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Feel, Timing and Balance & Restoring Natural Movement

One of the most interesting facets of this approach lies simply in the observation of how a colt, or any individual horse, chooses to place his feet in ground exercises. When observed carefully, this placement can reveal poor form in movement, which is often associated with loss or compromise in flexibility, locomotion, confidence or performance. Observations noted on the ground can suggest the source of other, seemingly unrelated, challenges a rider might experience with that horse under saddle. The beauty is that if you notice these things, you can altogether avoid a lengthy quest for solutions to perceived ‘training issues’ by taking that proactive measure to help him restore (or improve, if he is impacted by injury for example) natural locomotion. It is a rewarding and most efficient way to get back on track with your horse – and spares a good deal of the confusion and stress that can occur in a horse/rider partnership when the focus is on fixing a maneuver that seems to be presenting an ongoing challenge.

For example, if you have trouble picking up a right lead at the canter, notice the details about the way your horse uses his left diagonal in his groundwork at a walk. In a right lead canter, he relies on his left diagonal for balance. If he habitually leans left, bearing down onto the left foreleg, this creates an instability in that diagonal in two ways. First, the left foreleg is apt to be less available than the right one when a sudden movement is either needed or made, due to the excessive weight carried over the left shoulder. Second, the right hip on a horse who stands imbalanced, leaning on the left foreleg, is likely to be set well back behind the left hip a majority of the time. In other words, the hind foot in that diagonal has "learned" that it is not needed for the same reasons the left hip is needed, given the way he is used and handled. If this is a habitual posture, the horse will have difficulty shifting his weight to the hips as he moves, and the base of support he needs in a solidly balanced left diagonal for a right lead canter will be compromised. This tidbit of information can go a long way to helping the horse if, for example, he is thought to be resistant to a trainer attempting lead changes. Without good balance in the canter to the right, he may not have the confidence to canter in that direction, may strike off on the left lead instead, have a tendency to break to a trot, or canter on two leads at the same time (the right in front and the left behind, or vice versa, known as “cross-firing” or being “disunited”).

Restoring the diagonal on the ground and his balanced use of both hips will bring horse and rider immediate positive results. This can be as simple as teaching him to stand squarely and well-balanced on all four hooves. His canter will improve as will other maneuvers, including his ability to travel straight, offer smooth upward and downward transitions, make a clean one-stride stop and maintain balance in turns.

I have worked with owners who assumed their horses were naturally unbalanced or had uneven gaits – and/or thought they had to cope with chronic unsoundness and settle for limited use of their horses. During recovery from an injury, horses will compensate for an injured hoof or joint, just as we do. Long after an injury has healed, that altered way of moving can remain habitual. Often, natural movement can be restored, or greatly improved, simply by renewing awareness in the horse that sound steps are now possible to take.

Astonishing results can be achieved by re-introducing a horse to his hips and the power they offer him, and re-connecting his four quarters via the natural function of his diagonal pairs of feet. When he experiences freedom of movement that he didn’t know he had access to, the resulting re-awakening of mind, body and spirit is both moving and lasting.

In the photograph below, Spring offers an opportunity to observe how a horse habitually moves, with a loss of natural form, the possible source and the implications for the ride later.

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Photo 15: This photograph was taken on the first day of the clinic. Spring has a nice expression, and with an ear tipped towards me, she is quite well-tuned into my intent. Spring was two years old and not started under saddle. However, note that instead of tipping the bridge of her nose to the left and lifting her left shoulder as she travels in a circle to the left, she braces her neck and leans her body over the left shoulder into the curve, with hindquarters trailing. Why does she do this? She carries herself in a posture that allows room for a human by her left eye: she leaves available the vertical plane from her eye to the ground, past her shoulder. This might help her stay comfortable and safe, if on the hack-string, by carefully leaving open the space close to her left eye and neck, often crowded by less experienced horse folk. However, it does not set her up to offer a light ride for a new career in performance disciplines. Compare this with photograph 13, taken a day or two later, after several strategies had been used to help Spring reconnect with the use of her hips and restore freedom of movement in the head, neck and shoulders. (Photograph by Trine Bohnsdalen)

Understanding a horse’s natural movements and learning how to support and build on those in our handling and riding offers many, many benefits to the horse and rider.

