Can Tune Ups Fix Your Horsemanship Fundamentals?
Practical Horseman Magazine is an endless source of entertainment for me; some of it is good and some of it sends my blood pressure racing up. The article “Rider Tune Up” in the December 2013 issue gave me one of these blood pressure moments. It reads as if the article was written to suit a catchy title.
The author, Boo Major is an accomplished riding instructor who is head coach for the equestrian team at the University of South Carolina. She has some good things to say in her article. I especially like that she points out that “…the natural tendency is to try to control everything with the hands.” She also talks about how “…it will take many repetitions for your horse to learn to respond to it.” It being a way you’ve changed how you apply an aid. She warns that “…some of the exercises require an extremely steady, tolerant horse.” Boo speaks truth.
Understand Your Hands
I agree when Boo says “…the less hand you use, the better the results.” But I have trouble with her statement, “By learning to use your legs and seat to communicate basic cues, such as “slow down”, you save your hands for more sophisticated skills, such as bending and getting your horse on the bit.”
The hands do not do bend the horse. The reins can effect the horse’s neck and an indirect rein of opposition can effect the hind leg, but it is the legs that create the bend in the horse’s body and hindquarters. Without good use of legs you merely have a horse who is bent in the neck. Bending incorporates the whole horse.
Likewise the hands do not put the horse on the bit. Getting the horse on the bit is the result of riding the horse from the back to the front. Simply put, the rider creates impulsion and energy from the horse’s hind legs by correctly using the seat and leg aids. This energy is “caught” into soft, sensitive hands that move with the horse.
I’m going to assume that Boo knows that hands don’t bend or put the horse on the bit and that she merely chose 2 poor examples. Otherwise, I would have difficulty believing that she understands the fundamentals of good hands.
The first rider problem Boo chooses to address is “too stiff hands/arms”. She’s right when she says that, “if your shoulders, elbows and wrists aren’t soft and elastic, you can’t follow your horse’s mouth smoothly…”
It doesn’t appear that this article is written toward beginners, but the fundamentals of how to follow the horse’s mouth with your hands is an early beginner lesson. The thought is taught to beginners before they can actually do it and is carried on through seat development. At the walk, the horse not only moves it’s head forward and back, as Boo points out; it moves it slightly from side to side at the same time. This is because the motion of the horse’s head and neck is a result of the movement of the horse’s hind legs. As he steps farther under his body with his hind legs and uses more energy in his stride, the the motion in his head and neck will increase.
The real issue with Boo’s first rider problem, “too stiff hands/arms”, is that the rider needs to develop a seat that is independent of her hands. A rider who doesn’t have an independent seat will be stiff in the shoulders, elbows and wrists. This rider can’t follow the horse’s mouth because the stiffness causes her arms to follow her body. A rider with an independent seat is able to follow the horse’s mouth by following the horse with her seat and carrying her hands independently of her body. The best thing the rider with “too-stiff hands/arms” can do is to invest in lunge lessons or ride in an arena she she can drop the reins. Working all gaits with your hands on your head, waist, out to the side, arms moving around, shoulder rotations, shoulder shrugs etc will help develop an independent seat. This will help the rider’s seat and will go a long way toward loosening stiff shoulders and elbows. Lots of work without stirrups and reins will help. It takes time and hard work to develop an independent seat. Give yourself a gift and don’t try a short cut.
I’m not in favor of Boo’s suggestion for fixing “too stiff hands/arms”. She suggests holding the hands about 1 1/2 feet apart. Riding on contact with wide hands has a severe pressure effect with the bit on the horse’s mouth. I believe Boo knows this, too, as she makes a point for the rider to keep her legs on the horse to keep him from slowing down or stopping. Wide apart hands should be left to the rider with educated hands.
Boo’s third problem fix is for “busy, bouncy hands”. She tells readers to hold a bat horizontally, with one end pressed into each palm. This trick might be helpful for a few minutes, which is probably all it will last before you either drop the whip or grasp it with your hands. “Busy bouncy hands” are the result of stiffness, a lack of independence and a lack of concentration. Your best bet to solve “busy, bouncy hands” is to work on your seat and also develop suppleness in your shoulders and arms so your hands can quit following your body. And if by “busy” Boo means always doing something, you might need to retrain your thinking about the importance of the reins.
The fourth problem Boo addresses is the common ‘broken” wrist where the rider flexes the wrist one way or the other. I would caution readers not to tape or strap a tongue depressor to the inside of their wrist. There are way too many hazards with this. It’s not safe. She suggests a rider might buy a wrist bandage or splint. IMHO that might keep your wrist warm and it may give you support while you wear it, but it’s not likely to have a long term effect on your riding.
Egaads, did you like any of Boos ideas?
