Sarah Martin Dressage on Cavesson Fit- Tight? Loose?

I have to put in print that since working with Pete Rodda I have become much more aware of the fit of my cavesson, [noseband] and have been experimenting with degrees of tension and looseness for the past year. I like to experiment for extended periods of time- in this case, a year and 2 months- before writing anything conclusive in terms of equipment fit and impact.
Pete asked me last summer to consider riding Belle for a while without a noseband, because it was his feeling that when she wwanted to yawn the noseband and flash prevented that from happening. He felt this interfered with her physical ability to process,and added to her underlying tension.
Up until then I had been a firm advocate of a noseband, with or without a flash attachment, that would lie flat and snug against the horse’s jaw. Many a student had me tell them to think of the noseband like sunglasses- we do not like our glasses loose and slipping, but instead prefer they sit snug on the bridge of our nose where we can almost forget they are there. Makes sense to me, as a life long wearer of glasses- and once again I have discovered that what makes sense to a human may not work in the same way for a horse!
Sure enough, the first day that I begrudgingly allowed Pete to remove my cavesson, Belle went through her work session and then on a rest break began to yawn- and yawn- and my word, YAWN. I bet she yawned at least a dozen times, each time bigger than the last until I thought she might dislocate her jaw. I had to admit, that after her yawning extravaganza, she returned to work just a bit quieter, with a bit more focus. As I thought about why yawning might help a horse focus, it occured to me that both Central and Governing meridian- not to mention many others- run through the poll/jaw area. If a horse is restricted in that area, it makes sense that energetically we will be inhibiting circulation-which certainly could generate low grade tension in an animal as energetically sensitive as a horse- especially a Dressage horse.
As I continued my work with Belle, I started experimenting with other horses we have in training, as well as in clinics. As I would check the tension in the noseband, I would also check the tension the noseband created in terms of a downward pull on the poll. Loosening the noseband allowed me to lift the crownpiece of the bridle as well. Frequently the horses would chew, or shake their poll repeatedly as the pressure was removed from the poll area. Bridle making has improved so much, with much more awareness being given to both cutting back the crownpiece so as not to squeeze the ears, and padding the poll area. With an awareness of not making the noseband too tight, the entire picture of creating a bridle that allows the horse to CARRY the bit- and CARRY the bridle- comes in to focus.
What I have been doing is sometimes working with no noseband at all, then a loose noseband. Then when horses seem like they could use the support- a big young horse learning the self carriage from 1st to 2nd level work was definitely HELPED by having the noseband closed for a month- then was able to go back to a looser connection once he understood where to go in his body. At shows I keep the noseband closed but not tight, so as not to put pressure on the poll. I do not have any horses currently using a flash, which does not mean I would not use one if it was helpful- I just think it is unintentionally NOT helpful far more often than we realize.
There are bridles being made now with elastic where the crownpiece meets the cheekpiece, and I think this is a wonderful solution to avoiding too much pressure- that same elastic is being added to the noseband to keep THAT from becoming too tight, as well. I look forward to seeing this become a more common model for the dressage bridle, especially the double bridles that carry so much weight in the bits.
So, here I am – retracting my former thought of snug like sunglasses- and finding a bit of room makes a happier horse. Go out and check your noseband and crownpiece today- give your horse some room- and enjoy your ride!

Sarah Martin Dressage :Ulcers and hind gut impacts on dressage horses

I have been making posts on my  Facebook page at Sarah Martin Dressage regarding a remedy I have been given for helping heal and maintain a horse with ulcers, and I want to provide more information here for the many inquiries I am receiving regarding this process.

Question #1 has been how did I diagnose the ulcers?

In my experience ulcers can be scoped, but it is an expensive process. I use common sense- a horse comes into my barn thin, hard to keep weight on, has lived in stalls and dry lots all her life, has a heavy show and training schedule and does not like to eat. In addition her manure is rarely solid, and under stress turns to water. Nothing about that is normal, and I am going to assume part of the issue is ulcers and not spend the money scoping. In addition, I do not believe that scoping tells you what is going on in the hind gut- I know vets who have proclaimed horses “have no ulcers” and yet Succeed, which helps with hind gut inflammation, really helps the horse stabilize and gain weight.

