Learning to give in walk. In the first articles, Romeo learned basic handling, including haltering, grooming, picking up feet and tying up. This month he continues by learning to give to the bit at the walk.
In this exclusive training series, Kate Fenner from Kandoo Equine explains the essential foundation lessons for any horse using her un-started, five-year-old Friesian gelding, Romeo. Why not follow along with your own horse?
Whether your horse is un-started or already going under saddle, but you feel these are areas that need a little work, you’re in the right place.
Let’s get moving!
Last month, we taught Romeo two different pressure-release exercises – to put his head down from poll pressure and ‘Give to the Bit’ from rein tension. These were simple exercises that taught the horse to look for answers in movement and engaged him with the lesson.
And make sure you also watch the accompanying free video of this lesson #3 on the Kandoo Equine Blog.
We need movement to train. Last time, we moved the tip of the ear, which lowered the head, and the tip on the nose, which moved the head laterally. Now, it’s time to get the horse’s feet moving forward.
The purpose of this lesson is to get the horse to walk around you, in self-carriage, maintaining relaxation and a soft, round frame at all times.
Beginning on the lefthand side of the horse: Position yourself at your horse’s shoulder, facing forward, with your left hand on the left rein. You can simply leave the right rein over the neck, just make sure it doesn’t get too long, enabling the horse to step into it.
You should face forward and your left arm will be across your body. In this way, you can walk forward with the horse. Your right hand is holding the dressage whip and should rest on your horse’s wither. From here, you can reach the hip with the whip to encourage forward movement, and also apply positive reinforcement in the form of a scratch when you see your horse relax and give to bit pressure.
Practice your ‘Give to the Bit’ work from last month, just one or two gives, and then ask your horse to walk forward.
Give them a verbal cue first. I use a single ‘cluck’ for walk and raise the whip to the hip if the horse does not move forward. Your third ‘Go Forward’ cue is to tap the horse on the hip with the whip and this should get you both moving.
Now you have your horse moving around you, it’s time to really establish that pattern. As we haven’t yet taken directional control of the feet, don’t worry too much about where your horse goes in these early stages, but try to make your circle as big as you can – a 10 metre circle is ideal.
If your horse is stepping in to you and making the circle too small, establish more forward movement (see the section on Establishing Forward below) – the more forward movement you get, the bigger your circle should be.
Don’t forget to move forward with your horse (See Image E and the accompanying video at: https://www.kandooequine.com/blog/starting-romeo-3).
The pattern you are establishing looks like this:
- The horse walks a circle around you.
- They feel bit pressure.
- They relax and give to bit pressure.
- They feel a complete release of pressure and receive verbal praise, together with a scratch on the wither.
- If they lift their head or become tense, go back to Step 2.
The horse is learning about self-carriage; that is, maintaining relaxation, gait and frame (at this early stage) until signalled to do something differently.
Don’t be tempted to ‘hold’ your horse in frame as this will only desensitise them to bit pressure.
By allowing the horse to make the mistake of coming out of frame (or leaving your bubble of communication), you are giving yourself another opportunity to train by picking up some rein tension to cue that give again.
You shouldn’t have any rein tension when the horse is relaxed and walking around in a soft frame. The horse will soon learn that staying there avoids any bit pressure.
It may sound counter-productive to slow yourself down to speed up your training, but that’s exactly what you should do.
Your horse is learning a pattern and you need to give them time to respond before picking up pressure on the bit.
Most horses learn this very quickly and can see your hand slowly moving, so they respond before the pressure is applied. This is perfect. The pressure is a form of negative reinforcement – something the horse wants removed and it’s not the important element of the training, the important part is the release.
If your horse finds a solution that completely avoids the application of pressure, then give them a big scratch – clever horse!
Whenever we are training, we’re always looking to minimise the pressure required to get the same response. By slowing yourself down, you give the horse the opportunity to respond to the lightest of touches – making for a more pleasurable ride for both of you in the future.
I usually start this exercise on the left because most horses have had more handling on that side and will, therefore, find it easier to relax.
However, in some cases (and this especially applies to horse that have been systematically desensitised to pressure, such as off the track racehorses), you might find it easier to start from the right side where the horse can be considered a bit more of a ‘blank canvas’. The horse may be more responsive to a lighter pressure from the right side, depending on their history, previous ground work and handling experiences.
Whichever side you do decide to begin with, it’s important you train both sides equally the course of your training.
I try to change sides every few minutes, so the horse doesn’t get a tired neck from bending in one direction for too long. This also gives you the opportunity to stop and praise the horse while you change sides, teaching the horse they can simply stand and relax when nothing else is being asked.
If your horse is already started under saddle, practice this lesson before you ride. It’s the perfect way to engage your horse. I suggest doing just 3-5 minutes each side, and mounting once you see your horse is relaxed and in your bubble of communication (see the Engagement Zone lesson by clicking here)
I’ve dedicated a month to this lesson because it is the most important of all the foundation lessons. It is here the horse learns to connect a light touch of the rein with relaxation and travelling forward in a soft frame.
Now go and watch the accompanying free video of this lesson #3 on the Kandoo Equine Blog.
In the next lesson, we’ll look at shoulder control and moving to more areas of the clock under the horse’s chest and, when we do that, you should expect to lose some of your softness. Don’t worry, it won’t be gone forever, in fact, just the opposite will occur.
This is because, as the horse learns new movements, they concentrate on that one new thing and seem to ‘forget’ everything else (remember, horses can only think of one thing at a time and, even though we hate to admit it, so can we). You’ll find, once the new behaviour (reverse arc) is established, your ‘Give to the Bit’ will come back even better than it was before you began the shoulder control lesson, because each lesson builds on the one before.