“Heels Down!”

As a riding instructor, you find many ways to phrase things and many interesting ways to explain things.  Especially when working with beginners, certain things always seem to be brought to attention in any lesson.  One of the things that I find myself repeating over and over and over again is “heels down!”  Out of all of the repetitive phrases I use, this I believe is the most important to creating a stable rider who is able to advance in level and ability.  We know that a good hoof is crucial for a good horse, but I also believe a good heel is crucial to be a good rider!

With practice, your heel will sink down naturally.

With practice, your heel will sink down naturally.  

What is so important about the heel?   I have seen (and also experienced) more successful rides through spooks, bucks and bolts when riders keep their heels down.  I attribute this to several factors, the main one being the distribution of weight.  No matter what style of riding you are doing, your heel needs to be where your weight is.  By dropping your heel, you allow your weight to sink into your legs and the further down that you bear your weight, the more stability you will have in the saddle. If the heel is up and the toe is pointing towards the ground, the rider’s weight will most likely be settled in their rear end or higher, which forces them to do a balancing act on the saddle.   In this scenario, if a horse jumps to the side or bucks, the rider will have a harder time keeping their balance in the middle of the saddle and will end up clenching the horse’s sides with their legs in an effort to maintain their seat.  Many times, this just serves to spook or aggravate the horse further and sends the pair into a vicious cycle that ends with either the rider sitting in the dust or the horse (thankfully, in this situation) deciding that today isn’t actually when he wants to audition for the rodeo.  By dropping the heel, and therefore lowering the area where the rider is bearing their weight, when the horse is naughty, the shock is absorbed more easily and the rider is less likely to be displaced from the saddle.

 

Getting your heels down will be second nature after a while.

Dropping the heel also encourages better position in the upper body.  When the heel is down, I have found that riders are less likely to hunch or lean forward.  Let’s be honest, it can be scary to get up on that horse for the “beginner” phase of riding (and sometimes well beyond!).  One of the body’s natural reactions to fear or nervousness can be to try to shrink away from the scary thing or tense up.  It goes against what your natural instincts tell you to do to let your heel drop down in the stirrups and pull your shoulders back.  Therefore, it is one of the things that riders need to be reminded of often before it becomes second nature.

This is a horse who would have definitely had something to say about being jabbed in the side.  Melissa's good lower leg and heel position allows her to correct Concorde with other aids without being distracting.

This is a horse who would have definitely had something to say about being jabbed in the side. Melissa’s good lower leg and heel position allows her to correct Concorde with other aids without being distracting because of a swinging or clenching leg.

The last big issue I find associated with the heel is gripping and clenching of the lower leg.  Your leg is an aid for directing and guiding your horse.  If a rider’s heel pops up, oftentimes it begins to bump, dig into or clench on the horse’s side.  This is not only aggravating for the horse, but confusing for him also.  Some horses need continual pressure on their sides to be motivated to go forward – especially some of the dead-broke school horses you often try to place beginners on – but the pressure needs to come from a proper application of the entire lower leg against the horse’s side rather than a fear-induced stabbing of the heel into the innocent creature’s ribs.  Additionally, when the rider does get on a horse which does not need as much motivation to move forward, boy are they in for a *treat,*  so it’s best to fix the problem before it ever has a chance to really become one!  Keeping the heel down allows for a steady pressure and a leg that doesn’t swing out of place.

Bryn -- heel

“Heels down!”  “Toes towards the sky!”  ” Let your weight sink in your heel!”  “Pull your toes up!” “HEELS!!!!!”  However you choose to say it, never underestimate the importance of the heel!! 🙂

 

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Goodbye, Old Friend.

So I know that I haven’t posted anything for a while.  (Sorry…) So this is probably a depressing post to be coming back to the blog with, but I need to pay tribute to GQ, the best friend anyone could ever ask for.

A couple of weeks ago,  he colicked and it was too severe for him to recover from. I can’t imagine any horse in the world ever living up to the perfectness of GQ.  He was the first (and only, actually) horse that I have ever owned and I could never have asked for a better companion.  He was always willing to snuggle when I was sad, stand for hours while I groomed and clipped and messed with him, and gallop like his tail was on fire when we were feeling crazy! He carried me, my mom, my dog, my friends and some of my students.  He was used in a friend’s wedding proposal as the “noble steed.”  He jumped like a youngster even up to a ripe old age and was generally perfect in every way.  I loved him more than anything in the world and he will be impossible to replace.  Rest peacefully, Sir — you deserve it.

DAUPHIN. ... It is a beast for  Perseus: he is pure air and fire; and the dull  elements of earth and water never appear in him, but  only in patient stillness while his rider mounts  him: he is indeed a horse; and all other jades you  may call beasts.  CONSTABLE. Indeed, my lord, it is a most absolute and excellent horse.  ~Henry V

DAUPHIN. … It is a beast for
Perseus: he is pure air and fire; and the dull
elements of earth and water never appear in him, but
only in patient stillness while his rider mounts
him: he is indeed a horse; and all other jades you
may call beasts.
CONSTABLE. Indeed, my lord, it is a most absolute and excellent horse.
~Henry V, Shakespeare

What is my horse’s muzzle telling me?

