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Our Newsletter

2012 Teaching Techniques

Optical Illusions and Other Misconceptions

By Lynn Acton

We realized one January morning that it had been days since we’d seen the horses in their favorite pasture below the barn. They had gone only to the pasture above the barn. I planned to ride my gelding around the lower pasture to investigate, but he stopped at the gate, right in front of the answer. A leaky underground drainage pipe had caused the snow to melt in a circular pattern that looked like a sinkhole. Surrounding drifts made it impossible to tell where solid ground really was. I, too, would have been suspicious if I didn’t already know what the problem was. Once I’d shoveled a clear path around the optical illusion, and walked back and forth to demonstrate that it was safe, all three horses trooped out happily to dig through the snow.

For many years the “scientific” view of horses claimed that they were near-sighted, color blind, and had poor depth perception. They had no ability to think, and acted solely on instinct and conditioned response. One might wonder how such inept creatures survived in the wild, yet somehow they managed to locate food, water, and shelter, negotiate the social complexities of herd living, and survive the dangers of predators. Then they adapted to an endless variety of domestic environments, people, and jobs. Current research is finally validating what astute horse people have always known: horses do indeed have some fascinating perceptual and mental abilities.

Tests of visual acuity show that horses are only slightly near-sighted. Their 20/30 on the Snellen scale is better than the DMV requires of humans for a driver’s license. Horses do see in color with the possible exception of red and green, making their perception similar to that of a human with red-green color blindness. They have excellent night vision, not a big surprise. Horses who were taught to distinguish circles from triangles could still do so until light levels were dropped to nearly pitch dark. Apparently, though, they do need time to adjust to light changes just as we do. One dark night I led a horse out of a well lit indoor arena, and we both tripped over a stack of boards that hadn’t been there the last time we used that door.

There is now scientific evidence that horses have depth perception, which comes as no surprise at all. Just watch a trail horse squeeze between two trees without scraping his rider’s knees, a “pushbutton” hunter who knows exactly where to take off and how high to jump, or a playful horse who races across a pasture and comes to a sliding stop inches from the fence.

Another “fact” that’s been disproved is that horses must see an object with both eyes in order to recognize it. Not so. Once a horse has seen something with one eye, he will recognize it when he sees it with the other eye. If he acts like he doesn’t, that’s probably because he’s now going the opposite direction and the object either looks different from this side, or appears different in context. I sure hope that’s not a sign of limited intelligence, because I personally can never find those turns in the trail going the other way.

Horses, in fact, have incredible visual memories. I was riding a friend’s horse one hot summer day, when my mount made a sudden unauthorized turn right off the trail into the bushes. “What was that?” I asked his owner, as I course-corrected. She explained that there used to be a trail there that was a short cut home. Ten years ago. Though I could find no hint that a trail ever existed in that spot, clearly it still existed in his memory.

We see the effect of their visual memory when a horse does a double-take at a familiar object that’s in a new place. He recognizes the object, but he’s suspicious because it’s not where it “belongs”, only natural for a prey animal. Being suspicious of anything out of the ordinary helped his wild ancestors survive. My gelding once balked at a wheelbarrow full of rocks. Absurd? In his experience rocks didn’t belong in wheelbarrows, and wheelbarrows didn’t belong outside the pasture fence. After carefully perusing the situation, he strolled on by.

Horses’ reactions to what they see can offer insights into their thinking. When a horse balks at a puddle, chances are he will investigate it if he is allowed to. He might lower or turn his head to observe it from different angles, paw at it, sniff it, or taste test the water. This investigative process provides the horse with information he can apply to future situations.

Sapphire, our palomino mare, has investigated electricity. She once watched intently as I closed an electric wire gate, then stepped up and deliberately put her nose on the wire. She knew the electric fence was on, so why would she touch it? Apparently because she had just seen me touch it without getting zapped, and wanted to know if she could, too. She simply missed the detail that I’d held the plastic handle, not the wire.

One can argue that instinct explains a horse’s reluctance to cross suspicious footing, such as the optical illusion created by the “hole” in the snow. But Sapphire’s experiment with the gate wire suggests a logical deduction (if the fence didn’t hurt Lynn, it shouldn’t hurt me.), which she then tested to determine whether her hypothesis was correct. She was, in fact, surprised and indignant when the fence zapped her. Traditional researchers dismissed such incidents because they already “knew” horses were incapable of logical thought. A new breed of researchers are re-evaluating equine abilities with ingenious experiments and open minds. The results promise a better understanding of our equine friends.

“The Thinking Horse: Cognition and Perception Reviewed” by Evelyn Hanggi, PhD. Equine Research Foundation, Aptos, CA. www.equineresearch.org lists other articles on research pertaining to horses and their abilities.

“Shedding Light on Equine Night Vision by Christa Leste-Lasserre and Evelyn Hanggi, PhD. www.thehorse.com
The original version of this article appeared in the New York State Horse Council newsletter and is used with their permission.

Importance of Warm-Up Exercises for the Rider

By Polly Haselton Barger

We always pay attention to getting our horses warmed up at the beginning of a lesson, but it is just as important to have a warm-up routine for our riders. In order to be a safe and effective rider you must be flexible in your joints, coordinated, loosened up and balanced. A simple exercise routine is very helpful to this end.

