DESERT HORSE EQUESTRIAN SERVICES

Q and A

My students, past and present, and the people who find my articles online sometimes ask excellent questions about why and how I work with horses the way I do. It's great to have the chance to expand on the subtleties of biomechanics, anatomy and complementary health issues, exploring what works for individual horses and their people. On this page, you'll find an assortment of these question-and-answer sessions. I hope you find information here that relates to your horsekeeping, riding and relationship-building challenges. If you'd like to ask a question of your own, just email Stacey.


 
Ground Exercises for a Horse With Neurological Deficit
Q

Your articles about teaching straightness and balance on the ground and with proper lungeing are FASCINATING! I've gone thru Level 2 in Parelli, and haven't even scratched the surface of HOW to balance my horse and prepare him for riding (he is a 7 yr old big bodied quarter horse gelding). I am in the middle of devouring the rest of your articles completely, before I go back out to the barn and TRY more of the techniques – but I have a question: In April my horse was diagnosed with shivers, a form of PSSM, and tested on the high end of normal for insulin resistance as well. Most days, he is pretty stiff and his joints have a low grade inflammation, so it can be hard to get him to walk. Any other exercises you could suggest for strengthening the hind end muscles would be very much appreciated.

 

A

In my experience, horses with neurological issues benefit from consistent, gentle reminders that they are responsible for their balance. Even when they aren't able to walk well, you can still do the throatlatch, shoulder and ribcage releases and remind them to lift their withers and rock back – all without moving their feet. It's a great exercise to do in short bits of time for stallbound horses or those whose exercise has to be limited. Maintains muscle tone, keeps the mechanism of self-carriage working and gives them something to think about. Keep that in mind should Mojave have periodic setbacks when you need to keep him confined.

When he's more mobile, I find that exercises (ground and mounted) focused on proprioception are essential. Keeps the horse interested and engaged (physically and mentally) and keeps the nervous system working so none of the pathways start to shut down. You can do many things just with a few poles – lead straight over, lead over in bend each way, take front feet over in one bend and then change bend as the hinds step across. Meet the pole at various angles so the horse steps laterally across. Back across with front feet, back feet, both feet. Then you can do all the same stuff with or without the pole on a little hill so sometimes the horse is bending or changing bend going up a slight rise and sometimes going down (it changes the balance question just enough to change which muscles have to do more.) Halt uphill and downhill. Back up a gentle slope and down the slope. All kinds of simple work can really help keep the motor nervous system tuned up and firing on all cylinders, so to speak.

 
 
Ground Driving a Young Horse
Q

I have a young warmblood mare I'm trying to get ready to start under saddle (my first!). I have been trying to ground drive her to get her used to listening to the reins to steer and stop, but it's my first time doing that, too. (I'm an experienced rider and I do have professional help, but I want to do as much of this on my own as possible.) My problem is, it's difficult to get her to go forward in the lines. She keeps stopping and turning toward me and then the lines get all tangled around her. Do you have any suggestions? (P.S. I do not have round pen to work in, just a rectangular arena.)

 

A

When I am teaching a horse to drive, I actually take it in stages (like most good training progresses) starting with first having the horse really comfortable working on a longe line. I prefer that the horse has developed both the balance and strength to be able to hold a bend from nose to tail at least some of the time, thugh realize that driving is a tool that refines that straightness on the circle by introducing the support of an outside rein.

For the first step in the transition from longeing to driving, I put on the surcingle and start out just longeing as usual (especially for horses who haven't worn a saddle much). I work both ways, watching to see that the horse is comfortable bending through the ribs with the surcingle on – isn't stiffening up there to keep from "bumping into" it when the ribcage moves to the outside to follow the arc of the circle. I don't want the horse to start bending only in the neck – for obvious reasons related to the long-term training but also because it will making driving harder – braced necks cause that disconnect from back to front that makes it easy to overcorrect when steering.

Once I'm satisfied the horse is okay with the feeling of a "girth," I run one line through a surcingle ring (usually top or next to top) on what will be the outside of my circle. I leave the "inside rein" on the halter as a longe line – not through the surcingle at all. I lay the outside rein over the horse's loin area, behind the surcingle, completely slack, and go on longeing as usual at a walk, though usually with quite a short line. (I may be only a few feet away from the horse; for an insecure horse, I might be right next to him where I can touch if needed. So that I'm not creating a tiny circle, I end up walking alongside the horse and encouraging him to match the size of circle I'm walking. Easier in a roundpen to start with, though it can be done along an arena fence.)

