Mission: Impossible - Training

So, what did work? To begin with, we went back to basics to fill in all those blanks left in his training. Everyone thought that just because they put him in draw reins and got his head down that he was “on the bit.” They thought that just because he was moving forward he had impulsion. They thought that just because they could shorten his stride he was collected. Like so many people in the H/J world (and an alarming number of people in dressage) they had completely missed the point.

Of course, at the time I also knew nothing about the technicalities of dressage. I only knew when it felt right and when it felt wrong. And I had the benefit of riding my own horse who was super-sensitive in every respect and wouldn’t tolerate anything but the lightest contact. I didn’t know how to hold a mouth or to pull, or to drive a horse into my hand with seat and leg; that was all foreign to me and doing so always felt wrong.

Everyone talks about contact, contact, contact. And yes, contact is important, but I’ve learned that it’s not something a rider can just create by grabbing hold of the mouth, and it’s not something to be measured in pounds of pressure. Contact is a two-way street, where it is the horse who must accept the presence of the rider’s hand. People talk about putting the horse “on the bit,” but it is the horse who puts himself “on the bit” when the circumstances are right and all of the pieces fall into place, beginning with the relaxed horse accepting contact. Mellon was obviously not ready yet for contact, and certainly not ready yet to go “on the bit.” What they had done with him in the past - putting him in a severe bit, draw reins and riding with a big set of spurs – hadn’t worked. You might be able to bend a horse’s body into a shape resembling “on the bit,” but it’s never the same thing. And it’s certainly no way to encourage him to accept you; it’s a way to force him to do your bidding against his will. And Mellon had decided no one was going to force him; if put in that position, he was going to go down fighting. If I wanted to ride him, I was going to need his willing compliance.

In that situation, what do you do? What helps those pieces to fall into place? Everyone has their own theories, and I was about to discover mine.

Instinctively, I knew I couldn’t take a hold of him without a violent reaction, so I decided just to hack him on a loose rein for a while so he knew I wasn’t going to hurt him or get in his face. I am not a proponent of loose-rein riding on a regular basis (for example, the way hunters today go on floppy reins with their noses poked out, inverted and disconnected,) but if I could get him to trust me, I thought, then I could gradually take up some contact and hopefully he’d accept it.

At this stage, he could handle one rein at a time, but two at once made him feel claustrophobic. So, in the beginning, I only asked him to bend with one wide, leading rein, and rode forward into that bend (obviously not at much speed or he would have lost his balance). I never pulled a rein backward, but always out to the side where the bit would lift into the corner of his mouth and encourage him forward and around the bend. We worked almost exclusively in walk and trot. The tension in his back began to dissipate as he would lower his head and neck and his normally quick, choppy stride began to open up as he covered more ground and tracked well up under himself with his hind legs. He was beginning to relax under me.

And then something amazing and unexpected happened: he began to reach out for my hand. Slowly, tentatively at first, he would stretch out until he had taken the slack out of my reins and established a light contact with my hands. He would stay there for a few strides as if he was testing it out, and then bounce back up. But I never took back; I just kept my hand light and let him find it on his own. Over and over, he’d stretch down into my hand and I’d hold the reins almost in my fingertips to keep the feel light and the contact flexible, just barely feeling his mouth. The more I rode him gently forward, the more he sought my hand.

I kept him on the loose reins, kept bending him gently with occasional small rein corrections, using the short ends of the arena to make half-circles and the long sides to release the bend and let him travel straight. Soon he was consistently stretching forward, down and round, tracking up under himself, seeking the contact and traveling in a beautiful “long and low” frame. Now, not only was he accepting a light contact, but he was volunteering to put himself on the bit. (If anyone is interested, I could post more on how to achieve and use long and low, and I recommend a good post on the subject from Dressage in Jeans here.)

Calm, forward, straight = Relaxed, attentive, balanced

The horseman’s mantra is “calm, forward and straight.” To be effective, each of those elements must be tackled in that order. Relaxation, I have found, is the starting point – without it, a rider has nothing. We focused on getting and maintaining relaxation above all else, and that is what worked for Mellon.

