Horses evade being in a working brain and working in self carriage like I avoid my computer before I have my morning coffee. "Oh look the dishes need washing, hmm maybe I should sweep that way I will concentrate better, and my working space is messy better find a home for everything. Oh the place I was going to put what was messing up my desk is messy; I should clean that as well!"
Before you know it, its 3 hrs later, I haven't opened the computer yet but at least my house is clean, right? I bet you can relate and so can your horse. I don't know what it is about getting into a working brain but some days it's so damn hard! Taking inspired action is the easiest way to get into work mode but that is a discussion for another day. Today we are talking about the art of evasion and I'm going to put it to you straight, our horses are pros at it and we rarely even notice.
What is self carriage?
Self carriage is:
- When a horse transfers its weight off the forehand onto the hindquarters and drives from its hindquarters instead of pulling with its chest and shoulders.
- When a horse engages its balances points and holds itself from its core allowing for suppleness of its extremities.
- When a horse stops bracing through its joints for balance because it has engaged its core and is able to swing over its back and through its neck and shoulders.
For self carriage horses require:
- Sensitivity to the connecting aids
- Purpose and drive
When a horse comes into self carriage it can squat through the hindquarters without losing forwardness, flex over the topline without dumping its weight onto the forehand and be extremely manoeuvrable and versatile in its movement without sucking behind the bit. This is actually really hard to achieve, not only in how to communicate to our horse this is what we want but also once they understand to convince them to do it. Even if you have flexed your horses head into a "frame" it doesn't mean they are in self carriage and you are potentially doing more damage to their musculoskeletal system than good. These horses will have a tight, strong underneck from balancing on their forehand, issues with their back (behavioural issues at the extreme with bucking, rearing and bolting) or physical issues with their croup protruding, sway backed and irregular in their stride to name a few problems. They may be pretending that they are engaged but have just hyper flexed through their pelvis and as a result won't work straight and can't pick up off the forehand or they will be strung out dragging the hindquarters.
As our horses motivator, exercise physiologist and trainer it is our responsibility to ensure they are working correctly, because it is us that then want to go and sit on the weakest part of their body and expect them to perform athletically. If I went to a PT that didn't understand correct technique I would be at a high risk of injury because I do not know how to use my body safely and correctly in exercises I haven't done before. It is the same for your horse; you have to show them good technique to avoid short term damage and long term wear and tear and early retirement due to unsoundness.
If it’s not good for the horse to evade, why are they so good at it!?
Well this comes back to me needing a coffee to get motivated. I know I should be working and future me will appreciate the past me for the work but right now.... bleh ... except for oooh coffee!! Ok now I can work. What coffee is doing is evoking some of the feel good hormone dopamine and dopamine particularly likes goals achieved. I have a very vivid memory as a child at school doing school work and I was particularly good at "evading" work. To be honest I suck at getting myself into a working brain, once I'm there all good but getting stuck in, nope that's not for me. My grandma always used to say Katie you need to "apply yourself". At the time I would do the annoying kid "I am!!!" but secretly I was thinking I don't even understand what you mean. I get it now though, "applying yourself" to a task means committing yourself 110% to getting the task at hand done. Without procrastination and excuses. Get stuck in, get it done and get it done well. And it requires determination, dedication and practise but it also requires rest. "Applying yourself" is harnessing your will power, exerting maximum effort and normally requires your adrenals tapping into your energy reserve. Your will power and adrenals become exhausted when in constant use. We want our day to day function to be at about 50 - 60% of our capabilities. So that when we go in to dig deeper for more and during periods of stress we have energy reserves to access. Adequate nutrition, vitamins and minerals and healthy happy hormone production are all integral to this but again this is a story for another day.
So getting back on track your horses evasion is a complex biochemical pathway protecting it from depleting its energy reserves that it needs to stay safe. After millennia of evolution the horses’ body only exerts 100% effort when needed during periods of stress and to stay safe when their life is threatened. So you can get this effort required by stressing them mentally and physically and threatening their safety (both not particularly good methods for training practices and safety when riding) ... OR ... you can inspire your horse to dance with you using happy hormone motivators and establish a training process so that they actually enjoy and like spending time with you.
How does your horse evade self carriage?
When establishing self carriage we are trying to stack the horses’ body compartments on top of each other. So it makes sense that the way the horse evades is to create misalignment of these body compartments.
- Dumping their weight onto the inside or the outside shoulder
- Twisting their hindquarters in or out
- Running through the contact, grabbing the bit and pulling
- Sucking behind the aids, either going too slow sucking off the go aid, or rounding too deep and sucking behind the contact
- Leaning on the reins and yanking the reins
Developing self carriage
Developing self carriage is simultaneously incredibly easy and a lifetime's art form. This is because movement is dynamic and changes with environmental stress. Once a horse has conditioned and adapted to a new exercise they will then adapt to be able to do it with the least possible effort, so we need to make the exercises harder and more intricate to keep those core muscles and nerves to those muscles firing (also known as the period of plateau).
During these periods of plateau we need to maintain consistency with our training and wait for our horses’ body to catch up. It is important not to stress the horses’ body to heavily during this period. You want to give the horse at least 6 months of the same exercises to truly consolidate it as part of their conformation before pushing for more. Stress should be applied intermittently so that you can trigger healthy adaptations to exercise and not run the horse health down.