Icelandic Horse Connection

Liz Graves, Gaited Horse Clinic Reports 2

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By Renee Martin

The first day, Liz went over basic conformation. (She does this in the Icelandic Gathering video series, so I was somewhat familiar with what she was saying. )

She put large sticky dots at key conformational landmarks and then connected those points so you could see angles and length. Then, she told us what the significance of those angles and lengths were. For example: A long humerus means a horse should have good reach and length of stride. The angle of the humerus indicates the lift of stride -- flatter angle means less animation.

We learned the length of the functional back is from the crest of the withers to Lumbar Sacral joint. To find the LS joint, pinch the spine and watch to see where the horse flexes. The space from the Lumbar Sacral joint to the top of the hip is the lumbar span. This lumbar span is the weakest point of back because there's no support either from the pelvis or the ribcage beneath it. Interestingly enough, a short span makes it easier for the horse to raise his back for collection. Short is also indicative of strength.

Length of neck is from the poll to crest of withers. Ideally, it should be same length as the functional back. If it's shorter, it will be harder for horse to collect.

I thought it was interesting that where the femur ties in at the hip is one of the factors that indicates gait tendency. The farther behind the halfway point of an imaginary line between the point of the hip and the end of the pelvis (towards tail) the femur falls, the more lateral the horse. If the length of the pelvis, length of the femur, and length of the gaskin are all equal, the horse will probably lean towards trot. If the gaskin is longer than the other two measurements, that would be a factor which would lend the horse more towards lateral gaits.

Liz mentioned the wide pelvis of Icelandics as well as their well-sprung ribs which contrib their strength, along with their good bone and joint size.

Liz marked up Soley and then proceded to tell me all about how my horse moves based on what she saw conformationally (without ever having seen her move yet). It was quite astonishing. She hit Soley on the head. She said she was likely a multi-gaited horse (she is), that probably doesn't have trouble with diagonal or lateral gait (she doesn't), and that probably had the potential for pace as well (she does -- but I never encourage her in that direction -- have only paced her three times in her life) and that she was a very strong horse. She then did a mini lecture on Icelandics being capable of carrying adult easily and not to be fooled by their short stature. She pointed to the 15-16 hand TWH also marked up and in the arena and said Soley would be conformationally more able to carry weight.

Well, I was afraid of this news, but kind of expecting it based on my loved/hated Lewis pad results:

My saddle is too peaked and Soley is too broad. Liz looked at my beloved Rembrandt Dressage saddle in a 36 cm. tree and also found it to be bridging somewhat. Not the worst case she's ever seen, but there was enough to cause concern.

I learned bridging is not what I thought it was. I always thought bridging meant a complete gap in the contact along the back, with the back and front of the saddle taking all the weight. Well, that's an extreme example. There is more subtle cases of bridging which is what my saddle showed.

When I felt down the channel, I could feel about an inch of the soft, stuffed panels off Soley's back. In other words, the contact with her back was occurring an inch in along the panel. So, less surface area distributing the weight. Also, all this time I had checked for bridging by sliding my hand up and under the saddle from each side. Liz showed me to check for this by sliding my arm down the gullet as the saddle rested on Soley.

Of course, your saddle gullet has to be wide enough to accomodate an arm and that was the thing she did like about my saddle. She said it was the widest gullet she'd ever seen on an English saddle. For the riding portion of the day, Liz tried to shim my saddle up enough to make it a better fit for the riding portion of the lesson, but we gave up on that and went to my faithful bareback pad. (More on that later)

Liz then did a back mapping on Soley. Boy, was that fascinating, and WHAT A TOOL! You can see how to do this step by step on Dave Grendyk's (spelling!) website, and could all do this yourselves. If you do, please, please, please send Liz a copy. She is hoping to take this data to a saddle manufacturer and convince them to make a few trees/saddles that will accomodate the Icelandics she is finding out there for whom no saddle seems to work. (And you know who you are - we've all commiserated on these lists enough over the years!)

With the back mapping, you clearly see the contour of your horse's back. (Easy to see if your horse is level, built uphill, built downhill and EXACTLY how much in either direction). It also shows you the length of your horse's back in regards to the room you have for a saddle. The most interesting part for me was the comparison of the horse left side to right side. Soley, like most horses, is uneven.

Now, to me, it looked like a huge amount and I voiced this concern. Liz said it wasn't bad at all, But I'm still bothered. It looked like a huge discrepency to my eyes. She told me some arena excercises to do to help build the left side to match the right -- basically suppling work to get Soley to round that side out.

But, the sad news was there was no treed saddle Liz could recommend for Soley because she said there isn't an adequate tree being manufactured. (Did you know it costs a saddle manufacturing about $10,000 to develop a new saddle tree?)

According to Liz, there is no saddle tree on the market today which will accomodate my very broad-backed mare. And you know what? After 9 years of trying dozens -- and I mean dozens -- of saddles on this mare, (including a custom John DiPietra where I actually sent in a plaster cast of Soley's back), I am inclined to believe this. Oh am I inclined to believe this!

One saddle would seem to work for awhile -- and I'd think "Eureka!". . . . but then, after a few months, I'd just feel Soley be off, or not as peppy, and I'd go oh-oh. You see, the new saddle would have different pressure points than the previous one, so for awhile, Soley WOULD feel better in that saddle. But, after enough time, the new saddle would start creating it's own pressure points too. And the cycle would continue.

I would go back to my bareback pad and the search would start over. Much as I hated to hear this, I guess I felt a little validated. I was starting to think I was being too obsessive/anal about this saddle business. Why was everyone else able to find a saddle that fit but not me!? Well, come to find out, Tank Mare is aptly named. She is one of the widest-sprung Icelandics Liz has mapped thus far.

Liz is not a big fan of treeless saddles. But, she said I really had no choice when it comes to "fitting" Soley. There is a type of treeless saddle no longer being manufactured that Liz seemed to think would be best. . . So, the hunt begins to find one of these on the used market. Anyone have a Thoroughgood,, synthetic, Adult sized treeless saddle with moveable panels on the underside? Please???????

Eitill's saddles were no go either -- again, I suspected. The good news is though, is he is a "normal sized" Icelandic in the barrel. Liz was optimistic that I would find a saddle that fit him and gave me a suggestion. And, a HUGE surprise, Eitill's back mapping was nearly symetrical between his right and left sides. Liz said he was nearly perfect. What?!? Funny, I of the two, I would have bet money Eitill would have had a more asymetrical back. Of course, his mane does fall on both sides and you know what they say. . . .; )

I was asked to bring both Eitill and Soley to help with Liz's back mapping project. I knew this was going to cause me problems. Separately, I can haul either horse to events and/or trail riding and be fine. But, if I take them together to a strange place -- Gawd, they arrive bound at the hip.

They can't possibly be out of each other's site for ten minutes, or so they think. Soley is, by far, the worst of the two. If you will remember, we had our first quiet, solo trail ride this year, so being without a buddy is something we have been working on, but we aren't there yet in all circumstances by a long shot.

To those training young horses -- I'll say it again: Don't do as I did! Take those young horses out and about on their own in all circumstances! Get them to rely on you as their security blanket, not another horse! Don't think a dominant, bold horse (which Soley is) will be less likely to be buddy dependent. Take them out alone anyway. Otherwise, you will have a hole in their training that will show up later as I do now, and as I deal with now. Okay, that's my sermon.

Anyway, the arena set up was a VERY long arena with about 50 stalls on either side. Soley and Eitill were in stalls side by side on one wall. I thought that perhaps, because they would still be able to see each other if one was in the arena, it might not be so bad. . . No such luck.

I rode Soley the first day. Eitill was quite mad that Soley was out in the arena and he wasn't. Soley thought she needed to call to Eitill every 2 minutes to make sure he was still over there since these were "big horse" stalls and he was barely visible over the half door. Her focus was completely on where he was, not on me.

Liz tried to shim my dressage saddle to make it okay for the riding and she did the girth up quite loosely to boot. I thought I rode with a loose girth. Well, not by Liz's standards I don't. : o

Soley was initially intent on getting back to Eitill and I had to really get after her as she thought she would make her way back to him. I did a few sharp turns with her to get her attention back (as well as stop her from leaving the arena -- ahem) and woops -- big saddle shift. No retrieval. Mission aborted. (Terri has this all on tape for future blackmail. : )

I looked at Liz as she rushed up to help me and said, "I don't think this is going to work with the shims and the loose girth. I'm a bit wobbly up here. " I then did a rather ungraceful (but feet first -- Thank you Lord) dismount. "Can I just put my bareback pad on?" Liz said sure and away I went. Ahhh, much better.

After that, I had my barings. I was in my happy place on my horse. : ) Soley was revved up, but tractable for the rest of the lesson, and even though she continued to call for Eitill every now and then, she at least was listening to me.

Of course, when Eitill saw us going round and round, he decided he should be out and about too. He starts knocking his stall door. As I made one pass near his stall I heard a fatefull, "click" then a little black nose came through a six-inch gap that appeared in the sliding door.

Soon, a whole little black horse was stepping through the door. Oy! Eitill started walking down the isle, away from us! He could care less where Soley was, and was just happy to be out of that %!$@# stall I guess. A friend also attending the clinic caught him and put him back for me. He tried his Houdini act a few more times, but this time the latch held firm. Always looking for the positive, Liz said, "Look how smart he is! Boy, that trick worked for him once and he has learned to try it again. . ." Oh yeah, that's my boy. . . smart. . . Uh-huh.

What I learned was that Soley's most natural gait is the saddle tolt. When pushed, she can true tolt, but the saddle tolt (saddle rack) is her gait of choice and easiest for her to perform. She's never had a great deal of speed in tolt compared to some, so I'm not surprised. Also, her head ties in low giving her a naturally low head set, so this to contributes to her gaiting tendency towards saddle tolt.

One thing that readily became apparent at this clinic was that gaited horse people often really don't understand what gait they are looking at. Or they are referring to it by the wrong name.

Part of the reason for this is that the original, old definitions of each of the various soft gaits have been used indiscriminately over the years within the gaited horse community. After awhile, things get clouded, convuluted, distorted.

For example, the bulk of the horses present were Tennessee Walking Horses. Some of their owners were breeders, trainers, and long-time fans of the breed. One gal had a beautiful Black and White stallion she was obviously very proud of. But hers, like most of the others, immediately went into a stepping pace when asked up from a walk, instead of a rack and/or a running walk.

This woman, like most of the other attendees, however, considered what her horse was doing a running walk, or maybe even a rack. (I wasn't sure.) She sure didn't think it wasn't the signature gait of her breed! Afterall, this was as stallion she was standing!

To Terri and I, the horses performing a stepping pace looked like a smoother version of what we would call piggy pace -- very lateral, but didn't seem as bumpy for the rider to me. It was an uneven, four beat gait, but it sure looked two beat to the "naked" (untrained) eye.

However, when Liz wrapped both left legs of one horse in vetrap, there was a collective "ahhh" amidst the auditors and watching participants. We could see that the back leg was hitting just before the front leg and not working together as it had appeared without the vetrap.

That didn't change the fact it still wasn't a running walk or rack by definition.

People didn't like this idea.

Liz explained that in the push for more speed in the running walk in the show ring, the horses were literally being pushed beyond their natural gait into the realm of excessive lateral-ness. The true running walk is not a gait of speed. It covers ground, but it's not fast.

Of course, like the lady with the BREEDING stallion, judges aren't necessary well-educated about gaits either, depending on what their background is. Once the judges started rewarding the fastest mover (ignoring the fact the gait was now technically incorrect), the trend caught on.

All it takes is a few ribbons and everyone starts imitating. People forgot what the real running walk really was. The stepping pace had become the accepted "running walk" in the showring and it spread to the breeding barns and on the trails. No one could tell the difference anymore. No one understood the difference anymore.

Liz saw that a few of the horses really wanted to do a running walk. It was in them. They had the conformation for it. She worked with people to "step off the gas" or change their riding technique to let this gait come out. If the people couldn't "get it", she would hop on and show them.

Most of what I saw her do on these horses was simply back off and let the horses relax. She gave them permission to dial down. When they relaxed, they found their rhythm. When they found their rhythm, they found their natural gait, or the beginnings of their natural gait.

It was sooo neat to watch. In my mind, there is no comparison to a horse performing a relaxed, easy gait than one overridden into a hard one. One is sooo cool to watch, the other almost painful.

One thing that Liz said was that if the owners liked the way their horses were performing -- if they were happy with the stepping pace -- then that was fine. But -- BIG "But", the owners would have to be diligent in maintaining such a horse.

The stepping pace is a harder gait on the horse than the running walk, being it's a gait of ventroflexion. The owner would have to really pay attention to their horse to keep him/her sound and supple. Maintainence might entail chiropractic and massage treatments, trotting and loose canters, and collection work to get that back a break. (At least that's what I can remember!)

The second day of the clinic, I rode Eitill. Soley hollered now and then, but seemed to be resigned that she was not going to get her way. Eitill, happy to be out of that $%#^& stall was oblivious to her and ignored her entirely. Yeah!.

Besides saddle fit, one of the things Liz does is watch how a horse responds to the bit the rider is using. Or rather, watch how the horse, rider, bit combination is working (or not, as the case may be.) She carries with her a small tack trunk of bits, sidepulls, bit keepers, chin straps, reins, headstalls -- you name it. Sometimes she suggests that a rider try another type of bit . Sometimes, she suggests no bit and has the rider try a side pull. People were sometimes visibly leery of giving up their bit, but it did seem to help relax their horses and get them on their way to better gait. There's soooo much tension out there in the gaited horse world, both in riders and horses.

