Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Last night, while teaching an adult group lesson, I watched one of the new, less-experienced riding instructors struggle with getting her horse to hold still. Exasperated, she grabbed on to her horse's withers, pulled hard, and slammed down on the horse's back. I grimaced and the horse didn't look happy about it either.

For the sake of confidentiality, I will refer to this rider as "A." A started taking lessons because she is interested in dressage and knows that I ride the discipline and work it in to all of my lessons in some form or another. She wanted to work on getting her mare on the bit and said that the mare resists her hand.

I walked over and asked if A wanted to work on some training issues with her mare during the lesson, and she agreed. When I looked at what the mare was wearing in her mouth, I wanted to cry. The brow band was two inches lower than I would put it, the throat latch was too tight, and the noseband was buckled over the cheek pieces. The worst part of all was the bit: a loose ring snaffle that was 1. too tight and pinching the mare's mouth, and 2. really, really disgustingly RUSTY. I held the horse and sent A into the barn to get Shorty's bridle, a full-size Tory leather bridle with a nice, fat full-cheek snaffle (complete with keepers). I adjusted the size of the bridle a bit for her more petite head, put it in, and readjusted, all the while talking to A about things like the 2 finger rule and wrinkles at the corner of the mouth. The horse was relieved to get that rusty bit out of her mouth but she thankfully did not have any rubs or missing skin as a result of A's lack of judgement. (Who the fuck doesn't realize that RUST is a bad thing to put in a horse's mouth?)

A moved to grab the reins from me again, but I didn't give them up. Instead, I took the mare for a walk. As I walked around, I stopped and gave her praise when she held still. If she moved, I lightly corrected her, waited for her to settle and stand, and went right back to pets and praise for being a good girl. After three stops, she had the idea; this mare is no dummy. I walked her over to the mounting block, asked her to stop, and again petted her. Then, I walked away. I walked around to the block again, this time standing on the bottom step, all the while reassuring her. I hopped off and walked around again. I went to the block one more time, asked her to stand, went all the way to the top step of the block and made a big fuss about how awesome she was. The process took no more than five minutes, all said and done.

I handed the reins to A, and told her to do the same thing. She had observed me making light corrections to prevent walking off. For a horse that is accustomed to following me the way Shorty is, I simply place my hand on his chest and he stops. For a horse that is being intoduced to the concept of hanging out with humans, a "whoa" and soft tug back on the reins should suffice. After a few stands, we introduced the mounting block.

Before A was allowed to swing a leg over, I warned her about the evils of flopping onto the horse. "Have a heart," I told her. "You wouldn't want someone slamming something onto YOUR back, would you?" Wouldn't you know it, the horse held still while A got on and we both petted and praised her.

Next, we talked about halting while astride the horse. I told her about what I call the "halt position" where the rider is completely centered deep in the saddle and does not move. "Movement from your leg, seat, even your hand and mean 'Move off' to the horse," I told A. "When you ask for a stop, exhale and settle down deep into your seat. Sit quiet."

The horse danced a little, and A was quick to kick the horse hard on the side with a sharp, "Cut it OUT!" I honestly feel that using leg to teach your horse to stand is a conflicting message; leg means "go" and I told A that. "If she moves, I said, "Gently exhale and halt again, wait for her to settle, and go back to petting and praising her." A few minutes later, the mare stood beautifully for over a minute.

"Okay, that's enough for today," I told A. "That's a great victory for today, and you should be very proud of that mare."

"That's it?!" A retorted. "We didn't trot, canter, or work on getting her on the bit. We just did stuff on the ground."

"What we did today strengthened your communication with your horse. Over time, she should be able to follow you when you walk and stop and stand when you stop without a tug on the reins. In the meantime, these little improvements add up to a healthier, safer, and more balanced horse."

A stomped off, probably feeling like she was cheated out of becoming a brilliant dressage rider in one lesson, but I feel like taking it slow was the best thing for A and the mare. I truly feel bad for the mare. I wish I could find her an upgrade, and it is sad to think that A IS an upgrade from her last owner.

The whole lesson made me think about Shorty and ex-racehorses. The few times I've been on a racetrack, I've witnessed grooms legging up jockeys while the horse is in motion. Many racehorses do not learn to stand still for mounting. When I first started with Shorty, that was one of the first things I had to do. Before I hop on a horse and ask for walk, trot, or canter, I need to know that he/she understands my cues for standing still.

Just like my lesson with A, I had to start from the ground and "earn" my way up, and by "earn" I mean I had to have Shorty's trust, and be able to trust Shorty, before I felt that I was ready to put my foot in the stirrup. And trust, my friends, isn't initially earned by galloping in a field. That kind of work is acceptable for a horse and rider that already has an established partnership, but I wouldn't recommend it for an amateur rider with a new horse. Trust comes from those quiet moments where you and the horse can stand peacefully, side by side, enjoying the peace and sharing, not invading, eachother's space. I love those moments just as much as I love nailing a lateral movement or getting an awesome canter depart.

For the first two weeks, my training methods with Shorty were very simple. Observers would have probably switched over to watching the grass grow. That's okay. We spent most of the time standing still or walking around in big circles. We built an awesome foundation for trust, and even when Shorty spooks he stays near me. Without or without a leadrope, he will follow me and he's a breeze to bring in from the field. And he certainly does not move from the mounting block until I give him a light squeeze to let him know (if he does move too soon, 99.99% of the time it is because I shifted my leg and accidentally gave him the cue, the other .01 is usually because he was off balance and moved up a step or two to be more comfortable).

Too bad the barn is closed. I want to go do some ground work. :)


  1. Boy oh boy. A souns special. Is this someone I ever met? This lesson is why I think I could never teach people to ride. I'm just NOT as patient as you are with people. With horses, totally. People? I'd probably want to slap her and tell her to get off and try a new hobby... like playing chicken with the cars on the freeway, or underwater basket weaving.

    Don't some of those western bits come in sweet iron because they rust easily and on purpose? Something about salivation? (Or cruelty maybe, I dunno)

  2. The idea behind sweet iron is to make the horse salivate. Honestly, it is the dumbest thing I've ever heard, and probably has something to do with the fact that dressage horses drool as a result of relaxation, and western people want a similar result.

    A sweet iron that is carefully cleaned after every ride and stored properly will not rust. Rust creates an uneven surface that will chafe the horse's mouth. I used one for Trigger for several years and never had rust. I did replace the bit after a while because the sweet iron coating started to chip off.

    And yes, A is special. She calls herself a riding instructor, which scares the heck out of me.