Some thoughts on Strategy

In this blog post I want to share some thoughts on training strategies with you that are not usually talked about very much, but that I find important. I hope you will get some value and some food for thought out of them.

Everything we do with the horse, every exercise, every movement, every transition, every turn, and every aid has a certain effect on the horse’s mind and body. It may change the weight distribution. It may rearrange the horse’s feet under his body. It may stretch certain muscles or require more activity from specific muscles. It may change the horse’s body awareness and coordination, to name a few. It is very important for us as riders and trainers of our horses to know these effects so that we are able to choose the right ones for each horse and each moment.

Many exercises have effects that are active on different levels at the same time. For instance, they may improve the horse’s body awareness, as well as balance, coordination, and suppleness. Or they may explain the connections between specific aids/parts of the rider’s body and specific parts of the horse’s body, in addition to improving the mobility and strength of those body parts.

All these things can also have potential side effects that are not as desirable as the positive effects I mentioned above. It is equally important that we are aware of the possible negative side effects, too, so that we can avoid them or counteract them when they appear. The side effects typically start to manifest themselves when we ride an exercise/movement/turn/transition too often, too long, or too intensively. The same thing is true for the seat and aids.

For instance, lateral movements are great for mobilizing the horse’s hips, activating the hind legs, improving lateral balance, bend, and straightness. But if you ride them constantly, without ever going straight in between, the horse may not be able to go straight on the center line or on the diagonal without swerving sideways any more after a while.

If you always ride whole school and 20m circles on a single track without ever sidestepping, the horse’s hips will get stiffer and stiffer, the horse will become more crooked, and fall more onto his forehand over time.
If you never lengthen the stride and only ride collected gaits and movements, your horse may end up getting behind the aids and refuse to go forward sooner or later.

If you only ride briskly forward and never ask for any flexion of the haunches (aka collection), the horse will become stiffer and heavy in the bridle. He will become hard to steer and to stop.

If you never allow your horse to stretch, he may become tight in his back and top line in general.
If you ride “forward-downward” all the time, your horse may push up his croup and lose all flexibility in his hind legs, neck, and poll so that it becomes impossible to pick up the reins and ride the horse on the bit.
Sitting lightly by supporting your weight more with your thighs and knees instead of your seat bones and emphasizing the upward swing of the horse’s back allows him to engage his hind legs and lift his back more. However, if you always do that or if you become static in this seat, the horse will sooner or later push his croup up and become rigid.

Sitting more heavily on your seat bones and emphasizing the downward swing of the horse’s back can help to put more weight on the grounded hind leg and to flex its joints more. But if you sit heavily and deeply on a permanent basis, the horse will eventually drop his back and become short strided and stiff.

Depending on the horse’s conformation, gaits, training level, and personality, you may have to emphasize a certain type of work or a certain type of exercise for a while. But eventually you have to reintegrate the other types of exercises that you had been putting on the back burner. Otherwise, you will create holes in the training, and the side effects of the one-sided training will make themselves felt.

Finding just the right balance is one of the most difficult aspects of training. Usually, we tend to stay with something that works a little too long, until it doesn’t work any more. The training changes the horse. If you do a good job, the problems that you initially encountered will disappear. This means that the situation has changed and that the horse now needs a new training plan that reflects these changes in his needs.

The longer it takes us to realize that the horse and his needs have changed, and the longer we continue with the exercises that used to work so well, the more significant their negative side effects will become. It’s like taking medicine when you are sick. The medicine will cure your illness, but if you keep taking it after you have recovered, or if you overdose on it, the medicine will make you sick again.

To avoid continuing too long with something it helps to take a “bird’s eye view” from time to time in order not to lose track of how long you have been doing a certain type of work. And it helps to be on the lookout for the negative side effects so that you recognize them early on instead of being surprised when they finally hit you hard.

Another aspect I want to mention is related to training exercises that are composed of several elements that build on each other. Each part of the exercise serves as the preparation and the stepping stone for the next one. Each part creates a certain effect on the horse’s gait and posture, but this effect has an expiration date. That’s why it is important that you begin the next segment of the exercise before the gymnastic effect of the previous one has evaporated. And if a mistake happens somewhere in one of the later elements, you have to start the entire exercise over from the top.

For instance, if you have an exercise that consists of shoulder-in, followed by a turn on the haunches, followed by a canter depart in the opposite direction, the function of the shoulder-in in this exercise is to bring the inside hind leg more underneath the body. The purpose of the turn on the haunches is to shift the body weight of horse and rider into this inside hind leg. After completing the turn, this hind leg has become the outside one. The outside hind leg is the one that lifts the horse into the canter. The more the outside hind leg is flexed underneath the body, the rounder and more uphill the canter will be. The purpose of this entire exercise is to obtain the best possible canter depart.

If a mistake happens in the turn on the haunches, such as the horse swinging his haunches to the outside, you have to start over with the shoulder-in because now the inside hind leg is no longer where it belongs, and the weight is in the wrong place for a canter depart. If the shoulder-in and the turn on the haunches are executed well, but it takes you too long to ask for the canter depart, the horse might unload his outside hind again and straighten its joints. Therefore, you have to start over from the beginning to build the entire context within which the canter depart should take place.

Maybe next time you ride your horse you could keep these suggestions in mind and see if they help you become more aware and more efficient in your riding and training.

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