maanantai 4. heinäkuuta 2016

The Neck Thing

There has been a very long break in blog writing. I have to apologize to those who have been expecting continuation. I have been busy training horses and people. Within this time there have been plenty of moments, when this subject has crossed my mind. So I think it is also time to voice it out. If you ask me, what would I change in the dressage and riding world in general, if I had only one thing I could change, it would definitely be the way riders see the horse's neck and front and its ridability.

When I was working and doing my practical training at Kyra Kyrklund's in the UK, I learned that the horse's neck is the most important balancing tool a horse has in his body and that the neck always reflects the body. What a rider must do, is to allow the horse to use his neck for balancing himself. Richard White was always telling that even in the most collected frame the horse should have some elasticity for the poll, forwards and backwards (and I might add also up and down). When the horse is able to balance himself in a natural way with his neck, the horse can be responsive, soft and supple to ride. Maybe this is something that all riders somehow accept as a theoretical truth, but in practise we see a lot of approaches which do not look ethical in the light of this knowledge.

So everybody agrees that a horse needs the neck for balancing himself and can be good to ride when he can move the neck. But what happens in the horse's body when the horse is stiff in the neck and front and not soft and responsive to ride?

A horse alone is never stiff in the neck. A horse is always able to scratch his own behind with his teeth. A horse rarely has mobility issues in the neck area (and when he has, those are "man-made"). So why a horse turns out stiff underneath a rider? The cause is always a loss of balance.

When a horse is for instance stiff to bend to the right, what happens in his body is that the center of gravity is on that side of his body, most often too much on his right side front leg and shoulder. To compensate this, he tries to bend his neck to the opposite direction - left. A rider who won't correct this by half-halting and moving the body weight of the horse more to the left will have a difficult time bending the horse to the right, especially if the rider pulls any harder from the right side rein. The more the rider pulls from the right side rein, the more the horse will go out of balance and the automatic balance correction mechanism in the horse's body pushes his shoulders towards that pressure and the head to the opposite side. The horse will feel hard and unelastic in the neck, even tight in the mouth. Somebody might even say that the horse is biting the bit with his teeth. The horse just simply can not relax his muscles in a situation like this, as he would feel very unbalanced and loose the control over his body, if he would. The phenomenon has nothing to do with the horse being stiff in the neck, hard in the mouth (a horse is never unsensitive in the mouth!), disobedient or dominant. The horse is simply not able to react in a different way.

I have Finnhorses for my riding lessons in Germany. I like them, because they are sturdy but not too big so that they can carry almost all sizes of riders. They are steady minded and yet reactive horses. And physically not completely untalented - dressage (and jumping also) can be pretty fun with them. A special thing about this breed is the inherited and genetically coded ability to pull heavy weights, heavier than their size would suggest. A Finnhorse naturally leans on to the front legs and lowers the base of the neck, when they feel a pressure in the front. With this they are able to use the whole of their bodies for pulling the heavy loads in their original use in farm work. Of course in riding it might not come in so handy, because when the rider tries to halt the horse, the horse might all of a sudden go heavy on the contact. Here then the misconception is that the horse is heavy on the hand because of having a hard mouth. A Finnhorse's mouth is as sensitive as anyone else's, he just reacts differently with his body. Therefore it is really important to teach a horse like this to bring the body weight back while halting, to use a light (!) hand, which doesn't disturb the horse's balance too much, and a solid seat to slow the horse down.

A Finnhorse is not the only horse type who has a quality like this. Quite a few horses have a low set neck, also when at first the neck might seem to be higher from its build. And quite a few horses also naturally lower the base of their necks while ridden, instead of lifting and holding it up. Especially when they feel the pressure of the reins. Again the feel to the rein contact is stiff - the lower neck muscles are not soft and supple, doing their job of bringing the shoulders forward, but supporting themselves against the rider's hand. The rider wants to pull the horse "soft" which again leads to more leaning against the hand due to the self-protective-mechanisms of the horse's body, and a pulling contest is ready. Here the answer would be a small or at least quick halt and BIG release - so that the horse needs to neutralize his balance and body position and start to carry himself again without the support of the rider. After some repetitions the rider should feel a lot lighter contact, which then enables a completely different approach in riding.

I could write a book just of this subject - the rider's hand, contact and the mechanisms of the horse's front and body. And it would be a thick one. To gain this knowledge I have, I have also made plenty of mistakes, ridden with a harder hand, heavier contact and used harder bits to gain control. But the more I learn about the horse and riding, the less I want to do in general. The less I need to do. When a horse is heavy to turn, I ride a half-halt and try again. Usually then the turn happens lightly and I don't have to strengthen my contact at all. Less becomes more in more and more situations. Quite often loosing the contact momentarily has a bigger impact than pulling. A horse left alone needs to fix his balance by himself and get more independent, which also means lighter to ride.