As the horse gets into a nice swinging walk, I start to take a feel of the outside rein, just exploring an elastic contact with the horse's mouth. For those of us who ride more than we drive, it does take some time to feel like we can maintain that give-and-take through the elbow we're used to doing in the saddle. I do this with the rein over the back until we're both comfortable with the feel at the walk, in a halt and in a trot. Then I repeat on the other side, again working until we're both comfortable with the feel. I like doing it this way because, for both of us, at least half of the feel is familiar – one of my hands is doing familiar longeing work and one side of the horse is doing what he is used to, as well. Then we can both concentrate on the unfamiliar, the driving hand for me and the outside rein for the horse.

For some horses, what I've described up to now will happen in one session – at least the walk and halt, not always the trot. For others, it might take several. I'm more interested in creating a good foundation. A quiet horse used to working might be able to go on to the next stage in the first session. A baby who needs things chunked down into short work sessions likely will not.

In addition, the next stage requires that the horse has been properly sensitized to having something around his butt, touching his hindlegs and even going up under his tail. That's because we're going to move the outside driving line off the back and run it around the horse's butt. I would not do this with a horse who is super sensitive and has not gotten used to being touched like that because you need to keep the line a bit snug to keep it from getting caught under the tail or running the risk the horse will step over it with a hind leg. Most driving lines just don't have much "give" and it's easy to goose the horse in the butt without really meaning to. Also, I have worked with a few horses who acted almost claustrophobic at having input into their bodies all the way from the head down that outside side and around the backend. They tend to either rear or do the kick out/bolt combo – not behaviors I want to program in.

My absolute favorite way to get a horse comfortable with feeling something touching his entire body, including his butt, is to use a TTEAM bodywrap. If you're not familiar, here are some articles that describe how it works. The photos show the basic figure-eight configuration; for horses that have issues with the surcingle/girth, you can add another wrap that goes around the barrel at the girth area, then add the actual surcingle later with the figure-eight bodywrap over the top.

I do the same type of program with the line around the butt – starting in close so I can support the horse and gradually letting the line out longer until the horse is at a more normal longeing distance. Only after both the horse and I have a good connection in this configuration do I consider going on to run the inside line through the surcingle. And at first, I stay more to the side of the horse than behind, still doing a sort of hybrid longeing/driving thing that would probably drive the classical driving instructors to drink! But, for me, I have found that if I get right behind and try to drive "properly" I end up being too strong on the inside rein and start noticing the horse tends to start going too deep in response. That's a habit I truly hate (having a horse who was confirmed in that behavior when I got him and he still reverts back when he's insecure!) and I do not want to be responsible for creating it.

Honestly, I generally end up accomplishing what I want to with the half longeing/half driving technique and seldom go on to use the inside "rein" as anything other than a longe line. I do not think driving is the best way to teach a horse to steer – I want even babies to start learning to bend from the ribs and not just through the neck and find that more easily accomplished astride. And I do not find that, unless you have incredibly talented and experienced driving hands, driving gives you the soft, balanced halt you want a greenie to start learning. I would rather do that from the saddle as well, mostly because I don't ever want the "brakes" to come from my hands, I want all versions of halt to be 95% a seat aid. I do like the longe/drive program for helping horses understand how an outside rein can help and support them and for providing the structure that makes straightness the horse's posture/balance of choice.

 

 
 
Ground Exercises And Rescue Remedy Build Confidence in an Insecure Horse
Q

I have a 7-year-old gelding that my father-in-law bought for me at a sale a couple years ago, he is a very sweet boy, but soooooo insecure and lacking confidence (probably something icky in his past, poor fella).  I have been taking things very slow with him and making sure I offer rewards and we have become friends, but he is still so insecure.  I try to be very specific about what I ask and try to ask the same way each time and then reward (easier said than done).  He likes to stay in his comfort zone at the barn.  Do you have any exercises that would be good to help us gain more confidence? 

 

A

Sounds like you're doing the right things with your gelding, just going slow and easy. I think the biggest gift you can give to horses like that is a routine that is just challenging enough to hold their attention but also designed so they feel physically good when they do it and they mentally/emotionally get to feel like they are doing right. I always start by teaching horses some simple ground exercises that asking a series of easy balance questions to get their brains and their feet synched up. I suggest you start with the S-turns exercise, which can be done both on the ground and mounted. Once your horse is comfortable with the exercise, make it a consistent part of his routine as a good balancing and suppling warm-up that has the added benefit of making him feel safe and connected to you.

You might also go to the health food store and buy yourself a bottle of the Bach Flower Essence called Rescue Remedy. Buy yourself an empty dropper bottle, too. Fill your empty bottle with distilled water and add a teaspoon or so of alcohol (the kind you drink – I use cheap vodka) as a preservative, then put 6-8 drops of rescue remedy in and shake well. That gives you a "dosing" bottle you can stick in your pocket and take to the barn. Pull out his bottom lip and put a few drops on the inside before you work with him to see whether it helps any. (Can take a while.)

