Sunday, November 24, 2013

Making Tough Decisions

This has been a really rough weekend.  I have a wonderful, sweet, not quite 4 month old Irish Setter puppy.  He is the canine embodiment of goodness and the light of my eye.  I haven't loved a dog like this in a long, long time.  Saturday morning Dan and I were doing chores and as always our dogs were "helping".  Their version of helping is pretty much gamboling around us while we bustle about feeding, watering and the many other assorted chores that come with equine and bovine husbandry.  We don't allow the dogs to chase or otherwise antagonize the stock so they know to stay out of the fence lines unless invited and the Healer and two Border Collies are respectful of this.  The Irish Setter puppy is obviously still learning.  He prefers to be right with us.  Because of that I've been trying to stay out of the pens when he is with us right now just because he doesn't know to stay out of the way.  Our horses are used to dogs.  They are underfoot all the time both at home and on the trail.  I mostly worry about a horse inadvertently stepping on a dog that isn't paying attention.  

What happened Saturday wasn't inadvertent.  I was standing outside the fence with Patrick.  He had moved to just barely in the fence line but wasn't going any further and was paying attention so I was just watching him to be sure he didn't go in any further.  That's when my gelding came over and out of the blue struck him and broke his femur.  It was quick, it was violent, and it was heartbreaking to see.  It was like watching one person that you love, trust, and respect stab another person that you love, trust and respect right in the back.  I know that is anthropomorphism and I'm not trying to place human values on the actions of my animals, but that was the heart wrenching feeling that it evoked in me.  I've had horses and dogs all my life and we co-exist like one big happy family.  I have never in my life had something like this happen.  I suppose it was just a matter of time.

Anyway, the incident resulted in two separate surgeries for the poor puppy.  Anybody who has animals that they love as their children knows how hard it is to watch your pet in pain.  They don't understand and you cannot explain it to them.  They just hurt and you hurt for them.  It isn't any different for veterinarians and their own pets and sometimes I think it's even worse because we know the worse case scenarios and it's very difficult to keep your mind from going to the procedure failure statistics instead of the procedure success statistics that we use to bolster our clients confidence.  

So, here is the other heart wrenching side of this sad tale.  The gelding that did the deed is my aspiring bridle horse.  I have hours and hours of concentrated training into this horse that I have been carefully leading on the path to become my all star.  I love this horse and enjoy him and hadn't planned to part with him.   Now, I can't even look at him.  The anger that I feel towards him is irrational and powerful when coupled with how much I love him.  He is, after all, just a horse.  He has absolutely no history of any aggressive behavior like this.  In all likelihood it'll never happen again.  Like I said, he's been around our dogs and had them underfoot for the past 3 years and I don't even remember him pinning an ear at them.

But, irrational or not, it's how I feel.  I know without a doubt that that anger will fester and interfere with my ability to continue his training.  You see, in horsemanship, all emotion MUST leave the equation.  Horses don't hold grudges, they don't premeditate, they don't act out of malicious intent.  That is why they don't understand it when we do act that way.  Punishment is ineffective in horses because they don't think that way.  They move from one minute to the next and can go from aggressively chasing a pasture mate away from a scrap of hay to eating nose to nose with them the next minute because of that ability to move beyond the emotion of the minute.  It's not because they are stupid, it's because they are herd animals that rely on that kind of social dynamic to survive.  It's a shame people don't have the same instincts.  Think of the splendor of a society that can instantly forgive and forget and move on.

So when you carry a grudge with your horse you become unfair and injust.  When you carry the emotions of your bad day, or the remembrance of the shinanigans your horse pulled  the last time you rode into today's ride, you have failed your horse.  When his little mistake gets inappropriate correction due to your anger it can create fear in the horse.  If you ride with anger in your heart, they feel it in your hands and it isn't fair to the horse.  When you lose the inability to distance yourself emotionally you fail the horse.

So, as hard as it is for me, I've decided that the best thing I can do for my gelding is to put him into the hands of another horseman that can approach his training without the emotional baggage that I now carry.  He deserves to have a partner that allows him a clean slate.  I can no longer be that for him.  He is an amazingly talented horse with the kind of custom designed lightness and responsiveness that you just don't come across very often.  Because of the intense and specialized training he has had the transition to a new rider won't be very easy for him, but it'll be easier for him than his trusted rider riding with anger in her hands.

