We are on the back stretch to my Foundation Series. If you haven't read the previous parts to this series, you might want to take a look back at them but this is the post that I would say you don't want to miss. I will try my hardest to not turn this into a novel but no promises. This is a lot of information to try to condense. If I had any secrets to how my horses ride the way they do, here's your chance to read them for yourself!
Collection if I were to describe it in the shortest terms, it's where the horse is in the "athletic position." The horse has shifted his weight to his hindquarters, elevating his forequarters, rounding his back and reaching up and driving forward with his hind legs. If the horse is not in this position it makes it very hard to do any sort of athletic maneuver, especially turning a barrel.
Collection can be misinterpreted as just the softening poll and dropping the nose. A low head set doesn't equal collection. You must have the rest of the package to have collection. I remember watching a friend ride one of my colts and coaching her a little telling her to ask the horse to collect. When asked, the horse dropped its head and she released. When I told her to collect her again right away she said, "oh you want her nose to her chest." That is not what I'm asking for. The headset in collection is a small part of the equation. However, whenever I pick up a rein whether it's just one rein or both, I want them to drop their head, but most of all round their back, elevate their front quarters and be driving or reaching with their hindquarters. I want them to automatically be in the athletic position whenever I touch their face.
Direction, this is something I work on from the very first day I ride a colt all the way to when they are finished horses. This is something that is always in my toolbox. There's the age old argument that barrel racing is won or lost in the turns. Regardless of what side of the coin you favor, turns are no doubt a huge part of the equation. When I start my horses on the barrels, if they have a good foundation with direction, it makes things so much easier! So what is direction? Here's an explanation of the exercise pulled from an earlier blog post I wrote back in 2012.
I ask my horses to start out walking a small circle. What I'm looking for is my horse to have softness in the poll, the nose directly under the eye and to see the corner of the horse's eye. Showing too much of the eye ultimately will put your horse off balance and out of position so you don't want to over do the horizontal flexion. If you attached a pole to the horse's nose so that it made a line in the sand, you would want the horse's feet to walk slightly to the outside of the line or directly on it. The horse's body should be in a C shape - soft and flexed in the poll, shoulder, and loin. All of this you are wanting to do under willing submission.
I find the eye is a huge part of this exercise. If your horse is showing white, it is looking straight ahead rather than where it is going to go (circle) becoming unbalanced. This ultimately causes the horse's whole body to tense and not be working under willing submission. When the horse shows brown in it's eye (corner), release and let the horse walk straight for a few steps. Remember, it takes pressure for relief to be effective and relief for pressure to be effective. Ask the horse to come into a circle again, making sure to "release" the very instant when he shows brown in his eye. Start building to holding that circle for one stride to two to a full circle keeping that brown in the eye. Once they have it down at a walk, work your way into a trot and lope. You want to keep their feet moving forward and not pivoting so don't be afraid to use your inside leg although you want to be able to use less and less as you progress. You should be pulling the rein towards your hip and you should be putting your weight on the outside and "opening up" the inside to turn. Smaller circles are easier to master, but with added speed, you'll want to increase the diameter. To get a visual, think of a dog chasing its tail. It's always looking for its tail while doing its circle, the same is what I want our horses to do, I want them to be looking where it's going to go around the barrel.
|If we have Direction down in both Stage 1 and Stage 2, turning the barrel correctly will be a breeze.|
Photo by Tina Graham
This is a topic that really deserves a blog post all in itself but I'll do my best to explain it for the purpose of The Foundation. If I ever have a problem with the barrels, you can bet that if I went back to working on Direction or checking how soft the jaw is, I'd find the problem. Whether they are being stiff in the body or the mouth, I find that the Jaw is a huge contributing factor.
I'd never heard of jaw softness until working with Wade Black. He opened my eyes to just how important this was and it was like the last piece of the puzzle was put together for me on many different areas I was struggling in with my horses. I really believe that if your horse is stiff in the shoulders, it's going to be stiff in the jaw. If they are having troubles collecting, I look at how stiff they are in the jaw. If they are diving into a barrel despite your best efforts to keep them in the correct position, I look at the jaw. So you're probably wondering, how do I know how tight or soft they are with their jaw?
It starts with an exercise that I just simply call the "jaw exercise". I know, how creative right? I'll ask the horse to back up while having their nose slightly tipped to the left or right. When backing up I don't mean the dragging your feet - a snail is faster then you kind of backing up. I don't mean the NASCAR equivalent to backing up either. I want the horse to be light on it's feet and pulling with it's hindquarters backwards. It neither needs to be fast or slow, just light on its feet. As we are backing I will ask the horse to turn on it's hindquarters the same way that I'm asking for its nose. The key to this is that I want the horse's first step in its turn to be with that inside front leg. After that step I want the horse to back up again in without pushing forward or leaning against me. So for example, I'll ask the horse to back up while tipping it's nose slightly to the left. When I feel that it's light on it's feet and pulling with it's hind end while backing, I will tip my weight to the right (not in my stirrup, just my hip) and bring the left rein to my hip and ask it to take a step to the left while keeping it's hindquarters planted. Remember, the first step I want them to take into the turn would be the left front leg and I want them to reach across and pull or stretch with their shoulder, not the baby step that a horse would make if they were locked or stoved up. I want them to be reaching across. In one motion I want the horse to back, turn and automatically back again. The transitions from backing to turning to backing again is where you'll feel how soft or tight the horse's jaw is. Right after I ask them to turn and they are supposed to back, if I feel the horse lean forward, they are tight in the jaw. They are not waiting on me, but simply taking matters into their own and taking charge. I'll repeat this exercise until after they have turned are are to back up again they automatically shift their weight back and are soft in the jaw, poll, shoulders, and loins. It's important that you do this on both sides.
The jaw to me is the hidden key. If I have a soft jaw, I have a soft body. With a soft body, you can do anything.
I have tried to explain the best that I can of these exercises but for those that are more visual learners, feel free to hit me up and I'll see if I can't track down some video of direction and the jaw exercise.
Thank you for staying with me through all of that! Stay tuned for next week's and the last of The Foundation series, Shoulder Control.