The eye of the horse
Even if you don't feel like reading my whole blog, would you please read the last paragraph?
When I was very young I so hated that I did not (yet) understand the eye of my pony Ansje. When I would look at our family dog I would always know how it felt, but the eyes of little Ansje always seemed to look the same. I was probably no more than eight or nine at the time and, other than a swift brush, preferred to spend my time on top.
It was only when I started to learn how to lunge that I had the chance to see whether I could spot the change in the eye and even then it was difficult to study it for longer spells of time. There is so much going on and to watch. Also, the whole idea is NOT to look into the horse's eye when it is sufficiently forward; only when it needs to go more forward or is crawling closer, inside the desired lunging distance, eye contact should be made. It is their language and it works.
Of course trainers and instructors get lots of chances to study the eye during their lessons and it was only then that I properly learned the language of the eye of the horse, because it really is a language; giving so much information about how to approach the different phases of the lesson.
The 'sleepy' eye I don't like at all. It tends to go together with the backward horse and when I don't know the horse that well yet, I prefer to lunge it first because it often will nap when told to get on with the job. I don't use side-reins at that point because I will want to be able to chase the horse around if necessary and in that situation the last thing I want is to put pressure on the mouth. Some naps are fairly innocent but to be on the safe side it is so much better to get the respect from the ground and transfer it to on-top.
The younger horse very often looks in a kind of wishful-thinking way out of the arena when passing the entrance. It knows where it came from and still needs to learn to accept that a little bit of work has never hurt anybody. As soon as it realizes that it is safe in the school and is starting to enjoy the work, it will stop doing that and turn into the eye I like so very much, a relaxed and 'soft' eye. The same softness us riders should have when we're 'in the zone'.
The soft eye is an eye which is able to concentrate without over-focusing. In her book 'Centered Riding' Sally Swift explains this so very well for the riders. But it is really no different for the horse.
Have you ever watched the eye of a show-jumper change during a jumping round? There is complete focus and a bit of fire in the eye when approaching the fence, but over the jump the eye goes soft again. The same for a horse going x-country. Kate Rowe's horse Harry shows this really well in this picture.
Only very few times I have seen the eye turn deep black. They were always very tricky characters combined with a very tight poll. It is a strange and scary sight, as if the eye has died and certainly time to take the pressure off immediately, if not to be avoided all together. I call it the 'ice-cream headache, my way of visualizing it.
Some years ago I went with a pupil-friend to see a horse. She had not long before lost her old horse and had not really got over it. I only had to take one look at the horse and my immediate thought was: 'I do hope this horse suits her because she will want it.' It had exactly the same eye as her old horse and it was love at first sight.
And then there is the tired eye. Very important for the trainer to recognize: it is probably time to call it a day and certainly not the time to start something new. When sessions finish at the right moment, the horse pleasantly tired but still having plenty left for an energetic last trot on a long rein; that is such a great feeling for both horse and rider.
The eye of the horse: don't underestimate it. It tells you about its character, it tells you about its mood and all of this is important information we do not want to miss out on.
Sadly, the idea for this blog is because of this picture I saw on Facebook of a horse in a lorry. An eye that tells us it doesn't know what's next, tired but still trying to stay alert. The picture came from the website of the charity 'World Horse Welfare' about the terrible practice of long-distance horse transports across Europe, only to be slaughtered and probably not in the best-run slaughterhouses, either.
It is one of the charities I support, rather than giving Christmas presents. Because I love horses, not just my own horse. Hopefully you do, too...
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The horse: the best teacher for rider...and trainer!
This week I had a lesson with one of my favourite pupils, always cheerful, always positive and with a great sense of humour. So when in the middle of the lesson and seemingly out of the blue she just burst into a loud and seriously unflattering sobbing fit I was completely gobsmacked. So seemed her lovely patiently standing bay gelding.
As we all know, training horses can be very confronting. Not only physical limitations can turn the toughest of the toughest into teary eyed little heaps of misery. Also the mental state, a bad day at work or with the kids, can cause huge upsets when a training session is meant to help forget and release stress but doesn't quite go to plan.
It seemed out of the blue, it was loud, but didn't last long. And soon I found out the problem.
We were working on the halt down the centre line. She said her horse always threw his bum to one side or the other. They always left the ring feeling stupid, despite the fact that the rest of the test had been well above average. I was never told about this problem before and admit during our monthly meeting we had concentrated on other, seemingly more important, things.
Generally, when I come across this problem, it is caused by lack of impulse combined with one-sided stiffness and can be solved with one leg a tad more behind the girth. Trying to practice the halt on the centre line over and over again doesn't help because negative anticipation from the horse kicks in, resulting in even more lack of impulse, which doesn't make the halt any straighter, certainly not squarer. A halt without sufficient impulse is never square.
So, we set out to ride a more forward trot down the centre line, without the halt in order to eliminate the anticipation proceeding with the halts along the long side. When that went well, I thought: piece of cake, she will do a perfect one now down the centre line and on we move to the next part of the lesson.
Wrong, wrong... the horse did exactly the same, followed by the previously described emotional release. Turns out this has been such an ongoing frustration that both rider and horse simply had learned to hate that last bit!
Ha, a challenge, bring it on! First I had to confess I initially misinterpreted the entire issue and therefore asked her to ride down the centre line one more time and make the halt so I could again look at what exactly happened.
What an eye-opener! It just shows how much you can learn as a teacher during your own lessons. This workaholic of a horse was not going too slow into the halt, but too fast! So when the rider felt the bum move to one side and tried to 'fence it off ' with her leg behind the girth, the gelding quickly shoved his bum the other way and very fast too. Reason: he is not one-sided and there was nowhere for the very active hind legs to go other than trying to pass the front legs which had stopped to move because of the rider's increased contact with the mouth. As soon as he felt the leg of the rider shift to where he moved he quickly went the other way with even more left-over energy. So it was all about keeping the front end straight in front of the back end and certainly not a one-sided kick on the body of an eager-to-please horse which was already very for the leg.
I explained this and asked the rider to keep her legs very still in exactly the same position on both sides and ride with wider hands to secure and channel the head between the shoulders of her horse.
Also, I wanted it less abrupt and more progressive, with a few steps of walk in between. This not only to give both rider and horse the time to think and prepare, but also breaking the pattern of holding on too long and too tight to the rein contact. This way the whole action turned into helping the horse rather than correcting, avoiding the whole issue.
She did a great job, showing tremendous self-restraint, keen to break a long-standing bad habit. So, now when the bum made an attempt to swing right, causing for the head and neck to swing left, the reins would be able to feel that coming and deal with it by bringing the right rein sufficiently from the neck, based on the feeling of the rider.And of course the same if the bum threatened to swing left.
Three times and not only the smile was back, but the bay settled down in his whole body language, I could see the relief on the faces of both rider and horse. Although there was still a small shiver in the body where the horse showed an expectation for the rider's leg to shift, he did halt straight and the rider said she positively felt how to ride it.
Advice for the next test: Keep the transition progressive in order to break a long pattern of frustration. A '6' with a future is better than a '4' with none.
At the next event the halt was square.
Advice for Liz: never think you know before you've seen, always be prepared for an unexpected situation and learn yet more from the best teacher in the school: the horse!
Picture: Rebecca Wilkins with her lovely horse Yogi. They finished in 6th place for the Southwest BE100 ranking for this eventing season.
Remember: My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' is the perfect Christmas present for your horsey friends! Order from me, or at Amazon or publisher YouCaxton.
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...
My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.