Under Saddle

Welcome to Part Four of the Unharnessed Potential project, an education and awareness campaign to promote the re-training and re-homing of Standardbreds that retire from racing. 

In this article series, Alistair McLean from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC) is documenting the re-training of ‘Ideal Guy’ (a.k.a Andy), a five-year-old Standardbred pacer that is making the journey from track-to-hack. 

Last month, we saw how the basic responses in-hand influence the backing process and, this month Andy progresses from the round yard to the arena and, most importantly, we learn how to teach the pacer to trot.

Transitioning Andy from the round yard to the arena 

Now that Andy is obedient in his ‘stop’, ‘go’ and ‘turn’ responses, we can begin to think about the next step – moving out of the round yard and into the larger arena. At the AEBC, we have outdoor arenas, a large indoor arena that allows us to work in any weather, as well as tracks and laneways between the paddocks.

Depending on the horse and the reason he or she is at the AEBC, the usual transition from the round yard to the arena involves a short ride around the farm in-between. It creates a nice break in training for the horse, yet further consolidates the aids at the same time. Andy really responded well to the ride out as he was often noise-sensitive of things going on outside of the round yard, so this was a good opportunity to get him comfortable with a slightly more challenging environment.

Riding out this early makes training interesting for your horse, which I believe is very important. It is too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant arena work and trying to perfect our ‘buttons’. However, if you don’t feel confident that your aids will be effective enough in an open space, then transitioning straight to a bigger arena may be a safer option. As Andy had been raced, new environments didn’t cause much of an issue as he had already been exposed to many different settings in his racing career.

Starting Andy’s arena work 

Obedience is the second tier of the shaping scale after basic attempt and it means that the horse offers an immediate response from a light aid. Although Andy responds lightly, it needs to be the correct kind of lightness. Rather than lightness that is driven from fear or hyper-sensitivity to the leg or rein aids, we work on achieving lightness as a result of the repetition and consistency of those aids. All responses, even though we are only in the early stages, should be proportional to the pressure of the aid given. A soft aid should produce a nice soft response, whilst a slightly firmer aid should produce more. This is an important part of the obedience level of training.

The first time you take your horse into the arena, it should be all about showing him around. There were a lot of new things for Andy to look at, so it was important for him to get comfortable with the environment.

Further shaping of the basic responses should now be much easier with more room for the horse to move. The arena is a great place to further refine and continue training our basic responses under-saddle, all of which should be trained in the walk first to lay the foundations for higher gaits. In re-training, if there is a problem in a higher gait, chances are that it is evident in the lower gaits too and may be easier to fix at a slower speed!

The basic responses under-saddle and shaping scale 

The basic responses under-saddle are virtually the same as our in-hand responses and so they should be. For effective training to be possible, our basic responses need to be consistent along with the shaping scale we follow when training these responses.

The aids under-saddle – GO 

The ‘go’ response is comprised of three basic responses – ‘up a gait’, ‘faster’, which refers to the gait’s tempo, and ‘longer’, which refers to the length of stride. In the table on the opposite page (see PDF), you can see clearly the aids we use, so we can differentiate one response from another to ensure our training is clear throughout the different stages.

Longer is a very handy tool, as longer strides biomechanically produce a longer and less contracted neck, which is a great way to achieve relaxation. Horses that hollow through the back from our leg aids will find it hard to relax, so it’s a good idea to teach longer steps quite early in their training to help achieve relaxation from our leg aids.

Aid duration refers to the time allowed to achieve the response. If you are not achieving the desired response in that period of time, you need to think about increasing his motivation.

Remember to have soft arms that don’t impede on your horse’s natural neck movement during each stride, and to always release or remove the pressure as soon as the horse responds.

In the previous articles that appeared in the April and May issues of Horses and People, we explained how we train the responses thoroughly in-hand before going through the backing process of habituating the horse to the rider and saddle. The groundwork training included habituation to the whip and training the whip as a light aid (a light tap-tap), so if we ever need to use the whip-tap we know it is not going cause Andy any fear.

If you missed Part Three – Training In-Hand, you can read it online at: http://www. horsesandpeople.com.au/article/ideal-guys-track-hack-story-part-3.

Throughout our training we continually test that the horse is in self-carriage. Self-carriage refers to both the rider’s hands and legs. If your horse is ‘lazy’, make sure that your leg aids haven’t become a maintaining aid (loss of self-carriage from the leg). Your horse should continue moving at the same speed until told otherwise and mistakes are normal, but should always be corrected. Covering your horse’s loss of self-carriage by kicking or nudging all the time with your heels will only make him lazier to the leg as he habituates or becomes desensitised to your leg pressure.

The aids under-saddle – STOP 

The ‘stop’ responses are some of the most complicated responses for a horse to learn. This is because the horse has to learn to respond to our light aids yet, at the same time, they also need to habituate to a small amount of pressure, which becomes our neutral or basic contact (a very small amount of pressure that should not elicit a slowing response).

Contact issues (such as headshaking, jibbing, sitting behind the bit, mouth anxiety, neck shortening and heaviness or a hard mouth) are the most common problems I see in training and they are due to people using bit pressure incorrectly.

Most commonly, people use bit pressure to bring the horse into an outline. This can make the horse learn to neck shorten from bit pressure, which can lead to contact issues (the horse coming behind the bit or pulling against it), as well as deteriorating the ‘stop’ response.

Another problem can be the timing of release (too early or too late can reward the wrong behaviour), and also those who are too hard, too soft or inconsistent with their arms/hands. It’s important that our arms follow the movement of the horse (i.e., the hands should walk back and forth in the walk and the canter, and remain still for the trot), but aside from this soft, following movement, the contact should remain still and consistent, so there is no interruption to the horse’s natural way of going. It’s not easy, but it’s important that the rider’s position as a whole remains balanced at all times. 

All contact issues can be avoided by training the responses correctly and clearly from the beginning. The time spent establishing the light rein responses in-hand is well worth it.

A few simple rules whilst training these slowing responses are:

  1. Aim for lightness. Always use a light aid first, before you increase pressure to allow him a chance to respond from your light aid.
  2. Don’t use prolonged pulling pressure on the reins to stop. Instead, vibrate the reins if the horse doesn’t react to the light pressure. This will cause less interference with the horses outline and natural gait, and get a reaction faster.
  3. Be patient and follow the shaping scale. Lightness and consistency whilst travelling ‘in a frame’ doesn’t happen overnight.

The aids under-saddle – TURN 

Direct turns have already been taught in the round yard, however, we still need to train the indirect turn.

Indirect turns are taught and used primarily as a straightening aid. However, they are also a great way to make your horse more supple when we introduce lateral flexion later in their training.

Remember, that the turn happens when the horse turns with his forelegs. We do not want to reward the horse (release the pressure) when he bends his neck without turning his legs, so good timing is essential when training turns. Adding lateral flexion to the turns is a shaped quality that happens easily as the horse becomes lighter and more even in his turns.

Indirect turns are particularly useful for horses that have raced in one direction, such as the Standardbred. Andy was very crooked to the left and constantly bulged through the right shoulder. Teaching him the indirect turn from the right rein allows me to shift his shoulders over to the left and straighten his body. Subsequently, the right side of his body began to soften more and now he is very even. Indirect turns are also very useful for horses that fall in or out through the turns.

Teaching your horse to yield his hindquarters should be taught from halt. Classically conditioning your leg aid with the already known whip-tap aid will be the clearest and quickest way to train this. Eventually, this can be further shaped into a leg-yield once the horse is more established in all of his other responses. Because of the biomechanics of the leg-yield, it is a great way to get a more pure walk and trot, especially if your horse has pacing tendencies.

Teaching Andy to trot in-hand 

Teaching Andy to trot was harder than we anticipated! No matter how relaxed we got him, whether it was in-hand or under-saddle, he would only pace. We know that the ability to pace is genetic and the pacing gene in Andy is obviously very strong – in the beginning he would practice pacing everywhere.

Soon after Andy’s arrival at the AEBC and once he had settled-in to the new environment, we began to notice that every now and then he would trot in his paddock. The trotting in his paddock became more frequent the more he felt comfortable in his new home, nevertheless, he would still only pace whenever he was outside of his paddock.

Horses are very context-specific in their learning (they associate the environment with the responses they are giving), so we began doing groundwork sessions in his paddock. We started in just a halter to minimise any change to the environment where he would trot. The aid we used is the same aid for ‘Go’ that we explained in Part Three of the series – Training In-Hand – forward pressure from the lead rein, releasing as soon as he responded correctly.

We spent a while on his groundwork in the paddock, always asking for trot in the same place to increase the chance of success. We make the transition in the same spot until it was consistent and then we began asking in slightly different spots.

The next day we began asking him to trot in the paddock and then on the way up to the stables, and found that it worked very well. The important thing here is to make sure you shape the response in the smallest stages possible, just like the backing process.

We continued making walk to trot transitions all the way into the arena. Trot is generally a more relaxed, flowing gait than pace is so, the more they trial it, the more they will do it (as long as the training is relaxed). Once the trot was shaped to the arena and we were consistently getting walk to trot transitions in-hand, we decided to progress to the next stage – under-saddle.

Teaching Andy to trot under-saddle 

Teaching Andy to trot under-saddle was all about shaping and classically conditioning the rider’s leg aid (which originally produced pace) with the trot aid he had learned in-hand.

In the initial stages, as rider, I sat as passively as possible while the handler trained him exactly like we had done in-hand. After rewarding a number of successful repetitions with plenty of wither scratching, we began to classically condition the rider’s aid – a light squeeze of the rider’s legs was followed immediately by a forward lead rein pressure of the handler. Eventually, the rider’s legs alone should produce the trot response.

At this stage of the training it is important to just let the horse trot at any speed and keep repeating the transitions walk-trot-walk until they are consistent. Initially, Andy’s trot was huge! It covered far too much ground, nevertheless, we rewarded it because he was at basic attempt level.

As Andy became more and more comfortable with trot, the handler gradually extended the lead to move away and allow the rider to be more in control. When the handler was not interfering at all, the rope was removed and the rider had complete control.

Once the walk-trot and trot-walk transitions were at obedience level – where the horse responds to the light aid within two steps without the handler near – we could work on the tempo of the trot. Now, we ask for the trot to slow a little to maintain balance and rhythm (and not cover quite so much ground!). Soon, Andy was able to transition in and out of trot in a steady tempo and we started to work on the basic responses in trot too.

Next time…

In the next article, we talk about how to further establish Andy’s under-saddle work in walk and trot and introduce canter – our biggest challenge yet!

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