Don’t let wet weather or soggy ground become an excuse to let your horse sit around. 11-time world champion Charmayne James explains how to work on simple softening and collection while riding at the walk in your driveway, pasture or around the barn.
By Charmayne James with Blanche Schaefer
With seasonal weather bringing rain, it may seem impossible to keep your horses ridden when there’s standing puddles in the arena. No matter what the weather does or what the ground is like, you can always get on your horse and walk him, even if it’s just down the road for 30 or 40 minutes. It may not sound like much, but teaching your horse to walk collected can go a long way toward making a more fit and broke horse. Thankfully, you can always work on softening and collection with your horse at a walk pretty much anywhere and on any type of ground.
Riding vs. Ponying
I don’t pony my horses very much for exercise, because I want them bitted up and carrying themselves collected. When you’re leading a horse, they’re not collected or broke at the poll, they tend to step shorter with their hind feet and their backs become more hollowed out.
The point when you’re riding is to make them more collected and therefor faster. When I’m riding, I like to keep the nose down pointed at the ground and drive the horse up into the bit, while going forward with intention. Riding a horse collected in the bridle builds back muscles and makes them reach underneath themselves more with their back feet, even at a walk.
We talk a lot about keeping the nose down, and I think a good rule of thumb is to keep the nose pointed straight down at the ground. I don’t want it too far back tucked to their chest, and I don’t want it sticking out in front of them like it would be if I were leading them.
If you have a horse that doesn’t break at the poll very good, use those cloudy, wet days to get out and work on it. Walking collected in a circle is one of the best softening exercises you can do, and you can also work on it going straight. However, don’t over-do it. Collection takes patience for your horse to understand and for you to learn how to feel. It’s not something you can go out and master immediately if your horse doesn’t know how to collect himself. Training your horse to ride into the bridle takes time.
If you’ve never ridden your horse collected, it’s going to come in small increments every day. Ideally, breaking at the poll and traveling forward with collection is something a horse needs to learn from the time he’s started, because it affects the way he travels throughout his whole life.
For a horse that already knows how to travel collected, spend time walking him collected. Work on keeping him soft in your hands, and when you’re doing this, you’re helping him reach underneath himself with his hind feet and stay elevated through his top line.
Teaching Collection at the Walk
If your horse doesn’t know collection, the best way to start is putting him in an O-ring snaffle and some long split reins.
—> Rainy Day Drill: Walking a Perfect Circle with Ron Ralls
I would start off in a circle with your hands low and wide, and make contact with the horse’s mouth while squeezing him forward with your feet. If you don’t get any response, I might put a little spur on him. Remember your spurs are extensions of your legs to make your point more clear—don’t jab with your spurs. Keep squeezing and holding contact until he softens the nose and brings it down, even it’s just a tiny bit, and then release so he starts learning that he’s going to get some pressure off the reins when he drops his nose. You’re teaching him that’s where it needs to be. Then ask him to hold it for a stride or two longer, and little by little you’ll work your way up to the horse holding that position on his own. It’s a process that builds upon itself.
Remember, soft hands in this context means applying the amount of pressure the horse needs to get the job done. One horse may need a little firmer contact, one may need a little less. Just know as a rider, it takes time to develop that feel.
I will emphasize, do not pick with this. I see a lot of people seesawing at the bit and pulling down and getting mad, using their hands forcefully to make the horse drop its head. The last thing you want to do is get the horse on the defensive. A horse that’s on the defensive and trying to protect itself will only raise its head up again.
Collection needs to be a trained, natural response, because what you’re doing is putting the horse in an athletic position so he can build his top line through the back and reach forward with the back feet, not simply forcing his head down.
Why is Softening and Collection Important?
I think the foundation of any sport is the key to it all—to being consistent, to being solid, and to getting the same result every time. To me, one of the most important things you can do is teach a horse to be framed up and not strung out.
However, we can have horses that are framed up but aren’t soft if they’re trying to fight you or are being held in resistance by the rider, and that can have a reverse effect. It must be taught in a very slow, patient manner, moving at the horse’s pace. In the long run, collection makes a horse that will travel better, is stronger through a turn and should clock faster.
It’s very important to have horses’ teeth done properly by a certified equine dentist who’s got the extra education to get the mouth balanced so the horse is comfortable with contact and traveling with his nose pointed down. A once-a-year regular float is not going to balance the mouth. Just like having a good horseshoer who can balance a foot, dentistry is the same way.
A lot of people believe, ‘I’ve had my horse’s yearly float, I’m good.’ Especially with young horses, you can be at the six-month mark and the teeth will be sharp. A horse’s way of letting you know something’s not right is to flip its nose, pull on you or act up.
It’s important to find somebody who’s gone the extra mile to get the education as a certified equine dentist. You’ll notice a night and day difference in getting your horse to handle, soften and break at the poll.
For more information, visit www.charmaynejames.com.