I used that frame not only to develop his trust, his willingness to accept contact, and his relaxation, but also to develop his body. Long and low develops a full range of motion in the horse in a way collected work cannot. Long and low, at least in my experience, is the foundation upon which everything else is built, including collection.

If you cannot get long and low, correct collection will be extremely difficult, if not impossible – it will always be stiff, out of sync, or artificial. And, if you work a horse continually in a short or collected frame, you’ll never develop a full range of motion needed for correct extension, jumping, etc..

I see this all the time with dressage horses, who look positively muscle-bound; they seem incapable of true relaxation and stretching, and often their gaits have lost their natural rhythm and sequence as a result. It is the fashion in the hunters these days to never touch the reins and have the horse flop around on a loose rein with his nose poked out, which also prevents the back from rounding up under the weight of the rider; and Jumpers, like dressage horses ridden improperly or trained with rollkur, frequently have a musculature that indicates they spend all their time in draw reins; their backs are hollow and/or braced, their crests are overdeveloped and a there is a hollow in front of the wither where the trapezius and splenius muscles in particular have never been allowed to function properly, limiting the movement of the shoulders; this posture makes it impossible for the horse to track up. What’s worse, you increase the risk for pain and injury any time the horse is asked to use himself outside of this range of motion (or any time he goes out in the paddock and moves out on his own.) This was where Mellon was when we started.

A horse that is worked long and low, however, will have swing in his back, long ground covering strides, and a loose flowing shoulder, among other things. Working back from there, collection is relatively easy. Reverse engineering all of that lengthening and depth of stride from a muscle-bound, super-collected horse, however, is another story.

Slowly, with our long and low work, we were on our way. Not only was it a great way to warm up and cool down, but it became a kind of "reset button" for his brain and body whenever there was an issue or tension, and it was also Mellon's reward between brief intensive exercises – especially after jumping. He loved to stretch, and would pop his crest back and forth as he did; Mellon was becoming more relaxed, forward and balanced by the day; from there on the bit became second nature and, I could begin to play with adjusting the length of his frame without creating tension or resistance. In only a few months, we were able to walk, trot, canter, jump small courses and do some basic lateral and collected work respectably. He surprised all of us and, for the first time since he had come to the farm, Mellon was getting noticed for the right reasons.

But this, it turns out, was a double edged sword...

To be continued....


  1. I'd like for you to do a post on long and low and how to achieve it correctly. I'm impressed with how well Mellon took to your methods so willingly. It's easy to understand why any horse would object to being treated the way he was in the beginning. Sadly, most trainers back then and their clients believed that you could muscle a horse, or put enough equipment on them to make them do their bidding. I'm glad Mellon rebelled and made everyone take a step back and reconsider their training methods. If it wasn't for you he would have either languished in his stall or been sent away to...let's just say a bad place.

    I love the picture of him romping in the field having a high old time for himself. That picture of you and Mellon at Saratoga Springs is one of my absolute favorites too!

  2. thanks, GHM!

    to be honest, i was surprised at how well mellon responded. i had no idea what i was doing would work!

    i love that pic of him in the field - he always looks happiest when he's running... the saratoga pic is ok, except i was pushing his hind end over so it looks like my stirrups are uneven!

    i think i will do a post on long and low when i'm done with mel's story, even if there are already some good ones out there. everyone has a slightly different take on it and it's so important...

  3. I have restarted and retrained many OTTB's who mostly only knew GO or GO FAST,long and low to me means calm,soft,relaxed not just with the feel or contact of your hands but through the entire body.I have found this to be the same with the "Mellon" types of horses as well who have been muscled or forced to be in a frame they were resistant to or simply did not unserstand.