I care too much about the future of this horse to risk riding him with anger and creating fear.  I come across people all the time that are struggling with their relationship with their horse.  Maybe the horse did something that scared them so they lost trust.  Maybe they just don't see eye to eye with the horse and cannot establish a level of communication that is working for them. Whatever the reason the resulting relationship is one of tension.  The owner is constantly angry and disappointed with their "jerk" of a horse.  The horse is in either a constant state of fear or struggle for dominance in the pecking order because of the fear they sense in their supposed leader.  Sometimes those relationships can heal, but honestly, for both horse and human I just wish they would go their separate ways.  The person needs a horse that they can trust and communicate with and so does the horse.  There is no shame in claiming irreconcilable differences.  Humans have such a hard time letting go or giving up the fight and all it does is drag out the misery for all involved.   Sometimes, as hard as it is to admit, there is a better person to take the reins.

So, while this is an emotional decision on the heels of an incredibly emotional weekend, it isn't a decision that I have made lightly.  As opposed to those who will view this decision as one I have made out of hate, I have made this decision out of love.  I love my dog and I love my horse.  I love my horse so much that I would rather see him in the hands of another person than risk treating him unfairly because of my inability to move beyond this moment in time. He deserves better from me and I know I just am not able to give it to him.  Someday when I am completely able to detatch all emotion from my horsemanship I know I will have finally completed my journey.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lightness Outside of the Vaquero Tradition.

It was my purpose when I began this blog to document and describe mostly my horsemanship journey as it has been molded and effected by my studies in the vaquero tradition of the bridle horse.  While I've deviated from that topic quite a bit, I still feel that the pursuit of this tradition in lightness and correctness and old style horsemanship is still the main focus and drive of my horsemanship journey.

But, it certainly doesn't describe everything that I do with my horse.  Besides building a working cow horse the traditional way I am also working on developing a Hunter over Fences mount in my older Morgan, Chico.  While you may think these two disciplines are so far removed as to be unrelated I can assure you that they are not.  The principles of lightness and correctness as well as many of the movements that I have learned in the pursuit of the Vaquero tradition have served me well in keeping the focus and softness in Chico as we explore this new discipline.

Ah, Chico.  He's such a confused horse!  I've had Chico since he was 3 years old.  When he came home with me he had a fairly solid foundation from a good horseman who started him under saddle and spent 60 days on him.  I don't know what methods that he used but when Chico and I met he was at a point in his life that I could pretty much just hop on and go.  My horsemanship principles at that point and time in my journey consisted of the theory that you ride a young horse just like it's a seasoned mount and they'll eventually just figure it out.  So, I got on and rode Chico exactly as I had been riding my newly retired Morgan Cory for the past 18 years.  At that point in my life I had little to no experience with green horses.  I was pretty fearless and a good rider and confident that Chico would come along quickly.  I was on a drill team at the time and Chico became my drill team mount.  Drill team is a wonderful team equine sport but not necessarily the best place to develop lightness, correctness or a soft gait in a youngster!  I was able to participate by pretty much just hauling him around manually.  Being willing and gregarious he complied for the most part.  I also took him to play days and the local shows hoping that with enough exposure he'd just figure it all out like my wonderful Cory had done.  I failed to realize that Cory had been 9 when we met and well seasoned.  Chico, though willing, wasn't really ready to be tossed into the deep end like we did.

By the time Chico was 5 we had some fairly serious issues that I was pretty much unable to fix.  He had never really figured out the whole ground manners thing.  I didn't know I had to teach/reinforce that so I unknowingly reinforced bad behavior by not correcting it consistently.  I had no left lead whatsoever and that problem seemed to be getting worse.  He could do an entire barrel pattern in his right lead even if we took the right barrel first.  I also have almost no control of his body parts.  Being incredibly athletic and flexible he could lope sideways, butt first with his head cranked to my knee in the opposite direction of travel.  One rein stop?  Yeah, right.  Prepare to gallop shoulder first in whatever direction he was planning to go.  I went through a bucket full of bits trying to get more control.  For all that he wasn't a bad horse, just willful and my control over his willfulness seemed to be getting worse with time instead of better.

It was at this time that I figured out I needed help.  I turned to a certain "natural horsemanship" trainer that was big on establishing respect and "MOVING THOSE FEET!"  I faithfully followed the program with the devotion only a professional student can muster.  We definitely made some progress.  But, I also noticed that my relatively calm and relaxed, if somewhat willful horse became a little fearful and over reactive.  So, I needed more help.  I started looking at other trainers under the "natural horsemanship" heading and eventually found Buck Brannaman, Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers.  This lead me to the Vaquero tradition.

