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Kim Keppick, Rein-Aid
Like it or not everything you do on your horse is either training him or untraining him! Quiet, insensitive horses are generally very forgiving of rider error but sensitive horses are not. The training your horse received before you purchased him may have driven him crazy and made him what is commonly referred to as hot. Thoroughbreds purchased from the track are often nervous because they were required to fit into the mould expected of a racehorse with little regard for the learning capacity of that particular individual. Similarly, almost any breed is susceptible to becoming hot or nervous if they donít fully understand what is required and have been pushed too quickly without a methodical approach to training.
It is very important for the rider to have a relaxed yet poised position, the ability to use each body part independently and be constantly aware of how their aids and reactions are affecting their horse. While this sounds simple, it takes thousands of hours and experiencing may different horses and situations to achieve. The reality of the fact is that many riders must make work and family their priority and understandably canít devote eight plus hours a day to perfect their riding.
Reality faced, it is still possible to help your horse improve whether your goals are successful competitions or fun trail rides. Make sure your horse has ample turn out time with lots of grass or hay and minimal amounts of grain. Horses that are cooped up and fed lots of grain simply have too much energy and want to release it by running and playing, so make sure your horse has as much turn out as possible! Lungeing your horse can make him quieter to ride but learn to do it well so you progress your partnership rather than simply letting him burn energy. A round pen is wonderful, but again, you must understand your positioning and posture to really reap the benefits. Do not expect to bring your horse along at the same speed as a professional. Because your aids and timing will not be 100% perfect, you must allow your horse time to figure out exactly what you are asking. Repetition is key, but when you achieve the reaction you want twice in a row, move on to a different exercise. Your training sessions should be short but frequent and always repeat exercises taught previously.
Every horse at the start of his training must be able to walk, trot and canter on a loose contact. By this I mean a short rein with no contact with the mouth, keeping your hands forward and your arms relaxed. This allows you to have a loose rein yet the ability to use the reins with little effort for steering and downward transitions. It is difficult to get hot horses to relax and master this vital part of basic training. If your horse is so worried that he canít stand still with you on his back, let him eat grass with you mounted. Initially, have a ground person with a lead rope so he canít take advantage of the very long rein and run away. Your horse needs to realize that life is not full of stress when you ride. After he can stand still and hang out in a relaxed manner progress to walk and trot with countless transitions in between, until the horse Ďwaitsí for you. At this stage all you are looking for is relaxation and rhythm, brilliance can come later. Always use the lightest aid possible to get your horse to move forward. Most hot horses relax if the rider whispers the cue to go forward. Your horse must accept contact from your leg, but will rarely need a strong driving leg or spurs.
Make sure you use a mild bit. My favorite is the Myler Combination Bit assuming that you can find someone who can explain how to fit and use it. If you want a more traditional type bit go with the Myler Comfort snaffle or a French link, neither will pinch his tongue like a single jointed snaffle. Bits with a low port as seen in many Myler bits as well as Kimberwicks can be a good choice. These bits work more on the bars of the horseís mouth than the tongue and are sometimes readily accepted. Donít be afraid to experiment to find the bit your horse is most comfortable in. If he doesnít like it he will be even more tense and high headed than usual. Hot horses simply have not learned to yield to the pressure of the bit and not understanding why the pressure is there they get worried and stronger, riders then apply more pressure because they have trouble stopping them and the cycle continues. Force will make matters worse; your horse must understand the bit to respond correctly to it. Rein-Aid elastic inserts can help him Ďget ití. The combination of elastic and leather backing interact to instantly reward the horse when he softens to the bit. The consistent release of pressure when the horse softens gives him confidence in the bit making him more relaxed and trusting.
I also like to teach the horse to back up, remember that at the beginning of each backwards step he takes you must soften the rein to reinforce the Ďyou give, I giveí concept. If your horse does not know how to back up, use a high fence or barrier to start. Apply rein pressure and as soon as he even thinks of going back release the pressure. Reapply the aid with consistent releases for each step and soon your horse will understand. Your objective is to teach the horse that a relaxed yield to the bit makes the pressure go away. When you can walk, trot, halt and back up quietly you are ready to repeat the same lessons including the canter with the emphasis on relaxation and no pulling. Keep the canter sessions short and circle with a downward transition if he starts getting hot or worried. Patience and time will bring results. Once you can master this relaxed, loose rein work in a quiet environment then itís time to introduce your horse to trails, shipping to other rings/quiet environments, rails/low jumps and increasing his understanding of the aids, suppleness and connection.
Sadly, months of consistent work can be ruined in one day if your horse becomes scared and loses his trust in your judgment, so increase your demands and exposure to new things in tiny increments. All disciplines have proven methods for teaching horses the specific things required for your chosen discipline. Read books, watch videos and get help from someone knowledgeable so you can ensure that your horse remains relaxed and fun to ride. Ride trained horses if thatís at all possible and constantly work on your own relaxation and a correct position that flows in harmony with your horse. Take the slow approach, nobody EVER ruined a horse by going slowly with his training. Enjoy the process, because we are privileged to be able to ride and become partners with these wonderful animals.
Kim Keppick is a certified BHSII instructor who has trained hundreds of young horses that went on to be successful show hunters, jumpers, dressage or event horses including the famous USCTA Horse of the Century, Biko. An ĎAí pony club graduate from Ireland and long listed for their 1988 Olympic 3-day event team she now specializes in developing partnerships with adult amateurs and their horses. Her students include riders of all levels with their own horses, many who are winners at A rated shows, Preliminary eventing and Third level dressage.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ph. 540 364 3668.