To be a good horseperson  you have to learn to listen to your horse.  Horses are very good at communicating with us, if we know what to look for.  Body language is the main way your horse talks to you, so you need to understand it to be able to respond.  In this post, we will look at some of the ways that a horse uses his muzzle to tell us how he is feeling.

Relaxation

Relaxed, droopy lip

Relaxed, droopy lip

When your horse is very content and relaxed, you may see his lower lip sag.  I see this a lot when I give GQ a nice long rub down with a rubber curry.  He loves the way it feels and he often lowers his head and his lip droops.  This can also happen when they are napping, so if you aren’t actively working with your horse and you see this, make sure to let him know you are there so you don’t spook him! You will also see their lip sag if they are sedated by the vet for anything like dentals, sheath cleaning, etc.

Tension 

Tightening of the lips can be a sign of stress.

Tightening of the lips can be a sign of stress.

Sometimes this is a very subtle change, which is why its important to know what is normal for your horse.  If you happen to notice your horse tightening the muscles in his muzzle or pursing his lips, it could be a sign of agitation or stress.  If you see this happening, try to give him something else to think about so that the action doesn’t progress into something more severe, like biting or kicking.

Concentration

When your horse is working the bit in his mouth, it may create foam from excess saliva.

When your horse is working the bit in his mouth, it may create foam from excess saliva.

When your horse chews without having food in his mouth, it is often a good sign.  In training it can mean that he is relaxed and concentrating on the task you have given him.  If he is working the bit in his mouth, it will encourage saliva production, which is desirable.  Sometimes this can cause his mouth to foam, even if he isn’t working too hard.

Flehmen

Yes, this goofy looking action has a name and a purpose!

Yes, this goofy looking action has a name and a purpose!

When a horse lifts his lip up over his nostrils, he isn’t just being silly.  He is trapping a strange scent in his nostrils to assess what  it is and get more information.  Oftentimes you see stallions flehmen if they are determining if a mare is in heat and ready to breed, but any horse will do it with a scent that is unusual to them. There is a structure in the nose called a vomeronasal organ (VNO) through which scent particles travel and help the horse assess what they are smelling.

Nervousness

Flared nostrils can indicate fear or nervousness

Flared nostrils can indicate fear or nervousness

When a horse flares his nostrils (and he hasn’t just exerted himself excessively), it can be a sign of nervousness or being startled.  It is often accompanied by a raised head and sometimes tension in the eye and/or muzzle (notice the pursed lips in the above picture).   It is usually a fairly quiet action, but it is best to divert him from it by giving him a different task to focus on so that it doesn’t escalate into something more serious.

Pain, aggression

This horse is about to bite. BEWARE!

This horse is about to bite. BEWARE!

Gaping can sometimes indicate pain

Gaping can sometimes indicate pain

Be wary of choke.

Be wary of choke.

A horse gaping his mouth open with teeth showing can indicate a number of things.  It can be a sign of extreme aggression, as in the first picture.  A horse who is this angry has often given several more subtle signs of agitation before resorting to biting, which is why it is important to notice the small things! If your horse is gaping with a bit in his mouth, it might indicate pain.  Check to make sure that your bridle is put together properly and that your bit fits your horse’s mouth and isn’t pinching.  If that’s all okay, schedule a dental exam to make sure his teeth aren’t hurting.  Finally, if you every see your horse gaping with his neck outstretched when he’s eating, he might be experiencing choke, which means his esophagus is obstructed.  Take away any uneaten food and call the vet right away.

What are my horse’s eyes telling me?

To be a good horseperson  you have to learn to listen to your horse.  Horses are very good at communicating with us, if we know what to look for.  Body language is the main way your horse talks to you, so you need to understand it to be able to respond.  In this post, we will look at some of the ways that a horse uses his eyes to tell us how he is feeling.

Content and alert

A bright eye that is content and alert

A bright eye that is content and alert

When your horse is happy and aware, his eyes will be bright and focused. They will move often, but not frantically, to take in his surroundings.  When this is the case, his ears will usually be attentive as well, moving casually to tune into what is happening around him.

Nervous or tense

Know what is normal for your horse, so that if he is ever nervous you can pick up on it.

Know what is normal for your horse, so that if he is ever nervous you can pick up on it.

Wrinkled upper eyelids and worried looks can be signs of tension and nervousness

Wrinkled upper eyelids and worried looks can be signs of tension and nervousness

Tension in the corner of the eye and wrinkles in the upper eyelids can be signs of nervousness, fear or discomfort.  Make sure you are familiar with how your horse looks when he is happy and content so that you can pick up on these changes if and when they occur.  Sometimes the change is subtle, but if you are able to see it, you can prevent something more extreme or dangerous from happening. If your horse’s eyes begin darting back and forth frantically, it is usually a sign of fear and he is probably looking for the best way to make his escape from the scary situation.

Fearful or aggressive

Extreme fear and aggression can be expressed in the eyes.

