Light Hands Horsemanship – The Rest of the Story

I have been waiting for permission to use the video clips that will accompany this piece, and getting everything at home ready for me to leave for the next horse show – the Gold Cup Regional.

After Dr. Miller’s presentation it was time for Jon Ensign to demonstrate starting a 2-year-old colt using natural horsemanship techniques. His objective was to take this Paint gelding that had not been imprinted at birth and had minimal handling since, and prepare him to be saddled and mounted. I was impressed by the fact that he did not guarantee that or even imply that he would be able to ride the colt by the time he was done. He said that he had no agenda and that it would all depend on the horse’s responses. (For me, the hardest part would be letting go of my agenda and goals.)

His tools were a rope halter and 12 ft. lead rope (no gloves,) big sunglasses (to make his eyes look bigger,) his hands, a 3 ft. stick with an attached plastic flag, a grain bag half full of hay, and a lariat. He held the rope loosely, often simply hung over his arm. The horse was allowed to move all around the round pen while Jon worked to desensitize him to the flag, followed by the bag of hay, the lariat around his girth and flank areas, and finally the saddle blanket and saddle.

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Tightening and loosening of the lariat around the girth and flank had 2 purposes. First was to desensitize him to cinching a girth. The second objective was to teach him to move forward when touched on the flank. Jon never forced himself on the colt and frequently reassured and calmed him by stroking him while looking down at the ground. If the colt tried to move away or turn his attention away from Jon, he was brought back with brief, firm tugs on the lead rope.

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The bag of hay on a long rope was used to desensitize him to ropes around his legs, things dragging behind him, and things being thrown across his back. The colt was repeatedly exposed to stimuli and reassured for an hour and a half on both Saturday and Sunday.

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On Sunday, the colt was successfully saddled and mounted and ridden with just a halter and the 12 ft. lead rope (still in the round pen.) Jon admitted that the horse still had some issues that he normally would have taken several more days to address before mounting, but felt that those issues could still be dealt with successfully in the future. (Maybe he had an agenda after all.) Also, if possible, he would have liked to spend some time working above the colt standing on a block or fence rail.

The next clinician was Lester Buckley from Hawaii. Lester rode two green broke horses, one a 5-year-old Lusitano gelding, and the other a 4-year-old Quarter horse mare. He demonstrated how to achieve and recognize mental and physical relaxation or suppleness in horses. It appeared to me as if this was achieved by riding the horse on a loose rein with his own body relaxed yet balanced which he called his “open door policy.” The horse’s relaxation is recognized by noting a deep exhalation with the lowering of his head and blowing of his lips. Changes of direction were made using a series of aids. First are the rider’s thoughts and intentions to go in a new direction, followed by the rider’s eyes and shift in weight, followed by the driving aids (legs,) then the rein aids, and finally auxiliary aids like voice commands as needed.

Lester demonstrated maintaining and changing the horse’s rhythm by following the rider’s internal metronome. (I’ve gotta get me one of those!) Changes in rhythm result in changes in length of stride and are transmitted to the horse by the rider’s seat, rather than with the reins. These concepts were demonstrated in both english and western tack on green broke horses that had not previously been handled or ridden by Lester, and he had complete control of both speed and direction, on a loose rein.

An interesting pearl that I picked up from Lester had to do with keeping his horse’s attention. Whenever one ear diverted away from straight up and forward, he used pressure from the opposite leg to bring the ear back. If that didn’t work, he would then lift the rein on the side opposite to the inattentive ear. This knowledge would be very helpful in making a good pass in front of the judge or a victory pass for the photographer.

Lester is very knowledgeable about the musculo-skeletal system of the horse and used that knowledge for the horse’s benefit. For example, the large, fleshy muscles along the sides of the neck are built for repetitive contraction and relaxation, as are the filet mignon muscles along the spine that lie under the saddle, while the tendons along the crest of the neck are built for sustained contraction. Therefore, it may be that undesirable behavior by the horse may be corrected simply by changing direction so that the muscles used for bending are allowed to relax.

Also, propulsion starts in the muscles under the saddle, which are strengthened by periodically removing your weight from them as when posting. The theory is that getting your weight off the muscles allows fresh blood to flow to the muscles, which aids the removal of the toxins, which cause discomfort to the horse. He also changes his stirrup length, both up and down, every few days to keep his horse’s muscles fresh.