So, the next time you face a ridability problem in the front of a horse, ask yourself: "Is the horse's body prepared to do what I am asking?" Fix then the body and allow the neck to sort itself out after the correction. You might feel a difference in the ridability and get to smile and relax more on the horse.

Allow the neck to mirror a balanced and flexibel body of your horse.

keskiviikko 6. huhtikuuta 2016

The System

Anyone who has ever succeeded in training a horse has had a system and anyone who wants to be good at training horses should have one. This you hear more than often, when you listen to the more experienced trainers. A System can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some might see it as the pattern one uses to manage the well-being of an equine athlete in training,  I, and many others probably, see the system being the logic of the training from the horse's perspective.

To me a system means the language I speak with my horses. The way I speak and use the language might change according to the horse individual at hand, but the language I use to communicate with the horse varies very little, if at all.
Coming from the Scandinavian riding culture I have had to get used to some different point of views when living in Bavaria. Of course there is not only one type of riding here, but after some years one can recognize some style being the "main stream". Many old trainers also say that there are many ways to the top of the mountain, but the view from the top is always the same. It is a nice expression to say that there are different ways to do things and the difference might not make them worse or better compared to each other, the goal will always be the same.

Who then decides what kind of system is a good one? The horse. This is why FEI launched the concept of the "happy athlete" some years back. The ridden horse should be content with the way it is being handled and kept, and trained of course. In my first English blog text I went through the signs of "good riding" - they apply here as well. If you haven't already read the text, take a look here.

Within the years I have built a system that works for me. I would say quite a big impact to that process has had the training of "rehab-horses" - the horses who have been physically or mentally troubled. When one on a daily basis solves issues like these, cracks puzzles and riddles, one can not avoid learning a lot about the "what-nots".  The picture of what the horse training shouldn't be gets quite clear.
Of course at this point my trust in my own system is solid. I do learn every day something new and am open to new ideas, but the language will probably never change severely. I will keep on talking my type of "horse".

But how did I choose that system? Here a few maybe helpful hints.

A good system to me means logic and clarity. On the practical level very clear signals. Every single time the signal expects the same type of response within the same time frame and with the same qualities, including lightness.

A good system always makes it possible for the horse to react in the wanted and expected way. Within a couple of seconds, lightly and happily.

A good system uses the horse's own natural reactions to its benefit.

A good system creates the wanted behavioral and biomechanical patterns. Therefor it creates better horse behaviour and better physical condition of the horse.

A good system to me means such a logic that is so clear to me so that I will never have to think about the way I solve a problem, the solution will be crystal clear within a few seconds. Why? Because in horse training some situations appear very quickly without a long notice. When the rider has to think for too long, the timing of the signal or correction is lost. To do "something" is never good enough when one also could do the right - effective - thing.

A good system has clear steps and suitable challenges, which the horse is always able to achieve.

A good system prepares the horse (and the rider) for the next level of activity so that the work never feels too difficult to do.

A good system provides a learning curve.

A good system gives confidence.

A system is the language one uses within the training, but it also consists of different tools. A rider's tool box should be big enough for different types of horses with different types of issues and for different types of exercises. But when one uses the tool box, it should never mess up the language, the system, that is used to train that horse. Only then can the training be succesful.

About the tool box we discuss later.

A solid system will create a horse who is able to perform anywhere. Here for instance to do pirouettes on a field in the middle of the woods.

tiistai 1. maaliskuuta 2016


When a horse enters the arena at a competition or executes a movement, the first thing the judge should pay attention to is the rhythm. It tells that the horse is first of all fit to compete, sound in the movement and not in such a pain or discomfort that would cause irregularity in the steps. Rhythm also reveals many things starting from the horse's balance and mental state to its ridability.

Rhythm quite often is just considered to be the four-beat in walk, two-beat in trot and three-beat of the canter, but that is not where it ends. Rhythm is also the perfect symmetry of the movement through the horse's body. The similarity of the mechanism in all of the horse's four legs.

For me personally it took a long time to figure out that the perfect rhythm is the key to the perfect ridability. When the horse is always maintaining an equal rhythm, it means that the muscle work he is doing in his body doesn't change in quality. The self-carriage, collection, impulsion, thoroughness - all the wanted qualities - have an impact to the rhythm and the rhythm has an impact to them. All these go hand in hand.