Extreme fear and aggression can be expressed in the eyes.

Fear and anger can both make a horse frantic

Fear and anger can both make a horse frantic

In some horses, the sclera(white of the eye) is visible all the time.  This is another reason to know what is normal for your horse.  If your horse is worked up enough that the whites of his eyes are showing or more exposed than normal, he is pretty upset.  If it is paired with with pinned ears, its usually a sign of anger.  Paired with snorting, it can indicate fear.  In any case, it takes quick thinking and confident handling to distract him from whatever is making him react so negatively.

Closed

Nap time!

Nap time!

If his eyes are closed, your horse is probably resting or napping.  Make sure you talk to him before getting to close so you don’t startle him and make him spook.  If only one eye is closed though, or he seems agitated, he might have done something to his eye.  If there is an eye injury, call the vet immediately.

What Are My Horse’s Ears Telling Me?

To be a good horseperson  you have to learn to listen to your horse.  Horses are very good at communicating with us, if we know what to look for.  Body language is the main way your horse talks to you, so you need to understand it to be able to respond.  In this post, we will look at some of the ways that a horse uses his ears to tell us how he is feeling.

Alert and Erect

Alert ears

Alert ears

Ears which are forward and pricked upright, as shown above, indicated a horse who is focused and aware of his surroundings.  He is ready to react to whatever comes his way, or whatever he thinks is coming his way.  If your horse is this focused on something, it might be difficult to divert his attention.  Try to turn him elsewhere or give him a job to do if he seems to be getting tense.  When your horse is alert, you must be as well because you don’t know how he might react to whatever has his attention.

Relaxed

Relaxed ears

Relaxed ears

Here is a horse who is completely at ease with his surroundings.  He is aware of what is going on around him, but is content to simply munch his grass. When you view a horse whose ears are a little floppy, you’re viewing a horse who is comfortable with his environment and whatever is going on around him.  This is something that I love to see when I ride, because I feel like my horse and I are truly connected.  If my horse is relaxed enough around me to let his ears flop a little, I feel that true trust has been established between us.  One thing to be aware of when your horse has his ears relaxed is that he might be napping.  If he’s by himself and seems relaxed, make sure you talk to him to let him know you’re there so he doesn’t get spooked or taken unaware when you get to him!

Attentive

Attentive ears

Attentive ears

These are ears which are attentive to what is going on, but in a way in which will keep the horse responsive to you as well.  Unlike the alert ears in the first example, this is something you will see when a horse is focused on you.  Often times, if you talk to your horse from the saddle, or as you walk along beside him, you will see one or both of his ears twitch in your direction.  It is good to see him respond to you like this. Its a good way to know you have his attention.

Unhappy

Unhappy ears

Unhappy ears

When ears start to tilt backwards, you’re getting into unhappy behavior.  Sometimes your horse will give you a warning that he is uncomfortable or unhappy with an action.  You may also see his ears twitch rapidly back and forth which could be a sign of uneasiness or tension.  Pay close attention to ears that start to go back and adjust what you are doing or stop altogether and do something new.  If ignored, this signal could lead to more aggressive behavior, like biting or kicking.

ANGRY!

Angry ears - pinned

Angry ears – pinned

Beware of a horse who has his ears pinned! This is an aggressive behavior which is often the precursor of a bite, kick or charge.  Pinned ears equal an angry horse.  Stop whatever action you are doing immediately and if he does not calm down, get out of his way.   If you are riding and he has his ears pinned, he may be showing signs of pain, if the action doesn’t cease when you change your activity.  Check to make sure there is nothing poking him from your tack, make sure everything fits him properly and if he’s still pinning his ears, have a vet out to check him over — he might have back pain or something else causing him discomfort.

Head Down!

Have you ever thought Gee, this would be a lot easier if his nose wasn’t brushing the barn beams! This seems to be a common complaint among horse people.

Here is a super handy little trick to teach your horse for those times when you need to see the top of his head or have access to his ears for clipping, bridling or general checks for overall health:

Standing next to your horse’s head like you would to lead, put a small amount of downward pressure on the lead rope.  Hold this pressure nice and steady until your horse lowers his head and then immediately release.  (I add the phrase “head down” when I teach it, although it is not entirely necessary.)  Even if he pops his head back up, give him a short reward (neck rub, treat, etc) and then do it again.  The first couple times you try this, even the slightest decrease in resistance to the pressure of the halter is cause for reward.  If your horse will consistently give in to the pressure, make it a little more challenging by not releasing pressure until his nose is even lower or give him less time to rest in between.  By asking him to put his head back down immediately when he raises it again, it teaches him that you want him to keep his head down.  GQ, my handsome dude, learned this idea very quickly and now I just give a featherlight tug on the lead and he puts his head down to my eye level and holds it there while I clip his bridle path or fiddle with his ears.

This is one trick that will make your life infinitely easier, I promise you that! Just remember:

  • Be consistent!
  • Remember that horses have a 3 second time limit in which they connect your reaction to their action, so be quick to praise when they are doing well or correct when they are wrong!