Question: We have a 4-year-old Andalusian cross filly who trips a lot when being ridden. The other day she went right down on her head. What can we do to prevent this? We are taking her away to be evaluated.
Answer from April Reeves: This question was from my area so I went to watch the filly.
She is a very small (14HH) cross with a short neck and chunky body. She has had a bit of riding time in 2008 but no real training has occurred, as in foundation work (and anyone familiar with this blog KNOWS I am a stickler for foundation training).
Here are her problems:
Stella is 4 and an Andalusian cross. She will not mature for another 3 years; top of her 7th year. In the next 2 years she may see 14.2HH but she will stretch longitudinally. She is a chunky-monkey, but a darling pony for someone one day. Stella is a baby still, plain and simple. She is typical of many babies.
Her neck is abnormally short right now. When she moves she carries her head high. The result is that she is unable to see where she is going and what she is doing, and when she gets choppy she becomes dangerous to the rider’s safety, not knowing how to get herself out of trouble should she land incorrectly. Because she is 4, her growth in her legs is coming to a stop, and now she will experience the remainder of growth longitudinally (poll to tail). The neck and spine are the last to grow and set (up to age 7-8). (My Appendix quarter horse stopped growing up at the age of 5, but added 11 inches to his length at the age of 6).
Stella does not know what to do with her feet because she is typical of many babies. Not only do they have to learn aids and leg cues, they have to learn how to balance a rider. This is easier for the athletic short coupled horses, but difficult for the shorter heavier babies.
She is also slightly bum high. That will change in time.
She currently throws her back legs out behind her as she trots. This is typical of a horse that does not use it’s back end for drive. Instead, she pulls with her front legs, and that is where her problems are coming from.
If she is not taught properly, Stella could get use to using her body this way, and it would be a long haul to reprogram her. (I currently have a 16.1, 6 year-old like this. He has been ridden steady for 2 years. He will take a good 90 days to begin to understand the reprogramming – to use his back end first through his movements).
There are problems associated with this way of going. I call it ‘the quality of the gaits’. Some horses just move well; they are perfectly diagonal in their trot, and their canter is soft and rhythmical.
Then there is the horse whose back end does not seem to have a clue what the front end is doing. This type of horse has never been taught to think about what happens behind the girth. At first, these horses come by this problem naturally, but it is up to the rider to help them.
They need to learn how to use their back end, and that the hindquarter is the first thing that moves when asked. The front end just has to keep up. The shorter coupled breeds such as quarter horses tend to have this balance and ability naturally, by virtue of their conformation.
So how do you work with a baby like this?
Foundation training works on the principle that the lessons are set up so that the horse learns it on their own without being micro-managed (once a horse learns that he cannot move a single step without the rider’s help, they rely so heavily on the rider being there that they quit thinking for themselves, get heavy in the hand and dull on the leg).
Foundation training teaches them to search for the answers on their own. Once the horse learns each level, it is there for life.
This is an excerpt from the article I have on this blog under “saddle work for the herd bound horse”. It will give you an idea of how to start foundation work.
Teaching rhythm, pace and responsibility for gaits
This next exercise will teach your horse to take responsibility for his gait. You should never have to constantly push a horse every few strides, nor should you have to try to correct a fast horse all the time. Horses should stay in the gait you ask until you ask otherwise, and this exercise will help. It’s also easy. You will do very little. There is no direct pulling on the face or aggressive motion on your part.
You will need an arena or a field where you can ride safely, and has no holes or rocks. Begin by asking the horse to trot, keeping him in a series of circles. Keep the circles fairly large, as you don’t want to put stress on the legs and muscles. Keep your reins loose and allow your horse to trot freely.
Let the horse trot as fast or as slow as he wants, and gently guide him to stay in the circle. Do not pull or try to change his trot speed. Just stay there and go for the ride, quietly, keeping your legs off the horse.
Do not try to change the speed of the gait you are in, or manage it in any way. Always remember what the single lesson is.
Your only job is to make sure he does not change his gait. If he slows down and almost breaks into a walk, bring him up again. Ask with your legs once, and if he does not move forward with speed, ask again using a crop and legs at the same time, and mean business. Let him jump forward, even canter for a few strides then bring him softly down into a trot again. Never pull a horse back once you have asked him aggressively to move forward. It is a conflicting message for him as you ask to go forward and then check him back. This can make him very anxious and you can lose his trust.
Always in training, remember what the single lesson is. In this case, it is simply to move forward. As time goes by and he gets better at this, then you can refine it, but for now it’s one lesson at a time only. This is basic introductory movements, not advanced work.
If your horse is more likely to speed up into a canter, each time he does you are to use the one-rein stop to bring him back to a trot. The instant he moves back into a trot, release him and allow him to move forward first, then gently guide him back to the circle. Never use both reins at the same time; it encourages resistance.
It’s important to remember to bring the horse back to a trot from the canter, not a walk or stop. Remember what the lesson is: trot, rhythm, cadence and obedience. You must stay in the trot at all times. The only exception is above, when you are doing the exercise to move forward with obedience, but even with this exercise you will still bring the horse back to a trot should he move forward at the canter at the beginning.
When you have this working well, move him into the canter, and keep it, staying in the circle. If he breaks into a trot, do what it takes to keep him in the canter. If he begins to balk, do not stop and try again, as this only teaches him to shut down when HE wants to. The second he breaks you must chase him back into the canter.
