Rear Versus Levade

The levade is an ‘Air’ and the most collected movement a horse can do. Its original intent was for use in mounted war along with the rest of the ‘Airs Above The Ground’. The only places you’ll see it performed nowadays are at Equine/Military Schools such as the Spanish Riding School, in travelling shows, or exhibitions.

Below is the levade, executed nearly perfectly. (I believe this photo was taken by Sarah K. Andrew.  It’s been several years since the photographer shared it with me, so my memory is fuzzy.)

Note the placement of the hind feet almost directly under the rider’s seat, how the long pastern is almost in line with the cannon bone, the hocks directly underneath the center of the haunch and lowered, and the horse ‘sitting down’. The horse holds and balances its weight throughout the big, powerful muscling of the haunch, while the hind legs/joints act as a coiled spring. While this takes tremendous strength to achieve, the horse has the advantage of using its entire body.

Levade

The next picture (taken from the LA Times earlier this month (click on photo to enlarge) – article about the current race season at Del Mar and the number of injured/dead horses – thanks, Trailrider, it really was an interesting article) is of a parade horse that’s gotten a bit excited as the other horses leave the gate. This is a rear, albeit a baby one.

Note the placement of the hind feet (behind the stifle), and the placement of the hocks (behind the horse’s buttocks), how vertical the cannon bone remains while the fetlocks and hocks close, taking much of the pressure. The majority of the horse’s weight is forward and down into the stifles. While the withers have raised, it’s only because the horse has left/is leaving the ground with the front legs, and in fact this horse has hollowed its back, dropped its base of neck and withers.

RearingAtTrack

Obviously the outrider at the track wasn’t trying to do a levade, and there’s no point in discussing the difference in rider position. Instead, these two pictures offer great comparison between what IS collection and what is NOT.

I often hear from people how Dressage horses breakdown, specifically in their hocks. Well, people, that would be because the horse isn’t actually moving correctly. The horse isn’t collecting toward the goal in the first picture, but rather doing what the parade horse is doing. A horse ridden and trained correctly will benefit with increased soundness, not suffer from injuries.

Mercedes’ Top Pet Peeves

In no way does the following represent all the equine world insults to my senses, but they seem to happen more often than not.

Firstly, there’s not a whole lot I find more frustrating than getting on a horse, applying leg, and having the horse do absolutely nothing. Even worse is if I get an ear flick indicating the horse ‘heard’, and then nothing. I’ll accept a lateral step, a back step, a jig, even a cow kick at my leg; just give me something to work with.

In most cases the ignore is entirely the fault of the human/s. Most susceptible are lesson horses that have to deal with beginner riders, whose leg aids are often poorly timed, inconsistent, and downright as annoying as TV snow. Still, it’s an easy fix and I have never understood the prevalence.

Related is the horse that has to be aided by the leg every single stride to maintain gait or pace. The horse should respond to the leg when applied and then maintain whatever was asked until the leg is applied again for a new request. Even worse is the horse that has erroneously been trained to move forward only with constant spurring. The spur was never meant to be used to create forward in the horse, but rather a tool for subtle and exacting cues of upper level movements.

The reason most often give for the previous scenerios: The horse is lazy.

Horses are not lazy; they are simply unmotivated in the moment. While that might sound like semantics, I believe it’s an entirely different perspective which can make a big difference in how the person approaches the horse, and therefore how the relationship develops. Is the glass half empty or half full? Being labelled lazy is clearly negative and there’s finality to it like it’s a done deal and can’t be change. Being unmotivated in the moment is less negative because there’s a possible upside; motivation may occur in the very next moment.

Don’t think for a second the horse doesn’t know what kind of a glass it’s being viewed as when you approach. I’ve never met a lazy horse, but I’ve sure met a lot who’d rather lie down then work for the human aboard.

Every 50′ (or less) round pen in existence needs to ploughed under. There’s a reason why the first circle figure is 20m (66′). It asks the horse to bear a little bit of extra weight on the inside hind, and to bend through the length of its body a little bit. Very few green/young horses can negotiate a circle smaller than 20m correctly to start, that is without counter bending, leaning on the inside shoulder, losing the haunch to the outside etc… The same is true of horses that have certain conformation traits that make engagement more difficult and lame/sore/injured/stiff horses.

Sixteen feet in diameter may not seem like a lot, but for the horse it’s night and day. For every circle the horse does incorrectly, it has to do ten correctly to undo the damage of using the wrong muscles the wrong way. Think about that before you opt for a too-small round pen.

Natural Horsemanship is responsible for the uptick in round pen usage over the last couple of decades. Part of those programs is teaching horses to turn in and face the handler, especially during the ‘free’ longeing process. Hate it, and I’ve seen it lead to all sorts of problems.

