Saturday, December 20, 2014

Learn to Smell it Coming


This could be a topic for another article or even a whole book, but suffice to say, one of the main factors to keep in mind is the connection to the horse. By connection I mean riding in presence; being aware of your horse and making him aware of you, through the use of aids at all times. I am not talking about micromanaging every motion of the horse, rather I am suggesting that by keeping the seat independent, moving with the horse, the hands light and rein aids flexible and keeping your calves lightly touching the horse’s side at all times, you can maintain mutual communication with your horse. In doing so you will become aware right away when he is startled by some movement or sound and instinctively reacting with flight. This way you can react more quickly to counter this reaction with a calm firming of the aids for just a moment; in other words, catching the spook before it becomes a run and assuring the horse that you are right there with him, protecting him and that he has nothing to fear.
~ From: Troy Griffith

Although the above quote is about riding, the concept certainly pertains to driving. However, the driver has fewer tools available to establish and maintain this connection and the connection perhaps is even more important and necessary than with riding *because* there is no physical bodily contact with the horse. 

Drivers are readily tempted to attach their eyes to the horse in front of them. Why? Besides the fact it the horse is right there to look at, we rely primarily on our visual field for our survival data. Self preservation depends more than anything on the sense of sight. Our brain is wired to use sight as its primary sense.

The problem with this for maintaining the connection with the driving horse is that while we are looking at the horse, the horse is not looking back at us. He's looking the other direction and in fact is usually further limited by blinders on his bridle. There is no effective eye contact.

If one cultivates the skill of driving by feel, however, there is a definite tangible connection in both directions to the horse and from the horse. This connection is primarily made through the rein aid but the whip, the voice and one's body position and control also enter into the communication formula.

This skill is best developed by purposely looking away from the horse and devoting your mental resources to ascertain how it feels. Go so far as to close the eyes. Sounds perilous but, if the environment is controlled, it can be safely done. If anxious about it, take someone along who has their eyes open. As an alternative, simply blur the vision. Try this simple test: drive for 3 minutes without looking at the horse. One will quickly realize how time and resources are spent watching the horse! Set a long term goal of driving an entire dressage test without looking directly at the horse once.

Learn to cultivate the skill of treating the information at the peripheral  edges of the visual field as if it were information in the very center. When looking up, ahead and around the corner, one can still see there is a bay horse with his ears up. One can gather useful information about tempo and rhythm through the feel on the vehicle. The bend of the horsecan be determined becasue of the relative position of hands. There is useful information about the degree of self carriage through the feel of the contact. There is ton of information out there to be used that can be gained through developing the sense of how it feels to drive.

In a sense, this information becomes almost more important for the driver because we have no bodily contact with the horse. If we develop our sense of driving feel, we can tell the instant he tenses or shortens a stride or pushes harder with on a hind leg to get out of tempo and rhythm. As my good friend and consummate driving teacher, Robin Groves, once said: " Learn to smell it coming."  It can be done but it is an acquired skill that takes a lifetime to hone to perfection.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Walk This Way

The horse must use virtually every muscle in it's body to walk just one step. 

 It's important that they all feel good!


The above animation gets one part wrong. The horse lands heel first! Check it out:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

It's Hard to Drive Straight

It's hard to drive straight and accurately.

 These tracks down the centerline (yellow) show the difficulty a new driver had in:
  1. finding the centerline
  2. driving straight. 
And she was trying *really* hard to do it right.

The white arrows indicate the widest tracks in her attempts. If you look carefully you can see she was able to generally hone in on X but getting there and leaving there were harder.

This represents about 4 attempts at Training level 1 and 4 at Training Level 2. We'd expect this to improve with more practice BUT......

I have noticed in this ring after 2 weeks of drivers practicing and trying HARD to drive straight, there is a pretty wide variation down this centerline.

A judge sitting at C has an easy job of assessing accuracy: if a 10 is perfectly straight, then anything less than perfectly straight has to be something less than 10. 

So, how is it that this man can 'drive' so straight? Would he get a 10? 
Practice, practice, practice!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

All Holes Are Not Created Equal

Harness Holes

These holes in the leather were originally punched round. 
Over time they have molded and shaped to the tongue 
on the buckle as it lies at an angle in the hole. 

Oval holes punched in synthetic material allowing the buckle tongue 
to lie in the strap without wearing and tear in the hole as it is being used under pressure.

Note in the two photos above: the end of the buckle tongue is made 
by the buckle manufacturer by flattening the round tongue slightly. 
As a consequence, that makes these tongues a little fatter in width
 and actually *wider* than the punched hole it has to repeatedly go thru.
 Not all buckle tongues are made this way. Look closely when you buy!

