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Since achieving my goals with Dot Com at liberty last fall, he’s been enjoying a well-deserved vacation.
Lately, I’ve been back on the little grey powerhouse in preparation for him to be featured in my new book, Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion.
It’s been a great time to start applying many of the techniques I’d learned last summer, that I hadn’t had the opportunity to put into action yet. In only a handful of rides, his progress has been amazing!
If you’ve been following BarrelRacingTips.com, you’re already familiar with Dot Com – an extremely talented horse who came to us in need of a more solid emotional foundation.
Like many timed event horses, over the years he’d developed a habit of hollowing out his back, raising his head, inverting his neck and carrying tension throughout his body. Despite being built like a bulldog, Dot Com is actually quite flexible. However, his sensitive nature combined with his previous experiences, had resulted in mental blocks that got in the way of his flexibility and contributed to stiffness.
You might wonder – WHY all this obsession with “quality movement?”
That’s an easy one…
I’ve been choosing to focus specifically on it, because I know that instilling habits of moving with balance in our horses is not only good for their soundness and longevity, but is essentially what creates POWER – which in turn, creates SPEED!
Any high level athletic maneuver can be performed better and FASTER when a horse gets really good and moving and using himself well!
A HUGE part of inspiring Dot Com to carry himself with good posture and move with quality, has been rewarding relaxation, as well as instilling more education.
There are many characteristics that make up quality movement, but one thing Dot Com initially needed a better grasp on was responding to bit pressure (yielding to my “feel”). I used pressure and release to reiterate and expand his understanding to lower his head and softly flex at the poll when I picked up the reins.
It’s not that he was NEVER taught to flex at the poll (he also used to be a turn back horse at cuttings), but when he would get emotional, anxious or pressured, he could no longer think or remember what he does know – and his head would come up and he would get a little resistant. It’s certainly not a very nice looking posture, but most importantly, it’s NOT a very athletic one!
Having a horse’s head come up slightly is one thing (when getting ready to run, for example), but raising it dramatically while inverting the neck so that the top line is concave vs. convex, and doing so on a regular basis, actually creates this same inversion through the horses back.
Once that happens, the chances of our horse performing athletic maneuvers with the hind end engaged goes down dramatically. This is because a lifted, rounded back also creates room for those hind legs to reach under, creating the ultimate position for balance, power and quickness!
Even though the initial cause for this poor posture often has an emotional connection, these less than ideal ways moving and being can also become learned behaviors over time.
On top of that, many horses were never properly educated to being with on how to carry their bodies, or were even inadvertently taught by riders to carry them incorrectly, or at least very “in-athletically!”
For Dot Com, just transitioning from a walk to a trot was nerve wracking, so to solve this problem, last summer I spent several rides only walking and trotting and transitioning over and over between the two. Rather than micromanage him with the reins, I just used repetition to prove to him that transitions are nothing to be afraid of. When he did transition nicely, we stopped for a good, long rest – free of any and all pressure.
Now THAT is something that motivates a horse like Dot Com!
Although he’s always understood basic leg yields, their meaning was dependent on his emotional status and the context they were applied in. Working through this required me to help Dot Com understand that the default response to leg pressure was not always to squirt away like a rocket!
This didn’t mean I would tip toe around his reactivity, however. I made a point to get very busy with my body and legs to teach Dot Com the difference between meaningful activity, and meaningless. The difference is my intention, focus and energy in my body.
This is precisely what is often necessary to break out of the rut that these “sensitive” horses tend to keep us walking on eggshells in. Remember – there is a difference between reacting and responding!
It’s our responsibility to help our horse’s manage their own emotions! Not only is this POSSIBLE, but it’s absolutely NECESSARY to successfully rehabilitate a horse with the intent to keep their cool when returning to high pressure competition environments.
Quite a while back I started the process of refining the meaning of my legs on Dot Com’s body. Like I explained in this article, I started by increasing his willingness to yield his rib cage laterally. Just recently, I had an opportunity to ride him in a high pressure environment and it was so interesting to me how protective he was of those ribs.
The thing is, surrendering the hindquarters OR the rib cage is equal to certain death in the mind of an insecure horse. They need both to make a quick escape. In their eyes – this is something that may very well be necessary! Dot Com had progressed by leaps and bounds when it came to relaxing, softening, yielding and rounding his body at home, but he was still a little defensive and protective in certain contexts. As expected, I didn’t quite have the softness under ALL circumstances.
Rather than demand or MAKE him surrender and yield his rib cage laterally, with persistent encouragement, I kept asking until he made an effort. When he did, again I rewarded it with a BIG, obvious release – a few minutes of rest with NO pressure.
When a horse is already fearful, although it can be insanely frustrating, becoming extremely emotional or forceful with them often makes matters worse – giving the horse even more reason to feel insecure. There can be a fine line between respect and fear, but it’s important that we not make a habit of damaging the trust and relationship that a horse’s foundation of confidence is built upon.
