Friday, September 25, 2015

The Foundation - Part III - Collection, Direction and Jaw Softness

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.

Stage 1
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. 

Example of Stage 2 of Direction while at a lope.
Photo by Tina Graham

Stage 2
Originally Direction consisted of just as described in Stage 1.  I've added another element to it and that's by riding two handed. I ask them to drive into the bit or collecting them and have slight pressure on both reins at first until they frame up and collected.  My hands stay square in front of me but I will have a little more pressure on the inside rein to ask for a circle.  I want their movement to be the same in the circle, the eye is equally important but what I'm wanting for them to do is ride between my hands and body.  I shouldn't feel them drop their shoulder, get tight in their ribs, disengage this hindquarters or be pushing on the bit.  Although I have contact with the bit, it is slight and the horse should be putting slack in the reins but yet not hiding its face.   I want to be able to move them in or out of the circle while keeping my hands relatively still and in the same position.  This is great preparation for when I start them on the barrels.  When I ride to the pocket of the barrel, I will ask for this same motion but will adjust the circle according to which barrel I'm turning.  I don't want to have to make many movements with my hands, I want them to stay within the frame of my body.  Less is more, however the more that we prepare them, the less that we will have to school them when we get to the barrels. 

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.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Foundation - Part II - Leads and Speed Control

As I continue on in my Foundation series of what I expect my colts to be able to do before I start them on the pattern, you're probably thinking "Why a section just on leads? Kinda no brainer, right? You either have the correct lead or you don't."  Well, I want to break it down a little more and show the importance and maybe give you something more to think about when it comes to leads.  It's pretty easy to see why leads play such an important role in barrel racing.  If you're not sure why, try to turn a barrel to the right in the right lead and then again in the left lead and see which one your horse is able to turn the barrel easier. 

It is more natural for the horse to take the correct lead in a circle.  After all, it's more work for them to be in the wrong lead than it is in the right lead.  However, I want my horses to be able to pick up their leads on a straight line.  Often times I will be riding in the pasture and will ask for the horse to pick up their left lead, lope a few strides and then drop down to a trot and ask them to pick up their right lead.  Not only is the picking up the lead that I ask for important but the transition from a lope to a trot and back to a lope again is as well.  I want the horse to slow to my body as well as pick up speed with my body's motion.  This is the beginning of speed control.  Think of when you come into a barrel, you sit and slow your body's movement wanting the horse to rate or slow down.  I don't want to be having to pull on my horses head to get them to rate, I want them to be in tune to my body and slowing down themselves.  

Everyone has their way of asking for a horses lead but I tend to ask them the same way I'm found when I'm running barrels so that they automatically take that lead and keep it because my body isn't telling them to do something else.  I'll ask by shifting my hips so that my weight is in the outside, so the opposite of the lead I'm asking for.  For example, for the left lead, I'd shift my weight to my right back hip pocket, bring my right leg in to "engage" the hindquarters and pick up my inside rein or left rein to shape them and pick up the shoulder as well as open up my left hip and picking up my own shoulder encouraging them to take the correct lead.   With their hind quarters engaged, it's very hard for them to take the wrong lead. 

Every horse is going to favor a certain side or lead.  They might take the left lead easily the first time asked, but the right lead might take them a few times to get right.  As colts this is very common and to be expected but it's something that should be pretty well over with before we start the barrels.  Teaching them to engage their hindquarters will be a great asset to you for those horses that struggle with their leads. 

For anyone that knows me well, they know that I despise the loping a circle before heading to the first barrel.  I feel that it's a crutch that too many people rely on and in turn horses learn to rely on as well instead of doing what you ask for when you ask for it in the first place.  Now I will say, there is a time and a place for the "crutch circle" but I try not to use it in my program.  Although there are several reasons why people will use it, a big reason is it's a way to insure the horse picks up the correct lead before going to first barrel. As I strive to make rodeo horses I know that they don't allow you to do this so I just don't ever learn to rely on it among many many other reasons.  Okay....time for me to get off this little rant before a lynch mob comes for me! 

Because I am against the "crutch circle" and know that at a rodeo I will have to keep forward movement and usually down some alley way or tight space, I want my horses to go from essentially a standstill to a lope in the correct lead. I don't mind if they walk or trot a stride or two but I expect when I ask for them to do something, they do it.  I also don't get in too big of a tizzy if they take the wrong lead when I'm first starting them but I expect to be able to sit down and for them to slow down to a trot and then they take the correct lead when I ask for it the second time.  This will also be instrumental when you're preparing them for the lead change before the second barrel. 