I found this a huge help back when I was taking my rather insecure gelding to shows and clinics. After I'd been administering the Rescue Remedy directly into his mouth for a while, I started just dropping a few drops into the palm of my hand and he would lick it off. He got so at a clinic or show he would nuzzle my palm when he was feeling nervous and I'd just give him a dose. Took the edge off nicely. It would be a pretty inexpensive experiment with your gelding. Because it's a vibrational remedy, it's not likely to interfere with anything else he might be on. I believe it's important for you to be in a positive frame of mind when you give it – try just simply stating your intention out loud or in your head by saying something like "this is to help you feel more relaxed and focused." Can't hurt, right?

 
 
Trail Riding Etiquette Keeps Horses, Riders Safe
Q

I have an eight-year-old Arab mare I have owned for about three months. I was trail riding with my friend who has a high-spirited Tennessee Walker. My horse cannot walk as fast as her horse, but wants to be by her. Anyway, my friend asked if she could canter up a small hill while I just walk my horse. Once her horse was out of sight, my mare did a little rear up and ran up the hill. At this point I didn't try to stop her because she was so strong and I thought she would slow down once she saw the other horse. Her horse was positioned across the trail and my mare just ran past. Then I tried to stop her but there were too many barrel cacti and I didn't want her to get those thorns on her legs. I moved her back on the track and went to the other side of the trail and pulled on the right rein to make her stop and she did. I probably did everything wrong, but she scared me so much and was so strong. I don't know what to do now, because my friend wants to go trail riding again tomorrow and her horse is so much faster in a walk than mine and but I don't feel I can trust my horse.

 

A

When two horses are on the trail together you can't expect one not to want to follow when the other canters away. That's why common trail etiquette says you ride at the same pace as your companions. And you don't ever, ever, ever take one horse out of sight of the other! That's rude and dangerous and no knowledgeable, sensible horsewoman would do that to another rider. It's also common courtesy for a rider on a faster horse to stop and wait for a slower horse, though the rider on the slower horse should strive to move out as much as possible and learn to catch up in short trot intervals. Trail Riding in Company 101.

 
 
Photo courtesy Bobbie Jo Lieberman

If you really, really know your horse well and have amazing communication, maybe you could expect to keep one horse in a walk while the other canters, but it can take years to get to that point. And any horse getting left by its companion going out of sight is going to get upset. They are hard-wired to feel safe in the herd and to run when they get scared, so it sounds like your mare was quite reasonably a bit scared and reacted accordingly. Guessing you also tightened up and transmitted your fear to her instead of relaxing, breathing and giving her a reason to relax and calm down (which is a big challenge in that situation). Good for both of you that you were able to stay on, avoid cacti and get stopped.

I think you need to spend more time in controlled situations - arena, familiar trails at a walk - so that your new four-legged partner can learn to trust you. Then you'll also be able to trust her more. If I had had the experience you did today, I would not go on a long ride out the next day. And I would set some ground rules with my riding companion before I ever went out with him or her again. In my opinon, it was your fellow human who let you down in this situation, not your horse.

 
 
BITLESS BRIDLE FOR A NOVICE RIDER?
Q

I'm middle-aged and have only been riding a couple of years. I recently bought a wonderful horse (my first ever!) and I really want to do everything right for him. I have started to worry that he doesn't like to have a bit in his mouth, so I'm thinking of trying a Dr. Cook's bitless bridle. What do you think?

 

A

I know bitless bridles get marketed as a tool for any level of rider and, at first, it seems this might be ideal for a novice rider who hasn't yet mastered "feel" enough to have good hands. But, based on my experiences, I don't agree with that at all.

I have seen that using a bitless bridle correctly is a lot of work for the rider. It requires a ton of focus because you have to be five steps ahead of the horse at all times to be able to have the subtlety and connection to create and maintain balance and proper carriage. You must have a very secure and educated seat and impeccable timing with educated hands to avoid making a real mess of a horse – pulling, leaning on the forehand, not listening at all to rein aids.

If you've ever ridden with a bosal, that's the nearest thing I can come up with to using this type of bitless bridle correctly. Different mechanics, but the same timing, balance and skill needed to do it right. And in uneducated hands, just as likely to be either abusive or ineffective and cause long-term biomechanical problems.

I have also found some horses who really didn't like the feel of the bitless – the straps that cross under the jaw and the noseband are meant to be quite snug for proper fit so the whole thing doesn't just slide sideways when you use a rein. It must be adjusted much tighter than I'd ever use regular English bridle noseband, and as a bodyworker I have concern about the long-term effects because so many nerves cross that area.