I have used omeprazole in caplets, in granules and in paste. I standardly administer omeprazole paste when hauling or showing as I simply see my horses travel better and seem less stressed. Scientific? No. Purely a horseman reading her horses and acting according to what I feel and see around them.

Question #2  Where did this remedy come from?

A vet in Germany gave this action to a student of mine who recently moved from Germany and imported her horses to the US. One was a very hard keeper and extremely, race weight thin, with very little appetite. She had been doing many things, including omeprazole, and found he did better on omeprazole but was concerned about always coating his stomach, and the expense. One year later this horse carries so much weight and muscle I can not envision him being thinner than the mare I am working with, but she assures me he was.

Question #3 What is the recipe/treatment?

300 gms of boiled flax two times a day, or 600 gms every 24 hours broken into as many feedings as you wish and that will help your horse eat. The boiled flax makes a gelatinous mass that the horses initially spit out unless you mix it thoroughly enough. The flax is fed with wheat bran and oats only. Feed as much as the horse needs- my Dutch mare gets a cup of bran and a cup of oats 2 times a day. The hard keeper gets 3 lbs of oats with 3 lbs of bran and 2 cups of rice bran meal 3 times a day.  No pelleted feed. Hay can be what your horse will eat- this mare eats very small amounts of hay and was being supplemented with beet pulp. I offer her both alfalfa and grass, and she actually eats both, but on a very selective “mood of the moment” – I have never had her clean up 2 slices of hay even with top quality alfalfa in front of her, but I can get about a slice into her over a 2-3 hour period. I am gradually taking the beet pulp away to see if it is just a sugar thing with her, and because I do not have access to the German vet to find out if beet pulp will help or harm whatever neutralizing process must surely be going on her system.

My student gave the boiled flax at 600 gms/day for 90 days, saw significant weight improvement and went to a “maintenance” level of 300 gms a day split into two feedings. One year later she just boils the flax and uses it for stress times like trailering or showing.

I am giving the flax to 3 mares- one clearly with very clear eating issues. The second is my mare that I have always thought was just a head case- I got her as a 4 year old unbroke, and had been living in a stall in Holland with very limited [2 hour a day] turnout. This mare eats voraciously- she will eat anything and everything, and wolfs her hay, she is easy to keep weight on and I have to say it never occurred to me that her stomach or hind gut could be having problems- stupid assumption in hindsight, but that is why I am sharing this! She gets extremely electric when she comes over her back, and although she is incredibly balanced on her own, with a rider she resents leg on her sides and bulls into the bridle, barging onto the forehand and bracing. We have done lots of work, and also bred her for two years- the work has been very patient, good horsemanship- I sent her to a friend with the patience of Job [ok, a cowboy] and we have really been patient and slow with approaching this mare and hoping to help her find confidence in her body. I have had her for 6 years. This winter my hope was to just let her be a riding horse- I call her my “Tevis Cup” horse as she has so much power and go, and is so bold about going anywhere, so I have done tons of field riding and hacking out with her just to teach her to carry me in all 3 gaits and not worry about arenas or figures. I do a bit of circle and transition work, sometimes in the arena and sometimes in the field, at the end of every ride.

Two weeks ago I put this mare on the left over flax, about 300 gms a day, just to see what would happen. Again, completely unscientific. But I have had the best rides on her in the last two weeks that I have ever had. We have been able to walk through fields that she always jigged through. She is offering me her back for longer periods of time without tension, now it feels like a strength issue- a normal feeling instead of an electric feeling. She allows my leg to hug her for lateral yielding instead of racing out from under the slightest shift of seat bone pressure.  Her eye is softer, especially when I get off- she has a sense of being proud instead of stressed. This has been cumulative, not immediate, but it is noticeable, and believe me, I have been observing this mare on many levels for a long time now!