So, I put my 9 year old "broken" gelding into a bosal and began to try to learn feel and to develop softness and correctness in my aids.  I went back to the basics.  Oh the progress that we made.  I had established some control of body parts but it was bracey and over reactive.  Now I had the tools to refine that and allow my horse to understand that a little try was all I needed.  Riding in the bosal helped me to establish softer hands and better feel and timing so that when I did move Chico back into a bit my hands were softer, his mouth had spent a year healing and we were better able to communicate without a bigger bit, tighter nose band, martingale or draw reins.  The bosal also helped teach Chico how to break at the withers and not just at the pole which makes the horse lighter on the front end, softer in the bridle and is a step on the way to true collection.  A horse that doesn't break at the withers will break behind the poll at the third vertebrae and that is false collection and can act as evasion of the bit.

So, now with all the disciplines that Chico and I have messed around in we are trying to learn how to be jumpers.  Maintaining the elements of softness while learning to jump has been a challenge.  Obviously I can't use traditional vaquero tack to learn to jump but the vaquero tradition goes beyond just the tack.  (Unless you talk to one of the die hard traditionalists who are probably burning me in effigy for even suggesting such a thing.)  Because jumping is new and exciting and somewhat scary for both Chico and I he tends to get a little racy when we are practicing jumping.  Getting those nice even cadence circles with softness and elevation kind of goes out the window after that first jump and all we are both thinking about is getting over the next one without dying.  His old habits of leading with his shoulder and dodging and forgetting leads also crop up when he gets a little nervous about the jumping.

What has really helped to keep that from getting out of hand so that I have to get a bigger bit just to control him again is to continually go back to basics and the maneuvers that he knows and understands in between jumps and in between jumping sessions.  So, when he takes a jump too fast and then tries to run to the other end of the arena leaning on the bit we can stop, back, get soft, yield the hindquarters and bring the forequarters across just like we would do if were practicing working a cow.  Then we might do a short serpentine at the walk moving all the body parts through the serpentine.  All this is done on a very soft feel, emphasizing collection but not holding it there.  The last thing I want to reinforce with Chico is leaning on that bit.  We've worked too hard for that to go away.  We are using a very mild french link bit to learn jumping.  He has the option to completely ignore me and run through that bit if he so desires and he demonstrated that desire on a trail ride just the other day!  It's a very mild bit that helps to protect his mouth from my inadvertent yanking when I'm not in the correct position over the jump.

So, while I am riding in breeches and a jumping saddle, my riding really hasn't changed that much from what I do in my slick fork when working on cow horse turns.  Having that well established base to recenter both of us and allow us to reaffirm our communication and lightness has been instrumental in keeping us both sane and healthy through this endeavor.  While the cues I'm using may not be what the typical english rider would use, who cares?  I doubt anybody can see that anyway.  Who cares if I cue my jumping horse like a cow horse and we canter along with just a slight drape in the rein.  I'm not going to compromise lightness and correctness for style.  You don't have to change the way you ride just because you are doing something different with your horse.  If you have established basic soft communication with your horse it should transcend both tack choice and discipline.

Obviously Chico is not on the traditional bridle horse path.  We had too much baggage to really establish a true bridle horse via the Vaquero tradition.  But because of what I have learned about softness and feel he will be the kind of horse that can excel in many disciplines and stay happy and with me whatever we are doing.  At least that's our goal!
 Our "cross-training" outfit.  Bosal and a jumping saddle.  The only problem is where to stick the mecate!
Chico and I jumping at a lesson this summer with Roxanne Conrad.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Having Fits with Saddle Fit

I sometimes think that I could make a living in just providing saddle fit clinics for horses and riders.  It's such a universal problem for people that it's difficult to believe that our ancestors rode horses as a means of transportation and didn't sore up every single one of them.  Why is finding a saddle that fits hard for folks today?  Saddle fitting clinics are trending and there are experts all over the place holding expensive clinics to help you find a saddle that fits.  We see saddle fit related back injuries with increasing frequency in our practice.  Is this an increasing problem or an increased in awareness?  Probably a little of both.