This is the end result of using round holes in synthetic strapping. 
This is ugly but actually serviceably strong because the strength of the strap comes 
from the inner nylon core strapping not the outer finish covering. 
Had the holes been oval punched originally as in the shot above, t
his would look a LOT better over time.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Teaching Tidbits

Teaching Tidbits

I love taking a driving lesson. I love auditing lessons for either riding or driving or just about anything having to do with horses. I love listening to equine professionals...vets, dentists, chiropractors, acupuncturists...who explain the how's and why's of what they are doing with a horse.  I ALWAYS learn something I didn't know or have something I thought I understood confirmed by someone more knowledgeable than myself.

And that something doesn't have to be, and usually isn't, a long involved body of knowledge or a long and complicated explanation or demonstration of technique. It's almost always a boiled down tidbit that sticks with me forever.

If I take an hour long lesson in driving and I get one valuable tidbit, it was worth the price. Why? Because I'll use it forever and on every horse I work with from then on.

Two tidbits I received in the last 2 weeks;

From Bill Lower, top notch carriage driver: 
Never be sloppy on your corners.

 A sample of Bill's style

Sounds simple and obvious enough but one thing a lesson with Bill is so good for is not the big gross techniques of driving but the tiny ones that dot the I 's and cross the T's and separate  good from great and are SO important and critical to get right for every horse if you want to get the most out of their performance.

What he was talking about is to ALWAYS set your horse up in advance for a trun...well, not "a turn" but *EVERY* turn...every time. Don't get sloppy. And it is SO easy to get a little sloppy and be satisfied with 'good enough'. It will pay huge dividends in Combined Driving Obstacles and Cones and Dressage and just everyday driving.

How often have you heard it's not always the shortest route that's faster? It's the smooth route that allows your horse to maintain his balance and speed that ends up with the fastest time. Have you ever watched a good driver through a CDE Obstacle and they don't LOOK like they are going that fast but you check their time and wow, is it low? That's the well prepared, smooth, balanced, efficient and economical route getting the job done.

Your horse can not be balanced and fast on turns unless he is prepared in advance. If you get sloppy, your times will suffer and your horse will suffer physically and mentally. Prepare him in advance so he trusts you just that much more and his anxiety level will be reduced and his joints and muscles will be ready for the change of direction and all the forces associated with it.

Thank you, Bill!

From Dr. Anne Christopherson, endurance & combined driving veterinarian: 
Most people do not spend enough time walking their horses. 

Walking and walking and walking is something I have always instinctively known and generally believed was very good for my horses. Fortunately, I like to walk them. IT doesn't bore me. It was nice to have my sense confirmed by someone who is such an the field of conditioning and soundness as Dr. Anne.

It is so easy to cut the walking short. If you are involved with galloping breed or trotting breed, it is so tempting to get right to those gaits because your horses like them and it is easy for them. It's what they WANT to do. BUT..... there is probably nothing worse than riding or driving a horse that does not like to walk. And it is one of at least two things you can not MAKE a horse do: You can't make a horse stand still and you can't make a horse walk. You can only create a situation where they *want* to walk or stand.

Most people do not walk their horses long enough or often enough to even experience all that walking does for the horse. They never get to experience the long, swinging, relaxed, efficient, ground covering ,unhurried, self carriage walk. They get satisfied with good enough. It's a has four beats. It's not trotting. ....Oh, but there's so much more.

The horse that LIKES to walk (that's different from a horse that walks because he doesn't like to trot, btw) ..the horse that understands that a good efficient walk is just the way the World works, will be healthier mentally and physically for a longer time.

Thank you, Dr. Anne!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Horses Hiding Pain to Survive

Horses Hiding Pain To Survive

Veterinary Anaesthesiologist, Thijs van Loon, PhD, of Utrecht University in Utrecht, the Netherlands:
“The difficulty with evaluating pain in horses is that they cannot tell us how much pain they’re in or where it hurts. And that’s complicated by the fact that horses are prey animals, and they will naturally tend to hide their level of pain as a survival mechanism.”

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sandbox lesson #2

Sandbox Lesson #2

Follow the wheeltracks starting from the green arrows. Redline is the Center Line thru X (green) down to C, a little foreshortened just due to the illusions of the camera. 

At the green arrows, the turnout is not badly positioned to tack down the Center Line (red line) However, the driver loses concentration and starts watching the horse instead of keeping the "eye on the prize"...keeping C between the horse's ears. The driver loses the way and allows the horse drift to the left. 

When they look up as they halt at X, the horse is off the Center Line and more importantly, the horse is off balance due to the last second correction attempt to get back on the Center Line...TOO LATE! 

As a consequence, the rein back is decidedly not straight. Follow the wheel tracks back from the green dots. The vehicle is not tracking straight back and if we were able to examine the hoof prints of the horse reining back, they would not be straight back either.

