Black horse trotting while rider tests for self-carriage

A Guide to Self-Carriage

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What do you picture when you think about ‘self-carriage’? Many of us picture a horse, perhaps in a dressage arena, travelling in a certain outline and maintaining gait and direction. In this article, however, I am going to discuss why self-carriage has a much wider definition and how important it is to all riders and horse handlers, regardless of their level of experience or discipline they choose to enjoy.

Although our first thought of self-carriage may invoke mental images of dressage horses, sadly, modern dressage is often a display of just the opposite.

Listen to the podcast on self-carriage

The term self-carriage literally means the horse is maintaining itself without needing support from the rider, whereas in modern dressage, most horses are pushed and ridden with a strong contact (unrelenting pressure) on the bit and often, the same from the riders’ legs.

This unrelenting pressure is in direct violation of the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) Training Principle #6: The correct use of operant conditioning, which explains that pressure must be released at the onset of the correct response.

To download a copy of the ISES First Principles of Horse Training, click here.

Self-carriage is the focus of the tenth ISES Horse Training Principle:

10. Regard for Self-carriage

Aim for self-carriage in all methods and at all levels of training.

Train the horse to maintain:

  • gait
  • tempo
  • stride length
  • direction
  • head and neck carriage
  • body posture

Avoid forcing any posture.

Avoid nagging with legs, spurs or reins i.e., avoid trying to maintain responses with relentless signaling.

”Lack of self-carriage can promote hyper-reactive responses and compromise horse welfare.”

This definition is excellent for the ridden horse – of any discipline – but I think we can take the self-carriage concept even further than this to improve our training and handling of horses in all aspects of the horse-human relationship.

Self-carriage simply means maintaining precisely what the horse has been cued to do until you signal the horse to do something else.

Using a ridden example of riding a 20 metre circle at canter, the horse should maintain the canter, at the same speed, length of stride, in the same direction, with unchanging head and neck carriage and consistent body posture – all without the rider having to ‘hold’ or ‘force’ any of these elements.

If you have to constantly correct your horse to keep it on the circle, keep your inside leg on to maintain direction or both legs to maintain speed, if you need a ‘good, solid contact’ to hold your horse’s head and neck in position or to elevate the forehand and shoulders, then you are not in self-carriage.

In practice, however, this can seem a bit depressing because, how many of us have a horse that will maintain a 20m canter circle with all of the above without the need for some intervention?

Very few, I would estimate.

But remember, this is what we are aiming for, and, with the correct training, exactly what we can achieve.

Understanding the concept of self-carriage allows us to train with this as our aim and, along the way, we get a huge array of benefits:

  1. We have to be clear in our mind about exactly what we want the horse to do and what we will use as motivation to encourage the horse to do that
  2. Once we have decided on #1, we need to know exactly when we are going to release the pressure and reward the horse
  3. Knowing this means we become very aware of when we have pressure and when we do not
  4. It follows then that our use of combined reinforcement improves as we use the pressure-release-reward sequences repeatedly
  5. In turn, the horse is able to relax as we are setting up easy-to-follow patterns of pressure-release-reward
  6. The horse gains confidence, learns the sequence and begins to anticipate the predictable pattern
  7. The horse is now in self-carriage, responding before pressure needs to be applied and continues until signalled to change something (such as speed or direction)

If we think about some of the common expressions we hear, such as ‘inside-leg-to-outside-rein’ or ‘keeping a good contact’, it begs the question of how these can coexist with self-carriage.

A horse that is in self-carriage at the mounting block will stand there until asked to move off.
A horse that is in self-carriage at the mounting block will stand there until asked to move off. Image courtesy Kandoo Equine.

Of course, they cannot coexist! And this is a good reminder that we should always be training with the aim of reducing the pressure required to achieve the response. This is done by providing the horse with consistent pressure-release-reward sequences, always beginning with the lightest possible pressure cue.

The lightest pressure cue is often a verbal cue. While we don’t always think of our voice as a pressure cue, it is exactly that and, when used before a tactile signal, allows the horse the opportunity to respond before the heavier cue is applied.

