Horsey Word of the Week: Conformation

walking away

Walking away to show hind end conformation. Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

 

Conformation – noun

Definition: The shape or proportionate dimensions especially of an animal.

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When you start to really get into horses, you begin to realize that conformation (not conf-I-rmation, which is completely a different topic) is a subject that is most important to horses and their people.

Let’s face it – the horse’s entire future is dictated by how its body is put together. Good breeders over the centuries have considered conformation as one of the critical factors in stallion and mare approval. Horse shows everywhere have conformation and movement classes designed to validate and reward young horses that are built to excel in their discipline and stay sound. Take an equine course and you will likely have to learn all about not only the horse parts and names, but also the common conformation faults.

Speaking of which, when it comes down to it, most horses are not built to the ideal standards. One might have a club foot, another might have a long back. One might be sickle-hocked while another is camped out. There are so many possible variations of not-so-perfect that you might initially be a little overwhelmed by it all.

The trick is to know the horse’s strengths and weaknesses, and what needs to be done to compensate for or support that area of need. Aye, there’s the rub. 

And so we set off on a lifetime of learning – from the science of it (identification and understanding), to the practice of it (riding). We figure out how to solve the specific problems – and believe me, every horse is different – through riding, shoeing, veterinary and medical care, and whatever else is needed to help the horse be happy, safe and exercised over the long term.

Some people say that conformation is not as important as other traits such as temperament, rideability and level of education. I think the key is to first of all, analyze the horse’s conformation as it relates to the kind of riding you want to do, and then, take into account everything else. 

It is quite possible to pick a horse based on his training level, for example, knowing full well that you will always have to engage his hind end to compensate for his long back. Or maybe you will do best with a short-coupled horse that can turn on a dime despite the fact that he might be a little higher energy than you were looking for. 

In any case, knowing about conformation is almost as important as knowing how to ride. One informs the other, and the more we know about both, the more we can do well by our equine friends.

How does conformation affect your horse and riding? Tell us in the comments below.

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More Words of the Week:

Ground Work

Horses for Courses

Gallop 

 

 

 

Try This to Feel “Forward”

forward

The concept of “forward” in horseback riding is a difficult one to explain, to feel and to be able to reproduce consistently. Before you know what it is, it might appear as though it’s some “heebeejeebie” concept that is reserved for people far beyond the regular set. After you can reproduce it, however, you won’t be able to go without it, and you’ll wonder how you ever rode without “forward” as one of the most basic skills needed to elicit the best movement from whichever horse you ride.

But it is a long road to true forward. Not only do you have to teach and then encourage your horse to move in a forward manner, but you also have to learn to feel and do it within your own body. Just because your horse is able to move doesn’t mean that you can. Riders often get left behind when their horse moves honestly, mainly because the extra surge of energy is somewhat unexpected. So the horse moves, you lurch, and he stops all over again because he felt your lack of balance. A strong(ish) core helps correct this problem!

So if you’ve never felt “forward” before, how on earth are you supposed to learn it? You need a friend to help you with this one. Do it before you ride your horse so you can have a good sense of what you want ahead of time.

You pretend to be the rider and have your friend pretend to be the horse. You both should stand facing the same direction with you behind your friend. Put your hands on your friend’s shoulders.

1. Not Forward (“Backward”)

First thing to recognize is what “not forward” feels like. As the rider, you go ahead and push your horse (friend) into a walk. The idea is that you push her along, and she moves straight ahead. 

To feel “not forward”, have your friend push back just a little on you. Her feet still move straight and forward, but there is this slight leaning back she is doing on your arms. 

“Not forward” should feel a little quicksand-ish. You’re getting somewhere but it’s work. The horse feels like she wants to quit every stride. The progression through space is stilted, not necessarily rhythmical and just not free. 

When you ride, you might mistake “not forward” for smoothness. In reality, the “not forward” horse is moving flat. He isn’t committing his energy honestly through his whole body. He might be blocking in the hind legs, through the back, at the withers, or through the neck (or more than one region at the same time). But the energy is somehow not flowing, not forward, or “backward”. (No, the horse isn’t actually moving backward. And yes, the back up can be “forward” and also “not forward”! Confused yet??)

2. Forward

OK now start all over again. The set up is the same. This time, your horse (friend) is going to be “forward”. When you start to push her, she goes under her own volition. You go along, still with your hands on her shoulders, but both of you move together, lightly and in balance.

What a huge difference! There is no resistance. There is no chance that she’ll stop if you release a bit. You don’t have to force her nor do you have to tighten through your body and joints. Notice that you get to (have to?) step along sharply to stay with her. You become more able to control your own balance and position.

On the horse, the best way I can think of describing it is that you will feel a free flow of energy. This is when your aids can be light and specific. An onlooker might notice a strong hind end and freely flowing shoulders. Since there is no pushing/pulling on your part, you can both be in better balance. The extra energy that the horse is able to offer helps him in using his hind end better and rounding over the topline more consistently. Your contact likely becomes softer and you can aid through your seat more effectively. You might feel more motion through the horse’s gaits – more of a trampoline-y feeling in the back.