This article reports clinic experiences only and is not intended
for instructional purposes.

Colt Starting Through Feel, by Karen Musson, 03/20/2009 V2.1
© 2009 All rights reserved

 

Mark Rashid

RashidBookCover

"I see an 'opening' as anything that allows us to help guide, however briefly, an individual in the direction we ultimately would like to go. An 'opening' can be, and often is, a very subtle form of communication between horse and rider that can easily slip past us if we're not paying attention. 'Openings' can and do work both ways. [...] It amazes me just how small an 'opening' can actually be, whether working with horses or with people, and how easy it can be to create an 'opening' when one is needed."

Mark Rashid

"I truly believe developing the ability to see and use 'openings' effectively is only one piece of what one might refer to as the 'harmony in horsemanship' puzzle. When this idea of understanding 'openings' is brought together with the understanding of two other simlar ideas - making a connection with another indvidual, and the role distance plays in overall communication - I believe it is then that harmony in horsemanship becomes a much less daunting concept for us."

Mark Rashid

Leslie Desmond

LDaudiobook

"Bill knew about a place I did not know existed, or could exist, between a horse and a human being [...] Bill included each one of my horses in that information exchange. Over the course of many months,... he took each one by its lead rope and, later, by the bridle reins. Using what he called his 'better feel', Bill showed me and each of them exactly what he meant by what he did [...] It was not long after I made the switch from force when needed (often) to always customizing the feel I offered to a horse, that two tough horses I had misunderstood for years developed into my most reliable mounts."

Leslie Desmond

The lightest hands carry intent that is recognized instantly by the horse, as seen in the maneuvers he chooses to make with his feet. Whether that horse is ridden or handled, the lightest hands can purposefully influence the speed, direction and sequence of each foot with accuracy, in a manner that is reflected in the horse's body and on his face.

Leslie Desmond

Bill Dorrance

bilsbook

"The Real Masters Understood Feel [...] For example, De Kerbrech, (French officer in the cavalry of Napoleon III) really understood horses. He had it fixed up so the horse could succeed. [...] The first time I read Beudant's book was in the 1950s. The way he explained things, there was no doubt in my mind about what a person needed to do to get these little things working for them and their horse."

Bill Dorrance

“Feel, timing and balance: sometimes it’s best to talk about feel, timing and balance separately, and to learn how to apply each thing separately on the start. But when you apply these three things a little later in your training, then you see that each one of these things supports the other. They are interconnected and all three are real important. You really can’t get along without all three.”

Bill Dorrance

Faverot de Kerbrech

FaverotBookCover

“...plus le deplacement du poids est facile dans tous les sens, plus l'equilibre est parfait. En vertue de ce principe, on dit que le cheval est 'en equilibre' quand de simples indications suffisent au cavalier pour modifier a son gre la disposition du poids sur ses colonnes de soutien”

Faverot de Kerbrech

[Translation: ...the easier it is to shift the weight in any direction, the more perfect the balance. By virtue of this principle, the horse is 'in balance' when a simple indication from the rider is sufficient to modify the distribution of weight across the columns of support (four quarters) accordingly]

Duke of Newcastle

CavendishBookCover

"You must in all Airs follow the strength, spirit, and disposition of the horse, and do nothing against nature; for art is but to set nature in order, and nothing else."

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle

"A confrontational approach ‘Astonishes the Weak Horse […] makes a Furious horse Madd; makes a Resty Horse more Resty […] and Displeases all sorts of Horses’. The alternative however is not ‘to Sit Weak […] but to Sit Easie’, in the understanding that ‘The Horse must know you are his Master’"

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle