Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Soft" touch means responsive horse

It’s easy to get a reaction out of a horse but a lot harder to get a response, contended Mike Branch, a trainer and equine coach from Blaine, Tennessee. The process of achieving "soft" response is built on trust and incremental steps.

"It doesn’t take much thought to create a reaction in a horse," Branch said during the recent Horse Days event in Belvidere, Ill. "But it takes a lot of thought to create a response."

Groundwork, or lunging a horse, is a key element in many successful training programs including techniques used for centuries in the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. The lunge is considered the first and most important phase of training as taught to him by a graduate of that school, Branch said.

When starting a new or young horse, Branch explained he goes through four steps to begin to create a response: suggest, ask, tell, and insist. Working from the ground is the best way to introduce an animal to you and prepare for the day when you want to begin to add tack.

"I want the horse to begin to feel me and begin to respond," he said.

To demonstrate the four steps, Branch used a young horse he’d worked with earlier. To get the horse to back, Branch leaned at the animal to create the suggestion of backing. The response was the animal’s ears coming up and rocking slightly back.

"That’s a positive response to a suggestion. I’ve got him thinking about what I want," Branch said. "But the response I’m looking for is to get him to back at my suggestion."

Then Branch "asked" the young horse to back by wiggling the lunge line. Finally, he "told" the young horse to back by stepping forward and shaking the lunge line slightly more. The "insisting" step was a more assertive move toward the horse. By then the horse had taken a step or two back.

"I’m looking for a transition in the horse’s mind as well as in his body," Branch said. "You use pressure to motivate and the release of pressure is the reward."

Because horses drive from their rear legs, Branch suggests keeping your position in the lunge circle so your energy is directed toward the rear of the horse. On the line in the demonstration, the horse always worked slightly ahead with Branch’s shoulders squared to the back of the horse.

Branch described what he was working toward as a "soft" response. A soft response is a smooth, and immediate response to a deliberate, subtle suggestion to do something be it back up, walk, trot, canter, or any command.
"Again, it’s easy enough to get a horse to react. But what you want is a soft response to your suggestions," Branch said.

Softness also is a characteristic of the way a horse carries itself when ridden or handled. A "soft" set to the head and neck helps the horse carry the weight of a rider by properly preparing the back. As an example, Branch said you’d never carry a backpack with your head thrown back. Instead, you lean forward with your head down to arch your back into the load.

"You can work on all of this early with groundwork," he said. "Lunging will help you and your horse prepare for the time when you ride."

One of the common glitches with lunging routines is working one side more than the other. It’s natural to start a routine the same direction each time and it’s natural to always start with the easiest side first, Branch pointed out.

"You’re always inclined to start in the direction where you’re getting the soft responses," Branch said. "Then you and the horse are both a little run out by the time you change direction. Start out on the side of your horse that isn’t as easy until you begin to get soft responses."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

New "Horse Days" event gathering steam

If shear enthusiasm leads to a successful first event, the upcoming Horse Days August 19-21 at the Boone County Fairgrounds in Belvidere, IL should pass the grade. Horse Days executive coordinator and promoter, Brian Lamb is near breathless describing the undertaking.

"There was a group of us who wanted to do something like this and we’d been talking about it," Lamb said. "So finally, I got everybody together for a brainstorming session. I left that meeting with more than 60 pages of notes."

At the end of the road started on a year ago is the inaugural Horse Days. Lamb said he and his spouse, Christine, have been in the horse business for years but had never been involved planning a large horse and trade show. "We agreed from the start that we wanted to have an affordable, family-friendly event where people could have fun as participants or spectators," Lamb said.

Daily admission is $7.00 for adults and the three day pass is $18.00. Children 14 and under are free, seniors over 65 are free and both active duty and military veterans are free. People interested in the grandstand events pay $12 each or $35 for the whole show. Parking is free.

What do you get for your admission? Early on, Lamb said they decided to forego the traditional breed and stallion reviews and concentrate on having more events. For grandstand events, Horse Days landed a PRCA sanctioned rodeo for Friday and Saturday nights. To add to the diversity in front of the grandstand and to have daytime activity, Horse Days was able to attract IHPA sanctioned horse pulling and sanctioned UHCA ultimate trail course events.

"This has turned into one of the largest horse pulls in Illinois," Lamb said. "We have teams coming from as far away as Mississippi."

This is a good place to take a deep breath. If you’re not interested in the grandstand shows, Horse Days has lined up the Wisconsin Open Horse Show Association to present two days worth of competition on Saturday and Sunday. Two judges will place the classes with first place earning a 40 percent payback. Classes include the full range of disciplines in Western and English styles.

"There’ll also be stadium jumping, driving, barrel racing," Lamb said, trying to work through everything. "We have a Little Boots rodeo for kids between three and 12 years old. They can try 10 events and at the end the winners get to go on stage and have their names read as top cowboy or cowgirl."

Another goal of Horse Days organizers was to have plenty of educational opportunities. To achieve the educational goal there are three days worth of seminars, clinics and demonstrations. Look for clinics on trailer loading, equi soccer, showmanship, barrel racing, driving, equitation and trick riding.

Seminars and demonstrations will cover such issues as nutrition, composting, trailer backing and equine emergencies. "We thought the trailer backing demonstration would be a good touch. There’s a lot of people pulling trailers around and do just fine until they have to back it up," Lamb said. "So people will be able to take some lessons on backing both gooseneck and bumper hitch trailers."

Since every horse owner and stable is known to also have an interest in dogs, Lamb pointed out they decided to have a few canine activities. If you have a herding type dog there’s a "herding instinct" evaluation clinic. You can check out the "Iron Dog" competition where dogs compete in races, tugs and pulling events.

"We’ve also got about 120 trade show exhibitors," Lamb said. "And each morning starting at 6:00 we’ll have a donation-based pancake breakfast with the donations going to the St. Jude Children’s Hospital," Lamb said. "We wanted something like that to support the community."