By Mark Russell. Article appearing in PRE Magazine Winter 2011.
All horses, whether green or mature, benefit from time spent in hand. It is easier for the horse to learn relaxation, stretching, and flexion without the weight of the rider and in-hand work provides the foundation for learning under saddle. It is worth noting that how a horse responds in-hand is normally a good indication of what his understanding is of what’s being asked of him, and his response will likely be similar under saddle.
How you present a request to the horse, or maybe more accurately stated – “who you are being”, as you present the in-hand work has a profound effect on how the horse feels about you as well as how he interprets your requests. Remember, the reality you present to the horse is the reality he lives in: he will pick up on your emotional state and will follow. It may be useful to ask yourself, “how does my horse feel about my request?” as you are doing work in-hand. Is he capable mentally and physically at that point in time, and is he ready and prepared to work with you? Are you working in relation to each other or are you working against each other? Are you ready to work with him in a focused calm way? These questions bring us to the essence of training the horse from his perspective.
In addition to the awareness of yourself in relation to your horse, for your horse to benefit it is important to be aware of the following aspects while working in hand; relaxation, alignment, and the movement during the exercise itself.
Relaxation is maintained through each step of the training process including even the most advanced of the in-hand exercises. Each in-hand exercise should begin with the horse’s jaw relaxed with his head and neck lowered, at or near level with the withers.
For both in-hand and under saddle work it is imperative for the purposes of relaxation that the horse regards the whip as an aid. He must learn to move forward from a touch with the whip on top of the croup, laterally from a touch on the side, and stop or back up from a touch on the chest. Any fear of the whip needs to be addressed so that relaxation is maintained.
Throughout each exercise the horse should remain properly aligned with a smooth and equal bend throughout his whole body. Watch that his ears remain level as he flexes: this is an indication that the bend at the poll is correct. Pay attention that his head and neck remain aligned with his shoulder, and that a direct connection from his head to his haunch is maintained. If there is a smooth even bend through the full length of his body he will be able to flex without interrupting energy flow and he will be able to engage effectively.
In classical training each in-hand exercise has a specific role in teaching the horse to flex, engage, and balance. Suppling the neck, opening the chest, articulating the pelvis, and rounding his back, are a few examples of the many benefits of in-hand movements. Collectively, in-hand exercises teach the horse to work in relaxation, to gain alignment through flexion and to balance various movements of the shoulder and the haunch.
Develop your presentation such that it elicits a calm thoughtful movement from the horse. Slow movement, not asking for too much – a step or two at most, will give him the opportunity to respond while maintaining his relaxation, alignment, and balance. Once the horse is successful and can balance and move fluidly we can request more steps. Flexing and balancing is at times difficult for the horse; take care to set him up to succeed by asking only for what he can provide both physically and emotionally at any particular point in time.
The Essence of Artful Riding
When we work with our horses in a way that supports relaxation, balance, and proper alignment it feels good to the horse. Paying attention to how the horse feels about your presentation can give you an indication of whether you and the presentation of your request are being successful. If so, training progression will come readily.