Reining

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Most of us intend for our daily rides to improve our horse at some level, either by adding to his physical conditioning or progressing his training skills. But whether or not your horse actually makes these gains often comes down to the amount of time you spend on each phase of the ride. The format of your ride determines the outcome of physical improvement.

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What is it and how can it help horses and riders? Riders train horses to act in ways they deem positive, whether it’s jumping a jump, walking down a trail, or performing movements in an arena. But to train horses effectively and safely, riders, trainers, and coaches must understand how they learn and react. Over the past 15 years, equine scientists have researched the learning theory of horses — how horses process, retain knowledge, and learn. Equitation science applies this evidence-based learning theory of horses to horse training, and explains horse behaviour based on horses being horses – without attributing human emotions, ways of thinking, or behaviour, to them. It’s a burgeoning field that is changing the way many riders and trainers think and act.

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We’ve all had a horse that was hesitant to go forward with ease and willingness. I want to share the story of one such colt I started recently, and some of the strategies I employed to help him “free up.” These techniques work well for horses of all ages. This article is ultimately about rider self-awareness, timing, and avoiding the overuse of pressure, which unintentionally dulls the horse. Take special note of the tips for success, and the pitfalls many riders face when their horse is dull to their aids.

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Due to its effectiveness in helping the horse carry his body with good form, the longe cavesson is arguably one of the most useful pieces of equipment to own. Yet, only a surprisingly small number of riders who know about it. While early depictions from the 16th century refer mostly to its value in lateral poll flexion, its benefits for groundwork extend to a horse’s entire body. For anyone who performs groundwork it is an indispensable tool, as I will explain. Common misalignments of horses during groundwork include a twisted poll that comes from a handler using a line attached under the chin, or one-sided pressure on the bit when using a bridle. The alignment and state of positive — or negative — tension in the poll directly affects the rest of the body.

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If you are repeatedly training your horse to do the same task every day, a recent study suggests that you could well be spending your time more productively. The research, by equine scientists from Germany and Australia, found that allowing horses breaks of two days between training sessions rather than training daily results in similar learning progress over a period of 28 days. The researchers suggest that such a training schedule might be considered to make more efficient use of trainers’ – and horses’ – time.

Many classical dressage masters from the past often praised the merits of long schooling sessions at only the walk. This kind of training refines muscle recruitment, releases tension stored in poor postural habits, and stimulates the slow-twitch fibers used for stabilizing the skeleton. In other words, there is big value in workouts at the walk. And note how I have used the term workouts, since that is how you should think of them. These are purposeful sessions, not strolls.

Equine Guelph researchers are continuing to put Canada on the map in the world of horse welfare research – this time focusing on the use of training equipment in horses. The researchers, led by Dr. Katrina Merkies, were interested in how often riders and trainers use training equipment, such as whips, spurs, and head-control equipment (martingales, draw reins, etc.), and how often horse enthusiasts not actively involved with horses think that the equipment is used.

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