Solve Riding Problems With This One Great Tip

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | January 20, 2016

Jennifer Paulson
Credit: Jennifer Paulson
Make practice time in your arena fun and productive by riding specific patterns as you work on problem areas.

Are you arena-smart? Riding arenas are good for more than just going ’round and ’round. You can use your time there to solve a range of riding problems—and have fun while you’re at it.

         How? By targeting one specific objective, then seeing how well you can achieve it as you ride various figures, or patterns. Figure 8s and serpentines are two of the most common figures; I’ll have many more examples for you in a moment.

         Let’s say your horse has difficulty maintaining a steady pace at the jog. Rather than striving for regularity as you jog around the perimeter of your arena, you’ll ride a series of patterns while focusing on keeping his jogging even and consistent.

         Or perhaps you have a troublesome equitation issue—such as uneven weight in your stirrups. With this approach, you’ll ride two or three patterns repetitively while concentrating on achieving just that one goal—sinking your weight down evenly into both heels.

         What makes this fun is the variety of patterns you can ride as you work on your goals. At the link, you’ll find (in addition to the traditional 8 and a variety of serpentines) a spiral, a loopy B, an off-the-rail rectangle, a squared-off circle, and more—10 in all.

         To progress, work on just the one objective, using a variety of patterns over time—changing it up every day--until you feel you’ve begun to master that one objective. Then add a new objective, and work on it while holding on to your prior achievement, which by now is becoming habitual.

         At times, you may need to drop back to focusing on just one objective, if it’s a particularly challenging one for you or your horse. But then, once you begin to master it, go on to add the earlier ones back into the mix.

         It’s a fresh, fun way to work on weak spots. (And, you don’t even need an actual arena to try it—just a large-enough level area with good footing.)

         Don’t forget to thoroughly warm your horse up first and “get the fresh out” if need be before you begin asking for serious work. Then get going with the fun figures—and watch your horsemanship bloom.

Secrets of a Top Horsewoman

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | December 18, 2015

Caroline Fyffe
Credit: Caroline Fyffe
Sharpen your horse’s yielding-to-pressure in stages. Here, Sandy Collier asks for a sideways step at the hitching rail.
Are you the partner your horse wishes you were? Becoming an accomplished, well-rounded horseman requires years of experience. It also takes knowledgeable guidance from “someone who knows.” Sandy Collier—a lifelong horsewoman, longtime H&R contributor, and multiple-world-champion competitor—has a lot of such guidance to share.

         One of the key points Sandy makes in all her educational materials is why teaching your horse to yield to pressure is so fundamental. Hint: It’s not just about making him maneuverable.

         “It’s one of the most important things you can do to get your horse to honor you,” she explains. “Just as he’d yield to all the more dominant horses in a herd, he must always yield to you when you ask him to.”

         Horses naturally move into pressure, not away from it. This means you must educate young or green horses to yield, instead. Sandy has several methods of teaching and reinforcing this yielding, which gives you lateral control of your horse’s body. She starts by establishing a go-sideways willingness from the ground, then moves to mounted work.

         You can find three of her techniques here--one to be practiced at the hitching rack, one in hand, and one mounted, at a gate. Each builds on the others.

         She demonstrates these and additional lateral exercises in her new DVD, Secrets to Becoming a Great Horse Owner. The program provides the kinds of skills and knowledge that ordinarily takes people years to discover.

         In addition to the seven essential skills you need “to do most anything with your horse” (yielding to pressure is one of them), the Cowgirl Hall of Fame member shares a wealth of other indispensible horse-owner know-how. There are tips on loading and hauling. Essential nutritional information. Massage and stretching techniques for your horse. Mounted yoga stretches for you.

         Sandy also reveals which are the only four bits you need to own, plus the only four knots you need to know. (There’s much more. To see what else is included, check here.)

         If you’re a fan of Sandy’s, you’ll also want to review some of her great articles from the past—on establishing vertical flexion, backing in a circle, tuning up your turns, and other horse-training secrets. Or her comprehensive training book.

         It’s all good stuff, and it’ll move you toward your goal of becoming the partner your horse would truly like you to be.