I liked Boo’s suggestion for “clutchy, strong hands” and have used this method for students myself. She suggested that you hold your reins like you were driving the horse (reins between thumb and forefinger). This creates a very different sensation and will help you, if you choose to remember the feeling.
Boo’s suggestion for tape on the reins to help you to remember how short to hold your reins, is a common teaching aid. You could also try “rainbow” reins.
My favorite fix was for riders that hold their hands too far apart. Boo would have you hold a snaffle bit, a ring in each hand, which would definitely keep you from separating your hands too much. And unlike the exercise with the bat, the snaffle bit will let you hold your hands in the correct position, so you won’t be teaching yourself anything bad, like “puppy dog “ hands. Kudos to Boo for the snaffle bit suggestion.
Boo addressed the horse that “scoots off or bucks after jumps”. She is right stating that “…he’s probably trying to tell you you’re using too much hand on landing- for example, to signal him to slow down or turn-…” Usually a horse that bolts after a fence wants to rush going into the fence. Horses bolt into and out of jumps when they fear having the rider slam into their back, as well as their mouths. Horses bolt and buck after jumps when their riders make too many moves, such as sitting into the saddle at the base of the jump, throwing their upper body forward, ducking to one side or shortening reins right at the jump. Horses also bolt on landing when their rider releases all contact with their mouth over the jump via a crest release, rather than using a following hand. And then there are the horses who are fresh and having a good time. There are many causes for these two results. Boo pointed out two good causes for this issue.
Fixing a horse who scoots off or bucks after jumps” takes a lot of work and a committed rider. If the horse is displaying this activity because of your riding, you might need to take lessons on another, quieter, horse for awhile, or else you’ll need to take your horse down to smaller fences and a trot.
Try improving your horse with the following exercise. Set a single small fence on the center line about a third of the way up your arena, so two thirds of the arena is on the landing side. Putting the jump on the center line will leave you room to work on the rail. Pick up a trot on the rail in your horse’s best direction. When the trot is quiet, go into two point. If your horse remains quiet at the trot with you in two point, you may turn toward the small fence approaching from the short end of the arena. Keep the same quiet trot, the same rein length, and the same two point. Don’t change anything approaching the small jump, over the small jump or after the small jump. The quieter you are, the quieter your horse will become. If your horse gets excited, stay in two point and slowly work him back to the quiet trot. Continue to the end of the arena making a gradual turn in his best direction. Continue around the arena until he’s calm and steady. When he’s quiet and ready, you can take the jump again, still not changing anything. By having two thirds of the arena in front of you, there is more time to gently retake control, if necessary. Rather than circle, I would just make a quiet turn and work around the rail until the horse is calm again.
Next begin to change the direction of your turn frequently but not in any particular order. Always approach the jump from the short end. Continue this until your horse is consistently trotting the small fence quietly. Keep changing the direction but don’t change yourself. Quietly bring him to a walk and let him stretch out on a long rein. When he’s rested, try again. If he’s calm, you can build on this foundation in several ways. You can add sinking into the saddle just before the jump or you can add posting on the rail. You can raise the jump or spread the jump. Or you can do the same approach at a quiet canter, choosing to turn in the direction of his lead. A word of caution; with a horse that bolts after a fence, I trot in and trot out or canter in and canter out. I would not encourage trot in and canter out as that just adds to his mental “go” picture.
By riding quietly and not changing anything you give the horse the opportunity to discover that he’s not going to be hurt over the fence. Add the pieces of your riding slowly and give him time to become comfortable with the new quiet you.
Boo has a number of other suggestions for improving your jumping, including bounces, and jumping with out reins. I’m all for these kinds of exercises, although I don’t like many bounces in a row because they are hard on the horse. I prefer bounces with 2 or three fences and you need to keep them low or you can injure your horse’s back. When considering gymnastic lines I prefer to use one strides and save my horses. Have fun with six one strides in a row. Ride it without reins (You can use rails if you think your horse might leave the line) and ride it without reins and without stirrups. For an added challenge ride it without reins (later add without stirrups) while you tie knots in a piece of bailing string. Can you do it? And PLEASE- let’s not do these activities on the horse that bolts and bucks after his jump!
I appreciated Boo Major’s article. It was interesting and informative. You can take many of her ideas, as well as mine and work on them on your own but you have to be committed to the idea of improving your riding. If your wrists bend the wrong way and you know it, or if your leg is too far forward and you know it, make the decision to do something about it. Practice and nag yourself. Work on it until you’ve got it right. You can save yourself a lot of money in riding lessons by taking care of the little things on your own. After all, you are the one who is ultimately responsible for your own riding progress. Have a friend video you with her iPhone and critique yourself. Instructors love it when students show the initiative to correct simple problems without having to be told over and over again.
I wish you the best of luck with your riding in 2014 and thanks to Boo Major for her article, “Rider Tune-Up” in Practical Horseman Magazine December 2013.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!
Barbara Ellin Fox