The vehicle now is starting forward even more off the Center Line. Walking forward from the last step in the rein back, the driver attempts to steer back to the center line but everything is so cockeyed and out of balance by then that they over do it and compound their error by over compensating and now drive to the right of the Center Line before halting at G. 

This is a prime example of why accuracy is so important. It is reminiscent of the Compulsory Figures that we used to see in the Olympic skating events back in the 50's and 60's: One small error would cause a cascade of subsequent errors that echo in the attempts to rectify that initial mistake. So it is with horses! Balance is your friend.

As my good friend, Larry Poulin, says : "Don't give up the easy points! "  You are given a shows you where to Be there!  Use the real estate you are given. There's little excuse  to be inaccurate. Points are easily taken off for inaccuracy....any judge can see it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cones & The Courage to Drive to the Outside

Hoof Prints and Wheel Track

I often hear instructions given to drivers who are learning to drive cones: "Get straight before you go through." That strategy will indeed position you to drive your horse through the middle of the cones gate if you have a straight approach to begin with. The problem is most approaches to cones gates in competition begin on turns, not straightaways. The downside to that strategy is that it often will require you to drive a route that is much longer than actually necessary.

Since your time on course is a not only a measure of how fast you are traveling through space (speed) but how much time it takes to travel the distance around the course, increasing the distance travelled will increase your time on course. TIME = SPEED X DISTANCE

Like the jockey, Calvin Borel, who says his secret to winning races is to "Take the shortest route around the track.", if you can remove strides between gates, your time on course will be faster. Slower horses can often beat faster horses simply by taking a more efficient path thru the cones. Remove one stride between each of 20 gates (that's 20 strides!) and your time on course will be several seconds faster....often enough to beat the competition. One of my mottos is: "It's all about the route."

Study this photo. The green dots show the horse's hoof prints as he travels a turning route to approach the gate. (He is travelling away from the viewer) Look where his feet are as he approaches this gate. Imagine where the horse's head must be when his front feet get to the cones gate.  Aim your horse for the middle here and you will nail the inside cone every time. 

My advice: 
  1. Practice, practice, practice with tight clearances. Who cares if you hit a few at home? In fact, the only way you will learn where your wheels are on the ground is to hit some cones. If you practice with 10 cms. clearance and make it thru 80% of the gates you have set up, you should rather quickly be able to make it thru 100% when gates are set at 30cms. in competition. 
  2. Drive *some* cones every day. It doesn't need to be a lot of them. Regular practice with a few cones gates is better for you and your horse than driving a lot of cones only once a week. Set a few gates out where you can easily get to them and drive them every day to or from your day's work out.
  3. Drive at an easy pace at first while practicing. Concentrate on positioning and making life easy for your horse. You want him to feel good about this game. Drive at speed as part of your work but not always at speed. It's more about creating the confidence in you and for your horse that the approach is going to stay true and ultimately going to work starting from 5 or 10 meters before the gate, especially if it on a turn.
  4. As part of each practice session, use approaches to cones gates that you do not think you can make. It's fine to set up planned courses with elements you have seen in competition or might expect to see but also set cones out rather randomly and drive the easy, obvious routes first, then try driving ridiculously crazy routes and approaches that seem impossible. You will quickly be able to recognize approaches you and your horse CAN make. That will sharpen your skills for the courses set by devious course designers! And, more importantly, it will help train you to cut off unnecessary, extra strides between gates and allow you to take the shorter, smoother and more efficient routes, producing a faster time on course.
  5. Aim for the OUTSIDE cone on those turning approaches. Have the courage to take your horse's front feet almost into the outside cone. You can almost put his head over that outside cone. As you can clearly see in this photo, the wheels go cleanly through the middle of the gate with a very narrow clearance.
  6. Watch thru routes taken by good drivers in competition. They waste little distance between gates while at the same time maintaining a smooth route that allows their horses to remain well balanced and efficient.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Walking Every Muscle

The horse must use virtually every muscle in it's body 
to walk just one step. 

It's important that they all feel good!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why Horses Hide Their Pain

“The difficulty with evaluating pain in horses is that they cannot tell us how much pain they’re in or where it hurts,and that’s complicated by the fact that horses are prey animals, and they will naturally tend to hide their level of pain as a survival mechanism.”

It would seem some of our best athletes....the naturally superior prey specimens.... hide their discomfort better than the rest. 

The horses I feel for most are not the ones who are 3 legged lame. Those get prompt attention by their caregivers. 

No, the ones I feel for are the ones who go out and win and win and win and because they win, their caregivers assume they must be comfortable. Those are the naturally gifted prey animals that survive in spite of their pain!

