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3 Things to Remember with Horses that ‘drop their shoulders’

In yesterday’s blog I explained that the term ‘dropped shoulder’ is often used to describe several things, the most common being 1) the horse wanting to turn to early 2) a lack of elevation/collection combined with the desire to turn (for my full explanation read yesterdays blog)

Why does it happen? To answer that we need to look at it from the horses point of view.

Many people commented that this was happening to them in the arena or when barrel racing. What do these have in common? A pre-definded and predictable path of travel. If you are riding counter-clockwise around the arena for several laps it doesn’t take the horse long to figure out the pattern of; go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left.

If you have practiced the barrel pattern enough times for your horse to know it then your horse is mentally doing the same thing as the horse above only applied to the barrel pattern. In this example your horse could be thinking; run fast, turn right, run fast, turn left, run fast, turn left run fast!

In both examples the horses are dealing with the same thing: anticipation.

Viewed from another angle, your horse is really just trying to help you out, lol.

On the surface it seems like maybe just changing the routine would be the fix, stop going around the arena or the pattern so many times, but I would argue that the dropped shoulder is most often a stage of training. Attempting to avoid anticipation sounds good…but it isn’t very realistic. What we really want- and need- is a horse that is mentally mature enough to see something coming (anticipate) and still wait for the rider to give the cue.

a plan encouragesI frequently ride in arenas but I don’t frequently deal with my horse dropping his shoulder. Why? There can be multiple reasons, I will list three:

  1. good use of the arena
  2. proper seat
  3. horse ‘between reins and legs’

I have inserted a rough diagram of a pattern I use when I lope in an arena. This pattern allows me to be aware of all three of the points listed above. As a rider, I will be more clear and precise if I have a specific goal. Making it around the arena to the left isn’t specific enough. How many straight lines will I make during this pattern? On each of theses straight lines my focus will be on riding my horse straight ahead, straight between my reins and legs. My eyes will pick a point straight ahead.  On two of the curves I will move my horses shoulder out before turning. On the other two turns I will keep him balanced and even. I will be aware if I feel the urge to lean. I will also be aware if I feel the horse lean left or right. My focus on the pattern has lead to (1. good arena use) which has stopped me from leaning (2. proper seat) and I am aware of (3. horse is between my reins and legs).

But what if my horse does lean? What if he doesn’t go straight when I ride him straight? My general rule is that I will help him find the correct answer subtlety once or twice but then I will make a correction. On a straight line that could mean that I pick up to maintain straightness and then let go, notice he is drifting again, pick up to maintain straightness, let go, and then I will pick up and change his path of travel by 6-12 inches while collecting him (the correction). There are many methods for correcting the horse but it becomes slightly less confusing as you begin to realize that you are correcting him for ignoring one of your cues.

When the horse ‘drops the shoulder’ many riders are tempted to ‘hold him up’ causing a shift in responsibility. Eventually the rider feels the need to ‘hold him up’ frequently which is also another way of saying that the rider has to “hold the steering wheel slightly turned to the right to keep the car going straight”….

…that’s a problem.

Which cue is your horse ignoring or leaning into? Is he ‘requiring’ you to hold three pounds of pressure with your inside leg to keep him going straight?  Can you name three exercises or corrections that you have done in the past that cause the horse to be more respectful of the cue he is ignoring? If not, it might be time for a riding lesson or clinic with a pro.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2015 in Members Question, Thought provoking, Training

 

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What is a ‘dropped shoulder’ in a horse and how can I fix it?

horse drop shoulder dropping fixYesterdays blog discussed ‘Confusing terms people use around horses‘ and the following comment showed up on the Facebook post.

 “I’ve been yelled at – and still don’t know what a dropped shoulder is.”-Karen S.

This is a great example of a confusing term. I agree that people over use this term AND I believe it would be possible to sit down with three different professionals and have at least three different definitions of the term.

Dropped shoulder:

  1. the horse leaves the desired path of travel around the arena, cutting to the inside
  2. the horse desires to leave the current path of travel and turn early, the rider uses a cue to keep him from doing so (inside rein, inside leg) resulting in the feeling that if the rider ‘let go’ or stopped ‘holding him up’ the horse would ‘fall in’
  3. a lack of elevation in the front end combined with the desire to turn to soon

In general the term is used when the horse wants to cut to the inside of the path of travel. This happens more often when a horse is ridden in a riding arena. It doesn’t take a horse too long to figure out that if you are traveling counter-clockwise around an arena that the pattern is; go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left, go straight, turn left…..you get the point.

