Thursday, April 7, 2011


Today was only day two on Annie. She's a nice looking bay Thoroughbred mare who I met last month when her owner, Shannon Bristow, brought her to a clinic at Stonewood Farm in Pennsylvania.

"She just gets really quick and locks against me," was Shannon's initial commentary. After 15 minutes of trying this and that without much progress, I asked if I could ride her. Usually at clinics, I get on and within ten steps or so the horse accepts the bit, and a couple circles later starts to accept the leg, and everyone is really impressed. Then I get off and have at least a chance of getting the rider to produce the same result.

Annie wasn't playing that game when I met her in PA that day. After about twenty minutes she started to give us a glimpse of where we wanted to go, and Shannon was able to get on and get a glimmer of it, but we were both pretty clear that it wasn't the breakthrough that was going to stick. Shannon asked what I thought I could do with her in a month, and I promised the world...or at least that she'd be doing basic training level dressage respectably and ought to be cantering small fences quietly.

So, she arrived Friday afternoon. Training horses only get ridden on weekdays unless they are competing, so Monday was day one. I got on in the indoor. Annie jigged. A little tension at first isn't unusual, but most horses will settle at the walk if you ask for nothing. Annie's walk wasn't settling, and there was enough natural impulsion in that walk that I decided to close my fingers on the reins and wait for her to soften to my hand. The idea is that the horse figures out that the bit is establishing a boundary. The horse accepts that boundary and settles within it, like it accepts the walls to a stall or the pressure of a rider's leg. Moving the bit a lot or pulling it hard does not convey the idea of a stable boundary.

As I walked around the indoor arena on Annie yesterday I stabilized my hands, but felt no need to squeeze my legs because she was already going quite forward and any additional pressure anywhere felt like it would make her explode. It worked to some degree, but slower than on most horses. She ended the session having found the round frame, or at least softened poll (arched neck if you're not a horse person), some of the time. While that was a relief to her, she would still lock against my hand and throw her head up defensively at the slightest distraction. I thought we had made progress, but not as much as I'd hoped.

Tuesday it was raining hard outside. Horses are never as settled in the indoor arena when it's raining outside. She started out even more tense than yesterday. We walked for 20 minutes. I worked to maintain my position and the consistency of my connection while thinking back on similar mares I had ridden when I was younger. I remembered how much more demanding I was then. I was like my younger students who want so much to get it right, whose bodies get more and more tense as progress slips further and further away. Those thoughts would have made me smile had my arms not been getting sore from the fact that Annie really wasn't softening to the bit.

Michelle, our assistant trainer, came in on Truce, and then barn manager Emily entered with my next horse, Brownie. Annie became even more oblivious to the guy on her back and just had to check out the new arrivals. Quick, quick, quick. Everything she did was quick. A good quiet rhythm is hypnotic to a horse. Rushing is bad.

I walked her into the corner. When she figured out that she couldn't go left and couldn't go right, she actually took a deep breath and stood still. Hmmm. That was interesting. I had never before put a horse on time-out like that. It worked just like it does with a child. She had time to settle and reorganize. So did I. We both needed it.

I used my time in the corner to slow things down and come up with a new plan. I'm always in a hurry to get all the horses ridden. Don't like delays. Annie needed help. Emily, I'm sure, was a bit surprised when I said she could take Brownie back and put him on the cross ties. Annie and I weren't done.

Things needed to be simpler for Annie. One issue at a time. Accept the bit.

Side reins are straps connecting the bit to the saddle with a rubber doughnut in them to soften the connection. I dismounted, walked to the wall where we keep but rarely use such paraphernalia, attached the side reins to the saddle at the top of the girth, and connected the longe line. Before attaching the side reins I let Annie walk and trot on a circle around me on the line for about a minute. Longeing was not new to her. I slowly and deliberately attached the side reins to the bit on the longest hole. Some very defensive horses try to fight the restriction of side reins and run backwards or rear. Annie did not. She put pressure on the bit, tested the restriction, but did not fight.  

Watching a horse like Annie in side reins is fascinating. She locks her left jaw more than her right, and prefers to bend her neck to the right. As a rider we know that if we can work through the resistance on the stiff side, wonderful things start happening. The horse discovers that its body moves in a way that it thought was impossible, and the opening of vertebrae in its back and neck feels so good that tight muscles become soft, tension disappears, and everyone smiles.