Little do their caregivers know how good these horses can be if someone would only find the source of their discomfort.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Horses: The War on Animals

Listen to the mind of: 

Jon Katz,  Bedlam Farm

In recent years, and especially in recent months, I've become increasingly conscious of what can only be described as a cultural war on animals in our country.  Animal rights organizations across the country are now pursuing a political and social agenda that would, in effect, drive almost all domesticated 
animals who are not pets out of populated societies, many farms, pet stories, private homes, markets, zoos, public spaces, suburbs and cities. The conflict between people who have pets and people who have animals has grown into an escalating conflict of values that will determine the fate of animals in society.

The broad, well-financed and increasingly hostile coalition of well-organized and well-funded groups calling themselves animal rights groups believe – it is the central tenet in their ideology -  that animals are abused on a vast scale in America, and that the people who work and live with them are abusers. People who had done nothing wrong find themselves accused of criminal and unfeeling behavior.

From the carriage horses to pony rides, to breeders, farmers, researchers, people who raise goats and rabbits for cheese or meat to the animals used in Hollywood movies, these groups have organized on a broad front to remove animals from public interactions with people and to discourage businesses and institutions from working with them. They have drawn government into the most private areas of people's lives with animals with a growing number of regulations, laws and ordinances.

Animal lovers know what happens to large animals who do not have work to do with people. They perish. And people never get to know or see them. In a horrible moral inversion, this new notion of saving animals is drive them from the earth, and from our lives. We are presumed too evil to own or live with them, we cannot be trusted to care for them.

It has suddenly become a fearful thing for many people to own an animal, to work with one, to bring animals to the public, or live with them in private.  From movie producers to farmer's markets to carriage horse drivers to rabbit keepers, it has suddenly become troubling, even dangerous to own an animal. People who have broken no laws are subject to repeated and relentless attack for things no one in human history has ever believed to be wrong. It has become easier for so many people to simply avoid the new issues of owning an animal, and countless animals have paid for this with their lives.

The carriage trade owners and drivers – mostly comprised of immigrant families who have worked and lived with animals for generations, even centuries -  suddenly are finding their work controversial, they are relentlessly and without evidence accused of cruel and abusive and illegal behavior and are the objects of insults, protests, petitions and campaigns that would put them out of business and destroy their way of life. And always – always – the goal is to remove animals from our sight and consciousness. The carriage horses are only one piece in this emerging conflict. This is the real conflict, the war on animals, the campaign to take them away. They will never return, they never have.

This war is just getting underway, the carriage horse conflict one of the epic first battles, because it is in New York City, the largest concentration of media on earth, where everyone in the world can see it and hear about it. The battle is thus joined. For the animal world, it is the Battle Of Bull Run, the first epic conflict of the American Civil War, the first time Americans understood the nature of the conflict they found themselves in. The horses are at the epicenter, the symbols and victims and perhaps, the first casualties. The Battle Of The New York Carriage Horses.

In this conflict, there are many things at stake. At its heart, the war on animals is over two profoundly different view of the role and nature of animals:

The animal rights organizations see animals primarily in terms of abuse, they are piteous and dependent creatures in this view, too fragile and precious to work with people or live animals, they are safe only as pets in carefully regulated conditions or  in no-kill animals shelters, rescue preserves and the farms and properties of the wealthy. Under this view, most large domesticated animals will disappear. In this view, we are superior not only to animals but the people who who own, sell, live and work with them. Humans are generally reviled, even despised, it is a fixture of every single animal rights website I have seen.

The traditional view of most people who love, live with and work with animals is radically different. Animals are seen as partners, not wards, they live and work among us, they share the risks and travails of life in the world. They do not live no-kill lives any more than we do, they sometimes are injured, get ill and die, just as we do. Work is not cruel for them, it often means survival, and we need to find ways to keep animals in our lives, not remove them from our lives. There are abusers for sure, but I have met and interviewed and lived among countless animal lovers, there is more often much love in them. There are easier things to do in life than live with animals, although few as rewarding.

Monday, February 24, 2014

AMHA Hall of Fame

Thank you to the Morgan Horse Community for this recognition.

I was 4 yrs. old when I sat on my very first horse,
 the 1949 National Champion Morgan Mare , Abbington of Shadey Lawn.
 I have enjoyed every second of my life with the Morgan Horse since that moment.

 Despite the challenges facing the Horse Industry and the Morgan Breed, and despite the many Morgans we all remember about whom we say with affection and truth: There will never be another one like him or her, I remain convinced we have not yet seen the best Morgans we are capable of producing.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Negotiated Aids

The path to a light hand and an educated, responsive mouth is created by "Negotiated driving aids into negotiated restraining aids". *

SBS Risky Business ~ Jeff Morse

*Denny Emerson