Timeless Ride-Better Tips (Thank You, Sally!)

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | November 20, 2015

Darrell Dodds
Credit: Darrell Dodds
This hand-over-head exercise enables you to feel how to sit erect and tall, yet deep in the saddle and flexible through your lower back and hips.
That’s yours truly in the photo, with my arm in the air. It was May of 1998, and I was on assignment for Horse&Rider at a Sally Swift clinic in Vermont. My goal was to report on the Centered Riding phenomenon, then sweeping the nation as a result of Swift’s seminal book by the same name.

         This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of the now-classic Centered Riding. Trafalgar Square is celebrating during November with remembrances of the book’s remarkable author, who died in 2009. You can read about my own pivotal—if embarrassing—lightbulb moment at Sally’s clinic here. As you’ll see, she had a way of getting you to do things you didn’t think you could do. She knew you could, though, because she’d painstakingly figured out all the mechanics, over many years.

         Born with a curved spine, Sally was able to ride only by studying how the human body works. She needed to learn the most effective, foolproof ways of achieving harmony in the saddle, then how to get her body to work in that way. Later, those techniques became the principles of Centered Riding.

         I highly recommend both her books. (She produced a sequel, Centered Riding 2: Further Exploration, in 2001.) Study them and their countless detailed photos and drawings. Apply their principles, and it make you a better rider. Guaranteed.

         Here are two examples of the many wonderful exercises you’ll find in the books.

         • Raise your hand. This is the exercise I’m doing in the photo. As you ride at a walk, stretch one arm straight up, keeping your fingers “growing” toward the sky while the rest of your body sinks downward. Change hands whenever you get tired. (If someone can lead your horse for you, go ahead and close your eyes, as I am.) This maneuver relaxes your spine and lets you feel how to sit tall and erect, yet deep in the saddle. It also unlocks and loosens your lower back and hip joints. Try it at all three gaits. Over time, you’ll notice an increased feeling of elasticity up and down the front of your body. Ultimately, your upper body will feel taller and quieter; your lower body, softer and more supple.

         • Breathe into your boots. Correct breathing is foundational to good horsemanship. Sally knew it’s easier to work with mental images than to think of specific muscle groups. In this exercise, performed mounted at a walk, visualize a flexible tube running down inside your body, all the way to your toes. As you breathe in, use your imagination to “feel” each breath moving down, past your belt line and pelvis, all the way into your boots. This exercise encourages your diaphragm to descend properly with each breath, with the result that you draw air in deeply and effortlessly. Breathing this way will give both you and your horse confidence, as it fosters calmness and relaxation.

         (Learn more about Centered Riding’s intrepid, innovative founder with the feature “Sally Swift Shows Us the Way.”)

Can Horses Read Our Minds?

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | October 29, 2015
The more you know about your horse’s inborn nature and how it came to be, the better you can understand and predict his behavior.
I love reading books about equine nature. It’s fascinating—and horsemanship-boosting--to learn why horses behave as they do, and how that behavior evolved.

         One of the best books on this topic is The Nature of Horses, by Stephen Budiansky. The author, an award-winning history and science writer, is also a horse enthusiast who lives on a small farm in Loudoun County, Virginia.

         Among the many interesting points he makes in his book is one about horses’ remarkable “bluffing” ability. They’re terrific at hinting to each other about what they’re considering doing. This ability evolved from the need to create a well-organized pecking order within a herd. The pecking-order system allows horses to work out social problems while minimizing actual violence.

         Once a hierarchy is established, a herd member rarely needs to actually kick or bite. A “mean look” (flattened ears, lowered head) or raised leg usually suffices to ward off an intrusion and reestablish personal space.

         These signals aren’t always obvious, however. Sometimes they’re so subtle as to be barely perceptible to us humans. That’s why a horse’s sudden defensive move (jumping to the side, say) can catch us off guard if we’re not paying close attention. Horses, by contrast, are so skilled at picking up subtle body-language signals—from humans as well as other horses--that it almost seems as if they can read our minds.

         I’ve certainly experienced that with my horses.