 I don't really ask my horses to do flying lead changes in dry work.  Some people can get caught up on flying lead changes but I don't want my horses to get to free with their lead changes to where every time I put a leg in them they change a lead.  I want them to use the momentum of leaving the first barrel be what changes their lead verses me having to tell them they need to change their lead.  So when I've finished the first barrel, I will slow my body down and ask for a trot and essentially do a simple lead change before I head to second barrel.  As your horse progresses it's okay to let them lope out of the first barrel and figure it out on his own.  Just remember to ride him with your body the way you should for each lead and soon they'll get the picture! 

Who knew that I could talk so much about leads.  I'll leave you with a few exercises.  Take your horse out to the pasture and ask him for the left lead, after a few strides bring him back down to a trot using your body (not your reins) and then ask them to take the right lead.  Try to trot for only a few strides at first and work your way to trotting only one stride before changing to the other lead.  For a challenge, ask for a left, trot, ask for a right, trot, and then ask for another right.  Keep the horse guessing and waiting for you. For some this will be hard. For others it will be a good refresher. If you've mastered that, try having your horse lope from a standstill in the left lead and then in its right.  We don't want them to run out of the standstill like a rocket but a nice easy loose reined lope. Pick a lead in your mind that you want them to take and ask for it and go! When I ask them to lope, I don't want it to be five or ten strides later, I want it now.  Of course the younger and less experienced horse it is perfectly acceptable for them to take a few strides before taking the lead, but the fewer strides is something to work towards as they progress.  

I hope you've enjoyed this "Foundation" series.  Stay tuned next week as I talk about Direction, Collection, and Jaw Softness. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Foundation - Part 1 - Hip Control

The Foundation - Part 1 - Hip Control

In last week's post I touched briefly on willing submission.  I want to stress the importance of this.  If you don't have this, or a good grasp of it with your horse then what I will outline as the foundation will mean nothing.  Sure, you may be able to do the tasks that I talk about but it will be forced and will lead to troubles down the road.  I also want to stress that there will be times of unwilling submission.  Horses are just like us, they have attitudes all their own and have bad days too. There will be days that things just won't go right.  Horses will have unwilling submission due to miscommunication.  If they don't understand what you're asking of them, don't be surprised to see their heads in the air, their eyes wild and their jaw rock hard.  It's a defense mechanism.  However, we need to make sure that we keep willing submission as our goal and when it happens, it's a reward to not only our horses but ourselves.  If you've rode a horse under willing submission, it's sure hard to ride one without that in the fore front of your mind. The feeling of it is something that I crave and work for whenever I ride. 

Okay, now that we have that down let's move on.  I'm not going to list the tasks in order of importance because they are all important to me.  Nor will I order them in the order that they are taught because each horse is different.  So bare with me if I jump from one thing to the next.  

Back when I was in college the one rein stop was popular. Maybe it still is, I don't really follow Clinton Anderson or clinicians like him as much.  We used to do it a lot with our horses teaching them to not only stop, but give us their nose while disengaging their hind quarters at the same time.  Well, after these horses that we started got that down pat and we eventually started them on barrels, I started to see some problems. Such as, as soon as I would come into the barrel and ask for their nose, they disengaged their hind end. Not much when going slow but as I started asking for speed, watch out!  Talk about polar opposite of what I wanted to achieve! So we quit the whole disengaging thing for awhile.  Don't get me wrong, the one reined stop has its time and place and is a great safety mechanism but I was not seeing how it was helping me.  However, I've come to realize that not only did it have a place in our program as a good safety mechanism but also a stepping stone to a horse learning to "engage" their hind quarters. 

 The one rein stop is a great way for a horse to learn to disengage their hindquarters.  If you are not familiar with it, the horse will be asked to stop forward movement by giving its nose to the riders leg as its hindquarters move away from its nose. So for example, to disengage the hind quarters with a one reined stop, say I'm trotting a straight line. I would ask the horse to stop by bringing his left rein to my hip as I tip my weight forward and over to his right shoulder while putting leg pressure with my left leg to make his hindquarters swing to the right. When the horse stops his forward motion and moves his hindquarters over (disengages) then the rein is released.

 Maybe it's just me but teaching a horse to engage their hind quarters vs to disengage is much harder.  In regards to engaging a horses hindquarters in barrel racing, it requires forward movement.  For example, to engage the hindquarters, as you're walking in a straight line, you would lift the left rein slightly forward and up (note: never over and across the center of the horses neck) to where you see the brown of the horses eye, you put your weight on your right pants pocket and bring your right leg back and put pressure on the ribs to ask them to move their hips to the left essentially walking a straight line but with the body in a "C" shape.  I want to be able to shift my weight and put pressure with my leg and have them engage or "tip their hip" at a walk, trot, and lope easily.  

