Bringing It All Together: Workouts

Part 3. Riding Dixie

After two weeks of ground work (see the previous articles in this series), I now have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Dixie once I'm in the saddle. During our ground exercises Dixie has been calm and level-headed, and she is light in the halter but heavier in the bridle. In the beginning, she found it hard to give laterally and to step up under herself to disengage her hindquarters, but with practice she is now bending much better. She still shows some annoyance when asked to back up or to canter while on the lead line, but she does both without a fight, and on cue. It is now time to take the lessons learned on the ground and transfer them to the saddle. Dixie has shown herself to be calm and willing on the ground, and I expect the same under saddle, too.

Fig. 1: Give To The Bit. As soon as I get into the saddle I ask Dixie to give to the bit. I will ask her to give to both sides, several times. This is a familiar exercise and will calm her if she is at all nervous. When you mount a horse it is important to not always move off right away; your horse needs to understand that he is to wait patiently for your signal. Asking him to give to the bit will stop any forward motion, and will teach him to stand when mounted. It also gives him a job to do and gets him thinking and listening to you.
Fig. 2: One–Rein Stop. When I'm ready I ask Dixie to move off at a walk, and after she has gone a few paces I ask for a one-rein stop. Once she has come to a stop and yielded her head, I'll ask her to give to the other side, and then move off at the walk again. Then I ask for a one rein stop to the other side. This is repeated several times, to each side, until it is second nature for us both. Now that we have this down at the walk, I'll repeat the whole sequence at the trot, and then at the canter.

With the preceding two exercises in the bag we can then begin to work on the rail at all three gaits, and also move on to transitions, circles, and serpentines, interspersed with the other exercises discussed below. Mixing things up during these sessions is important: it gives your horse opportunities to catch his breath, and it keeps things interesting for him.

Fig. 3: Yield The Hindquarters. Once we have our emergency brake working at all gaits, I move on to asking Dixie to yield her hindquarters. She has had some trouble with this on the ground, so it may also be hard for her at first under saddle. Remember, each horse has his own timetable. We work with each horse where he is, not where we wish he was.

Comparing Figures 2 and 3, you can see that Yield the Hindquarters is a lot like a One-Rein Stop. In Figure 3 I am asking for lateral flexion while keeping my leg on her behind the girth, asking the hips to step over. At first Dixie is a little confused, thinking that I am asking for a stop. To correct her I simply bump gently with my heel, encouraging her to stay in motion. Once she yields several steps, I take away the leg pressure and allow her to come to a stop.

Fig. 4: Vertical Flexion. Once Dixie is stopping nicely on one rein and yielding her hindquarters well, I ask her for vertical flexion. At a standstill I gently rock the reins from side to side, watching for the slightest drop of her head. As soon as I see her head dip and feel the least bit of slack in the reins I literally throw the reins back to her, instantly releasing all pressure. This is really important: horses learn from the release of pressure, so in the introductory phase of an exercise make that release as big and as instantaneous as you can.
Fig. 5: Backing Up. Dixie is very good at backing up, but on the ground she always lets me know that she doesn't care much for it. Here I am asking her to back through an “L” pattern. Her ears are back, but this time it has more to do with listening than with grumbling. Her eye is soft and her mouth relaxed. The tail swishing, however, is a little bit of back–talk.
Fig. 6: Turn On The Fore. Here I'm using the fence to block Dixie's forward motion while I ask her to move her hindquarters around. Always simplify as much as you can. Using the fence to block her forward motion gives her one less thing she has to think about.
Fig. 7: Turn On The Hind. Next, I ask Dixie to move her front end around her hind. The fence will keep her from trying to back up as we both concentrate on moving her shoulders around. Dixie was half-way around when she decided to move forward, instead. I responded by blocking her with my hands, asking her for vertical flexion and to move back to her position against the fence before continuing with the turn. It’s alright that she got it wrong; there is no penalty to pay here. I simply stopped the motion I didn't want and moved her back into position, praising her as she gets each step right. Finally, it's time to conclude our session with some desensitizing exercises....
Fig. 8: Broke In The Belly. When Dixie first arrived at New Avalon she was overly senstive to leg movement and pressure. Here is an exercise to desensitize her to such get her “broke in the belly”. I start (picture at left) by sitting in a very relaxed position, in which there is nothing about my body that is asking for motion. I am ready to pick up on the reins if she wants to move off. Then I gently swing my legs out and let them fall back against her sides. Nothing else in my body language changes, I simply slap her sides with my legs. Initially she tried to move off in response to this, but I simply picked up the reins and stopped her each time. She soon grew used to these movements and learned to stand quietly while I slapped her with my legs...or even, as in the picture at right, while I jumped up and down in the saddle. When it's time to move off again, I just change my body language: I sit up, bring up some energy in my entire body, squeeze with my legs, and off we go.
Fig. 9: Stick And String. Toward the end of the lesson, when Dixie is relaxed and tired, I do the same desensitizing exercises with the stick and string which I have previously done with her on the ground. Note that my body language is very relaxed here. Horses can feel intention in your body, so sit as though you know that your horse is not going to move a step. At left, Dixie stands quietly as I slap the string on the ground, hard, on either side of her. At right, she is relaxed as she listens to the string whistling in circles over her head.
Fig. 10: Flag Work. Dixie has seen this flag before during our groundwork, and will now stand quietly while I wave it around her head and body. Here she is backing calmly despite the flag flapping in the breeze beside her face. Big nylon flags are great tools, and easy to make. Cut lightweight rip-stop nylon (from a fabric store) to size (3’ x 5’ works well), hem the edges, and install grommets in two corners. I attach these flags to 6' closet rods via eye screws connected to the grommets with key rings.