    The OTTB's are funny as they really don't get it until they actually do relax,then it becomes very easy for them.I have found that in the arena just walking and using your seat makes it alot easier to get them to give.Then we move out to woods and trails where they learn to balance and adjust by using the hills,turns and things we happen to come upon again all at the walk or maybe a trot.

    I think many of us deal with horses of all types who have been rushed or pushed through their training and the behaviors we overcome are all fixable ,they just take time and patience,something we would probably all agree is sorely lacking in todays horse world.

  4. of course i totally agree!

    i've taken on a bunch of OTTB (i love them!) and had the same experience you describe. retraining them was relatively easy after mellon because, though their issues were all different, how i approached them in the beginning was the same.

    i've had to retrain every horse i've ever had (except those i was lucky enough to start myself,) which is sad when you think then of how many trainers rush through it or get it wrong on the first try...

    i agree about the trails and hillwork too. hacking out is not just fun and relaxing, but it is such a great way to put it all in context. whenever we have access to a field with lots of hills, that's where i teach the horses about balance and collection, etc.. i think it makes more sense to them than in a flat arena. when you go down hill, collection has a purpose, balance and straightness become critical and it is easy to feel when it's right or wrong. i don't know, it just makes sense to me...

  5. Good point about the hills making more sense to them when trying to teach them about collection.I never really thought of it from that perspective.I have always used the hills to develop the reach and stride,balance and to engage the hind end safely (some OTTB'S are too fast but flat and hollow)on the flat.Going up the hills makes them reach [front end) and drive(hind)differently then what they did on the track. Plus if you have the ones that are always "off to the races" nothing beats trotting up and walking down those hills.It really helps with them being so one sided as well.

    I'm a big fan of ground driving and long lining instead of lunging.You can really help them to understand giving and bending and can do it in non brain frying slow steps for them.I find horses to be very willing if they aren't hurt,forced or afraid of what your asking them to do.

  6. Another great installment. I would love to read about long and low. Unknowingly, I sort of fell into doing this with Keil Bay a couple of years ago. A trainer had encouraged me to come into the arena with total focus and a marching walk, contact, etc. "right from the beginning, every ride."

    I tried this, but often what happened was 10 minutes of power struggle, which just seemed to me like 10 minutes neither me or the Big Bay needed to have.

    So I started warming up long and low, and would actually sit the trot instead of post, breaking all sorts of rules. Except that when I did it that way, he RELAXED, and the rest of the ride was better, not to mention there were no 10 minutes of struggle involved.

    I am on the verge of tangenting into a rant right now, b/c of something I read on a forum yesterday that sort of touches on this, so I will stop myself.

    It's so wonderful reading about this kind of training, which seems to me to be both practical AND horse-centered.

  7. Great post. It's amazing what effective riding and some cuddle time will do.

  8. billie - i think that's the way it happens - somehow the horses just somehow lead you into doing it that way. i've never seen anything wrong with listening to them, though some trainers consider any concession to the horse's needs is some kind of failure of training. i just think it's good horsemanship.

    i knew a trainer once who insisted on the horse going to 'work' immediately by trotting off right from the mounting block. all i saw was the same resistance you describe. i know i need a little warm up and relax time at the beginning, so it seems the least i could do for the horse ;-)

    and by all means rant! this is the place to do it. i've ranted whole posts after reading those forums, so get it off your chest if you want to! i don't mind :-)

  9. bhm - thanks! i agree. and he may not look it, but mellon is a very hug-able horse :-)

  10. Okay - well... this is what got me stirred up, in a discussion about getting impulsion off the leg aid:

    This is not a matter of subtlety or how you hold your pinkie fingers, or whether you ascribe to the French or German school, or anything else. This is the simplest, simplest thing in the whole, whole world. You use your leg, and if he doesn't jump out of his skin, you instantly, immediately, without any nuance, subtlety, training theory or anything else, you make him respond immediately. Instantly. Like leg-WHAM. It's real, real, real simple. You don't have to be any great trainer. You don't have to get a lesson, read a book, watch a video. You just use your leg, and if he doesn't fly forward, you hit him with your whip until he DOES.