Worse still is when someone teaches that to the horse when longeing with a line on. The horse should stay out on the circle, facing forward, and wait for the handler to approach. Advanced longeing in a longeing cavesson will include the horse making an inside turn to change direction, but the horse only does so when specifically cued for the change of direction. Otherwise the horse stays on the circle.

I know that Natural Horsemanship guru’s teach turning slightly away/taking a step back from the horse to invite it to you. Blech! Face to face the horse is in a superior power positon, and while this ‘come to me’ is often used for horses that are timid or as part of ‘joining up’, I don’t like it and don’t encourage it. It’s not necessary to win over the horse, nor to later have horses come running when called. And let me tell you, it’s a real bugger trying to reteach a horse to longe properly.

Now is the time when I pick on riders, especially those with their eyes stuck to the ground. Seriously, if the ground is that fascinating might I suggest you dismount, get down on your hands and knees, and get a real close-up look to satisfy your curiosity.

Your bowling ball of a head falls forward, your shoulder’s round, your center of gravity tips forward, your seatbones lose contact with the horse, your lower leg loses its position, and your heel lifts. You are now ripe to end up right where you’re looking. In fact, I find great pleasure in walking up beside such a rider and pushing them off with little effort on my part. But never mind you, you’ve just made your horse’s job of balancing you and itself that much harder and put him/her on their forehand.

And if you’re someone who’s got their eyes planted on the horse’s shoulder to check posting diagonal or canter lead – time for you to learn to feel your horse’s footfalls and body. I really wish instructors would stop teaching riders this short cut in the first place.

The other big rider pet peeve I have is that of the incorrect use of terminology. Specifically the big buzz words like collection, extension, and impulsion. A horse piddling around at lower levels most certainly isn’t doing extensions or collection. They might be capable of lengthenings and a lower degree of engagement, but when you need someone to explain to you the aids of shoulder-in, you most certainly didn’t just ‘collect’ your horse on your last ride. Frame compression, specifically neck shortening, and your horse taking itty bitty steps isn’t collection. Not referring to anyone here unless it applies.

It also annoys me when people use terminology like ‘giving to the bit’, when it’s clear the horse is evading contact and is behind the bit. That kind of ‘giving’ is incorrect. A horse accepting contact can’t necessarily be correctly described as ‘light’. Rather the contact is better described as ‘alive’ and therefore constantly changing as horse and rider communicate and perform tasks. ‘Lightness’ is often evasion, particularly if it’s constant/static, which will certainly feel better to a rider than the horse that leans on the bit, but is still incorrect.

Speaking of bits…if I see one more full-cheek bit without keepers…

Finally, in closing: Western Dressage. Enough said.

Feel free to add your pet peeves and get it off your chest. Perhaps afterwards I’ll consider doing an anti-pet peeve list.

A Digestion Question

Zanhar has asked me to pose a question on the blog in hopes of gaining some insight.

Hello Mercedes – I have a question I’d like to throw out to your readers, especially since there are some Morgan boosters out there.  A few months ago I took on a boarder (my dear Harry died at the ripe old age of 38).  This is a 22 year old Morgan gelding, bursting with personality and always on the go (I can see why people like these horses!) but unfortunately his owner is a newbie and hasn’t been terribly helpful in sorting out this problem.  The horse is in excellent health – a bit overweight actually and I am trying to ease that back.  He gets hay, pasture and supplements including pro-biotics and virtually no grain – in fact I’ve stopped the 1 pound a day he was getting.  He is really gassy, long noisy farts all the time.  He’s constantly hungry – it’s hard getting him to diet so I feed him multiple small meals.  He produces a phenomenal amount of manure – 15 piles to six from my thoroughbred who is 16.1h and this little guy is 14.0h.  His manure is totally normal in color and consistency.  He isn’t colicky and does not seem in any kind of discomfort.

 Any ideas?  Are Morgans prone to this? Is it indicative of something or just a benign peculiarity?

I’d really be interested in what anyone can offer.

I Heard It…

…with my own two ears. Just the other day I overheard a riding instructor say to a young pupil: ‘Stick your belly button out.’ That stopped me in my tracks. Is this a gymnastics class?  The student rode by on her pony with a lovely ‘c’ in her lower back like pictured below.

Tilted Pelvis

This type of rider posture – hollowed, locked back – is incorrect and disrupts not only the rider’s ability to absorb the horse’s movement, but also causes the horse to hollow and lock its back (as seen in the picture) in response.  When that happens the horse trails its hind legs, can’t swing through its back, drops its wither and base of neck, raises its head, and shortens its stride.  It’s the antithesis of correct movement, stressing the body.  Even the best conformed horse can’t overcome.