Annie walked and then trotted with her head in more or less the correct position, with her nose only slightly in front of her forehead, but from the expression on her face and the shape of the muscles in her neck it was clear that she still was locked in her neck and jaw. I asked her to walk and then halt by stepping slightly to the left as she circled me counter clock-wise. She did so like an expert. I walked slowly toward her and tightened the left draw rein by two holes. Then I showed her at the halt how to bend all the way through her neck in a deeper frame by working the bit with one hand and pressing her neck with the other. She got it. I cooed to her.

OK. Now lets see what we've got.

Annie walked forward from a voice command in a circle to the left. I was really into it by this time. I found myself straightening up my own slouchy posture and twisting the kink out of my own neck. I took a little feel of the inside ring of the bit with the longe line that was attached to it. Annie found the spot. She looked good. I asked her to trot. She looked even better. Wow. Nice trot. She's got rhythm, swing, even a little suspension. Her hard eye got soft. Her neck had a shape. All the tension left my body as soon as it left hers.

I don't normally ride a horse in side reins, especially one who carries a lot of tension, but I really wanted to be sure that before we ended our session Annie got a feel of her new shape with me on her back. I mounted really carefully, a little nervous still that she could react to the side reins in a way that would leave my face black and blue. She walked on just as carefully, but without the tension I had felt earlier. I picked up the reins and connected to something soft and elastic. It was every muscle in her neck unlocked and willing to move wherever my hands led. She was elastic. I rode for about 30 seconds at the walk, dropped the reins and dismounted. I can't wait to ride her tomorrow.

This wasn't about the side reins. It was about showing Annie just how safe and comfortable life can be inside of the boundaries that we create. Some people don't ask horses to accept the bit or accept leg pressure in the way we do for dressage and eventing. That's OK. Some horses go just fine on a loose rein for certain activities.

Annie, however, was stuck. Going above the bit for her was a demonstration of dominance, a way to increase her pace at will, a way to avoid bending laterally, and a barrier to the softening of her back. The dressage training scale says contact and submission to the bit comes after relaxation and rhythm. Some horses, particularly those who have raced, won't find relaxation and rhythm without roundness and acceptance of the bit. Annie is an extreme case.

I don't know what Annie will do tomorrow, or a week from tomorrow. Were I a gambler, I'd bet that tomorrow she'll be as steady as a rock in her new round frame and that I can start work on transitions and acceptance of my leg aids. She just seems to me like a very serious horse who believes that she discovered a way to make being ridden more comfortable, and she won't forget that. But I'm not a gambler, and if I get too invested in the notion that I have had a breakthrough with Annie I'll be frustrated tomorrow when she comes up with new ways to demonstrate her dominant nature.

My obligation to Annie is that I ride without expectations and continue to listen, continue to feel, and continue to think. Not a bad lesson for me. Thanks Annie.

I hope tomorrow that again I will Listen to the Horse.


  1. "younger students who want so much to get it right, whose bodies get more and more tense as progress slips further and further away."

    I've learned this feeling so well between my dynamic mounts.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. It gives me hope that one day I can get on Star's back and we can have a conversation instead of me just confusing her.

  3. Great post, Steuart.
    You know, Walter Zettl (the great master of classical dressage and opponent of the use of force in riding) taught us to always use side reins on the school horses for flat work. He said that, because the side reins are so much more steady than even the best rider in the world can ever be (and certainly more steady than the average lesson student) the horses will relax, stretch to and accept the bit more quickly and consistently. Side reins will also (if correctly adjusted) teach riders to ride with a forward rather than backward connection, because the horse is automatically "on the contact" - i.e., within the "boundary" that you discuss. A third benefit is that side reins teach both horse and rider about balance on the outside rein.
    One final tip that Walter taught us: you can reduce the risk of attaching the side rein to the bit of a nervous horse by unbuckling the strap at the girth or surcingle before you clip it to the bit. Then re-buckle it after clipping to the bit. That way, the horse feels the constriction gradually, rather than suddenly, so - hopefully - it won't be as likely to panic.
    I'm looking forward to reading more about your progress with Annie!