Your legs and hands
Also during this exercise, do not ‘nag’ with your legs at all. The point is to get the horse to continue it’s gait on it’s own without your help. This teaches the horse rhythm and responsibility.
Your hands remain quiet and still with the exception of guiding the horse, by picking up one rein or the other, never both reins at the same time. You should not have to force the horse into any circles. Just softly ask the horse to ‘follow a feel’ on the guiding inside rein. This exercise will teach you to stop the direct rein habit of pulling back with both reins as your first instinct to stop or change gaits. You should learn independence of hand first, and that includes stopping horses with one rein. It is more effective and produces results faster.
Try to change the circle direction often. You should never overdo this or wind the horse. If he gets hot or winded, stop him and let him catch his breath. Once he is recovered, you may resume the circle. I never wind a horse as it can damage them permanently and sour them.
Why does this work?
Horses seek comfort by nature. Since he does not know how long he will have to trot, eventually he will realize that it may be best to slow down and conserve his energy. This is where the lesson is: when he decides this on his own without any help from you.
With some horses, this lesson can take an hour a day for many days, depending how deep the problems run. It is important that you do not give up after a day or so. This does work on even the most stubborn horses. Eventually they all come around. Remember to let the horse catch his breath often.
What’s amazing is that you just sat there and did very little. There are many ways to create a great foundation without all the pulling, frustration, aggravation and expensive training. All my students learn this before anything else. You cannot do anything without cadence, rhythm and calm first. This is the foundation to begin all other training exercises.
After about 20 times, you will notice a rhythm and steady cadence to your horse’s gaits, from the walk to the trot and canter. Do this exercise at the canter also, as many people avoid too much canter work. I personally spend a great deal of time in the canter, as it is part of my interval training schedule (breathing and endurance) and obedience in speed gaits. Never be afraid of the canter – you can’t improve on something if you don’t do it. However, if you have trouble staying in the saddle during the canter, it is well advised that you take some training to improve your seat and balance, as often horses canter quickly to avoid the pain and discomfort of the rider coming down hard on their backs too often during the canter.
(End of excerpt).
In addition to the above work, I back a horse up every time I stop them. This teaches them to sit back on the hindquarters between the down transitions, and to begin to think about what is happening ‘behind the girth’. I want to be able to rock the horse back and distribute the weight from the front legs to the hind legs. When I stand the horse, I don’t want to feel the horse rock back for a second and then move it’s weight back onto the front again. I want that horse to keep the majority of weight behind the girth. If you practice this rocking you will begin to feel the horse’s weight shift and stay when you stand. With perfect practice, your horse will begin to do this without your help, and it will transfer to all your gaits and movements.
I start at the walk and ask for a halt. The second the horse is in the halt position, I immediately ask for the back. I only ask for a step or two (diagonal). I am just getting the horse to take up the habit of sitting back. This movement is a complete action; not a halt, stand and then back. It is a continual flow of energy and must be executed as a single movement.
If a horse halts and then shifts it’s weight forward, the flow of energy runs out the front. When you halt and back in one complete movement, the energy is captured at the front end and is recycled back and through to the hindquarters. Energy dynamics is a fascinating study and one that I will be posting a lot more of.
This should give you an idea of what and how. Young horses need their riders to put in not only the time but the consistency and dedication also to see the work through to progress and results.
There is more to foundation work but that is another article, or book!
Stella needs several weeks of this style of training. Within a few days, she should bring her head lower by the simple act of finding comfort on her own. You don’t need to ‘work’ the horse into a lower relaxed headset. They can find it on their own if you allow it to unfold. And that is accomplished with relaxation and trust.
The head will also lower once she has learned to shift her weight back (if you have ever ridden an advanced reining horse, you will know that when they come to a sliding stop, the head and neck stretch down and seem to disappear during the slide). Keep in mind though that short necked horses can only drop their heads so low (anatomy is anatomy). Although they can drop their heads to eat, dropping the head while having a rider and weight on their back is quite different. The weight of the rider often restricts the back muscles from fully relaxing and allowing the neck to lower. Young horses don’t understand how to lift the rider up unless you teach them. Stella’s neck is not only short but also set high up on her shoulder. She has a classic ‘english’ set to her neck. You have to be realistic when it comes to conformation. Asking a horse to perform in a position that is not natural to their balance and conformation is going to have consequences somewhere. This is my main argument about the stilted quarter horse gaits in the western pleasure ring. While some quarter horses have the conformation to perform these gaits, many are forced into it. A horse should be judged on it’s personal merits, and that starts with you, the rider and trainer, on what the horse is built for.
Many people begin to introduce advanced movements to a young horse too soon. You need to start at kindergarten and move one grade at a time; not jump to grade 7 from grade 1. Everything starts with relaxation and rhythm; without it there is nothing to work with. You won’t be able to force a horse into softness. You will only achieve tension and resistance. A low headset in vertical flexion is not necessarily correct if it was achieved with expensive equipment and force. While both ways can achieve similar looking results, I have witnessed all too often horses exploding and reacting badly in the show ring when the pressure exceeds their limits. Force rears it’s ugly head during times of stress.
It is such a joy to have a horse that can do all the movements with a happy attitude and ability; the kind that the horse finds on his own – with your help.