Baking with Horses
I only started riding horses in my twenties, learning a lot in a very short time, after which work, marriage, and the birthing and raising of four children in four countries made my opportunities to ride almost nil. In the short time I got to ride and play polo, I became quite adept at staying on a horse and not getting in its way too much, but I would have never said that I was a horse trainer, or thought I could ever train a horse myself.
Looking back, I now know that all of us who come in contact with a horse, be it on the ground or in saddle (or both) are always training that horse. We train them what to think of us, how to react to us, and what will give them peace when around us. We train them how to feel, how to express themselves, and whether to be relieved at the sight of us or wary. I am now proud to say I train horses, just like I’m proud to be a mother and wife. Training is second nature to me, in all those realms!
But, training a baby horse? A 1.5 year old colt? At age 50? That was a challenge I was excited for, but desperately needed more information about to properly take it on. I had a diverse library of books to delve into, and had watched wonderful clinicians and peers work their magic at horse expos and clinics. But, I am ever-grateful for the day Warwick Schiller, horseman and teacher extraordinaire, came up on a YouTube search for colt starting. One video watched later, and I was hooked for the next two years, studying his every move and word, and being paid back infinitely for my dedication.
Warwick was the first horseman that, to me, really spelled out and showed the principles behind and chronological progression and methodologies for training a horse in minute detail: the what to dos, the what not to dos, the exactly how to do its, and the whys of every exercise and action. His videos were lengthy, time-consuming to watch and study, but, oh-so-rich in information and clarity! I even traveled 14 hours round trip to meet him and ask him questions about some obstacles I was coming up against in my training of Txoko in April of 2017. Warwick, just as in his videos, was generous, warm, and ever so helpful.
Warwick has said that, training horses is like making a cake. You need to have all the ingredients ready in order to start baking. Yet, many people in the horse world, want to have their cake right from the start. They jump on a horse that has been telegraphing to any experienced observer that it is beyond nervous, and expect that horse to listen to their cues instead of its own anxiety. They punish horses for not responding to yanked reins, when they have never taught that horse what the proper response to a rein cue is. In other words, most people don’t take the time to line up their ingredients, and their baking (horsemanship) suffers.
It is Warwick’s particular genius for breaking down things into steps that has been the most helpful to me in understanding how to approach any problem I might be facing with my horse.
Before studying him, I had seen others talk about, for example, putting your horse in a frame. The idea was to have that horse bend at the poll (vertical flexion), tuck his nose in towards his chest—not too far—, lift his back, and bring his hindquarters down and under. Sounds easy, right? Sure! Thing is, most people I know, would attempt this through physical manipulation: Closing their hands on the reins, shortening that contact, and using their seat and legs (and maybe even spurs or whips) to increase impulsion. If that horse is trained highly enough, that erroneous method might work. But, other problems will be bound to pop up in such a scenario at some point.
If someone like myself were to try using physical manipulation to get proper frame on my young, inexperienced horses, I would most definitely NOT get a horse whose back is round and body all collected in frame. I’d get a tail-swishing, nervous mouthing, nose to the sky, buck-preparing demon. And I’d deserve it.
In other words, me asking for such a frame would be like trying to make a soufflé without having pre-heated the oven, beaten the egg whites, or mixed the ingredients properly.
This is where Warwick’s methods help. If you think of “putting your horse in frame” as the soufflé, then break it down into ingredients and steps like Warwick does:
1) First get the horse to understand a rein cue. When I take one rein out to the side (the opposite rein is slack), my horse will begin to circle. I wait until the horse circles with bend, softening to my rein. I let go and let the horse wander at will, reins slack (rewarding him). This exercise can be done until the horse can soften easily with bend to both reins in either direction, but never both at the same time.
2) Second, I get my horse to understand the seat cue for impulsion. At the walk, reins slack, I bring up the life in my body and see if my horse moves faster. If he does, I let go of all energy and let him wander on a loose rein. Repeat. If he doesn’t move faster off my seat cue, I can reinforce with leg and/or whip (one, please). Once he moves faster, immediately release any pressure or cues. Horse can wander, etc…
3) Third, my horse needs to learn to move off my leg. Since a horse might move forward off the leg, or ignore it all together, its best to start out with step 1, but make your circle extra extra small. In such a tiny circle, the horse will most likely respond to an inside leg bump, by moving off that leg and expanding his circle. When he does, you relax all cues and seat, and allow him to wander. Rinse and repeat until he is good at yielding to your leg with bend in both directions.
4) Now, you put steps one, two, and three together, asking for soft, supple circles at the walk, trot, and canter. The leg yield is there to help you should your horse get too stiff or drop his shoulder into the circle. It encourages bend. The seat can keep the pace where you want it. And the rein encourages softening and keeping a circle. In other words, if, at any moment, your horse loses its way, you can back-track and work on the steps one by one, until each step is working well before combining them (this is another Warwick principle—I’ll explain another day!).
5) Once step 4 is working to perfection, my horse should, when I close my fingers on both reins, bend at the poll and soften to my hands. If you did step one well, this should come easily. But step one, mind you, might take days, weeks, even months!
6) I add impulsion to step 5, and, voilá my horse is in frame, working in a relaxed way, understanding how to bend and move to my cues! And, now, should he falter, I have the tools (steps 1-4) to fix it all up.
This all takes time, patience, feel (to release as the horse is responding correctly; ideally, as the horse is THINKING of responding correctly), and perfect practice. But it can be done. Even by amateurs such as myself.
Yes, thank goodness for Warwick. He is a great “baker”, and his step-by-step recipes and explanations make it easier for all of us to try to bake as well as he does.
(The exercises above are beautifully explained verbally and visually by the man himself in his March 2018 videos at https://videos.warwickschiller.com/)
Well, all this talk of baking is making me hungry to go out and work some more with my horses to perfect our ingredients. I see a delicious soufflé in our future!