So at this point I am thinking the flax is part of the progress.

The third mare is completely unchanged, though she did not have anything that weight, appetite or behaviour would have made me think she had any ulcer issues or hindgut issues.

My conclusion at the moment is that the flax is certainly an inexpensive experiment, and I am clearly seeing progress on the severe mare, and finding an unexpected benefit on the mare that I had thought had “mental” issues.

I wonder how many horses have ulcers or hindgut issues that we miss, or diagnose as other issues. You can buy flax from most feed stores- you can research it online- I have been told to NOT try to boil and store more than 2 servings- in other words use what you boil every 24 hours. You do have to stay with it as you get the feel for how to boil it- people have told me they use a crock pot. I am sticking with this approach for now, and will continue to post periodic updates either here or on my fan page on Facebook.

Define “Lightness”

I have recently had some wonderful conversations with trainers around the concept of “lightness.” Some trainers are having a hard time getting their students to TAKE a contact- because the student is afraid that then the horse is not “light.” Others are having a hard time getting the balance out of the rider’s hand and on to their seat- where the horse can then actually balance and become light in the correct, elastic way. In addition, Western Dressage is battling with this concept- and I hope for their sake that they can get some good information from accomplished [and correct!] dressage sources while the sport is still in it’s infancy, so they , too, can understand what “lightness” is.

From a Dressage perspective, lightness is what results when a horse self carries by shifting weight from it’s forehand towards the haunches, accepting the connection of the rein in such a way that the horse does not need to lean on the reins to find it’s balance, but instead lifts it’s back muscles. Think of bending over to lift a heavy load- if you only use your back you end up injuring it- if you engage your legs and stomach, you can lift much more, more often, and more safely.

Horses will power into their shoulders to counterbalance the weight of a person on their back. At training level we are asking a horse to distribute their weight in a “horizontal balance”. You could think of this as distributing the weight in  1/3′ s  : 1/3 of the weight goes to the hind legs, 1/3 goes to the back and 1/3 goes to the shoulder, neck,jaw. As a rider you could think of the balance of the horse starting from your seat [the third that is the horses back], emanating down your leg [the 1/3 that is the hindquarter] and forward through your arms and reins – the area for the horse over the spine in front of the saddle- the shoulder, neck, jaw. Your seat is the balance point, and the regulator, of where the horse puts his balance. Like standing on a see saw with a leg on either side, a rider learns to balance the horse from back to front so that you can feel where the weight is going, and direct it so it becomes equally distributed. With horses the challenge is that it is not only back/front, but laterally- inside to outside- that creates the circle of the aids. That is why I teach that the sequence of aids in warm up or starting a green horse is inner rein,weight on the inside seat bone, inner leg, send the momentum out [yes, drift!] until you feel the horse lift it’s back, then capture that drift with your outside leg, and send the momentum to and through your outside seat bone to the outside rein. You should and must feel the horse make a connection to the outside rein- and this is the touchy part. If you do not offer a stable point of contact, contact will never get made – i.e. if you are too “light” in what YOU offer the horse. Flip side, if you lock down your outside arm and hand and HOLD- the horse will touch the rein and think- “Yikes!” and shrink away from the connection. This is where focusing on THE BALANCE POINT comes in- watch that you have enough inside influence [leg, seat and rein] to have a slight curve- SLIGHT- in your horses spine from tail to poll. You can use drifting out on a circle line to make this easy. Then capture your horses outside drift with your outside leg closing and sending the horse forward onto your outside rein- where you feel a pound, for example, on the outside rein. If the horse takes maore than a pound, make sure it was not YOU who took it- give it away momentarily, as in for ONE STRIDE- and start again. Use connecting your stomach muscles to your spine – ugh!- to stabilize your core/seat- relax that feeling and see where the contact on the outside rein is.

Western or Dressage- Training level or Grand Prix- you must be able to establish this connection to get your horse lifting through his back to the connection correctly. AND- to get YOU riding the connection THROUGH YOUR SEAT correctly. You have arrived when you can increase or decrease the weight in your hand by a pound either way, simply by making the connection through your leg/stomach stronger or softer. Some horses like a pound, some horses like 3, some like 3 ounces- but there must be a quantifiable degree of connection in order to move to the next phase- collection- or the place where your horse essentially balances between your leg and seat, with your hand just serving as an interpreter of the balance. More on that tomorrow! Enjoy your ride-

Sarah Martin Dressage :Timing basics for any horse

Timing is not just something for Dressage horses, it can help any horse in any discipline become more sensitive and with the rider. I first learned this timing exercise when I was working with a cutting horse trainer and we were starting his young stock.

The easiest lesson in timing is to create a halt on a specific leg. Say you are on a circle to the left- that makes the outside right front the leg you will start with. Begin by feeling just when the outside front leg hits the ground- then, over the course of three strides, make a halt on that leg. [Right, right, halt.] Use the first two strides to balance and warn your horse what you are up to, then halt on the third. Do this as well with the hind leg on the right, then reverse and do the same with the left front and left hind. Once you know you can feel and influence eacl leg individually, teach yourself a quicker pattern. Starting with the right front on the outside, feel just the front legs, right-left-right. Then set it up in two sets, where you feel AND influence right-left-right, and then let the left front hit the ground while you do nothing- much like the “rest” in a musical phrase. Then add a “second round” of right-left-right.’ Establish that you can accurately FEEL this sequence, including the rest, and then add influence- test it by halting. Ride: right-left-right, right-left-halt. The halt should come from near effortless weight put against the right front, mostly from your weight and stretching down against the right stirrup with the ball of your foot.

Practise this to sharpen your feel and sharpen your horse’s sensitivity, and the next exercise with canter departs will come quite easily. Enjoy your ride!

Sarah Martin Dressage : Timing your aids: Why bother?

As I discussed in my previous posts, timing your aid is a technique that is very useful for coordinating a horse and rider, and for developing a rider’s “conscious feel”. There are rider’s for whom correct timing is a matter of balance, and their balance has been sufficiently established that the mental challenge of marking an exact moment makes them feel mechanical and stiff. I understand that, however it does nothing to lessen my feeling that understanding timing, and studying it until you are adept at it, is still one of the most useful tools available to horsemen. By being able to feel the very subtle actions of your horse’s body, particularly the feet as they touch or leave the ground, a rider develops a greater lightness in their body and in their aids. Dressage is a balance game, not a strength game. High wire acrobats are not built like football players for a reason! The fine balance required is why small people can ride big horses – horses naturally prefer being “in balance” to being “out of balance”. As you train them to the finesse of your seat and the exact alignment of your spine, developing their straightness and self carriage in the process, the ability to make an exact aid in an exact moment and then returning to your neutral balance point becomes extremely helpful.

Timing appears in the most obvious way as you have to feel 3-4 steps back in the rein back at second level. It continues with being able to count tempi changes, starting in the show ring with 4′s, and moving through 3′s, 2′s and 1 time changes. You have to be able to make half pass  zig zags at Grand Prix with an accurate count of 3-6-6-6-3.  You may think “But I am not ever going to ride Grand Prix!” That would be missing the point. The point is, we are in a sport where accuracy counts because accuracy demonstrates and develops your ability to be in precise balance with your horse. That is why “line of travel” at Training level is so important – right from the start you are developing your ability to balance precisely, not somewhere in the neighborhood, but right on the mark.

For rider’s who do not care to compete,line of travel and timing are still important, again because developing a dressage horse, or riding a trained one, are matters of balance. In a field or in an arena, judged or not judged, balance is an exact place. My husband is an archer, and whether he competes or shoots his bow for fun, the bulls eye is still always in the center of the target. Challenge yourself today to not only be able to make precise halts on a specific hind leg, but to be able to feel the precise moment that your horse’s hind hoof leaves the ground. This is the moment to ask it to yield laterally- across his body, under his body, toward his center. You can still get your horse to yield laterally when his feet are on the ground as you ask- but it will flow with more immediacy if you move with him, and ask when he can best respond, which is when the leg is airborne anyway. Enjoy the ride!

Sarah Martin Dressage : Time to ride outside!

Quick- before winter drives you inside- be sure to take advantage of the beautiful cool fall weather and GET OUT OF THE ARENA! Dressage horses love the variety- and it is such a great way of building self carriage and confidence- for horse AND rider. Find a confident pal to go with you if your horse does not like to go out alone. Your horse will thank you- Enjoy the ride!

Anne Campbell and Beth Geier sharing a semi private lesson out of the arena.

Use these beautiful days to get your horse out of the arena!

Sarah Martin Dressage: Timing Your Aids

One of the most useful tools I have to teach is using the timing of the horse’s footfall to organize your half halt. When you learn to feel the impact of the horse’s foot on the ground, both front and rear, both inside and outside, it allows you to develop an incredibly sensitive seat. It is almost impossible to feel the distinction between the footfalls unless you are sitting correctly. The subtle change from front to hind and side to side really encourages a rider to sit balanced on both seat bones, and to keep their vertical reach up their spine into the shoulder girdle.

Timing allows you to develop a much finer communication with your horse. Using the moment a specific foot touches the ground to create a transition- both upwards and downwards – allows a rider to start to learn the subtle differences in types of half halts. Using timing you can learn to influence the loading power of a specific leg. When this is directed to a hind leg, the rider can start to feel where in the body the horse is able to move, and where he may be stiff or insufficiently warmed up. For example, you can use timing to the right hind leg to create a walk- halt. You want to be able to alert the horse the you are going to ask for the transition, not just hit him out of the blue- so the first round of timing your restraining aids, through your seat and leg and ending in the rein, prepares the horse and wakes them up . The second round of aids “executes” the transition. If the horse is right there and halts with you on the right hind, you know the muscles could feel you and the horse is with you. If the horse squirms off your seat, out of the bridle, swings to the side, or simply keeps walking like nothing has happened, then you know you have to adjust the strength of the aid. The right amount of aid is the amount it takes to get the job done. What is so rewarding about the process is that once the horse feels and understands your aid, it can get incredibly light. The first time you ride this the aid may be stronger, as the muscles may not be warm enough to function smoothly, or the horse’s mind may not be with you. Once both the body and the mind get warm and focused, this is just an incredibly easy way to co ordinate transitions. The next few blogs will start to cover the specific timing to use to create balanced transitions from gait to gait and then progress to transitions within the gait, to flying changes and pirouette work. Start with walk, halts on both front and hind legs- and enjoy your ride!

Timing your aids really increases fluid communication with your horse.

Sarah Martin Dressage: Time to clip!

With fall well underway, horses everywhere are starting to “hair up” for winter. The increasing darkness generates this as much as temperature swings. Whether you ride in occasional lessons or have a full time “dressage dedication” you need to consider how best to help your horse stay comfortable. When you get up and need a jacket, and then shed it to ride, remember your horse does not have the luxury of opening their jacket- so you need to provide this for them! Do not wait until “it all grows in”- their winter coat will grow in from now until January. If your horse lives outside- as all of ours do- you can do them a huge favor by giving them a trace clip. Take off the underside of the neck, chest, and a strip from just below your saddle pad across the underside of their belly. If you are concerned that they need the extra hair across their back, leave it, just like an equine quarter sheet. Leave the hair on their legs as well. They will stay very comfortable even in rain or snow, but also this will “vent” them enough that when you ride they won’t get soaked in sweat. By January the bulk of this will grow back, and you can decide whether to clip again, or for full time outside horses that only occasionally get ridden, just back off your work so you don’t generate a sweaty, sticky mess every time you ride. Remember if they do get sweaty and sticky, you do them more good by washing them clean with a sponge and bucket in the sweaty areas. Clean hair dries faster than sweaty hair, and you do not build up the sweat, salt and dirt that makes drying even slower. Fall is my favorite time of year, but the temperature swings and hairy coats are a problem. Help your horse out- and enjoy the ride!

