Monday, September 26, 2011

Step Two: Longe Line Work

(FIRST, I feel it's important to mention that I am not qualified to give anyone advice on training their own horses. I'm writing these posts primarily so I can have a record of what I have done with Arabee. If you read my blog, and decide you want to try what I'm doing for yourself - just realize that I ain't no horse trainer!)

So, my horse already knows how to walk, trot, canter, and whoa on the longe line. She'll do it in a mannerly fashion without snorting, bucking, and farting like a wild thing, too. So, start with that as a goal with just a halter.

From there, it's time to tack up: saddle, snaffle bridle with flash or dropped noseband to support the bit, sliding side reins, and in Arabee's case, a crupper. I started with the longe line clipped to the halter. Later I moved to running the longe line through the bit, over the crown, then clip to the offside of the bit.

Adjust the sliding sidereins so that with the horse standing still, the sidereins are gently taut, not tight. Send the horse out at a trot, looking to establish a good gait rhythm, and so that the pair of rear legs, and pair of front legs, go apart about the same distance - then you know both fore and hind end are exerting about the same amount. (this may not make sense, probably not a good way to describe it w/out pictures)

Once you've achieved the first goal of establishing a good trotting rhythm with both front and back of the horse working equally - the next goal is to get the horse to reach for the bit. As I've read, this may happen nearly simultaneosly. Verbally praise the horse whenever they've even *thought* about doing what you want. If they've made a particularly grand effort, praise enthusiastically and gently ask for a walk - a good reward for a job well done.

Keep in mind your horse's fitness level - if you find those nostrils flaring - look for a chance to ask for a walk. "They" also say to change directions every 5 minutes to avoid fatiguing one side over the other.

In my experience, the first session or two I thought "wow, this is a waste of time my horse is NOT getting it at ALL!" but by the third longing session I saw some serious breathtakingly beautiful moments of improvement. Apparantly, this type of work is quite difficult for a fat pasture-potato, so it's best (per the books) to keep the first several sessions around 15 minutes in length, and not to expect the horse to be able to maintain the long-and-low, reaching-for-the-bit, engaging-the-hindquarters frame for more than a few strides at a time.

Gradually, Arabee has been able to go from a few strides of just long and low, to half a lap, to now nearly two full laps. And it's not just a simple long-and-low frame - it's difficult to describe, but quite lovely: all 4 legs, her back, belly, hindquarters, neck, and poll are all working energetically forward in a rounded, lovely Arabian fashion. But the very nice thing about using the sliding sidereins adjusted like I described above is that the action of the bit is gentle and encourages Arabee to stretch toward the bit, but yet she can absolutely raise and lower her head without punishing her mouth like she would have in fixed sidereins (even with a rubber donut). It allows her to build the correct muscles, but lets her take a break when she needs to due to fatigue.

This post is long enough. There's more to this initial longe work, but I'll save it for the next post.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Step One: Assemble Proper Equipment

Ok, so here's what I'm using:

Snaffle bit. Mine is a loose ring snaffle, and has a very very thick mouthpiece, which I think in fact is thicker than Arabee would prefer. But "they" say a thicker mouthpiece is kinder to the horse. It measures 4 3/4" from ring to ring.

Bridle with a flash noseband. The Mary Twelveponies book called for a dropped noseband. I have another book about driven dressage (Carriage Driving: A Logical Approach through Dressage Training by Heike Bean and Sarah Blanchard) that details very carefully why a flash noseband is easier to adjust properly to suit the horse. This noseband is NOT used to keep my horse's mouth shut - but the way I understand it, the purpose of the flash is to offer support to the snaffle bit, which keeps it in a more steady position in the mouth.

Sliding sidereins. Here again I slightly differ from the Twelveponies book, in favor of my driven dressage book's recommendation. Rather than standard sidereins for lunging, I'm using sliding sidereins. I'll try to get a picture of my longing set-up in action, but in the meantime, they're sort of a cross between sidereins and draw reins. The sliding sidereins allow Arabee to go all "long and low" if she chooses, and in fact allow her to raise her head way up high and hollow if she chooses - but in general, these auxiliary reins encourage her to drop down and round up her back.

Good-fitting saddle. I think anyone reading this will recognize just exactly HOW elusive this item can be!!!! Or for the initial portion, a surcingle can be used. My no-withered mare requires also a crupper to keep anything back in place.

Longe line and whip. Mine has a rubber donut on the end, which I like - kind of insurance against getting pulled out of my hand. Along with this - GLOVES!!! I never, ever longe a horse without wearing gloves. No matter how well-behaved they *typically* are.

