Thursday, November 7, 2019

No Stirrups—or Reins—November!

Elise and Blackie, no stirrups, one rein, connecting through feel.
By Mary Gallagher

In light of last month’s article on achieving balance and freedom of movement, minus restricting tack, this month I want to talk about taking away the reins and stirrups.

Yes, you read me right. Riders rely too much on reins and stirrups for balance, dulling their horses’ natural abilities to connect and communicate through feel.

Our Hoof Beats youth riding program (and many of our adult students) has long since adopted the ‘No Stirrup November’ practice popular with many trainers and riding schools. What initially seemed challenging has become a fun—the kids are naturals at finding the connection with their horses based on balance and feel, whether using bareback pad, saddle sans stirrups, or neither. By December, their return to stirrups reveals much-improved equitation and a deeper bond between horse and rider.

This year I decided to take it up a notch, to No Stirrups and No Reins November. Our goal: to ride with no bridle by the end of the month.

So far, so good. One week in, everyone is getting comfortable riding with one rein—actually a lead rope attached to a rope halter —and one stick, but as the month progresses we aim to ride with no reins, two sticks or one. Some of our advanced riders, see Elise, above, are getting quite comfortable at all gaits, even jumping with one rein.

Beyond the thrill of realizing how well we and our horses can communicate without traditional tack, the point of this process is to bring us into better synchronization with the horse, training our bodies through strong focus and better understanding of body language.

Here’s how it works:

The idea is to essentially mirror what we want our horses to be doing.

Basically, any time we get on our horse, we have a plan, our horse has a plan, and it is up to us to get our horse to buy into our plan. But without stirrups or reins, it is crucial that we understand his plan in the process.

When the reins disappear, we develop a heightened awareness for what our horse is thinking and preparing to act on, and it can be a little scary. Whether it is a slight drift to the gate, or a mental distraction that may lead to a spook, we feel it instantly, but without reins, we quickly realize the need to get his mind and body back on track before it develops into the latter.

This is a good thing—riding without reins or stirrups give us a very clear picture of what is not working and needs to be cleaned up, because in the normal course of riding with the usual tack, we are far more likely to allow more distraction in our horse. Without reins and stirrups, we very quickly learn just how effective our balance, seat, and leg aids are in holding our horse’s interest and attention!
Wendy and Zeus, communicating at the trot.

So, this month is all about becoming more aware of where the horse needs our weight and balance to be, in order to stay in balance himself.

We are learning to use our focus, seat, and leg aids to connect to the horses' feet. First at the halt, with isolations, turns on the forehand, turns on the hind quarters, stepping forward, backing up, and sideways movements. Also, learning to flip the rein from one side to the other, without changing our balance. Lots of practice, lots of practice, lots of practice.

As we master all of these movements at the halt, we then apply these same communications as we progress into a walk, then a trot, and finally, the canter. Any difficulties at each stage sends us back to the basics; success at each gait depends success at the previous stage—there’s no faking it as we move forward!
Asking for a step back... it! Ellie and Harriot relax.

I should note that success at rein-less/stirrup-less riding is definitely not about gripping with the knees or keeping a tight grip on the rope, both of which interfere with the type and level of communication we are seeking. Crucially, success here is about balance and effective communication, which require neither reins nor stirrups.

I am very excited to see how our young and adult riders fare over No Stirrups or Reins November! I expect everybody to realize quite an upgrade in their ability to connect, communicate, and cooperate with their horses.

Stay tuned for my report in December!

Monday, October 7, 2019

Using the Minimum to get the Most: Tack and its Restrictions

by Mary Gallagher

I came home from the show I describe below inspired to tell the world about our 'less is more' approach to tack, though feeling like a voice in the wilderness. I fired up my computer and opened my email to find an excellent blog post on that very subject by someone I respect--Karen Rohlf [link at end of article]. It seems I'm in good company! Hopefully, we are part of a growing movement. Thank you for reading. - MG

At a recent horse show, I was struck by the common use of restricting tack—tight nosebands and martingales used with best intentions, in the name of safety and balance. I guess I’ve changed—twenty years ago I would not have given it a second thought. Of course we used nosebands and martingales as training aids to support our horses’ shape and carriage; now however, all I could see was the horses’ unnatural movement and bracing. The horses were using their martingales as part of their shape and balance—which is the idea, right? But their mouths were clamped shut, restricting their ability to relax in motion through working their jaw and tongue, releasing crucial endorphins. Many horses’ eyes told a clear story of physical and emotional stress.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

More on Laminitis—The Benefits of Vigilance

By Connie Paschall, RN

We really enjoy having Connie and Dexter with us at the Farm, and appreciate her expertise as a registered nurse—she will be co-leading a first aid class in our upcoming "All About the Prep: Safety and Readiness for Rider and Horse" camp. This is a very timely and interesting article which adds another useful tool to our equine health toolkit! -MG

Author’s note: 
The Wise Horseman at Freedom Farm monthly blog posts well-researched, timely tips and tricks for the care and training of our horses. How many read and practice the wisdom sent to us for free...? Well, I do. Allow me to add my story to the thread of articles here on grass laminitis prevention [select ‘laminitis’ from among the tags at right to call up the articles - ed.] -
  1. The action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.
I have a dream. My dream is to have my horse Dexter out in a pasture, frolicking with friends and living a horse’s full life. However...