With all its beauty, fall brings choices about how to keep your horse comfortable.

For those with barn living and blanketing, just clip your horse now and clip again in January- I firmly believe it is kinder to blanket than to sweat a horse up and not be able to rinse it off.

Sarah Martin Dressage: The Myth of the FEI Dressage Schoolmaster

This is a post just to help alleviate the shock that I see so many riders go through when they ride a ” Dressage schoolmaster” and find out that it is VERY hard work. There is an impression that having a schoolmaster will smooth out the rough waters of dressage, and that movements or gaits that were formerly a mystery will suddenly become clear and easy to ride. NOT SO! What a good schoolmaster WILL do is ignore you when you are wrong and reward you when you are right- but you still have to be right in your body and in your aids in the first place. There is no such thing as a “Push Button” Dressage horse. Especially by the time you get to FEI, the buttons are so close together that a rider has to be able to clearly separate their aids in order to make sense to the horse about what they are asking. Often when riders get a chance to sit on a good schoolmaster, they find that the degree of “separation” they must have between their leg, seat and rein is far more than what they had established on their patient “low level” horse. Not only that, but as a rider goes to move up the levels, the other surprise is that your horse is not only expected to be able to produce a more complicated spectrum of movements, but that the gait that accompanies these movements is ALSO expected to be more. This is the shock that stymies most riders as they move up- that gait that looks so cool when top rider’s are riding is actually NOT SMOOTH unless your hips and spine are supple enough, and your muscles conditioned enough, to balance over that movement and insist that the horse KEEP moving enough to carry you. Bigger movement carries you TO the movements more quickly- so as you hit the FEI level in Dressage you do not have comfortable long sides and 20 meter circles to get organized on. You also have to be able to ride an FEI degree of straight- which is straighter than a 2nd level degree of straight- which means you have to be able to influence the muscles of your horse to make an equal influence and effort, not just the alignment of your horse’s legs. As one of my student’s in Bogota said: “Dressage. It’s complicated.” It is, kind of- but enjoy the ride, and consider yourself forewarned!


The importance of SALT

With the incredible heat we are experiencing across the country, I want to share a reminder that your horse needs more salt than just what they will access from a free choice salt lick or mineral block. This was reinforced to me by an article in USDF Connection, written by Eleanor Kellon, DVM where she discusses the importance of sufficient salt to keep muscle’s supple. I had noticed in one of my horses, on my return from California, that his muscles were very tight and he really was on the edge of dehydrated. His coat was not lying smooth on his neck, but staying wrinkled, a sure sign of dehydration. I initially put it down to the trailer ride home, but as the week went on it did not return to normal. I started him on a large scoop of electrolytes each night in his grain, given as a wet mash, and every morning put a large handful of salt and a scoop of mineral’s [I get my mineral's from Stout's Minerals, a Colorado company with a mineral mix formulated for Colorado]. It has taken me a month to get him back to normal, and I just keep thanking my angels that I noticed before this became a critical issue in the form of colic or anhydrosis, where horses lose their ability to sweat. Especially in the arid climate of Colorado and southern California, our horses do not sweat as actively as horses in humid climates, so a situation like this can creep up on you. I make a salt mix that is 2/3′s regular table salt and 1/3 Light salt that has more potassium in it. Wetting the grain you put this on assures ingestion, I add just a cup of wet bran to mix it all together. Minerals are also very important, and it just is not possible to assume that feed or pasture is providing their basic needs, especially the horses that are working hard. Our soils are so depleted, and in high population areas there is so much pollution in the air and wash out in the over farmed soils that supplementing does become a necessity. Salt is easy, and inexpensive. Double check your feed regimen, and make sure you are getting enough salt and minerals into your horses year around- but especially in these extra hot months! I can not believe how much it has helped the muscle tone on this gelding- remember, muscles should feel gooey, not tight. Enjoy your ride!