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."

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