3. Running Away

There is one other possibility. Go back and set up with your friend again. 

This time, when you go to push her along, she runs away from you. When she acts as the “running” horse, you lose her in no time. The next thing you know, she’s far ahead of you and you’ve lost all your connection with her.

This happens when the horse misinterprets your “forward” aids to mean “faster legs”. Of course, it’s not that you physically lose the horse (at least most times)! You’ll likely stay on and just speed up with him. The key to being “forward” is to create and then contain the energy, not let it run out from under you. Thus, we have to learn all about half-halts in our quest to contain the energy we’ve created. 

When riding, you have to learn to distinguish between the legs moving faster versus an increase in energy. Energy does not mean speed. Say it again – energy does not mean speed! If you think your horse just sped up, you need to be there quickly and promptly to half-halt or even do a full downward transition. 

Now that you’ve read this, you can probably imagine what “forward” feels like. But go out to the barn (or even at home) and try it with someone else. There is no replacement to actually feeling something physically, and blueprinting it into your body.  Do each one several times so you have a good idea. Then try to transfer the concept to horseback. Of course it’s not exactly the same. But it’s a place to start.

Did you try this? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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New! Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success

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Read more about “forward” here:

Stepping “Forward” In Horse Riding: We tend to think a horse is forward when the legs are moving and the horse is flying along – but this picture is far from the truth.

What To Do When Your Horse Pulls: “Pulling” is something that is absolutely under your control and something you can change if you focus on your aids and timing.

The One Answer to Most Horse Riding Problems: There are a lot of problems that can occur when riding a horse. Although they all end up looking like different issues, if you think about it carefully, you might notice that there is one common denominator.

6 Ways to Know Your Horse is Comfortable – While Riding: Is your horse really comfortable while you ride? If you listen carefully enough, he will tell you using his own form of communication. How can you tell?

The Five Stages of A Transition: Whether you are working on upward transitions or downward, progressive or non-progressive, there are certain aspects to look for in every well executed gait change.

 

What To Do When Your Horse Pulls

give

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

First off, let’s be clear on the definition: if there is any pulling going on, it’s the rider’s responsibility! So even if you are convinced that the horse is the one who is pulling on the reins – either forward and down, or sideways away from a turn – the pulling is happening because you probably don’t want to, or can’t, let go.

It is a good thing to look at the problem from the perspective that it is you who is pulling. Then, you can do something about it. “Pulling” is something that is absolutely under your control and something you can change if you focus on your aids and timing.

Previously, we’ve talked about what to do if the horse is “rooting” the reins or reaching down heavily. Here, we will discuss another idea for a similar problem.

Break It Down

There are usually four reasons for pulling.

1) The horse is on the forehand.

A horse that is moving heavy on the front legs is going to be heavy on the reins. Kinder horses learn to brace in their jaws and necks and work through the increased pressure with little complaint on their parts. Less tolerant horses might slow their legs, alter their rhythm or balk to the pressure. You might notice ear pinning, teeth grinding or tail swishing at times.

Tension appears in both the horse and rider, even if it doesn’t look like there is a lot of pressure on the reins. What happens is that the rider feels increased tension on the reins and many bear that weight through their arms, shoulders and backs. The tension becomes evident in tighter, more jarring movement. You might notice your hands “bouncing” or your seat leaving the saddle. Your legs might “sway” back and forth especially in the canter.

2) The horse is moving too slow.

The slow-moving horse is often on the forehand by virtue of lack of hind end engagement. Just because he takes shorter strides, or feels less bouncy because of less movement through the body, doesn’t mean that he is moving well. These horses often become dull or “feel like cardboard” especially when it comes to responding to the reins. The back might feel long and flat as does the movement.

3) The horse is moving too fast.

The opposite can be the culprit as well. Charles deKunffy has been saying this for years and reiterated it just a few weeks ago: “Speed is the enemy”. In my own words, the horse that is moving too fast is automatically put to the forehand and needs to brace his way to balance (to avoid a trip or fall). Once again, the weight on the reins are increased as the horse is put in the position of having too much weight to the front.

4) The rider initiates the pulling.

This happens to all of us, especially early in our riding career (but later on as well). We might even be unaware that we are doing the pulling ourselves. We are used to doing everything with our hands, so the first thing we do is grab for more pressure. Sometimes we pull back to counter our own falling-forward weight. Sometimes we want to influence the horse using more hands and not enough body. Finally, many of us just feel more confident with more pressure than is necessary – it’s just hard to let go and be responsible for our own weight and balance.

Regardless of the reason why there is pulling going on, there is a four-step sequence of aids that might help you alleviate pressure on the reins and weight on the forehand. If you feel that your main problem is #4, additional work on developing your seat and core muscles might make a huge difference as well.

