, who am I kidding.  Even while I’m traveling, I’m pretty obsessed with half halts.  I think about them A LOT.  I think about them a lot a lot because I hardly have one.

Yes, yes, it’s rather a big failing in my riding and training of Murray.  It’s not that I never have a half halt, regardless of the horse I ride.  It’s just that I don’t have a half halt on my horse.  Sometimes I rebalance my core and he just rebalances.  It’s kinda cool.  Sometimes I think about a down transition and keep my leg on and he rebalances.  That’s cool too!  But it’s not predictable.  I somewhat have a balancing half halt when we’re jumping, but since Murray is so good at balancing himself before fences, and I’m typically more focused on the go aspect of things, I have not worked on this even that much while jumping.  In terms of my dressage rides, well, it has taken me so long to get Murray to simply accept contact at more than a feather’s-weight that trying to communicate with more than a little rebalance of my seat has been challenging.  And there is only so much I can tell Murray with my seat, until we can get some actual rebalancing done.


I read a lot about half halts, and think a lot about enacting them on Murray.  I’ve been collecting information on half halts for a while now, and really appreciate all the different perspectives.  But if you’ve ever read anything about half halts (or anything horse related? saddle fitting, anyone?) you know that there are at least 8239423 ways to skin the cat.  I’ve not tried all of them, because I don’t want to change my strategy in the middle of things too much, and risk frustrating myself and Murray.  But here’s a collection of my current half halting and rebalancing e-resources, all in one place, for all of our enjoyments.

Horse Radio Network — tip of the day.  Austen suggested this half halt resource to me, with the corresponding advice “Ask and if thou dost not receive, ask harder” (paraphrasing).  This little clip talks about the parts of your body involved in the half halt — how the energy travels from your calves through your thighs, the energy moving up through your core (abs and back), and how that translates to your hands.  It includes information on the context of the various half halts and the structure you’re looking for — rebalancing? about to change gaits? — the intention of your half halt.  Another part of this podcast is the timing of sequential half halts and how much   (Austen wrote here about her own positional changes to greater half halt.)

Jane Savoie’s Connecting Half Halt

This is my go-to thought for the half halt.  I love Jane Savoie, and I love her explanations, and the logic and thought of this method works for me.  I even say “go, go, go” as I trot across the arena and try to rebalance.  At it’s most basic, Jane encourages people to add leg for 3 seconds — think “add hind legs, add hind legs, add hind legs!” — and at the same time capture the energy with the outside hand, while finally also encouraging flexion at the poll with the inside hand.  When well trained, these things should be near-simultaneous, but Jane trains them by first adding hind legs, then adding outside hand, then finally putting all three together.  I will admit that I’m incapable of the vibrate/jiggle that Jane suggests to encourage inside flexion, I simply am not that coordinated.  However, I have my own ways of encouraging and asking my horse to give to my inside hand, and that seems to work just as well too.  What I like about this technique is practicing in pieces, which can be really helpful to remind Mr. Behind The Leg what certain things mean, before trying to put them together.

Sustainable Dressage — The Half Halt

octdressage5I’m essentially completely obsessed with Sustainable Dressage, and there are some gems in this particular page about half halts, positioning, and aids.

Sustainable Dressage actually talks about holding with the seat a bit more than some other resources do.  I’m not sure why, but perhaps this is rolled into the “abs” portion of other authors on the half halt.  This website also mentions using lateral work — shoulders-in and haunches-in — to help achieve half halts and rebalancing.  A fascinating part of the Sustainable Dressage half-halt progression is the idea of adding the “halt” before the “go” in young horses, to avoid the thought that you are “punishing” them for moving forward.  For a horse like Murray who is already slow off my legs, this is an idea that might be worth investigating.  (re the pic: leaning is obviously necessary…)

Another of my favourite pony prancing sites, Dressage Different, actually has several articles on the half halt — the first one linked here being the “HOW TO“.  This particular article has a video of Carl Schumaker talking about the half halt, the most basic form of which he insists must always include driving in, some contact with the hands to balance, and then drive out.  However, he proves that as you train your horse all you need is to sit up to achieve the half halt — you can watch it on quite an impressive white gelding.  There are also the “Prerequisites to the Half Halt” and the “Thirty One Flavors of Half Halt” if you want to read more about

Robert Dover on the half halt

Similar ideas, but from Mr. Dover.  The theory of the body positioning is here, but it is a little lacking (for me) in how to make it actually happen.

So that’s where I’m at with half halts.  These are all electronic resources, of course, and I’ve not yet plumbed into any books for this information.  Sometimes online is easier and awesome and sometimes it’s not.  If you’ve got good half halt resources, specifically that explore the details of the half halt and structuring one, I’d LOVE to see them!!