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Icelandic Horse Connection

Training the Four Corners of the Horse

This is an article by Barbara Ray of the ClickRyder list. It pertains to all breeds of horses, including Icelandic Horses / Ponies.


The Four "Corners" of The Horse:

Right front shoulder / leg
Left Front shoulder / leg
Right hind limb (hip and leg)
Left hind limb (hip and leg)

If we imagine the (actually) exponential possible combination of cues we can ask of the horse starting with just his four corners (right front, left front, right hind, left hind), it sounds like a big task!

And it is in some ways, but it also quite doable by "starting" with teaching the fundamental turning cues we want. With most horses, following the rein is the easiest cue to begin with. Because once the horse is fluent with these cues (two of them: one for left, one for right), and is willing to go forward and to halt, we can develop the other cues through shaping, out of the basic school figure of the circle and eventually, straight lines and with a bend on straight lines.

So, for teaching the cue for a turn on the forehand (a fundamental movement to teach the horse what I want him to do with his hind legs), (and if we have already taught a verbal or touch cue to move the hindlegs,) I can now cue the turn, (rein cue) and as the horse begins the circle, I can add the verbal or touch cue to cue the hindleg to step away and under. As the horse is already walking forward, it is much easier for him to take that sideways, yielding step, or even an attitude of it with a bigger step, but even that is c/t, because it is the beginning of the "shape" of the turn on the forehand. We gradually add more steps, cueing the front legs to stop moving "forward" as the horse initiates response to the cue for the hind leg. Pretty soon, we can have the horse standing still and give the cue for the hindleg to step sideways. (I happen to teach the turn-on-forehand out of the walk, because I do not want the horse to plant the front feet, but to maintain the rhythm. This is what we mean by maintaining the purity and regularity of the gaits, which is paramount purpose of classical dressage. For certain disciplines, the rider DOES want the horse to plant the leg and pivot around it, so each person must decide WHAT style of turn they wish to teach and proceed from there.)

We must repeat this, of course, on both sides of the horse.

Now we have FOUR reliable cues. Two to turn the front legs off the track and two to move the hindlegs over. (Later on, we will add two more cues for the hindlegs to yield in the DIRECTION of the bend.)

Next, we might want to teach the cues that will cue the shoulders of the horse. (The rein cues likely will always cue the turns and thus the degree of bend - even on straight lines- so we need a cue for each shoulder and each hip/hindleg, so we can ask the horse to proceed straight even while bent in the body and so forth. Shoulder in, for example, is really just cueing a circle and as the horse comes around the inside leg, the shoulder cue tells him to stay bent but proceed straight ahead, rather than completing the circle or turning the haunches out.)

Again, I usually begin working along the menage wall, to keep the horse straight, then cue the circle. As the horse brings the shoulder off the track to start the turn, I apply my thigh (I use a pulsing cue for a few seconds) to the outside shoulder AS the horse turns away on the circle and c/t that.

I suppose the operant-technical "purists" would say this is not really shaping, because I am setting the horse up to offer the correct response so I can associate a cue with it, and condition that cue. So maybe it is more "molding" rather than shaping, but you get the idea!

Anyway, since the horse already knows how to halt (I teach a verbal and a seat/outside rein cue combination), to now get my turn on the haunches, I cue the circle as the horse walks forward, cue the shoulder to CONTINUE to move over, and then cue the halt so the steps become completely lateral and the hind legs are now stepping in place as the shoulders come around and the front legs cross.

Again, some disciplines, such as reiners, want the horse to plant the hind hoof and pivot around it, and in an unnaturally successive number of "spins." This applies an unusual amount of torque to the hock joint, and is not conducive to the longterm soundness of the horse, but it is part of that sport, so I suppose if one wants to compete in reining, one must teach it.

With some horses, we have to allow a halt-walk-halt-walk period, using high R+ rate for each PART of the step, because the horse is probably already quite conditioned that halt means stop moving ALL four feet. So we must teach him that the thigh (or whatever cue we use to move the shoulder) is ACTUALLY a FORWARD movement.

An aside: horses are so clever, and so attuned to how our body touches theirs, they pick this up in no time flat. And they remember! It is not uncommon to get one step of a turn on the haunches say, repeat that five or six times, reinforceing each time, to then get the horse out the next day, and he suddenly can do four or five steps or more with no problem, like he has been taught the cue months before!

Once a horse has a basic comprehension of what we are asking, he often allows us to raise criteria in big chunks. We have to be careful of this, and always observant of what the horse IS actually comprehending, so that we can raise criteria as he can handle it, but be able and willing to use smaller increments in places where the horse realy needs it!)

This is why I both teach turns on the forehand and haunches "out of" the walk, and as soon as the horse takes a step, or all the way around if he is to that point, I then step him OUT of it straight forward. This develops an always-forward thinking in the horses body. (Even the halt and reinback, when done well, "looks" forward and feels forward. Principally, because the horse's back stays up and round and he has his huanches underneath himself; there is a lot of power there and it is a sound, comfortable way for him to move WITH the riders weight on his back.)

So now I have six cues, the two turning cues with the reins, the two leg-behind-the-girth cues that move the haunches over and the two thigh cues that move the shoulders over.

What the horse is now learning in HIS body, through this process, is the feel of "active" and "passive" aids. A leg that just stays there comes to mean the body on that side stays there. When our left leg becomes active (applying a cue), NOW the horse has some knowledge of a particular response to that cue for which he earns a reinforcment. If no cue is applied, we "stay the same." "Staying the same" should therefor be rewarded too.