Here are the aids:

1. Give – only 1 inch.

Soften your elbows just a tiny bit forward. Don’t just open your fingers or let the reins out. Instead, control the rein length and actually advance both your hands forward, keeping the contact even and consistent.

Don’t let the give be much more than that initially. It should be just enough to give the horse a feeling of freedom without being “thrown away” or to the forehand.

If you are working on one side of the horse on a turn, you can give only the one elbow. If you are working straight ahead, you can give both elbows.

2. Activate with your seat and legs.

Some horses go with a forward thrust of just the seat bones. Other horses might need one or both legs (depending on the problem) to support the seat. In any case, you might feel a sudden surge in energy. Be ready and go with the movement. Make sure you don’t get left behind when the horse responds with increased impulsion and maybe a larger stride length. This is especially useful for the pokey horses.

3. Finish with a half-halt.

Depending on the riding problem, you might want to use a half-halt or two after the moment of activation. If you allow the horse to lurch ahead with nothing to contain the energy at the end, the horse may fall to the forehand or just speed up. Always use a half-halt to “recycle the energy” and help the horse develop a more uphill balance. This is especially important for the horses that are too fast.

4. Take the reins back.

This last step is key. The idea isn’t to just lengthen the rein out a little at a time, because that will only help your horse get longer and flatter and more strung out. So after you give a little, take a little. Keep the rein length essentially the same but do the give and take mainly through your elbows. If you do give rein length, this is the time to shorten the reins again.

End with what you started, only hopefully, this time, there is less pressure because the horse was given some freedom, some “oomph” and then some re-balancing. Remember that we are always working toward consistency – that is, we don’t want to lengthen the reins, shorten the reins, move left or right, etc. In our dreams, we want to do as little as possible and look as quiet as possible.

Try this over the next while and let us know how things went in the comments below.

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New! Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success

Available as an eBook or paperback.

3d Book 2

Read more about balance: 

6 Steps to A Well-Balanced Change of Direction: Changing directions smoothly can often be as challenging as achieving any well-balanced transition.

Why Interrupting A Horse’s Stride Might Be Just the Ticket for Better Balance: If your horse has moments where he feels like a tank running through everything in his way, don’t despair.

A Question of Imbalance: Can You Tell? In the beginning, it is difficult to feel the difference. As time goes on and you develop new “nerve endings” (not literally – it’s just that you become more sensitive to certain feelings or situations), you begin to differentiate between being in and out of balance. 

The Truth About Balance: The secret is identifying when you find the “perfect in-between” – and being able to replicate that just-right-balance regularly enough to reap the rewards.

The One Answer to most Horse Riding Problems: There is one solution that will improve if not completely resolve the issue – whether it be straightness, slowness, speed, or any of the other problems listed above.

 

Horsey Word(s) of the Week: Ground Work

 

Cyrus ground work

Cyrus learning to go, turn and stop at liberty – between 1-2 years old, long before his first ride.

 

Ground Work

Noun

something that is done at an early stage and that makes later work or progress possible

____

Ground work can be art work in itself. 

For most of us, ground work is a path to getting to know our horses better, without riding. There are unlimited types of ground work, starting from simple lunging to work without the rider to the “high school” movements of the classical variety. 

I used significant ground work techniques when my horses were too young to ride. From just getting them used to being handled, to developing communication, to in-hand work to introduce them to the bit, to ground driving, to trailering practice, to “round penning”, to walking over tarps and de-spooking – I did it all. Then before their first ride, I used lunging to get the horses moving well without a rider in the first place. We worked on developing gaits, conditioning and voice cues before I ever leaned over my horses’ backs for the first time.

But that’s not all I use ground work for. I’ve had people ask me to ride their horses for them even though they hadn’t ridden in months . Though I knew the horse had been ridden in the past, I used ground work to “meet” the horse and see what he knew and how he was going to respond.

I love ground work for the excited or nervous horse. I am always cognizant of my surroundings and try to maintain a high level of safety for both myself and the horse. So if there is a horse that seems out of sorts, I go right back to ground work to settle him while allowing him to move 

And finally, I have used ground work to develop myself as a rider. You can do so many things on your own two feet that replicate what you need to do on horseback, but you still have balance standing on the ground. In particular. I’ve explored and developed my hands and quality and feel of contact while working with the horse on the ground. 

Ground work is not only for beginner horses or riders. In fact, many of the “masters” use increasingly intricate ground work exercises to develop their horses mentally and physically throughout their education. Learning the higher level movements takes time and experience and the guidance of a good instructor. Just as with anything else, becoming effective at ground work takes dedication and repetition.

What have you used ground work for? How does it complement your riding life? Comment below.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

New! Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success

Available as an eBook or paperback

3d Book 2

 

More Words of the Week:

Horses for Courses

Gallop