For several years in my early career, I had the great good fortune to ride for Jimmy Williams, renowned trainer of many Grand Prix and Olympic champions, in Southern California. Jimmy’s uncanny ability with horses was legendary; at an advanced age he would still ride most of his horses through complex dressage routines with no bridle. He achieved outstanding levels of success through an innate sensitivity to how horses communicate.
Needless to say, I made a study of his approach, which was rich with small exercises you’d barely notice, isolating key components needed for effective communication between horse and rider. For example, he would encourage horses to lower their heads as a matter of routine.* Whether asking the horse to do so with pressure at the poll, rolling a barrel, or simply by tossing a sugar cube to the ground to be enjoyed after a nice stretch downward, Jimmy built emotional fitness and flexibility into every ride.
His attention to these small particulars influence on my own approach to training and riding.
Recently, as I was preparing to give a clinic, I found myself recalling another of Jimmy’s tiny revelations that stuck with me: how he taught his students to be aware when their horse’s attention was drawn away by movement and sounds around them by watching the horse’s ear. When the outside ear turned that meant the horse was picking up on a sound or movement in that direction. When the inside ear turns the horse was being attentive to the riders aids. Jimmy wanted our horses to stay with us and not let their minds wander to stay connected to the rider not distractions around the them.
Jimmy did this by asking the horse to bring his inside ear back—a sign of his attention on you.
Today, I teach riders to follow a sequence of communication beginning with the attention (ear back), flexion, and direction of the foot, speed, and weight. This sequence slows and organizes the rider paying careful attention to separate them out so the horse can understand what is being asked easily. As the horse grows confident and the rider understands who to keep the communication simple the language skill grow to become a mix of all the components.
Exercises on the ground:Flexion (both sides): Stand at your horse’s side, about where you’d be sitting on him. Your ribs are next to his ribs about where the girth would be. Starting with a loose lead rope, slowly slide your hand down the rope just like it was a rein and ask your horse to bend his head around to you. If he bends right around, give him slack in the rope. Unless you have practiced this, its more than likely he will be thinking 'away' from you. Just hang in there with a feel, not a pull or bump, just a feel, and wait. Notice when he tips his inside ear or eye toward you–that is the time to give slack in the rope. Over time he will give more, but for now, be happy that you were able to get his attention (ear and/or eye) and more flexion will come over time. He may move his feet, so you will need to keep your feet positioned so you are standing by his girth area while you are working on his flexion, if he backs up, you back up until you are in position and begin again. And remember to work on the other side as well.
Do a little of this type of work every day before you ride. This will give you a clear idea whether your horse is with you before you ride, or if you should spend extra time on the ground working on your connection.
*See my earlier post on head lowering.