Earlier, I mentioned that self-carriage deserves a wider definition and application than that which is currently common. I think it is important that we apply the principle of self-carriage – continuing to do what has been asked until signalled to do something else – to everything we do with the horse and that we start doing so as early as possible in the horse’s training.

By having self-carriage as our aim in all interactions with our horse it teaches the horse to be responsible for himself or herself in terms of their position and movement at all times.

Self-carriage is as relevant to trailer loading as it is to picking up feet, leading or riding that 20m circle. We always want the horse to do what we’ve asked until we ask them to do something else.

When we view all training and handling in this way, it helps us become aware of the signals and pressure cues we are giving the horse and thus, also be more aware of providing a timely release.

A horse that stands while being groomed is in self-carriate
A horse that stands untied while being groomed is in self-carriage.

We’ve all ridden a horse that needs verbal encouragement, or even kicking, every stride to stay in trot, or a horse that lags behind on the lead and seems to need dragging along. But what if we could teach the horse self-carriage in these instances? Couldn’t we apply the self-carriage principles to picking up feet, standing at the mounting block or standing at the tie-rail?

I think that it is not only possible that we could, but also that we should do this for the benefit of the horse. What does that look like?

Examples of self-carriage

  • A horse that is in self-carriage at the mounting block will stand there until asked to move off.
  • A horse in self-carriage when with the farrier will hold up each foot until the farrier returns the foot to the floor.
  • Self-carriage for trailer loading looks like the horse that loads on to the trailer and waits quietly until he or she is signalled to back off.

Better relationships

By incorporating the concept of self-carriage into all of our training – from foundation training on the ground to advanced work under saddle – we can greatly improve our relationship with our horse. This is because teaching self-carriage requires us to be mindful of when and how we use combined reinforcement and makes us less likely to subject our horses to nagging or unrelenting pressure at any time.

With this in mind, how then do we go about incorporating self-carriage into our everyday handling and training?

The simple answer is to always have a ‘start’ and ‘end’ cue for any behaviour.

Let’s look at an example; with trailer loading, we teach getting on (just one foot at a time) and getting off at the same time. By doing this, the horse learns to wait for the signal to get off and learns not to back out before getting that signal.

You can read the full trailer loading article here.

A horse that loads on to the trailer and waits quietly until he or she is signalled to back off, is in self-carriage. Image courtesy Kandoo Equine.

The same is true for lifting and cleaning your horse’s feet; you have a signal, such as running your hand down the leg to lift the foot and when you have finished, you place the foot back on the ground and reward your horse.

If you simply drop the foot unannounced (without placing it gently down), you are un-training self-carriage – the response of keeping the foot up will become unpleasant because it becomes unpredictable for the horse (not to mention possibly jarring for his/her toe when it hits the ground).

Think about this next time you are teaching your horse something – anything – be it shoulder-in or to pick up the feet. You want a cue to go into the movement and a cue to come out of the movement.

Horses learn very well from predictable patterns and we all know they really don’t like surprises!

Training self-carriage in this way will make your horse’s life predictable and give your horse confidence.

Listen to Kandoo-Kansay’s podcast on self-carriage

Track your progress on E-BARQ

When you begin to integrate small changes to your training and handling routines, such as focusing on self-carriage, it’s great to be able to measure your progress and see how it is helping your horse.

You can do this by completing an Equine Behaviour Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) on your horse every six months.

This will tell you how his or her trainability and rideability are improving and also how your horse’s confidence and compliance are improving. Your attention to self-carriage should improve each of these E-BARQ elements.

Go to www.e-barq.org to get started.

Dr Kate Fenner, BEqSc (Hons), PhD

Kate is an equine scientist with a PhD in horse behaviour and training from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. She is also an equestrian coach (Equestrian Australia and British Horse Society) and horse trainer (John and Josh Lyons Certified Trainer). Kate has ridden, trained and competed in Dressage, Jumping, Western and Polo in Australia, Europe, the United States and Asia.

After years of experience starting horses for clients, Kate feels strongly that owners are best served by learning to train their own horses. As a result, she founded Kandoo Equine and has developed a series of ethical, easy to follow, step-by-step guides that are suitable for horses and riders of all levels.

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