A pony-sized Finnhorse stallion moving with a parallel action in the back and in the front. Photo Henna Haapaniemi.

A horse in the perfect rhythm always moves with parallel legs. The literate riding community has been very concerned about the "show movement" of the modern day dressage horses. This type of movement is asymmetric in the front and in the back: the front leg is more expressive than the hind leg. The concern is justified as the biomechanical research done amongst horses has given reasons to believe that this working position is in many ways harmful to the horses. The critics say that the horses moving with a high front leg are not ridden from back to front. Partly so, some of them are even pulled backwards with the hand, but my conclusion is that this is not the case with all of them. Quite a few asymmetrically moving "top" horses are ridden from back to front, in some cases also with quite a lot of forward driving leg, but they are held up in the front. They show energy that an only backwards pulled horse wouldn't, but still the unevenness in the mechanism of the movement. To me the reason is not in the back, the reason for the asymmetry is in the front. Why do I believe so? Have you ever seen a horse doing "show trot" with loose reins? There you go. It doesn't happen. Horses naturally choose to do a sustainable, symmetrical movement in the whole of their body - also when they spook and do passagey-type-of-steps alone in the field. A show trot requires someone to hold the front up.

An artistic image of a horse who is showing a lot of front leg lift, whithout the equal amount of hind leg action. Notice also the short neck and the horse being behind the vertical - held up in the front by the rider's hand.

What happens in the horse's body is that the rider tries to ask for more collection and impulsion than the horse is capable of doing, the rider ends up supporting the horse in the front with the rein contact and the horse uses this contact to help to lift the front up. If you read my previous text about horse's natural balance issues and how the rider should correct them, you know by now that the horse has different muscle groups for the front and the back. The high, flashy front leg doesn't mean collection. It's just a high front leg. Collection is what happens when the back and front of the horse are united with the activity in the horse's core muscles. Collection means a higher level of body control and strength in the whole of the horse's body.

One of the biggest problems in the field of dressage is the hurry that the people are in. A young horse might be ridden in with too little preparation, too soon. Then when he feels unbalanced, the rider starts to help him with the contact - carry him. The horse doesn't learn to carry himself with the right set of muscles. Quite often the trapezius muscles are underdeveloped. Sometimes the whole upperline all the way down to the tail, depending on how much the horse was ridden backwards. The pattern of the muscle work is set. The rider increases the level of collection, holds the horse's front up with the contact and the situation just gets worse by the years.
I personally have rehabilitated a large number of horses with these symptoms. Some of them might even have lost the regularity of their gaits, some just are not really ridable anymore. At least 80% of my new pupils need to start by fixing some problems in the upperline and rhythm of the horse. Although I'm somewhat specialized in this type of work, I do not believe that these numbers are abnormal. There is a huge amount of horses who do not move parallel in their daily work. Regardless how much or little they are being balanced and collected in their work.

 An adult warmblood moving in a very moderate level of collection, where the horse is still able to move with a solid upperline and self-carriage symmetrically through the body. Photo Cat Loose.

How does the rhythm fit into all of this? It tells us what is possible and what is not. It should always be the rider's guideline when working with different levels of collection, with different body positions. If the horse looses the symmetry of the steps, if the horse looses the rhythm in a way that the rider is not able to correct it fairly easily, it means that the horse is not yet prepared to do what it is being asked to do. Maybe the horse lacks strength, maybe he lacks suppleness, maybe he is tired, maybe he is anxious... may the reason be anyone of these or a different one, the rider should always go back to that level of work, where the rhythm is solid. Only on that level the work is beneficial to the horse's body and its future.

Another challenge that the rider is always facing is riding within the rhythm. How to time the aids so that it enhances the horse ability to stay in rhythm instead of disturbing the rhythm? That we talk about another time.

... Continuation:

And I almost forgot to talk about the other group of horses, who don't collect or move their feet. The asymmetry of the movement can also happen, when the horse is on the forehand. The lack of movement in the front legs blocks the whole body. As long as the front legs are on the way and not stepping forward, the horse can not step underneath its body with the hind legs. Here the remedy is simple: get the horse to go forward off from your leg. Sharply!

lauantai 27. helmikuuta 2016

Ride all four legs

Horses are fascinating creatures. For me personally they are not only a profession but also a subject of constant interest and studies. The more I get to know about the anatomy, physiology and biomechanics of the horse, the more I have gained understanding on how to successfully train a horse.