The Mary Twelveponies' book also recommends a dressage whip. My horse is QUITE forward enough at this point, thankyouverymuch - I don't anticipate her requiring a whip unless I'm in an arena in the heat of the summer day having consistent work. However, she did need one in the early stages of her training 10 years ago - she did not fully comprehend that leg=go forward - so a gentle tap with the whip was a good aid to have. I do have a lovely fly whisk that I've started carrying - I suppose I could use it as a whip if the need ever arose.

So that's it. Nothing fancy. In fact, I had everything I needed in my possession EXCEPT for the sliding sidereins, which I made myself for less than $10.

One of these days I will get a picture up, and I badly need to talk about what I've done with my saddling. I'm really wanting to wait though until I get the courage up (and the consistent attention of my mare enough) to canter. I feel I won't have a fair assessment until I've done that, really. And really, a longer trail ride (like 2 or more hours).

Next up: the longing part of dressage-y-re-training.

Just Quiet, trying some things, slowly

Well, I haven't posted much. Again.

But I have been off and on working with Arabee.

For 2 nights in a row I've longed her, then rode for a few minutes.

Anyone ever read any of Mary Twelveponies books? I recently read Everyday Training: Backyard Dressage, which I requested via my local library system. I very much enjoyed it - it talks about how dressage training is essentially the basis (or can be) of all other riding. That, if you start with basic dressage principles, you can end up with a all-around, good, well-trained horse that you can go in nearly any direction with (of course, depending on its natural abilities) - jumping, western events, trail riding, whatever.

Also from the library, at the same time, I checked out Equine Fitness: A Conditioning Program of Exercises & Routines for your Horse by Jec Aristotle Ballou. Also a good, informative read - describing how to safely and progressively bring a horse along from unfit to fit, describing different tools and exercises to use depending on the horse's maturity as well as current level of exercise. One of the main things the book stressed was that even if you were going through the motions of the exercises in the proper order, for the right amounts of time, you would not be benefitting the horse UNLESS it was travelling in the proper posture. It essentially stated that if your horse was not moving properly (back up, haunches down) you could not expect to achieve fitness, just a sore, unhappy animal. (I originally stumbled upon this book when I searched info on building stronger stifles)

Okay, well, how to get my horse moving properly? I don't want a "headset" (which unfortunately is what I suckered myself into getting when I started Arabee when she was 4 years old). My goal is a horse who is engaging it's rear-end, light on the forehand, using it's back and neck in a fluid, supple way. You know, on the bit.


But.....don't I (and Arabee, too) want to ride bitless?

Yep. Hmm...

So back when I posted about the cousins riding, I had both girls riding in my rope halter that has a place on each side to clip reins. Arabee actually yielded to rein pressure very very nicely. It was beautiful to watch her engage for those girls, and she did very very well. BUT, in order to achieve that posture/frame, Arabee had constant (still gentle, but constant) pressure on her nose. I'm really not describing the details of why very effectively - but to me it was clear that for riding work in which I'm looking for a specific frame/body position from Arabee, that riding in that rope riding halter isn't ideal.

Okay. So I tried my Dr. Cook's bitless bridle again. Well, same thing - she went very well in it, and did yield pretty well - but I'd quit riding in it a loooong time ago - for the reason that there was no release from pressure - once the cross-under straps got tight, they stayed tight.

I have an S-hack, too. So I rode in it a few times again, hoping that I'd be able to achieve a light feel in the proper frame. Well, I could get a sort of high-headed, probably false "collection" - but anything resembling steering was out the window - and it seemed that Arabee just could not relax and get long and low in it, no matter how loose the rein.

So that left me out of bitless options to try. None of them seemed appropriate for the type of work I was wanting to do - retraining my horse using dressage principles, to achieve correct body carriage, to be able to properly work through some of the fitness and conditioning exercises laid out in the Equine Fitness book, in order to gradually and in a "makes-sense" sort of way bring my pasture potato to whole-body fitness - able to do long trail rides away from home without getting exhausted and sore.

So, I guess, what I'm really trying to say that...I'm working on retraining my 14 year old mare to a snaffle bit again. Something that if I'd have just taken the time to do it right the first time (rather than look solely to head and neck carriage for a "headset") I could be done with all that and just be enjoying my super well-trained, all-around good horse.

In future posts, I intend to lay out details of exactly how I aim to go about doing this, what I'm doing, what my goal is with doing just that - progress, etc. It will very likely take a LONG time, due to my on-again, off-again riding schedule. But you know what - I'm having fun doing it, and Arabee still whinnies when she sees me, so I guess she's not tooooo perturbed about the whole bit thing.