Here’s a great illustration showing the correct amount of curvature in the lower back.  (The human spine does have some curvature through the ‘loin’.)  Also of note is the straight line created by the alignment of the ear, hip and heel that we all know about but often struggle to obtain.

I don’t know the education background of the riding instructor, if she’s certified,  or who taught her, but she’s popular with her students and their parents.  It discourages me that another group of young riders is being developed with such poor basic skills.  Besides the hollow lower backs, all the riders in her class (5) had knees and toes pointed outward and overly straight arms.  And like a horse that has lived in inversion, a rider with incorrect basics will need to spend much more time correcting those bad habits than if they’d learned the right way first time around.

I wish I had a solution for this widespread problem, which feels to me as if its gaining momentum.

A Place To Start – Stretching Under Saddle

Some times we just don’t know where or how to begin. In a recent article (Virtual Horse – A Must See!) I linked to a video showing the biomechanical differences between a horse being hand ridden and forced into a false frame; over flexed in the poll, chin on chest and one allowed to stretch and seek contact, and how that affected the horse’s movement. Following is a short (4 min) video that starts to show how you do the latter.

Video

Though I don’t agree with everything said and shown (such as the reference to and title of video ‘engaging’ the back – why even go there?!), there are some really important things happening in the video that I’d like to point out.

First is the forwardness of the horses. Before anything else can happen, a horse must be forward. No forward, no nothing. That is not going fast, though for some it may appear that way, but rather having a purpose in getting from point A to point B. This is a major issue I often see, horses piddling about, dragging their feet, and otherwise lacking any sort of energy or motivation in their striding. The horse must actively and willingly move forward, be in front of the leg, and stay in front of the leg without being constantly badgered. Once that is achieved, the horse on its own will begin to relax into a rhythmic gait and stretch. This applies to our Western riders as well. You all should be riding forward as shown in the video until the horse has, over time, developed the strength and condition to slow down the stroke of the legs via right and proper engagement. The jog and lope that is so often seen today in the Western ring is an atrocity, but I digress.

A lot of the video shows the horse on the circle. The circle helps to encourage weight to shift back onto the inside hind, which in turn will lift the back and so on. But don’t get stuck in the idea that this can only, or should only, be done on the circle. Alternating between straight lines, circles and changes of direction will keep the horse thinking and thus forward. It will increase suppleness and straightness, and as you make the figure changes it’s a challenge and a check that the horse remain relaxed and rhythmic throughout.

I also liked that Mr. Faerber mentioned the rider lightening their seat and that this work is done primarily in rising trot. ‘Driving’ with your seat to get the horse forward only results in triggering the back to contract and then hollow, as does banging around like a sack of rocks in sitting trot. Of course, some riders also bang down on the horse’s back in rising trot, so the execution of the rising trot by the rider may need to be examined if the horse continues to hollow.

You can not achieve any of what is shown in the video via the use of side reins, draw reins, martingales or any other tack contraption. I repeat: CAN NOT. The horse must be free of restrictive devices including the hand, so put away the tack and lengthen those reins. The horse’s head WILL come down once it is forward, relaxed, and rhythmic, and its back will lift. Note that at the four minute mark a young horse is being longed with side reins on, but those side reins are overly long. They are not restricting the horse in any way. So why use them at all? In this instance it’s for the education of the horse’s mouth, to begin to understand weight in its mouth, and to encourage the horse to be straighter (not over bend) through the neck on the circle.

It’s important to also note the time period given in the video: One year to develop the topline of a horse, and that’s for a horse that hasn’t already developed inverted muscling and poor posture from bad riding and training; those horses are going to require even more time. This is not a process that happens over night, nor can it be fixed in 24 hours. But don’t think you should be riding your horse as in the video every single minute of that year. Stretching is not a static position either on its own nor as part of training. Remember that you should be testing your horse’s development, asking for the poll to lift little by little BY engaging the haunch.   You’ll be doing other exercises and figures, cross training.  And don’t forget, the horse’s haunch should be lowering as that poll lifts, otherwise it’s incorrect.

Even out on a hack, you should be encouraging your horse to stretch, to be forward, relaxed, rhythmic in its gaits, straight and so on.  Horses are not toys and require constant consideration, care and management.  There is joy and pleasure to be found in understanding that.  You can enjoy the horse even while knowing that every step is training mind, body, and soul for better or worse.

Neglect in Redding, Connecticut

Sadly another clear situation of the system taking too long to act and giving someone multiple chances.  There’s no excuse after the initial complaints in 2011 that this woman should have had another opportunity to neglect animals.  She even has an option of appealing the seizures. What!?

NBC Report

I wonder if this woman’s age has anything to do with the situation? Is she mentally, emotionally and physically able to care for animals?

If anyone here is in the state/area can you get us any additional information or updates moving forward?