Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Training Inspiration at 4am - Engagement Through In-hand Work and Half-steps

By Kc2610 @kc2610
I just want to say a huge thank you to you all for supporting me in my decision to leave college and go "all out" with my career in horses. Your messages and comments have been overwhelming and I'm so touched by everyone's kindness! I know in my heart this is certainly the right path for me, and to have everyone agree and cheer me on is just amazing. Especially when it comes through this little blog of mine, which I started in 2009 just to record the journey since leaving home and now has turned into almost a small community. So again, thank you all for being so supportive and taking the time to read my posts, it really does mean so much to me and if I could give you all free lessons I would! ;)
So, on to talk about a little revelation I had at 4am yesterday morning. I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep, so decided to go downstairs and watch some training videos on, as we all do. I watched a series on Alfredo Hernandez, a Portuguese man living in the US. He is a specialist in piaffe and passage and uses a lot of hand-work to teach the horses. So I watched him to some stuff with a young horse in hand like tapping it's legs and making it stand square etc. Then with a rider on top he did the beginnings of piaffe, which was really interesting. You could see that when the horse was in hand he was super active behind, and the motivation from the whip and the handler's voice really makes the horse use himself probably moreso than a rider could on top.
That's when I thought - hmmm, Seb could do with a bit of that. The aim with him is always to make him more engaged and active behind, so if I could get him to learn to use his back legs from the ground, he might just get used to lifting them a bit higher and a bit quicker. Sneaky ;) Before I left for the yard I ordered a book about in-hand work from Amazon just so I could eventually learn how to do it properly, but yesterday when I went to work Seb I just played around with some in-hand stuff before I got on. Seb was pretty laid-back about it all and could have probably done with a more dramatic reaction when I tapped his legs. He was probably thinking "what on earth are you doing, stop hitting my legs. If you want me to walk then just say so" but I just wanted him to lift one leg at a time in a halt, so he knew that when I tapped one of his legs I wanted just that leg to go higher and quicker, not all four of them.
I ran along with him doing a few half-steps, which I haven't really trained him to do properly so it looked a bit like a jog more than anything. That needs work! Though when I got on him his walk was already swinging and he had a really good contact where I could have my reins long and he would stretch into it, seeking the contact. I thought we should stay on the same sort of theme so I did some walk-halt transitions, but not just any walk-halt transitions - proper ones. Transitions where he halted right from my seat and leg without any form of pulling on the rein, and when I asked him to walk on it had to start from behind and he had to step straight into my soft contact, over the back.
This was actually quite tricky, as it involves having complete control of the horse's hind legs with your seat and legs, and allowing the horse to step out in front and keeping him in frame without pulling the head down or holding it there. The only way to do that is effective use of seat and legs.
Once I felt I had him really under control in the walk/halt transitions, I then started some half-steps. This again required maximum control of the hind legs with my seat and leg, and releasing the front end to allow the horse to come up off the forehand. I felt the effect of release in front in Hippikos, where I we did some piaffe/passage work and the horse I was riding would only do a nice piaffe if you released in front and didn't block him in.
It is even harder to do piaffe without holding the horse in front than it is to go from halt to walk (well, obviously!) because the forward movement you are asking in the piaffe has to be contained to almost on the spot, but without forcing the horse to stay there with the reins. This is where the half-halt is essential. Seb and I are always working on coordinating our half-halts so that when I do one, he listens and reacts. By keeping my body in a constant mode of half-halting while asking for half-steps, he has a longer time to process what the aid means and is taught that while I'm asking for more activity, I'm not asking for more forwards and therefore he must only increase the actitvity of the hind legs. Sometimes I had to go back to just walk/halt when I felt I was getting too out of control of the hind legs, and re-establish that feeling of being able to sit on his hind legs.
I then transfered this to the trot. When I came out of the halt or piaffe I would feel like his shoulders were up in my hands and my seat was over his hind legs. With that feeling I would push him up into trot, which had to be slow and controlled at first. I felt like if I pushed him too much we would lose that connection with the hind legs and he would only push out behind instead of under. That is something that comes with strength and flexibility - as he gets better at this we can go more forward without risking losing his hind legs.
All the while I was doing this, his contact was amazing. Light like a cotton thread, but not so light that it felt like he was coming behind the bit. I could keep my wrists straight and flex my knuckes in and increase the contact, which he accepted, and then released for him to follow it forward. He was so light-footed and up in the shoulders - it felt amazing.
I stretched him down at the end and he was completely released in his back and had a really nice swing, so job done. The best thing was that I didn't have to worry about anyone (trainer, students, clients) watching me thinking "what on earth is she doing" as I'm surely not going to communicate my intentions of every movement I'm doing. This session with Seb was definitely out of the ordinary for us, and I know that if I was in a professional training yard with my trainer there watching or riding other horses, I would never have the guts to do it. The horse-owners at my yard now are all absolutely lovely and extremely supportive, and they would have looked at me doing work in hand and piaffe-y stuff and thought "that's really cool" not "what the hell is she doing". Sure, the downside is that I haven't got the trainer there to say "actually Casey don't do it like that because of this" but if it's the wrong thing then I'll realize that eventually and change it. It goes to what Pammy Hutton FBHS told me years ago, "try something, and if it doesn't work then try something else".
If you made it this far, well done. Things like this take quite a lot of explanation! I still have so much more to tell you all, but I'll save that for the next post :)

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