So how does disengaging help with the engaging? Well, with the help of a one rein stop, it's fairly easy to teach them to disengage.  However, to teach them to engage I will have them standing still and essentially disengage and then shape them with the reins as if they are engaged and ask them to move forward taking care that their first step is not to shift their hind quarters away to make their body straight but to go forward in that "C" position.  Their second step should be with the inside hind leg and should be reaching up and over, not back and away.  If they take one step in the correct frame, I release them and let them walk straight bodied. I keep building on this from one step to two to three, etc, to where even in forward motion the position of your body will engage the hindquarters.  

Where does this apply to barrel racing? Well disengaging, I have no clue.  There for awhile after our colts were riding nice and we didn't have to worry so much about using the one rein stop for safety purposes, I quit doing it.  It wasn't until I realized why I was having problems getting my horses to engage their hindquarters that I had the "ah ha" moment on its usefulness to my training program.   Engaging the hindquarters to me is a huge part of barrel racing.  They say if you can control the hip, you can control the shoulder.  When I bring my horses to the pocket of the barrel, I want them to engage their hind quarters and be reaching up with that inside leg to use as a driving force when turning.  In short, with an engaged hip you get the 4 wheel drive turn.  I expect my colts to have a good grasp of this before I show them the pattern as it is used the very first day in my program. 

As I close this week's post I want to clarify something.  Because I start a lot of our colts on barrels with only 30 days on them, a lot of the tasks that I want them to know beforehand will not be set in stone. However, each and every ride I make with them we will be progressing on the foundation and working hard to make it solid.  I will stress though that before my colts are loping the pattern, these tasks will be fairly solid and will be relatively easy for the horse to do. 

So much for not turning this series into a novel!  Kudos to any of you that made it through that!  I hope you stick with me for next week's Foundations post about Leads! 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Foundation - Introduction

Wow! Summer has flown by at an alarming rate of speed. I wonder if anyone ever has a summer that drags by though.  When I started this blog I had a vision of writing a post at least every week.  I wanted to share my struggles and triumphs in my barrel racing journey, share some inspiration and motivate individuals who might be able to relate and maybe throw in a training tip or too.  Needless to say, this summer I failed miserably at my blog upkeep.  I've had tons of thoughts but never could really get the words to flow when I finally sat down to the computer.   You see when I actually write a blog post, the words come flying out at my fingertips.  Many times what is published is a rough draft as by the time I'm done writing there's a baby that's woke up from his nap, a mess to clean up, or a horse to be rode.  I write what I'm passionate about and wear my heart on my sleeve.  So why am I having this funk of a writers block? I'm not sure.  However, I started thinking of answering some of most popular questions I've been asked with barrel racing and most of them all stem back to what I expect for a colt to be able to do before I start them on the pattern.  So in an effort to break out of my writers block funk, I'm going to do a series of blog posts of just that, what I call the fundamentals - the foundation. 

As a disclaimer, I'm not claiming to be the worlds best trainer, a world champion or any one worth noting really.  I'm going to share my thoughts on training and what works for me.  It might not work for everyone.  It's up to you to decide if it will work for you or even worth your time to read through in the first place. However, if it could help even one person, then my goal has been accomplished. 

I do not know how many posts it will take to get through it all.  If anyone knows me, they know how much of a fanatic I am when it comes to this subject so please bare with me as I try to condense these next posts so that they do not turn into a novel.  
I'm going to end this post with the foundation - the first brick - willing submission.  If you're a follower of my blog, you're familiar with this term.  I use it regularly but I will try to explain it for those that are unfamiliar with the term or concept or for those needing a refresher as it will be used multiple times over the next series of posts. 

I learned about willing submission while in college taking a colt starting class with Wade Black.  Although I had a very good grasp of horsemanship and the concept of willing submission before, there hadn't been a term linked to it.  So what is willing submission? Willing submission as defined by Wade is when a request is made, the horse willingly performs the task requiring little to no pressure; it is the horse's idea. After initial contact, the horse performs the task on a loose rein with no leg pressure.  Willing submission is a horse seeking relief rather than just giving to pressure. The horse chooses to do what is asked and tries to please their rider. This is achieved by feel, timing, and balance.  You can judge a lot if you have willing submission just by looking at the horse's head. Is it high?  Is it chomping the bit? Is it's mouth open as you're asking it to turn or stop? There are tons of indicators of unwilling submission, but our goal is to work towards willing submission every ride.  We look for their poll to be soft, their head down, their eye soft and relaxed, their jaw soft, the mouth closed, etc.  We want the colt to work with us, to have trust in us and most of all, enjoy us and the job that we are asking them to do. 

I hope that you enjoy the rest of this series of The Foundation as I continue next week!