Thursday, July 5, 2012

What to do When Your Horse Won't | 7/5/2012

Change a "Won't to a Will"

By Kendra DeKay
A horse is so sensitive that he can feel a fly land on a single hair on his body. So when a horse refuses to obey a rider’s aids, it is never because he didn’t feel the request. It is generally for one of the following reasons:
  1. He doesn’t understand the request
  2. He understands, but he can’t respond because he is afraid
  3. He doesn’t think the request is high priority, and he’s got more important things to do
How the educated rider responds to a horse’s disobedience will depend on how she reads the horse’s behavior. If the horse doesn’t understand, the rider needs to explain the request more clearly. If the horse is afraid, he needs the rider to help him feel safe. And if he is blowing his rider off, he needs a greater incentive to pay attention and do as he is asked.

He Doesn't Understand

A rider is finishing up her third ride on her new horse. He has been calm and willing in the arena, and she decides to take him out on the trail. She brings him up to the gate to open it, but he refuses to line up with the gate and stand still for her to reach the latch. His ears are on her, listening as she tries to get him into position, but he keeps backing up and moving away from the gate.
Here’s where it’s important for the rider not to assume that the horse knows what she wants. It may seem obvious to a person, but maybe it is not so clear to the horse. His old owner may have dismounted to open gates, or perhaps used different aids to make him stand still. Breaking the task down into pieces and explaining it more clearly is the key. In this example, the pieces might be making sure the horse understands how to move his front end over, how to move his move his hind end over, and how to stand still parallel to the gate while the rider leans over and handles the gate latch. Practice each piece separately, and then put them back together. A clear understanding of the job will fix this type of “won’t.”

He is Afraid

The rider leaves the arena and heads into the woods. As the horse gets further from the barn, his walk quickens, his body tightens and his head comes up. Suddenly he stops, breathing hard. He seems fixated on a point up ahead. The rider nudges him forward with her legs, but the horse refuses to go. He stands stock still as if rooted to the ground.
When horses are afraid, they generally have one of two responses: they flee and ask questions later, or they freeze to assess the situation and then flee if they detect a threat. A “freezer” can be harder to read as afraid − often people think that the horse is just being stubborn. But a horse that becomes unresponsive when he’s anxious can be dangerous, because if he decides there is a threat, he might “unfreeze” and want to get away. Quickly.
Once the horse is at the point where he has shut down and refuses to go forward, the rider should gently “unstick” the horse’s feet by turning him, using just one rein. When the horse’s feet are moving, the rider can direct the horse’s motion in a small circle or figure 8 until the horse offers no resistance. This reminds the horse that the rider has a plan and will keep him safe, not shove him in the direction of his fears. Once the horse is softly accepting directions, offer him the choice of continuing down the trail. If the horse still balks, return to the pattern. Once the horse is confident enough to continue, try to turn back for home while he’s still feeling brave and willing. If he trusts his rider to keep him safe, he will be able to offer more and more each outing. Over several rides, his fear will subside and the “won’t” becomes a “will.”
The best thing to do is to notice early when your horse is getting worried. The rider in this example had some clues: her horse sped up, his body got tight, and his head carriage changed as they left the area where he felt safe. Stopping or turning back before the horse freezes, letting the horse relax in an area where he feels safe, and then heading out again will help to build the horse’s confidence in his environment and trust that his rider will not overface him.

He is Unmotivated

Horse and rider come to a field where other horses are being ridden. The rider wants to trot around but her horse has other plans. He wants to visit with the other horses. When she asks him to move up into a trot he ignores her leg and stays in the walk, looking at the other horses.

The horse that blows off his rider’s request thinks something else is a higher priority. The rider should not see this as rudeness, but instead as a challenge to be more engaging for him! To recapture the horse’s attention, pick a simple request that he knows, such as flexing him to the left. Start with the softest pressure possible, then gradually increase pressure until he responds. When he gives slightly, immediately release pressure. Then slowly start again. Stay with the same request until he is giving you an ear at the softest pressure, and responding consistently every time. Once you have that, you have his attention and you’ll need to do something interesting with it so you don’t lose it again. Transitions and changes of direction are a great way to keep a horse on his toes. Don’t forget to reward your horse with a rest when he starts to keep an ear on you and responds softly and consistently to your requests. You are rewarding him for keeping his mind on you just as much as for the
Once you understand the reason behind the “won’t”, one of the strategies described above can help you shape it into a “will.” Willingness is a habit, not a permanent condition. It can be lost; it can be developed. It should be practiced like a skill and rewarded like the gift that it is!