    Hm. I understand the reasoning, but I guess my reaction is if you ascribe to this method of training, you're cutting off any opportunity for a conversation between horse and rider, and imo, the opportunity for the horse to tell you if something is wrong.

    I want my horses to move forward when I ask, for sure, but I'd like it to be a willing, relaxed response, never that they jump out of their skin! The above method seems more like a demand, using pain or fear of pain as leverage, and I'm not comfortable with it.

    From other parts of the discussion it became apparent that the consensus is, if your horse doesn't respond to the forward cue (yes ma'am, how high should I jump), and you aren't willing to make that happen, you have no hope of riding successfully at higher levels.

    The bottom line for me is that I don't believe horses are as manipulative as they are often made out to be. I know we need to be clear and consistent, but I don't experience on a daily basis that any of my horses are just waiting for opportunities to 'pull one over on me' and that I need to be alpha woman in order to avoid that. I don't know - maybe I just have really sweet horses!

    I'm rambling. But the above is such a foundation for so many trainers that I feel I often hit the wall on this issue alone, and it's hard to go further if you disagree on this point, which informs so much of what comes after.

  11. jme said...
    i've never seen anything wrong with listening to them, though some trainers consider any concession to the horse's needs is some kind of failure of training. i just think it's good horsemanship.

    i knew a trainer once who insisted on the horse going to 'work' immediately by trotting off right from the mounting block.
    In my opinion, this is one of the definitions of good horsemanship.

    Trotting from the mounting block is a great way to train a horse to bolt while being mounted.

  12. billie - i hate the way so much training speak is all about 'being the alpha' and 'submission' etc. how somehow taking input from your horse means he's walking all over you. that's utter nonsense. i hear what you're saying about making the conversation one-way. i can give a cautionary example:

    my horse nate, the normally soft, light, fun horse began to resist my leg. when he was young, he could be a bit nappy, so i though maybe he was just reverting to his former self after some time off from working. he was completely sound and still moving out well. so, when he 'resisted' i asked harder. i nudged with my heel. i went to my spur. i tried my whip. sure, he went forward, but it was like pulling teeth.

    'he's spoiled,' people would say. or 'he's just a lazy warmblood,' like this behavior was normal.

    then one day when i pushed him too far, he just jammed on the brakes and refused to move.

    turns out, he has pssm/epsm and was TYING UP. poor guy. he was becomeing more and more sore and stiff, and was trying to tell me that something was wrong and i wasn't listening closely enough. boy did i feel stupid (and guilty) then!

    i immediately assumed that it had to be a training issue and i was firm with him; but when i pushed him and he still didn't respond, that was a red flag.

    like you said, they don't sit around in the paddock all day dreaming up ways to make us miserable or to 'become the alpha.' something else was going on. it was so subtle at first i never connected the dots. like most trainers, i just thought he was being 'resistant.'

    ...if i applied this 'trainer's' theory when he stopped and just whipped him mercilessly until he went forward...

    i've come to believe that there is no such thing as a resistant horse - not really. there is just human ignorance. if the horse is resisting it's either because he doesn't understand what you want (and it is a trainer's job to help him understand,) he's in pain, or he just CAN'T do it.

    i don't want to ride a horse i have to chase around the arena with my whip and spur. i want a horse who goes forward willingly - because he's a horse and they are supposed to enjoy movement (and hopefully like their jobs.) if he's not enjoying it anymore, i want to be the first one to know so i can figure out why!

    now i'm rambling, but that kind of thing makes me nuts too. call me a bad trainer, but my horses all get a say in their training, and i'd rather err on the side of spoiling a horse a little than hurting him just to make a point: 'you do what i say OR ELSE....'