Last summer I had the pleasure to attend a symposium with the topic "Optimizing horse's straightness, balance & performance through fascia retraining and postural rehabilitation" by now sadly late Dr. Kerry Ridgway. He was accompanied by Manolo Mendez and Colonel Carde on the stage. I had already my own understanding about many of the issues sports horses have before this clinic took place, but the symposium really gave a confirmation to some of the things I had discovered through my work in rehabilitating horses with a broad scale of different physical problems.

There are a lot of horse trainers in the world, especially in the field of dressage, who obsess about horses' hind legs as if they would be the sole part of horse's body that carries weight and moves the horse's body. This then resulting into forward driving and holding back at the same time for the sake of "collecting a horse". 

But as we all should know, horse is an animal with four legs and an animal, who carries most of his body weight with the front legs. A horse is naturally asymmetric and so to say "right- or left-handed". Dr. Ridgway pointed out that through his own personal experience about 80% of the horses are right-handed, the rest left-handed - quite like with us people. A right-handed horse loads more body weight onto the right front leg, which also especially from the saddle perspective "seems to be stuck underneath the front of the horse". The right front leg also due to its weight carrying properties has a different mechanism in the movement: it tends to do shorter, stompy strides where as the left front leg does a normal pattern. A very asymmetric horse might appear almost lame because of the difference in the front leg movement.

This asymmetry naturally goes through out the horse's body. The hind legs are also specialized: the right hind leg of a right-handed horse is better at carrying weight, the left one is specialized in pushing the movement forward. The more the left hind leg pushes and the less the right front leg spends time in the air, the more the horse will fall onto the front legs, to the right and get also heavier on the rein.

Through my personal experience the horse's neck also has a big impact on the ridability. A right-handed horse pushes the base of his neck in front of the right shoulder. As long as the base of the neck is placed more to one side, the horse will feel stiff to turn and flex to that side.

The interesting thing is that once these balance related issues are corrected, the horse's one-sided ridability problems seem to vanish one after the other.

A right-handed horse leans against the rider's right leg and offers more contact in the right rein. Quite a few riders try to solve the one-sidedness by flexing and over-flexing the neck of a right-handed horse to the right, possibly while also driving more forward with their legs. This only makes the problem worse as the horse reacts to the pull of the rein not by pushing the base of his neck to the other side, which would be helpful, but actually pushing the weight of the front harder onto the right front leg. The horse gets heavier in the right rein, rider pulls more, horse gets even heavier... I think you got the picture.
How to solve this problem is first to neutralize the horse's body position between left and right. A balanced, neutral horse has the center of gravity in the middle of its body, the body weight evenly distributed onto all four legs.

A young warmblood gelding, photo Cat Loose
My personal solution to the problem is to start playing with the turning aids and balance of the horse: I turn the whole front of the horse to the left, to the right, to the left, to the right... as many times as is needed to get the turning response in the horse's front equal in the mechanism to both sides while maintaining an even rhythm and the horse also to take the weight onto the left front leg. When the both turns feel equal in the quality, the horse will respond to the balancing corrections of the body position. The good thing about this approach is that horses of all training levels are able to respond correctly to such basic aids. Zig-zagging in a rhythm of 3-4 strides might only be problematic to the fellow riders in the arena, who have no idea, where you are going (so maybe using a quarter- or diagonal lines as an average makes sense while riding with others). I try not to support the horse with the reins too much - the more there is self-carriage in the horse's front, the more effect the corrections have.

When the horse is balancedly on all its four hooves, the base of the neck in the middle of its front legs, the horse will always be supple and flexible from its body and neck, if there are no other issues in his body (such as blocked joints, cramped muscles, to which the remedy is a well educated physiotherapist). Naturally for the horse to move with a healthy mechanism, he also needs to get the body weight off from the front legs. That we call collection.

A young Finnhorse gelding, photo Cat Loose
Collection itself should be a topic of its own, but when it comes to riding the horse in balance, you can not avoid mentioning it. A balanced horse needs to bring the body weight onto its hind legs. He needs to lower his haunches, bend his joints in the hind legs and load them with more body weight and then push forward. But it is not enough to create a balanced horse - the horse also needs to lift up the front with the muscles and ligaments attached to it. This is the part that too many trainers and riders seem to forget. A horse is a "four-wheel-drive-instrument"; to activate the hind legs is only a half of the story. The horse needs to also lift his shoulders and ribcage up and elevate the base of the neck to be able to move through the back in a healthy way. The muscles that do this type of work are located in the shoulder and neck area of the horse. A horse, whose neck is pulled into an unnatural position or held in too tight a frame, can not lift the front enough to be able to balance himself and step underneath himself. A horse who can use the neck to balance itself will on the contrary be able to be supple and soft from its neck - so that there is no need for the rider to pull the horse's head or neck to the side for any stretching and mobilizing purposes.