Equine Anatomy
First in saddle fit, it is important to consider the anatomy of your horse's back.  Back length, wither height and shoulder angle are all very important in saddle fit.  The bars of the saddle should ride along the top of the rib heads supported by the long muscles of the back.  The front of the bars will sit in the pocket just behind the shoulder and below the wither.  The bars should not extend beyond the flank nor should they create pressure on the loin.  The paddle like portion of the scapula moves in an arc over the front of the rib cage with the horse's stride.  The flatter (more laid back) the shoulder is, the longer the stride length and the more movement of that shoulder.  Pressure in this area will affect stride length.

There is a wide variation in body types and styles within our equine population.  Some horses are high withered and narrow shouldered, some are muttoned withered with huge bulldog shoulders.  It may be hard to believe but horses used to be selected for breeding based on their backs.  A horse was said to have a good back for riding with moderate withers and a good pocket behind the shoulder for the saddle bars. Muttoned withered horses were considered cart horses because it was difficult to get a saddle to stay in place on their back. Often in the discussion of saddle fit you will hear folks talk about how the horse's conformation today is much different than it used to be, presumably because folks have quit selecting for back conformation in their horses.  I don't believe this to be a universal problem across the breeds.  I think many families of the Quarter Horse have lost the nice withers that they were bequeathed from the Thoroughbred and certainly there has been increased selective pressure in that breed for that "bulldog" look. Today's Quarter Horse often doesn't resemble the foundation type in many ways; back conformation among them.  They tend to be lower withered and wider, flatter backed then their ancestors so using an old saddle or one of old type will have a bar angle that is too steep for a flatter backed horse.  I think for my breed of choice, the Morgan, the opposite is true and our horses may have a better back with higher withers than many of their ancestors did.  So, generalizations are not appropriate.  You need to consider each horse as an individual.

This is Moony.  Green lines show the back edge of the shoulder and the front edge of the flank.  These are the front and back borders for your saddle.  Ideally you don't want any of your saddle to extend beyond these points.  The yellow line indicates the part of his back where the bars will be resting and demonstrates the relative length and angle.  The blue line is the height of his withers and the necessary gullet height required to provide him clearance.  The red line is his the angle of his shoulder and indicates relative shoulder action.  The larger the angle of the shoulder the more movement through the joint.
 Salsa has slightly shorter withers than Moony with a steeper relative shoulder requiring slightly room for movement through that area.  Her back is relatively longer than Moony's with slightly less rock.  Both of these horses have a very easy back to fit a saddle to. These horses can easily share a saddle.  The only difference is that when saddling Moony it is important to place the saddle back just a little further than where Salsa wears her saddle to accommodate for more range of motion through the shoulder.

Chico has a longer back than the other two and is fairly straight through the back.  He has tall withers with a good shoulder angle that requires quite a bit of room for movement.  Chico's saddle fit issues are not in his back, but in his hoof.  He has a tendency towards clubbiness in his left front foot creating unevenness in his shoulders and back.  Those high withers have been a struggle as well!

 The majority of horses are left handed.  In general (and this is a broad generalization) you can tell the horse's handedness by the direction that the mane falls naturally.  If the mane falls to the right, the horse is left handed.  Chico is very very dominant right handed and his tendency to be clubby in his left front foot is either the cause or the effect of his right handedness.  Because of this we had severe lead issues through the first 4 years of his time under saddle.  If you stand at his rump and sight down his back towards his shoulders you can see the difference in the two shoulders.  His right shoulder is thicker and has more range of motion.  His left shoulder is atrophied  yet sits slightly higher and has slightly less range of motion.  Riding in a poorly fit saddle for many years exacerbated this atrophy and I've had a hard time rehabilitating the shoulder to get them more even again.  I do think I've seen some progress in that area since my saddle fit journey began.

Recognizing Poor Saddle Fit

There are many ways you can tell if your saddle is causing problems for the horse.  For Chico I first noticed white hairs at his withers.  White hairs are caused by pressure points from the saddle and indicate chronic pressure damage or damage that was inflicted months ago.  It takes sometime for those white hairs to show up.  A common spot for white hairs to develop is at the hollow behind the shoulders where poorly fitted saddles have been interfering with shoulder movement.  Behavioral or gait changes are often the reason that I am called out to evaluate a horse for back pain and saddle fit.  Hollowing of the back during saddling, dancing around or pulling away during saddling or puffing up at the cinch during tightening can all be indications that your saddle is causing your horse physical discomfort.