I think we sometimes get really focused on "cue>response" that we forget to also reward the horse for MAINTAINING what he is currently doing. This is nothing more than rewarding duration, and duration is an important and certainly valid criteria, but I don't know as we focus on it much with many things we train animals, except for dog obedience handlers who HAVE to focus on those inordinately long "durations" of things like "sit stay" for three minutes. (No dog, in their right mind, will sit that long on their own, as a species! Maybe ONE dog in a thousand would do that! We do ask some amaizingly wild things of animals!)

So, when we ask for the turn to the right with a rein cue, and we DON'T want the horse to yield his hip, our outside leg remains quiet and our inside leg that would cue a lateral step to the outside by moving behind the girth and pulsing (or, you could teach any cue! You could cue your horse to move the hip away by tugging on his mane!) simply remains AT the girth and quiet, or, in my case, the inside leg when APPLIED means "bend around this leg and step up with the inside hind leg" so I might pulse the leg to keep the rhythm or the stepping or the bend, which are all hand-in-hand, or is it hoof-in-hoof?

The half pass, of course, is not something we need to "teach" as a movement. It is cueing the bend and the forward, then cueing the lateral aids for the shoulder and the hip to move over in the DIRECTION of the bend. Most horses, with mileage and consistency, only need to be cued to half pass, and then can maintain the half pass until asked to do something else. If they get lazy on the way over, we might need to recue the foreward or stepping under etc. This is why we talk about "riding every stride." With a young horse, we have to re-cue a lot. Over time, he might only need a couple recues.

What happens in the competitive dressage arena is we are taught a "doctrine" of WE must "control" every step the horse takes. He is to be obedient to our whims, in other words. I might cue a piaffe, but he has no idea whether I want seven steps or twenty seven, so I will keep re-cueing it so he keeps doing it, and then I will cue "okay, now passage" out of the piaffe. This is at least how many American riders learn to ride, or interpret how they should ride.

Usually all this constant re-cueing simply disturbs the horse. The whole idea of dressage (which is the French for "training") is to preserve the gaits AND not disturb the horse (which, can ruin the gaits!!!Hehe!)

I was fortunate to just see the Spanish Riding School perform (if you can go see them, definately GO SEE THEM!) and the riders give the cue, then leave the horse alone to DO what he has learned is the correct response to the cue. The rebalancing cues are then used as needed IF a horse needs them, and right before and after transitions. The in-hand horses, when schooling a particular set of cues, then take a break on the outside track after each cue, where their handlers give the horses cookies for their effort. It is fun to see, when one of the younger horses is really still learning a behavior, how the high reinforcment rate shows up as the horse improving HOW he responds with each repetition! Apparently they are feeding cookies the horses REALLY really want to work for!

Since most of my schooling has been under the SRS, I was thrilled to see an hour and a half of the most correct and animated dressage one can ever hope to see in this country! The regularity of the gaits is astounding (preservation and beautification of the gaits is the pinnacle of dressage, to maintain the soundness of the horse over time) and considering many of the horses were in their twenties and a couple in their thirties, STILL doing perfect piaffe and passage, some of them still doing aires, and so on, they are a testament to what it really means to teach the horse how to move in a biomechanically correct way with the weight of the rider. The old horses are NOT swaybacked, because they have a lifetime of developing their backs up and strong. Thus, they are also perfectly light in the bridle. One rider rides an entire grandprix ride with reins only in the left hand, and the horse is perfectly and evenly bent in both directions, further testament that the cues are coming from the rider's body, and the horse bending around the inside leg and so forth. The reins, as reins are intended by this school anyway, belong to the horse, to give him a place to step into for the highly collected work. They do not "create" the bend or cue the turns.

Though the rein cue IS used to teach "turn," in the young horse, until the seat cues are taught. This is the systematic and gymnastic development of the horse to collected work. The piaffe tours might be long, over forty steps pf piaffe. A passage tour might last over one minute. One horse did twenty four consecutive one tempi changes. Most of us riding our backyard companions on the trail and showing here and there on the weekends, do not necessarily need to teach our horses to this level of collection for such duration, so we cnanprobably ride quite nicely on a loopy rein our entire lives and be just fine! Our horses are able to work in a longer frame because we do not need them to do passage for two minutes at a stretch. But it is beautiful to SEE a horse do it and do the last step as animated and energetic as the first step, because they are physically and mentally developed to do it as easily as breathing!

I am seeing this now with my own twenty year old hanovarian, who has been ridden mostly correctly his whole life (well, he and I have done a LOT of learning together, fishing our way the first ten years!!!), how incredible is his body, which looks like a ten year old horse. And this horse STILL gallops with the best of them and stays sound doing it! Oh, and he can and will do all of the basic school movements on a long rein!

Some folks believe we who ride dressage insist that we HAVE to have the rein contact because that is how we are creating the movements. No, the horse moves HIS body in response to cues he has learned, and in the length of frame the reins indicate. So on no reins contact (loopy rein), (the young horse tends to go longer and flatter,) and the more developed horse can carry himself in a more uphill frame, but is generally always LOOKING for the bit.

If we ride without a bridle for long enough, the horse learns to set his neck deep (to compensate for not having a place to telescope his neck out TO) and it gets short except during certain movements like sliding stops where the horse then is set so deep on his haunches, he will lengthen the neck to counterbalance. The underneath his shoulders. The potential problem with the shortened neck, is this gives the horse the tendency to then invert his back, rather than keeping it up and round. The longterm soundness of the horse could become an issue if one were to plan to ride the horse thirty years this way! (Just my observation thus far in my limited lifespan!)

Barbara Ray
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