Soon the horse thinks, “A left turn is coming….lets do it now.” and the ‘dropped’ shoulder has begun. Keep in mind that the shoulder can’t be ‘dropped’ unless at some point it is being held. Stop ‘holding the shoulder up’ and what happens?

I would argue that most of the time a ‘dropped shoulder’ is nothing more than cutting a corner. Ever been at a 4 way stop in your car? Ever had someone turn and almost hit the front corner of your car? They were ‘dropping their shoulder’….but clearly the car wasn’t leaning. People tend to mean ‘dropping the shoulder’ when the horse is simply ‘turning too early’.

Is it fixable? Yes, but the rider has to be willing to stop ‘holding him up’ and let him make the mistake. When he leaves the path of travel the rider needs to correct it…and then let him go and probably make the mistake again. Ultimately the horse must become responsible for ‘holding’ his own shoulder up because he knows you will correct him and then let go again. There is a huge difference between correcting the issue vs becoming part of the problem.

This is how I define a dropped shoulder…but is that what your riding instructor means?

P.S.-this post triggered a follow up post ‘3 Things to Remember with Horses that ‘drop their shoulders’

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Members Question, Thought provoking, Training

 

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The Back Up: Giving a horse the idea is like planting a seed.

The ideal back upWhen I am introducing a new idea to a horse it is usually done in a very subtle way. I ask for a tiny amount of response and immediately release. Even though the horse may not get the response completely correct, I reward for movement in the correct direction. Lets look at an example.

If I am teaching a horse to back up there are many things I am looking for. Some of these include:

  1. move feet backward
  2. soft relaxed neck
  3. break at the poll
  4. rhythm in the steps

While I might have all of these goals in mind I will begin by planting a seed. This could be on the ground, during ground driving, or it could be while mounted. Either way my main focus when beginning is to get the feet to move backward…even just a little bit. Ideally the horse will not only take a step but will also remain soft and quiet…but that doesn’t always happen. It is more likely that the horse will try something that has worked before in the past. That could be turning to the left or right or even walking forward. It is always interesting to see how many ideas the horse could have depending on their past history.

My job is to apply only enough pressure to motivate the horse to try something…and then reward any movement in this direction. When someone is planting a seed in a spring garden they treat it gently and try to give it the best chance. They prepare the soil, they monitor the water, they don’t walk on the new seeds.

That first step backward may not have all of the idea characteristics but if you are gentle and quick to reward it is amazing how quickly the horse will grow that idea. Their neck may not be perfectly soft, they may not break at the pole and they will rarely have good rhythm…but those will come. Unless the horse shows a dramatic amount of resistance in their neck and poll my main focus will be moving their feet. Later as that seed grows stronger I will begin to focus on planting the second seed of more softness to grow along side the original seed.

Fostering a new thought or a new idea in a horses mind is very similar to planting a seed.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2015 in Training

 

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Moon Blindness aka Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU) in Horses

Click on photo to see photos on google of horses with moon blindness

Click on photo to see photos on google of horses with moon blindness

Last summer while at a horse show a friend noticed her horses eye was tearing and slightly swollen. It appeared that he had either bumped himself or gotten something in his eye such as hay or sawdust. Several of us looked at the horse, who was otherwise comfortable, and agreed it didn’t appear to be out of the ordinary. The horse quickly recovered and the incident was almost forgotten, until two months later. This time it was the other eye. Again, only slightly but this time a vet was called because the horse didn’t have a history of being clumsy and it seemed a little odd that this was happening again.

The vet throughly examined the eye for any scratched or other physical causes but upon finding none explained that it could be uveitis. He left instructions for treatment, including ointments and an anti inflammatory, and also gave an assignment; document everything you notice. Part of the diagnosis process is the reoccurring part. If it didn’t reoccur then even the second flare up would be written off as an undiagnosed irritation of the eye. Unfortunately it did happen again. The vet was again called and the horse is now scheduled for a trip to a vet who specializes in treating equine recurrent uveitis.

I have found articles on moon blindness that outline how long the disease has been around (4,500 years, it is one of the earliest documented issues in horses) as well as past and current theories on the causes including; heredity, damp stables, bad feed, and marshy pastures, worms, bacteria, diet, viral infections, injury and stress.

When issues like this happen to a horse you know well it becomes even more personal because it is easier to rule out many of the possible causes. There is no  family history, the diet has been checked by analysis, the horse is regularly dewormed and seen by vets, there has been no major trauma and the flare ups have no consistency. The first one happened at a show but another happened during the down time of winter. Everything has been documented but now she must wait for the final verdict from the specialist.

Have you ever dealt with uveitis in horses? What were the symptoms, the treatments, and the outcome?

 

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2015 in Life

 

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Newt conquers standing on the box…but what motivates my horse?