A horse who can move its feet parallel is a horse who is ridable. An equal lift in the shoulders with an equal push in the hind quarters creates a bridge of energy and balance over the horse's body.

A rider should never forget that riding a horse in balance is a game of all four legs. When there is symmetry in all of them, there is the wanted level of ridability with all the wanted qualities.

The fabulous system of the horse's body is worth studying. An interesting document about the features of a (racing) horse you will find from this link:

An adult Hanoverian mare with a higher level of collection, photo Cat Loose

perjantai 4. joulukuuta 2015

Good riding

Here is an opening line for you: There is nothing wrong with dressage. Not if you read the dressage rule book. Good dressage, good riding, is ethical, healthy and pleasant to watch.

I have lived now for over three years in Germany. Coming from the small horse country of Finland, the home nation of the world-renowned dressage guru Kyra Kyrklund, I have been lucky enough to get used to a riding culture, which is very clear, logical and light in its communication language with the horse. The years in Germany have taught that there are many ways to do the sport. Sometimes I see that the more or less experienced riders are puzzled – what is good riding, how should it look like in the training phase? What's good, what's bad?

Whatever the style or school of riding, there are a couple of universal facts which all good riding have in common:

  1. Gravity and the laws of physics
    Gravity is a fact. There is no trainer who can deny its existance. Gravity is not present only when the horse and rider unwillingly part ways, it is felt on every stride the horse makes and it has an impact to everything that we do.
    Gravity causes strain to the horse's body. When the center of gravity doesn't lie in the middle of the horse's body (i.e. The horse is not in balance), the body will experience onesided or even very local strain. The bigger the mass, faster the speed, stronger the asymmetry, the bigger is the strain. In the worst case this will cause the horse discomfort, pain, injuries and even loss of years in the sport, at least a diminished ridability.
    It is the rider's task to make sure that his/her body weight is evenly distributed on both sides of the horse by sitting upright, straight and in the middle of the horse. Additionally it is the rider's job to direct the horse to use its body evenly, so that the mass is evenly spread on all four legs to avoid the problems described above. An unbalanced horse, who experiences problems with gravity, will feel stiff and asymmetric to ride.

  2. Anatomy
    Anatomy and biomechanism are undeniable facts. The healthy movement of the horse and the way that horse's muscles work are studied subjects. A horse is an animal that carries most of its natural weight on the forehand. In the riddenwork the horse needs to bend the joints of its hindlegs and lift its ribcage and front into self-carriage with greater muscle work to avoid any excess strain of the front limbs. For the horse to be able to avoid discomfort and pain in the process it is very important that the horse is able to work in self-carriage with a certain level of relaxation and mobility in the neck that helps the horse in the balancing work. The horse can never be asked to do something that is anatomically or biomechanically impossible to achieve.
    The human anatomy is a subject yet better known. A rider has to sit upright and physically neutral to be able to maintain the health of the body on a moving horse. The natural curves of the spine make it possible for the rider to take the movement of the horse, when combined with enough of balancing angulation in the lower limbs.
    Riding can not be anatomically incorrect without causing health issues to the rider and/or the horse. Anatomically incorrect riding is unethical in all its forms, whether it is the rider who forces the horse to work against its own health or the trainer asking the rider to work in a body position that is destructive.

  3. Learning theories
    The learning theories of animals are a well known and studied subject. Classical and operant conditioning and the mechanisms involved are simple enough to comprehend and the knowledge is openly available. An animal learns through well-timed reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is most commonly used as a tool in horse training. Here the well-timed release of pressure has a remarkable impact in the learning process. Also some positive reinforcement is being used to get the desired results. Good animal training uses only very little or no positive or negative punishment.
    Good riding is always logical, clear, simple and regardless of the style of the training done by these principles of learning theories. Every single desired response of the horse is reinforced with the chosen mechanism. Only then can the riding be called good and ethical.

Good riding is easy to recognise. Firstly it looks effortless. It doesn't seem to cause the animal nor the trainer any significant stress. It results into fairly quick and straight forward learning and desidered results. Both rider and horse progress in the work and are doing physically and mentally well and painfree. Both better their physical condition, get more toned in their bodies, stronger, which makes it possible for them to relax also within the more demanding body work. As a result the good riding looks controlled, elastic and light on all levels of training. The lack of these features can never be explained by style differences, only by the lack of skills.

This blog will be about good riding, the building blocks involved and the bits and pieces around the subject.