Connie and Dexter
Dexter is fat. Everyone knows Dexter is fat. Well aware of the risks associated with such an easy keeper, I regularly monitor for cresty fat along his neck, puffy deposits at the base of his tail, and changes in his coat. He has been clear of these signs for long enough that I recently decided to let him transition into pasture with a nice group of geldings, and all seemed well. Dexter liked his new situation and showed none of the signs of imminent grass laminitis. Then one day I checked his pulses and felt a strong, bounding pulse in his right foreleg—not a good sign.

So what’s this about checking pulses? Let me digress:

Laminitis - Annual Spring Grass PSA

Look for 'cresty' fat deposits along the top of the neck.
When Audrey posted this to our Wise Horseman Facebook page in May of 2018, we thought of it as a routine heads-up for local horse owners. A year later (at this posting), it has been viewed by close to 45,000 people, and shared almost 450 times! We are glad to help get the word out so friends can help friends avoid grass-induced laminitis in their horses! - MG

Hi Everyone, Audrey here. 

Fat deposit visible above the base of the tail.
This is a quick PSA* to remind everyone to be SUPER careful with the spring grass. Keep an eye on your horse and make sure he’s not exhibiting any of the signs of trouble ahead. The pictures here are of a 20+ year old gelding that is on the verge of laminitis. While he’s not sore yet, his body is giving us some pretty significant signs that he’s in trouble. His neck is cresty and he has large fat deposits above the base of his tail. At this point, this horse should be off the grass completely. 

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Connecting to the Feet, Part 3: Intention, Attention, and Calibrating the Feel

by Mary Gallagher

Why: To expand on the previous concepts and exercises in Part 1 and Part 2, helping you and your horse develop a language of feel and connection. Continuing a series of articles on Connecting to the Feet, in advance of Mary Gallagher's clinic of the same name (at Freedom Farm this August, 2019).

Horses have an uncanny ability to feel inside of you—they can tell if you have a plan or you are winging it. As you stand with the lead rope, or sit with the rein in your hands… have you thought about a task for their feet? or are you caught up in emotion, pushing an agenda, driving for an end result?

The answer matters more than we think.

When we bring our intention into the present moment by directing the feet to a specific place, we get our horse’s attention. This is different than correcting mistakes. There can be no mistake when you synchronize your mind and then your aids with the horse’s feet, you can feel the horse’s feet, and the horse can feel that you feel his feet.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Connecting to the Feet, Part 2: Feeling the Feet, Placing the Feet

By Mary Gallagher

Why: To become aware of your horse’s foot placement, feeling it through your body, enhancing your ability to support your horse with well-timed aids.  Part two of a series of articles on Connecting to the Feet, in advance of Mary Gallagher's clinic of the same name (at Freedom Farm this August, 2019). (Read Part 1 here.)

The exercises in this article series are aimed at helping you connect with your horse ever more deeply, through greater awareness of what he’s doing with his feet at any given time. In part one, we got you synchronizing with your horse’s front feet, stepping together over cavalettis on the ground, feeling those same steps from the saddle. Now lets go to the hind feet to complete the picture.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Connecting to the Feet—a daily progression to better communication

By Mary Gallagher

Lily and Joia in step...
Why: To time your aids to best complement your horse’s movement, communicating in a simple way that enlists your horse’s cooperation. 

We are all looking for that special sense of connection, that moment when our horse effortlessly responds to our wishes, and we are one with his movement, in perfect balance with each step.

Do you achieve that feeling as often as you’d like? Is it a ‘superpower’ you two share? If yes, I salute you. If no, I’m here to help!

You and your horse can begin this wonderful journey to connection and communication right now. In this series of articles, I will get you started, breaking down the basics for you in a series of simple exercises.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Lifestyle – Herd Training at Liberty

by Mary Gallagher, with Jessica Crouch

Among our most popular posts on Facebook are videos of how we exercise and train horses in a herd, which is part of an approach called ‘liberty work’—sans halter, lead rope, or other tack. Most of our horses live in herds and are accustomed to group activity; we find even more benefits from intentionally moving horses together in a focused and organized way.

Natural herd instincts. When new horses arrive for training who have been kept in stalls and other traditional quarters, we introduce them to the activity with a few other horses that know the program. Our experienced horses are emotionally stable and can be very helpful to a newbie. A horse that has never worked in a herd does have natural herd instincts that help them follow the pattern and benefit from more experienced horses.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Welcome to the New Year

By Mary Gallagher

Sugar and friends
Saying 'so long' to 2018.  If ever there was a year of challenges—extreme ups and downs, deep happiness as well as real sadness—2018 was that year. As a result, this year's letter is a bit longer...

For me, with every challenge there followed reflection on why something had happened, and on whether it could have been different. And after sad events, thankfully, came healing and growth. At times the difficulties truly seemed like bullets striking home, one after another. On reflection, though, each painful 'bullet' brought with it the opportunity to heal old wounds and resolve old memories of similar experiences, as if the present situation had brought with it a kind of cleansing rain.

Thankfully, because of all those challenges and the process of getting through them, we leave 2018 enriched, with many growth opportunities ahead, and so much to remember. I have promised myself, as I write this, to try to do justice to the memories as well as the opportunities, but I hope the reader will be kind if I have missed anything, as it's especially daunting to wrap my arms around all of it!