When I set up the video camera on day seven of teaching Newt to stand on the box I didn’t know exactly what I would do with the footage. I did know that I was spending a lot of time laughing at my horse…and I was really enjoying watching him learn. As I stood there watching Newt, it reminded me of watching my children when they were young and were playing on the playground. What age does a child start climbing to explore their surrounding? How many mistakes do they make while they learn about gravity, their body and their surroundings? And how do we respond as parents?

That last question is a biggie. All parents should protect their children. Some parents protect too much, restricting anything that can be perceived as dangerous…even if the real risk is low. Other parents allow so much freedom that their kids appear to run wild. It is obvious that there is a wide view out there as to what children should be allowed, encouraged or restricted from doing.

I believe that a horse can learn responsibility and that they learn it in a very similar way as children. It is our responsibility to challenge them but to also set them up for success. I show my horse the answer several times and then allow him to find the answer…then repeat. Mistakes are allowed but the risk is reduced because I do the training in small steps. Last year Newt crossed a man-made ‘bridge’ at home similar to one that would be found in a trail class. Now he is learning to carefully place his feet as he stands on this small box. Maybe next week we will be walking the ridge of a canyon…

I didn’t intend to use the audio from this video when I was filming it but many of you asked to see more of Newt and the bridge. This video is from day ten and is the first day that Newt stands on the box. I left the original audio where I am talking to my husband, Jesse, and Newt. Yep, I talk with my horses when no one is watching.

If you watch nothing else, watch from the four minute mark until the end. What was captured on film in that minute and a half was a total accident…but is hysterically funny!

If you would like to see some of day seven: click here. 

If you would like to know WHY I am teaching Newt this: click here.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2015 in Thought provoking, Training, Video

 

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My horse, Newt, learning to balance on a box.

This is a video of Newt, my horse, trying to find his balance standing on a wooden box. Newt had previously been trained to cross over a wooden bridge, so when he first saw this box…he walked straight over it. For each of the seven days prior to this I spent a few minutes a day asking Newt to step onto the box. His first response was to want to walk directly over it. To change this, I asked him to step one front foot up and then immediately asked him back off the box. This resulted in Newt slowing down instead of trying to walk straight over it.

Next I asked for two front feet up and then asked him to back off the box. During this phase Newt figured out how far forward he could step until he found the front edge of the box. He even tried to step directly over it in a very wide straddle! If he tried to step to far I would ask him to back up. He did step off the front and even lost his balance and slipped off the front without harm.

Now that he knows where the front edge of the box is, and understands that I don’t want him stepping off the front, he is now stepping forward with his hind feet. What I love about this video is that you can see how s-l-o-w Newt thinks. Many people would have asked him to do something during the long period while he was standing there. I like taking my time. It is funny to watch him mentally process this nice and slow.

It surprised me that Newt lost his balance so many times when he picked his last hind foot up off the ground. He seemed to think that he should counter balance by sticking that last leg out instead of adjusting his head. Another interesting observation to make about how Newt thinks. I love watching horses learn.

I have a bunch of this footage but I couldn’t decide how to best use it. I have one version that is 25 minutes long but that seemed too long. How much of Newt’s box footage would you like to see? How many more times do you think Newt had to practice before he found his balance?

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2015 in A Horse's View, Thought provoking, Training, Video

 

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Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac- Episode 42 NRHA Futurity

I visited the NRHA Futurity to do some follow up videos with Jac. The National Reining Horse Association Futurity is one of the premier events the association hosts with a total purse and prizes totaling nearly $2.3 Million to exhibitors. The horses have to be nominated when they are born and then additional payments are made during the horses two and three year old years. I knew the payments had been made for Jac and that there was a chance he would be showing here.

I was initially a little disappointed when I talked with Jac’s new owner, Patrice St-Onge, and learned that Jac didn’t come to the show but that quickly changed. I respect Patrice for the decisions he has been making with Jac.

The first big decision he made was to geld Jac. We always knew that this was a possibility which is why we collected semen from Jac as shown in Episode 40. Pat felt that it was in Jac’s best interest to be be gelded. Sometimes a stallion will lack focus and the rider will need to repeat the lesson over and over because the horse is distracted. When I was going to college one of the main vets would say over and over, “A good stud makes a great gelding.” One of the points he was trying to make was that the horses often improve when gelded.

The other decision was to not bring Jac to the futurity. We all knew that Jac had missed training time and Patrice decided that rather that push Jac hard to get ready for this show he would save him for the future. I am very excited that Jac is with someone who is making decisions with Jac’s best interest in mind.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in Life, Stacy's Video Diary: Jac

 

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