  13. bhm - yeah, i never got the logic behind that one either! lol

  14. LMTBs - sorry! your comment got lost in my inbox! glad i didn't lose it!

    i agree that hills are so great for developing that range of motion - they really do have to step under themselves and power from the hind end (and a good steep hill can be a great way to back off a more go-ey one - they tend to lose some momentum toward the top ;-)

    i love the long reins for training too. i've never been a fan of things like side reins for longeing, especially when you can have two real reins coming right into your hand! that always made more sense to me than just fixing something to the bit and sending them 'out there' where you no longer have any real control!

  15. Another great post. My dressage coach drilled us with the idea that contact cannot be made until the horse seeks it, and she made sure that we didn't abuse it when it came. There is nothing like good instruction.

    I have mentioned here before that I switched Raven to a bitless bridle and rode her on the buckle with a one-rein stop for brakes (for the record, you can have contact with a bitless bridle and a horse can be "on the bit" in a bitless bridle) -- any two-rein pressure was too much for her to handle. Before her injury she was just beginning to ride in a consistent "long and low" frame (which I have always just known as "relaxed") and I was able to take the slack out of both reins without a panic attack. I'm curious to see what this summer will bring after such a long time off.

    Your comment on musculature is dead-on. Raven has huge, powerful muscles on the underside of her neck, probably from fighting with the hands of her many riders. I'm sure anyone who put her in draw reins was dumped unceremoniously. She is not a horse to be forced into anything.

    In the end I don't care what the horse looks like under saddle -- I have no showing aspirations. I just want our partnership to be based on trust and open communication, not pain or fear. Whenever she does something to scare me (thank goodness for that one-rein stop!) I have to remind myself that it's because she is scared herself. When she is relaxed she is filled to the brim with heart and try. They are such great teachers.

  16. dp - love this comment :-) couldn't have said it better. i hope to hear more about how raven comes along this spring (i'll have to get my act together and get over to your blog more often! ;-)

  17. Because I have ADD, I thought I posted when I didn't. :P

    'People talk about putting the horse “on the bit,” but it is the horse who puts himself “on the bit” '

    So very true! How many times have I seen riders gathering their reins until their short and then just cranking that head under?

    A great post that I connect to a lot when I was learning how to ride 'soft' because 'hard' hadn't gotten me anywhere and I didn't like it. ;)

  18. You often mention how you avoid teaching a horse to pull. Do you think that long and low would help a horse that already wants to pull. The horse I'm working with wants to travel with his head down and face in front of the vertical, but when asked to bring his head back up he can be resistant. I have my own strategy right now thats working out so far, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

  19. hi jesse - thanks for visiting and for the great question!

    we often talk about a horse that is above or behind the bit and how to deal with them, but the one no one seems to talk much about is the horse that is 'below' the bit, though it is a common problem.

    i think it gets little attention mostly because so many riders are happy to hold the horse's head up for him or go to a stronger bit that the horse won't feel so comfortable pulling on. without seeing your horse or knowing exactly why he's pulling/leaning, it's hard to give recommendations. but there are a few solutions that can help that don't involve harsh bits, odd contraptions or pulling your back out ;-)

    the most simple and straight forward is simply to lift the hands any time the horse gets heavy or gets too low. with both hands, extend the arms forward and lift so that the bit comes up into the corners of the mouth (not against the bars or tongue, which can cause the horse to lean harder.) hold this (or use a series of small lifts -never yanks!- like jiggling the bit) until the horse stops leaning and carries his own head. you want to think of it as raising the base of his neck rather than just his head, which will allow him to shift his balance backward. as impulsion is not a factor, this can be done at any pace or at the halt.

    an alternative to that, or something that can be used in conjunction with the heavy, pulling or low-headed horse, is to apply the single leading rein for occasional temporary flexions, either at the halt or while riding the horse forward. this time, the inside rein only is lifted into the corner so that the horse must bend his neck in front of the wither. here you will feel him soften and you can ease off the flexion. as you do this, you can ride a bit forward, as the impulsion will help the horse to raise up and rebalance backward.