Under saddle a sudden reluctance to lope, or extend gait or pick up a certain lead may indicate pain due to saddle fit.  Sometimes the horse has spent so much time in pain from a poorly fitted saddle that they become a chronic bucker.  If your horse is kicking out or bucking suddenly under saddle, ruling out physical pain should be your first thought before trying to "train" the buck out of them.

Other signs of back pain may include head tossing, teeth grinding, agitation as the ride progresses,or horses carrying their heads too low trying to stretch out those back muscles.  What does your horse do as you mount?  Does he pull away from you, buckle at the knees, grunt or hollow his back?

A properly fitted saddle should not need a crupper or breast collar to stay in place when riding on flat ground.  It also should not require an excessively tight cinch.

After riding and removing your saddle you should always examine your horse's back.  Is his sweat pattern even?  In a horse with a healthy back with no previous damage there should be even sweat patterns on both sides of the horse, especially where the bars are located.  If it's been a long ride, the entire area under the pad will probably be sweated up but it's the bar areas that you are most concerned with.  Unfortunately if a horse has experienced previous saddle damage, those areas will not sweat and that doesn't recover with correcting the saddle fit issue.   Check all along your horse's back for areas of raised lumps, excessive heat, rubbed hair or tenderness to the touch.
 This roan horse has a nice even sweat pattern along the bars of the saddle.  This pattern should be even on both sides.  The channel at the top of the spine should be dry and free from rub marks or areas of swelling or pain.

This palomino horse is showing areas of dryness at the fronts of the bars.  This area is not sweating due to too much pressure.  This may be a single incident or the result of chronic saddle fit.

Tools for fitting your horse to his saddle

When I found the white hairs at Chico's withers I assumed he was too narrow for Quarter Horse or Semi Quarter Horse bars causing the saddle to rock down on his withers.  Consequently I found a narrow saddle that I felt didn't hit his withers but was supported all along his back. I thought I had solved our saddle fit. But,  because this saddle had a fairly steep bar angle it dug into the pocket and limited his shoulder movement. This saddle was also very long so I had to put it further up over his withers than I would normally increasing the pressure on his shoulders.   Eventually this made his problem even worse to the point that his stride was so severely shortened that I had to correct it with time off and chiropractic and massage.  I never had dry spots under my saddle.  I never had bucking issues or saddle slippage or white hairs.  It just changed my horse's stride to the point that he couldn't perform.  By trying to fix my saddle fit issue without fully understanding the root of the problem I made it worse.  I also made his back even harder to fit because it caused further atrophy to that shoulder.  You would think that they would teach this stuff in vet school so I didn't have to learn it the hard way!

But, because of that journey I have learned more and more about saddle fit and am better able to help both my horse and my clients.  I have also done some limited work with thermal imaging and feel this is a great technology to aid is saddle fit diagnosis and determine how to correct the problem.

The very first thing that I did to try to determine exactly what type of saddle I was going to need for Chico was to do a tracing of his back.  This is a very valuable exercise that will help you to determine what kind of back your horse has.  It requires such high tech equipment as a length of outdoor plastic coated wiring and a tape measure.  You can get some of it at the hard ware store.  It's thick and malleable and it will help you to determine the shape and angle of your horse's back.   This website gives you directions to walk yourself through the process.

Basically you take a length of this plastic coated wire and create a tracing your horse's back from the base of the bar along the withers at the sweet spot where the front of the bars will rest in the pocket.

What you end up with is an outline of your horse's back that demonstrates the shape and relative width.  (Please see the webpage for a more detailed description of this process)

What I was very surprised to find out was that the relative shape of all our horse's back's was remarkably similar when measuring at the correct spot.  Although Chico's tracing did illustrate some atrophy at the point of the withers and his wither height was a little higher, the angles and width were the same.  He doesn't need a narrower saddle, he just requires a little higher clearance in the gullet so it doesn't hit his withers.

Using the tracings I had done of our horses I was able to check all our saddles for each horse to see what saddle fit which horse the best. Again, the website goes into more description of this process, but basically you take the tracing of the horse's back and place it in the bottom of your saddle.
We had one roping saddle that was far too wide for any of our horses.  The saddle I had been using was far too narrow for any of our horses and by a lucky coincidence, the saddle that Dan had just had made fit not only his own horse but most of the rest of the horses in our herd as well.  This tree has a 3b visalia tree which is an older traditional style tree.  The channel is fairly large with a good bar angle for our horses.  This is a hand constructed wood tree that sits nicely on most of the horses that we have had it on.  The only concession that I made in ordering my own tree was to increase the height of my gullet and allow more room for Chico's withers.  It doesn't change the angle or width of the gullet, just the clearance for a horse with slightly higher withers.