This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Show Jumping | 6/29/2012

An interview with Michel Vaillancourt

By Mary Jane Howell

When Michel Vaillancourt was just 22, he won an individual silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in front of a hometown crowd in Montreal. Partnered with the 7-year-old horse Branch County, whom he had only ridden for three months before the Games, Michel earned his medal in dramatic fashion after a rain-soaked jump-off with the West German rider Alwin Schockemohle. Although Schockemohle had a perfect round and captured the gold, Michel was overjoyed with his finish.
After the 1976 Olympic Games Michel continued to represent Canada for several more years in the jumper ring. He rode the horse Crimson Tide to a team silver medal at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico and then was part of the gold medal team at the 1980 Alternate Olympics, which were held in Rotterdam (Canada was one of the countries that boycotted that year’s Moscow Olympics.)
With the London 2012 Olympics only four months away, the United States Equestrian Federation’s Selection Trials for the show jumping team have concluded and a long list has been named. This seems like the perfect time for a discussion with Michel about the status of American show jumping and a look back at his career.
Michel pulls no punches when he says that there is trouble afoot on the American show jumping scene. George Morris, the current U.S. show jumping chef d’equipe, aired similar sentiments last November at the USEF’s open forum on jumping in Lexington, Ky. Michel is in a unique position to judge the health of the sport. Not only was he one of Canada’s top riders, he also went on to coach the Canadian team in the 1990s. Today he is one of North America’s leading course designers.
“The sport has changed dramatically since the Montreal Olympics,” says Michel. “Those games were the last time (until very recently) that we saw the really massive jumps – they were so high and so wide! The horses were different as well – American Thoroughbreds who were in many cases off the track. They had been bred to run and they were quick. They may not have been the prettiest jumpers, but they could get around the ring. Now we have the warmbloods from Europe – bigger, heavier horses that require a more aggressive riding style. That in turn has led most riders to have the same style.”
Michel recalls that when he first started show jumping, riding styles were so different from one country to the next you could tell the nationality of a rider by the second jump. Michel modeled his own personal style after his American heroes – Joe Fargis, Conrad Homfeld and William Steinkraus – riders who sat erect and had flair!
Nowadays not only are the American riders mounted primarily on European stock, but many of our top riders train and compete in Europe for a part of each year, which in turn leads to a weakened top echelon in shows at home.
“We have lost the elite tour we used to have. It started in Florida then moved on to summer shows such as Chagrin Valley (Ohio), Devon (Pennsylvania) and Lake Placid (New York). The indoor circuit would be in the fall (Harrisburg and Washington, to name two). These were the A shows and everyone went. The shows still exist and are still very popular, but perhaps some of them have lost a bit of their prestige because of the lack of depth at the top,” explains Michel.
“The numbers are not in the grand prix rings anymore,” Michel says. “Let’s say there are 1,000 entries at a show – maybe only 20 are in the grand prix. That percentage is skewed. The base is broader because of horse shows needing to make money, and they are trying to find a spot for everyone. We are rewarding mediocrity and not giving enough incentive to riders to try and be the very best.”
Michel has been asked to design courses at the top shows such as the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla and at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, but he must also be adept at designing 2’6” jumps for children’s hunter classes at smaller venues.
“There’s a lot of variety in my work, but what I have seen over the years is that there’s plenty of prize money out there for riders without them having to really strive for the top,” Michel says. “It used to be that if you weren’t good enough you packed it in or tried harder. But now there are rewards for everyone.”
The blame falls on many shoulders – horse show managers, trainers, owners, and even the riders. What worries Michel is that he doesn’t see anyone “taking the bull by the horns,” although last November’s USEF’s open forum was at least a start. He thinks that perhaps when Robert Ridland, the incoming chef d’equipe, takes the reins of the team, there might be some serious changes.
“I would like to see the sport controlled a bit more. We don’t have a strong enough governing body for our sport, which would in turn put stronger guidelines in place,” says Michel.
For his part, Michel is as passionate about course design as he was about riding and teaching. It was a natural progression and he laughs when he thinks about the times he was critical of a course as a rider. Now he’s the one trying to design the perfect course!

“Many people are interested in course design, but I believe that those of us who were riders really have an easier time picking up the skills,” he explains. “I’ve just come back from Wellington where, for the fourth season in a row, I was asked to be one of the course designers for the international arena. Each week belongs to a different designer, and it’s always a huge privilege to be there. You’d better sharpen your pencil before you go!”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.