Lester’s take home messages were, “Don’t try too hard,” by picking on the bad things that your horse does. Rather, work on making the good things better. And, “Faults or mistakes are not really faults.” They are opportunities to learn and improve, so don’t be too hard on either yourself or your horse.

Anne Judd, a long-time trainer and judge of both Morgans and Saddlebreds, presented the next demonstration. Anne demonstrated “the independent seat, ” showing that it is possible to ride with an independent seat and light hands, while riding equitation. For this she used an 18H, 16-year-old palomino Saddlebred from Wallen West Farms in Temeculah, CA and two young women riding saddle seat, hunt seat, and western.

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She showed that equitation is more than just sitting pretty, that it is riding your horse using your whole body so that you can have light hands. She had a very nice handout showing stick figures in the correct position for all three seats.

On Sunday, Anne took issue with Jon Ensign, who mounted his horse from the ground. Anne feels that it is easier on both the horse’s and the rider’s backs to use a mounting block. Of course, when your mount is 18H tall, a mounting block is not optional! Lester Buckley also used a mounting block, but I honestly don’t remember whether or not Eitan did.

The final presentation of each day was made by Eitan Beth-Halachemy on his Morgan Stallion, Santa Fe Renegade. This is the same horse that he showed to a standing ovation of equestrians at the closing ceremonies of the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Auchen, Germany, which he claims was the fulfillment of a life-long dream and the epitome of his career. Following a live demonstration of Cowboy Dressage to music, he went on to discuss, from horseback, first his philosophy of riding, and on the following day, how he does it. His statements included, “I ride in the moment” and “I balance myself every stride.” However, he also said that he is constantly riding the next step so as to prevent his horse from making a mistake. (I sure wish I was that good.) I found his accent charming and easy to understand as he said things like, “I believe in bending,” and “Lift up first, then send forward,” and “To stop [your horse], stop riding.” Perhaps the key to his success with horses is as he says, not just knowing how, but knowing when, which I think is something that we must all figure out for ourselves, how to feel.

Eitan described three steps to asking for the walk. 1. Release the bit. 2. Lean forward. 3. Squeeze the ribcage up, to round the back. He also elaborated on stopping your horse. To “stop riding” means to stop leaning forward and to sit deep in the saddle.

Circles are made by keeping the horse’s spine aligned with the arc of the circle by first moving the horse forward and then into a circle with slight pressure from the inside leg against the ribcage, while driving the horse forward with the outside leg on the flank and shifting your weight to the outside cheek. He very humbly told us that there is considerable debate about how to circle, but that this is what works for him.

He went on to describe and demonstrate a clean canter departure and changes of lead. It all depends on knowing your horse’s footfalls and therefore, when to cue the canter. First, you lift and collect the horse, i.e., shorten its back. Then you cue the horse’s outside hind leg when it’s hoof leaves the ground, with the horse’s head barely tipped to the inside (you can just see the inside eye.) This is easier for the horse to do from a trot (two-beat gait) than from a walk (a four-beat gait.) Another attendee told me that she learned to recognize the horse’s footfalls in another clinic where the participants practiced being a horse using walking sticks to simulate having four legs. This is harder to do than you might think, but it does help to understand how the horse’s legs move during the canter.

All in all, the entire weekend was very worthwhile. I have only elaborated here the things that I picked up. You would probably learn something different, as I believe that you hear only what you are ready to learn. The clinicians were always available to answer questions during the breaks and meals, and were very friendly. Not at all intimidating. Plans are already underway for next year’s Light Hands Horsemanship Clinic in the same location. I would encourage anyone to give it a go. Next time, I’m going to plan more time either before or after the clinic to do some sightseeing in the Santa Ynez Valley.

2 Responses to Light Hands Horsemanship – The Rest of the Story

  1. flytwayfarm says:

    Thank you for sharing. You have done an outstanding job of giving us a slice of the clinic and clinicians! Great job!
    Julie Williams

  2. Debbie says:

    Mocha Mom,

    You have posted wonderful coverage of the Light Hands Horsemanship Event. A lot of work and thought went into your articles. Thank you very much. You have permission to post all the video you took at the clinic. It is so well done I am going to make a copy for our selves.

    Thank you again. Debbie and all at LHH.

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