Maybe it seems counter-intuitive, but I think a nice fat snaffle is more forgiving in the hands of a rider who is still learning feel and perfecting balance and that subtle connection with a horse. I have had the option to put beginners on a horse with a bitless or a snaffle and have chosen the bit every time for the sake of the horse as much for the safety of the riders.

I suggest you find someone from whom to borrow this type of bitless bridle and ride with it a few times in a controlled setting before you make the investment in one.

You might also investigate some of the other alternative bridle options. Here are a few:

 
 
IS SAND THE BEST FOOTING FOR AN ARENA?
Q

Finally after many years of wishing for horse property of my own, I’ve found the perfect piece of land and have started building my dream barn. There’s a mostly flat spot for an arena, but I’m not sure what to do about footing. It’s desert, with some cactus that will have to be cleared, and doesn’t seem too rocky. I know I’ll have to have something added and my friend says I should buy sand, but I’m not sure about that. I’ve also looked into some of the rubberized products, but my budget for footing isn’t that big. I mostly trail ride, but have always wanted to learn some dressage.

 

A

The kind of footing you’ll want will depend, in part, on what discipline you ride.  Riders in some of the western disciplines seem to want deeper footing, while dressage and jump riders often feel that overly deep footing puts tendons at risk. For good general-purpose riding surface I don’t like the foot of a trotting horse to sink more than halfway into the material after it has settled.

 
  Gauge your footing depth by how deep your horse's hooves sink into the material. This footing comes up to the horse's coronet band.

Probably the first material most people would mention when talking about arena footing is sand, either mortar or “washed” sand. Sand has several benefits, including good drainage, and it doesn’t get slick so you can generally ride safely in a sand arena even when there are puddles. But straight sand – even added to a mostly sandy native ground – isn’t my first choice for several reasons.

First, sand is dusty, which can be an issue if you have horses or riders with sensitive respiratory systems. Dust can also be a contentious issue between neighbors if you have any who live near enough to be affected by clouds of dust.

Second, I find that dry sand isn’t very stable underfoot, especially after it has gotten pitted up a bit from a horse’s hooves. Think how hard you work to walk on a dry beach especially when there are little hills and valleys gouged into the material from use. Your feet get tipped to the inside and outside depending on where you step and I don’t think that kind of torque is ideal for legs, whether human or horse.

So, third, you’ll want to be able to spray water on your sand footing to improve its stability. Again, think of walking on a beach; it’s much easier to walk on slightly packed damp sand than the loose, dry stuff. The downside of the way water packs the sand to stabilize it is that it then dries with a crust on top that breaks up into big clods when you walk or ride on it. I always feel like sand footing really needs watering and dragging before each use, which requires both a time commitment and the proper equipment – a tractor and some kind of implement to break up and smooth out the sand. That may be practical for large boarding or show facilities with dedicated staff and equipment, but the average small facility doesn’t need that kind of maintenance.

The fourth downside to straight sand for arena footing is that it tends to “leave.” Sand blows away in high winds and washes away in heavy rain, so if those weather conditions are likely you’ll need to budget to replace “lost” footing.

 

For general-use footing, consider adding material to a depth of about half the height of a horse's hoof.

 

Instead of straight sand, many Arizona arenas are created with a mix of sand and a coarser material called chat – small rock that is coarser than clay kitty litter but smaller in diameter than pea gravel. A mix of clean sand and chat gives the footing more loft to prevent packing and it does a good job of keeping rocks from working their way to the surface if your native ground is rocky.

The chat mix is less dusty and requires much less maintenance because it doesn’t get pitted as easily as straight sand and it can be watered without packing. It also drains well and provides a safe riding surface even when quite wet. For occasional manicuring, you should be able to level and fluff the surface with a simple chain drag or tine harrow, which can be pulled by an ATV, riding mower or even a pickup.

Depending on the underlying base – whether it’s sand, dirt, gravel or clay – you’ll want a slightly different ratio of sand to chat. Your gravel/rock seller can help you decide what’s best for your situation and probably has one or two stock “arena mix” recipes.

One way to determine what’s best for you is to visit boarding facilities in your area and ask the owners where they get their footing and how they chose what they did. You’ll probably get advice on what retailers offer the best price and know the most about arena footing.

Remember that whatever footing you choose will start looking a bit too deep, but will need to be watered and worked a few times so it settles.

 
 
Sand footing can get pitted by horses hooves (L) and tends to pack hard (C) when watered or rained on, creating a crust that then breaks up into uneven clods.(R) None of these is ideal for a riding surface.

© 2014 Desert Horse Equestrian Services/Stacey Kollman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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