A new emerging and gaining in popularity modality for saddle fit is thermal imagining.  This can be very useful tool in determining pain in a horse's back and if it is related to saddle fit.  A thermal imaging gun is one that measures hot spots on the horse's body and on typically on the saddle as well.  Usually a horse's back is scanned for an image prior to riding and then after a period of 30 minutes of exercise.  Then both the back and the saddle are evaluated.  Images such as these are useful in determining how that saddle is interacting with the horse's back.

The image on the left is a saddle that is bridging on the horse's back.  The red areas indicate areas of greatest heat.  The image on the right shows a saddle with fairly good fit along the entire bar length with the exception of a a little extra heat in the right front of the bar.  Suppose this horse is right handed?  Or does this rider tend to lean on that side just enough out cause extra pressure there?  With the good distribution in weight it is probably not a significant issue, but still an interesting finding.

Choosing the right saddle for you and your riding style

Many people who are struggling with saddle fit are lured into the flex tree or treeless saddle option.  Some even decide to just forgo the saddle and ride bareback.  Let's take a minute and discuss why these are not good ideas for most riders.  If the majority of your riding is for 30 minutes or less on level ground with low impact, then you do not need to read any further.  Limited riding of that sort can be done bareback or in in a treeless saddle with no ill consequences.  If you ride a little harder than that, keep reading.

First of all, let's diffuse the myth that bareback is more comfortable for either the horse or the rider. While I do fully recognize the benefits of bareback sessions for developing rider balance and harmony with the horse, these sessions are best kept to short rides in the arena or jaunts down to the lake for a swim.   I spent a lot of time bareback as a kid and I suppose when you only weight 75 pounds it's a moot point.   The entire purpose of a saddle is to distribute the weight of the rider's seat bones over a larger area on the horse's back.  Without a saddle tree all the weight of the rider is consolidated into one area thereby increasing the pressure points.  It's like the difference between going on a long hike with a properly fitted external frame backpack spreading the weight over shoulders, hips and back or carrying that same weight in a purse slung over one shoulder.  This is a  well documented fact and many recent studies have been done to scientifically confirm what should be common knowledge.  Here is a link to a study completed using pressure pads to measure mean pressure points along the horse's back both with a saddle and without.

A treeless saddle creates similar problems.  Not only are they more likely to cause pressure at a single area because they lack a real tree they are also prone to slippage and create more difficulties with the need for an excessively tight cinch in order to keep the saddle in place.  Again, especially for folks doing a lot of long hours in the saddle, this is not a good choice.

Flex trees are another  option people commonly turn to when fighting saddle fit.  The important thing to remember about flex trees is that they are not meant to "conform" to your horse's back.  The flex trees are a solid traditional tree with areas that will flex slightly (and we're talking millimeters) or trees made entirely of a hard neoprene.  Think of a hard sole to a work boot.  More flex than wood, but not a lot of give.  The idea with a flex tree is that it moves with your horse.  Of course, it is also going to move a little with the rider's weight.  Therefore if you are off balance at all a flex tree would increase that problem of uneven weight distribution for the horse.  Many people believe that a flex trees allows for movement in the horse's back for a better athletic fit.

Let's look at where the bars of the saddle ride on a horse.  The bars rest on a fairly stable area on the horse's back.  If you have ridden bareback you know that while there is some flex and movement there, it is minimal.  A horse can round or hollow his back and arc his rib cage laterally slightly.  The flex tree is allowing for flexion outward or at the leading edge of the bar to allow for movement of the shoulder.  We have already determined that proper placement of the saddle and proper fit require the saddle to be out of the way of the shoulder.  If your saddle is interfering with shoulder movement then it doesn't fit properly and it will not help to have it flexing a few millimeters.

While I don't believe a properly fitting flex tree will cause problems for the horse, I also don't believe it will correct a poor saddle fit nor do I feel it provides any true benefit over any other well fit saddle tree.  The one thing that I don't particularly like about the flex trees is that I prefer natural products that are more forgiving in the construction of a saddle.  Ralide and neoprene are not my favorite saddle components. Neoprene is a source of extra heat in your saddle and isn't a good choice for any of your tack.