    the idea here is to get the horse to release and stretch the muscles he normally uses to brace or pull. when the horse pulls against the hand, it means the muscles that should be relaxing and stretching are actually contracting: he is developing the muscles used to resist rather than those used to work correctly. so, whenever possible, you want to disengage those muscles used for pulling and get them stretching voluntarily.... does any of that make sense?

    it's worth keeping in mind that some horses pull or go on the forehand because they are sore in their hind end, so if the problem persists, you may want to rule out hock or stifle soreness, etc.

    if neither of these ideas works, i would be happy to recommend some others to try.

    and i'd love to hear more about your current solution that is working for you. let us know how it goes :-)

  20. jme, thats for that great response to Jesse's question. I was using his computer to write that post and I forgot that I'd show up as him. No matter.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that its hard to know what to try when we dont know why he is doing it. This guy, the obnoxious pulling gelding, has always had the same owner; but he has been ridden by a lot of people/trainers over the years and never had much consistent training. His owner is kindof an old guy with a very poor memory of OPG's training history.

    One thing he does remember, and tells people all the time is OPG "can jump a three foot line." Makes me twitch every time. I talked to someone about this, who remembers that particular trainer. I believe her exact words were, "that trainer could make a lame, blind donkey jump three feet." So I know that at some point he was subjected to a lot of galloping around on a lunge line, (they wore tracks in the arena, she remembers) then big spurs and jumps. I can only imagine what bit they were using on him.

    He likes to pull even when he's in pretty good balance. Right now when he leans on me I'm giving him a little squeeze/bump/whatever to push him forward, when he raises his head I ask him with my seat to relax back down to what we were doing before. The effects haven't been dramatic, but he only gets worked three times a week, so I think that slows everything down. And I haven't been at it that long.

    I was one of those people who was content to hold his head up for him. Until one day he pulled me straight over his neck. That knocked a little sense into me, rather painfully actually. After taking a long hiatus to finish school, I'm back and the pulling thing is job number 1.

    I can use both the things you suggested in conjunction with a little push (though not all at the same time.) The push brings his head back up about 70% of the time when he's relaxed, and less once he has gotten tense about something, like his buddy leaving the arena, for example.

    I'll be sure to report back. Thanks again for your advice.

  21. gillian – yikes! no wonder the poor horse pulls! actually, you see so much of that kind of riding and training out there that most horses learn some kind of defensive behaviors, with pulling being one of the most common...

    the riding forward you describe is a good way to get his head back up while engaging the hind end a bit, and from there you can use those lateral one-rein flexions to soften his jaw and topline. i have a paint who was previously trained western and i think he was taught to keep his head down and go on his forehand under pain of death, so getting him up and light is no easy task – i use a combination of that push you describe with the lifting and flexing stuff i mentioned, and that seems to work, but it is a very slow process, and you have to remind them every single time they get heavy that you’re not going to carry them with your hands. but sooner or later it pays off ;-)

    the biggest thing i find for a puller is making sure you lift the bit into the corner(s) of the mouth. it looks a little freaky to people used to the whole ‘straight line from bit to hand to elbow’ concept, but it works. it’s one of the reasons true gag bits work so well for pullers and ‘below the bit’ horses – sure there is the pulley factor which can be strong if used incorrectly, but the main reason horses respond well to this bit is that it lifts into the corners instead of pulling down onto the bars and tongue (or going into the roof of the mouth.) not that i’m suggesting you need one, just that the lifting effect is important with a heavy horse.

    and i know what you mean about going over the head! i once took a lesson on someone else’s horse and the trainer kept yelling at me to ‘hold the horse’s front end up’ (uh, how?) and i tried until the horse tripped and yanked me out of the saddle! not a good place to be :-\

    definitely keep us posted on how it goes!

  22. Now this is a post (among many others on similar subjects) I enjoyed reading. I have nothing to add except YES! YES! YES! Thank you for elucidating this subject so well. You are providing a manual of thinking horsemanship.

  23. thanks, enlightened! i have the feeling this is not an uncommon story for many horse owners/riders, and i hope they know there is hope for every horse :-)


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