Eitill's bit was something I definitely wanted her to check. Eitill wears a happy mouth, three piece bit with a center roller. It's plastic. (See pic). He constantly chews his bit. I mean, he is chomping on that thing from the time it hits his lips until I take it away from him. Big chews. Noisy chews. Crunch, crunch, crunch. It drives me crazy!

He's always been a very oral horse. I thought he'd eventually outgrow his chewing habit, but no. He is still enthusiastically and vigorously chewing on that bit four years later. (Strangely, it doesn't look that worse for wear after four years of being mauled). Yes, it's annoying, but more than that, I was really concerned as to WHY he might be doing that. Did something hurt? Was he anxious, frustrated? Should I change to a metal bit? Maybe it wasn't adjusted properly or his mouth was too shallow for it? I just didn't know what to make of his noisy mouth! I had already ruled out any teeth problems.

The curious thing is, when Eitill is presented with this bit, he literally grabs it, and when you take his bridle off, he often hangs onto it and won't let go until you tug or holler at him to release it. Part of this is what he was taught by clicker training. But, even if I'm not around and the bit/bridle is within reach -- he is after that bit.

Also, if I'm not careful/attentive, he still sneaks the reins into his mouth and chews on them as well if I am leading him in his bridle. He's very sneaky.

I finally got smart and no longer use leather reins with Eitill, but he still LOVES the plastic-coated web reins I got in Iceland.

I slipped his headstall off in the arena before we started and showed Liz how he goes after that bit. She said, "Well, it appears he just really likes it. Let's see if anything changes when you ride". She watched us in tolt and trot and when we were done, she laughed, "Renee, you have nothing to worry about. He LOVES that bit. It's his pacifier. It's his security bit. He is very happy and forward, ears are pricked, he's looking around at everything with interest, there's no resistance. It's fine. He's chewing on it because he likes it. He's going well for you. He's happy. I wouldn't change a thing."

Whew. At least I got the right bits for my horses. . . Glad I got one piece of the puzzle taken care of.

But ofcourse, being paranoid me, I still asked Liz to palpate Eitill's back for sore spots. And I asked her THE question that's been on my mind ever since I realized Eitill was not going to be as big as Soley: Was I too big for him? (Holding my breath)

Liz said no. She told me to consider his loin width, which IS quite substantial. (I've always loved his big butt!) She pointed out his large gaskin muscles, and the fact his legs, joints and feet are just as, if not larger than Soley's. (Yeah, I guess they are, aren't they.. .) And when I squawked about his smaller barrel and narrower chest (than Soley) she said Eitill was very much an average sized Icelandic and that he carried me just fine.

During the back palpitation, she did find two small sore spots (about nickel size) beside Eitill's spine on the left -- about where I sit in the bareback pad. She said that was likely from my seat bones and sitting harder on that side. Oops -- running for my centered riding book! I found it quite amazing that my seat bones would dig in anywhere, considering all the padding that surrounds them. Ahem.

Liz said using the bareback pad was okay occasionally, but that I really needed to get Eitill a well-fitting, treed saddle. Unlike with Soley, Eitill's back was not "unfittable" with today's trees. Okay. That was good to hear even though both the CAIR panel Wintec 500 dressage and the Wintec Endurance Pro EW tree I had brought were not good fits on Eitill (which is why I was in the bareback pad again -- oh, twist my arm.

My bareback pad is MY pacifer / security blanket!) I like the feel/fit of the Endurance Pro for me, but the loved/hated Lewis pad did tell me I was having pressure points. I never tried the 500 out with the Lewis pad because I didn't find it comfortable for me for some reason and was almost relieved when Liz told me it wasn't a good fit. Wouldn't that have been ironic if THAT saddle had fit and I didn't like it! It flared too much at his shoulders and not enough over this withers. A different gullet size would not have mattered because going wider over the withers would not decrease the flare below.

One VERY special, totally unexpected thing that happened when I was riding Eitill in the clinic was that he did something I have been trying to get him to do for some time. He started switching back and forth between tolt and trot by voice and weight shifts. I could not believe he was doing this -- and in a strange arena no less!!

Normally, working in an arena is not his forte. But there he was, acting like he did this everyday. I almost forgot about the people sitting there and Liz. I was sooo excited to have him doing this! At the end of our session, if my smile was any wider, it was going to wrap completely around my head I think. So, that was thrilling for me and I can't wait to see if I can repeat this "breakthrough" here at home. Trot has been much harder to develop in Eitill than tolt.

Liz said Eitill's most natural gait is true tolt, although not a hugely animated one. I wasn't surprised to hear this either as he has more speed in tolt than Soley and he is more towards the pace side of the gaiting scale, whereas Soley is in the middle or a tad towards trot. Liz asked to ride him and she just giggled. : )

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