Besides fitting the saddle to you horse, it is also incredibly important to fit the saddle to you.  The bars, while designed to distribute weight over the back evenly can only do so if the weight that they are carrying and placed evenly on the bars.  There is a trend towards people riding in saddles that are too large for them.  Many people do not realize what size saddle they really need.  A larger saddle with longer bars is more likely to cause bridging and extend into that area of the loin that should be avoided.  If any part of your saddle, extends back over the horse's hips where the hair changes directions it is too long for that horse.

A properly fitted saddle for a the rider should place the rider's weight directly and evenly over the stirrups.  You should not be sitting in a recliner with your feet out in front of you.  This places pressure on the back of the bars and will sore your horse over his lumbar vertebrae.  You should not have more than just a few fingers of space in the area in front of your leg nor should there be more than just a hand's breath behind you at the cantle.  Your weight should not be pressed into the back of the cantle but centered over the center of the bars.  A good saddle should make your riding and keeping your balance easier.  If you have trouble keeping in the center of your saddle, keeping your feet underneath your body or loose stirrups often you may be fighting a saddle that doesn't fit you or is poorly made.

So, having been there and struggled with saddle fit, let me give you some advice. First of all realize that this is a process of trial and error to a certain degree.  Just because you have one saddle with "semi-quarter horse bars" doesn't mean another saddle with "semi-quarter horse bars" will fit your horse.  Unfortunately there is no uniformity in the measurements used by saddle makers and most custom saddlers will tell you that these measurements have little meaning.  Shop around for the best saddle that you can afford.  Stick with a quality made tree by a reputable tree maker and a saddle made for years and years of use.  Quality materials mean better wearing on the saddle and less incidence of warping of the tree, stretching of the leather or defects in the materials that cause the saddle to have pressure points.   You will be much further ahead having one quality saddle that fits several horses than 3 cheaper factory made saddles that don't fit anything really well. Consult a known expert in the field that has experience in saddles and fitting them to horse and rider.  Then do your research.  Use the tools mentioned above to determine if the saddle is fitting your horse like it is supposed to.

Here are a few other websites I found helpful in my research besides the ones mentioned in the text.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Pyramid of Training

It's that time of year for us Northern folks.  As the ground in the arena goes from brown to white and the needles on the Tamaracks cover more dirt than branch we start thinking about laying off our horses for winter.  While many people do continue to ride in the winter, just as many pull the shoes on their horses and don't climb on again until the round pen thaws enough to "restart" them in the spring.

Luckily we are no longer in the camp that has to forgo riding for the winter months.  We are blessed to be able to board a few horses at a local barn so that we can continue to work on some training through the winter.  It's gone a long way towards keeping us sane during those long cold months.

But, even though we aren't laying off our horses completely in the winter it still is a time for reflection.  We look back on our year with our horses and take stock of where we started and where we would like to go next year.  We check off goals that were attained and set new ones for both rider and horse.

Often in the rush of late summer and fall riding I tend to get distracted a bit with just riding.  I love to get out in the mountains and cover ground and just be with my horse seeing new country. Especially as the daylight and nice weather start dwindling I spend less and less time in the training pen. While it's a great way to put miles and exposure on your horse, there isn't always much training that occurs on the trail.  Winter time is a time for me to slow down and concentrate on where we are and how we are going to move forward.  It's also a time for me to concentrate on just one horse at a time.  In the summer I am rotating between my horses trying to keep the time spent with each of them equal.  In the winter I board one at a time, usually for 30-60 days and concentrate on just that one horse for that time.

One of the tools that we use in the winter months to fix any holes in our horses or ourselves is the Pyramid of Training.  This illustration is provided by Cowboy Dressage.  You can call it any number of different things and the concept is anything but new.  Buster McLaury spent quite a bit of time during our clinic this past summer relaying a story that Ray Hunt used to tell his students about the importance of building the foundation.  You can't spend too much time on foundational training because it's what holds every thing else you do together.

In the world of horsemanship, foundational training starts on the ground.  This where you teach the abc's and communication between horse and handler.  It doesn't matter if your horse is 2 or 20, there are times when going back to the ground to reiterate certain points is immeasurably valuable.   We spend a lot of time doing groundwork exercises during our winter months.  Every single thing that you do with your horse in the saddle you should be able to do on the ground as well.  If you can't do it on the ground, how do you expect your horse to do it in the saddle?   This foundation of communication is so important with a young horse.  If you don't establish the communication, trust and bond in a young horse through careful handling on the ground, everything else you do with him will be a waste of energy.  It's like skipping kindergarten and going to algebra.  You may be able to hammer the concepts in with enough time and repetition but why do that to your horse?  Teach your horse to learn and he will reward you with better attention, try and heart throughout your time together.