         “It is hardly surprising,” writes Budiansky, “that an animal whose entire socioecology is based on an ability to read subtle social cues can pick up on the hesitations, uncertainty, and lack of self-assurance of one rider, and the confidence and resolution of another.”

         So remember this when you’re riding or working around your horse. Make sure your own mindset and body language aren’t sending “signals” you’re not even aware of—because your horse will surely pick up on them.   

         (Read more about science in horse training and interpreting your horse’s body language.)  

Keep Your Horse from Bucking

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | September 21, 2015

Kevin McGowan
Credit: Kevin McGowan
Bucking—it’s something you don’t want your horse to do. Here are strategies to help you prevent this behavior.

A horse that bucks is dangerous and not much fun to ride. Here, I’ll share some of the best tips we’ve heard for keeping your horse from developing a bucking habit, plus correcting it if one’s already in place. First…

         Don’t teach your horse to buck. How does this happen? The worst-case scenario is (1) giving your horse a reason to buck; (2) coming off when he does buck; then (3) stopping and putting him away for the day. From your horse’s perspective, that’s a short course in Why Bucking Is Good.

         To head off bucking, you can’t beat groundwork, in a round pen or on a longe line. Groundwork helps get the sillies out plus reminds your horse to be respectful. The amount of groundwork you need before mounting on any given day depends on your horse and the circumstances—is he high-strung? Does he live in a stall? How much training has he had? Has he been idle for a spell? Is it a brisk or windy day? Will other horses be around?

         All these factors will affect how much you need to do on the ground to get him dialed in and ready to work under saddle.

         If you’re starting a colt, groundwork is especially important. “If you have to spend two weeks or more preparing your colt for that first ride, do it,” advises clinician Clinton Anderson in “5 Safety Tips for Colt-Starting.” If your young horse never learns that bucking “works”—that is, gets you off his back—he’s much less likely ever to develop a bucking habit.

         What else can prompt a horse of any age or level of training to buck? Feeling “fat and sassy” from too much rich food. Find out what your horse needs to be healthy and in the right flesh. If, based on his metabolism and the amount you ride, that’s hay or pasture only plus a vitamin/mineral supplement, that’s fine. Overfeeding him isn’t loving him; it’s endangering his health…plus inviting him to act up.

         Pain and irritation can also be buck-inducers. Make sure every part of your horse’s tack fits well and doesn’t rub, pinch, bunch, abrade, or otherwise vex him.

         Mind your cueing, too. A classic snafu is a timid rider who cues for a lope but then doesn’t give her horse his head so that he can lope. As author Heather Smith Thomas points out (in “No More Bucking”), “If your horse doesn’t understand what you’re asking or finds it difficult to respond because of how you have or haven’t set him up, he may buck out of frustration.” If you need a trainer’s advice to know whether you’re cueing correctly, get it.

         Dealing with a buck. If, despite all your safeguards, your horse tries to buck anyway, being prepared will help you deal with it. First, realize there’s a difference between a crow hop and a true buck. If it’s just a crow hop, observes Clinton Anderson in “No Bucking Broncos,” all you may need to do is get your horse’s feet moving forward.

         If it’s a real buck and you wind up getting bucked off, he recommends you use a long line (one you carry with you just for this purpose) to start vigorous longeing immediately. That way, you don’t risk getting bucked off again by climbing back on, but you still teach your horse that bucking invariably results in hard work.

         How to tell if a buck is coming? In “The Buck Stops Here,” clinician Dan Keen says, “Your horse will feel board-stiff, and his body may swell beneath you.” He adds that a buck can also follow on the heels of a spook. He suggests, as many clinicians do, that the way to stop a buck cold is to immediately tip your horse’s head to the side and “pull him in a tight, no-buck circle.”

         If, ultimately, you feel uncomfortable dealing with your horse’s bucking, get help from a riding instructor or horse trainer. The skills you and your horse gain will be more than worth what you spend for them—plus they’ll pay you dividends into the future.


De-spooking tips.

Confident lope departs.

Safe trail rides.

Irritate your horse (how not to).

Feel secure in the saddle.

When to give up.

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