There’s a time and place to go through something ugly to get to something better, but threatening an already insecure horse to “surrender their body parts, or else!” isn’t it. In this case, being effective meant being persistent until I felt a positive change, then rewarding it with comfort.
Yielding his ribs will help Dot Com be more athletic, but it will help him relax as well. At the same time, he won’t fully be willing to yield until he IS relaxed. The mind/body connection in horses is so fascinating!
Where I left off last year, I had just started asking Dot Com to move with more roundness over the top line. To do this, I’ve again been refining his understanding of my legs, specifically to lower his head and lift his back when I subtly “hug” them around his belly, while using the reins as little as possible. This is possible now that he doesn’t assume that leg pressure always means GO! Now that he is doing more and more on his own, contact with the bit is something I aim to use as minimally as possible for reiterating or refining what he already knows.
When it comes to head position, I don’t necessarily want Dot Com to carry it super low (which can weigh down the whole front end even more – NOT what we want), but I DO want him to relax, stretch his body, and reach forward, and really start to find comfort there. Exaggerating is often part of teaching. Once the horse has the concept, we can refine as we go to get closer to the specific position we have in mind. Dot Com had a very extreme habit of traveling inverted, so there’s no harm in swinging the pendulum quite a ways in the opposite direction at first.
I used to hold him where I wanted his body, and gave micro releases with my hands when it was correct, which ultimately didn’t work very well. For one, I hadn’t addressed all his emotional issues at the time (quality movement is really impossible until you do), and secondly, I’ve found it works much better to “set it up and wait” until HE finds the “sweet spot” on his own, both on the ground AND under saddle.
It’s a lot like either giving a man a fish, or teaching him to fish!
If you don’t set your horse up for success, you’ll be waiting a looooonnng time, AND helping your horse get better at doing what you don’t want!
Preparing Dot Com so that I could “set it up and wait” meant working through the majority of his emotional issues and brushing up his education so he could maintain direction and gait. At that point, if I asked him to trot around the rail of the arena for 5-10 minutes, chances were pretty likely that he’d do something reward worthy. You don’t want to make it impossible for a horse to make a mistake, but you DO want to make it likely that he will do the right thing.
The ultimate goal I’m working toward, is for Dot Com to become round throughout his body (laterally and vertically) and develop a consistent habit of staying emotionally balanced and between my reins and legs, without running into those boundaries, and moving with good posture under ALL circumstances. When you have that, you truly have everything you need, to do anything you want with a horse.
It really shouldn’t matter in the end where my hands are positioned, whether I’m riding with one hand or two, what kind of bit I’m using, or what kind of environment we’re in. I want him to have softness and roundness throughout his body, not because I’m holding him there, but because he’s taking responsibility for his emotions AND quality movement – it’s his new default way of being.
The bottom line, is that if there are exceptions to when/where/how your horse will yield/soften/respond to the cues/pressure/feel you apply, then these “exceptions” are likely to show up in some way, shape or form on the barrel pattern as well, when we add speed or in competition, for example.
If your horse is running into your reins, or legs, even subtly, take a closer look at his emotional state, and then to his degree of education, and you’ll tend to find holes in one area, or both.
Dot Com is now able to transition upward in gait, on a completely loose rein without getting emotional, squirting off with his head up, and neck inverted in an emotional burst of tension. He’s beginning to maintain relaxation and quality movement for longer and longer periods, and at faster speeds.
As this becomes his new “normal,” he’ll find it easier to maintain all of this not just at home, but in any situation.
My gelding Pistol has made some great progress in this area as well lately. With a completely different personality, and none of the baggage, inspiring quality movement from him is totally different ballgame – one that I look forward to sharing more about soon!
In both cases, it feels amazing, because I’m not holding them in an artificial positions or using any mechanical means other than feel and great timing. Not only does it put the odds for success more in our favor, it makes riding a whole lot more FUN!
With Dot Com, I dissolved the tension by rewarding relaxation and making it top priority, which allowed him to be in a learning frame of mind, and then set it up and waited for a positive change, rewarded and built up on IT, and have created habits of relaxed, quality, ATHLETIC movement that HE is happy to maintain!
Dot Com turns 14 years old this year. Most of his life was spent traveling and thinking in ways that were not conducive to high level performance, but he’s managed to be a pretty amazing athlete despite that. As you can imagine, his future is looking brighter than ever. It’s truly never too late to teach and old horse new tricks, but even more importantly, know that it’s US who must commit to learning, AND – there are no tricks!
Remember, “quality movement” is balanced, powerful and athletic, which is ultimately, FAST! Here’s hoping these tips can help you create the same kind of high performance movement with your horses.
In the comments below, I’d love to know what kind of challenges or lessons YOU have experienced when it comes to creating quality movement? Can’t wait to hear about it!