For me, in my winter training, this is where I get really picky about my groundwork.  I want exact foot placement in my groundwork.  I want to stop a foot in midair and direct it's footfall.  Often in the summer I am too anxious to just get out and ride and let some of this stuff get sloppy.  Winter is a great opportunity to slow down and concentrate in a quiet setting.

Another thing that we spend a ton of time on in our winter training is transitions.  This is the next level up on the pyramid.  Walk, jog, stop, back.  You cannot do too much of this.   If you spend a half hour in the saddle and all you do is walk, jog, stop, back transitions with as much lightness and softness as possible, you will be further along in your training than if you had done an hour of loping patterns and working on flying lead changes.  The key here is building lightness and communication. If you have to beat your horse into a slow lazy jog lacking in energy and then drag him down again to a stop and back you are not capturing the essence of this exercise.  Over and over again ask your self, "How little does it take?"  Can you move that horse up into a jog through just raising the energy in your body?  Can you bring him back down again by just stopping riding in the saddle?  What about foot fall patterns?  Close your eyes and feel where those feet are landing. How can you direct the feet without knowing which foot is off the ground?  You have to remember that it's not IF you can get it done with your horse, it's HOW you get it done.  You want to get to the point where you think it with your body and they respond.  It becomes a game to see how closely your horse is listening.  You'll be surprised at how closely they pay attention when you still the other chatter that usually clutters our riding.  Make the horse responsible for listening to you and making that change rather than forcing the response from your horse with your hands or feet.

Once your horse has begun to master these things in a straight line, you can begin work on softness and suppleness.  Lateral suppleness comes first in the pyramid.  I almost hate to even go on to talk about the peak of the pyramid because so many people want to jump up to this level before they and their horse are ready.  It's like the flying lead change.  Everybody wants to do it before they can even really lope a circle. There is a reason that these things are at the top of the pyramid.  Lateral softness should start with your horse in the groundwork so that when you begin to work on it under saddle it makes sense to the horse.   Suppleness and bend isn't just referring to the head and neck but to the entire body.  With good lateral flexion through the rib cage you can create a very arced horse that curves around your leg in a small circle. By getting lateral flexion through the hips you can achieve a haunches in.  Lateral flexion in the shoulder creates a shoulder in.  Each of these body parts should be soft and easy to direct.

Finally at the top of the pyramid is soft feel.  Now, I think of soft feel in every interaction with my horse, but in this illustration we are specifically talking about what other people think of as vertical flexion.  This is asking the horse to get soft in the bridle, shorten his body by rounding his back and stepping his hind end underneath him.  This is the beginning of true collection and is something that must be built slowly one step at a time.  You can't hold a horse in soft feel.  You can ask him to come to you and you can reward him doing so but if you try to hold him there without him holding himself you create a brace and false flexion by breaking at the 3rd vertebrae or creating a horse who is heavy on the front end and has his energy fall out behind him.  Soft feel in true horsemanship where lightness is valued beyond everything else is like a ballet dancer going on point.  It takes years of preparation and training and building the proper form and discipline before you can do it right.  It's not something you can master in 30 days.

The Pyramid of Training is also a great illustration because it emphasizes how much relative time you should be spending on each of these exercises with a horse that is the beginning stages of training or retraining.  With my 3 year old (when he goes into light training this spring) I will be spending the majority of my time at the ground levels working on basics of communication.  He'll get a short session of work under saddle with some forward movement and transitions.  Then at the end of my session I usually do a short suppling exercise and work on breaking the hind end over and bringing the head and neck around laterally.  The last thing I work on at the end of our riding session is just the very beginnings of soft feel.  I'll pick up on the bosal just a little until I feel him soften and shift his weight backwards.  Then we're done.  

I have specific goals in place for each of my horses for their winter work.  We enjoy the leisurely time together just hanging out in the indoor arena with friends who are also dodging the weather.  It's a great time for exploring new techniques, trying different exercises and experimenting with mastering footfall.  So, while I hate to see the summer come to an end, it's kind of like the excitement of starting a new school year.  Class is in session!