Some instructors start while the rider is still standing on the ground with some simple rocking on the feet-first onto the toes then onto the heels. This is a wonderful balance exercise. Pay attention that the students don’t lose their balance if they are holding their horses.

Once in the saddle there are several simple exercises and stretches that are easy and effective. I like to start with the feet, pointing the toes up and down, and then doing easy circles with the ankles in both directions. Just move up the legs and do easy swings at the knee. To stretch out the hips have students lift both legs with the knees bent and pointing out. It is important for them not to lean back, so I like to put my hand behind them when they start out. This might be very difficult at first and they might not be able to raise their legs very far. Slow and easy practice with this one will help loosen up the hips. This is a good time to ask students to put their feet into and out of the stirrups several times.

Arm swings are good for the shoulders and help loosen up the back. Circles, both forward and back can start small and then get bigger and bigger and then arms can be kept level and swung from side to side. Have the rider lead with their eye for this one to help develop good riding habits. Simple rolling of the head in both directions is a good stretch for the neck.

Having riders stretch and touch the horse’s poll, shoulder, croup, hip, etc. will not only elongate their muscles, but also help learn the parts of the horse. It is a great stretch to use both hands to touch your knees, then shins, then toes on each side. I always ask the riders to settle their seats in the saddle for this one so that they are stretching, not just leaning. (Have an assistant hold the horse if necessary.) Be sure to do the stretches equally on both sides.

Here is an exercise to help develop coordination. Have students swing the right arm in forward circles, then stop. Next swing the left arm in backward circles, then stop. Now try putting these together. Next try swinging the right leg forward and back at the knee, then stop. Now move the left leg in and out from the hip, then stop. Put these two together. Then put all four together, starting with the right arm and adding the others one at a time. (Have an assistant hold the horse if necessary.) Once your students get in the routine of warming up it will become a simple and quick part of every lesson.

Welcome to Horse Agility!

By Heidi J. Potter, CHA Clinic Instructor
Horse Agility is an exciting new sport that is gaining momentum around the globe. The IHA (International Horse Agility Club) was founded in the United Kingdom by Vanessa Bee, author of the newly published book, The Horse Agility Handbook. The club’s purpose is to promote a safe, fun and unique competition experience for humans and horses of various ages, levels, abilities and breeds. Horse Agility fosters clear, positive communication (not control), improved confidence and healthy emotional interactions between horses and their handlers. It’s a great activity for camps, lesson programs or anyone who wants a new activity to share with their horse. The only equipment needed is a halter and a lead.

Training for Agility
Horse Agility training promotes safe and respectful partnerships. It begins with self-awareness and developing a good set of horsemanship skills on the ground. One important goal is to achieve clear communication and the ability to move your horse in every direction and gait, through use of body language, not through applying pressure. (No sticks, whips or flags allowed). The only two rules for this sport is that it must be SAFE (helmets & boots required for live competitions) and it must be FUN, for You and Your Horse!

How to Compete
All participants begin competing in halter at the Starter Level and move up the levels when they have achieved the appropriate amount of points. There are four levels that compete in halter and two levels that compete at Liberty. The highest level is called “Wild Agility”, which is performed in the wild on a minimum 3-acre parcel.

The popular OLHA (On Line Horse Agility) competitions allow horse enthusiasts to compete internationally, without ever leaving home. Participants simply download the monthly obstacle course, set it up, practice and then send in a video of their performance. Videos are judged monthly and the results are posted on line. Participants can see where they placed within their country as well as internationally. Once judged each participant will receive a personalized e-mail with their individual obstacle scores and comments from the judge.

HAAT’s (Horse Agility Accredited Trainers)
HAAT’s are knowledgeable instructors and trainers who uphold the values of the sport for horse and handler. A list of accredited trainers and a schedule of events they host such as training/play days, live competitions or OLHA videotaping sessions can be found on the IHA website.

To learn more about horse agility or join the club visit www.TheHorseAgilityClub.com.

About the author: Heidi Potter, a CHA Clinic Instructor and Natural Style Trainer has recently earned trainer accreditation status from the IHA Club and is now one of 11 HAAT’s in North America. Heidi is currently offering agility training days and videotaping sessions at Maple Ridge Stable and abroad. The addition of Horse Agility Competitions will be offered this fall at her new facility, the New England Center For Horsemanship in Guilford, Vermont. If you are interested in learning more about Horse Agility or would like to schedule a workshop or event contact Heidi Potter at Heidi@InHarmonyWithHorses.com.

The Effectiveness of Playing Games on Horseback

By April Leonard

Every rider has that one technique that they struggle with perfecting. Maybe it’s learning to keep eyes up or heels down, or figuring out how to pick up the correct lead at a canter. Or the rider may have all the techniques down, but lacks the confidence to execute them. Instructors can try drilling the words “heels down!” into students’ heads and encourage their students to practice, practice, practice… but sometimes that just doesn’t seem to be enough to make a difference. Four experienced CHA instructors suggest another method of teaching that works just as well, if not better—playing games on horseback. As students compete in “Musical Stalls” or “Hokey Pokey”, the concepts they have been trying to grasp for weeks may suddenly sink in without them even realizing it.

“I think games are essential. They take information that can be dry and creatively put that information into a game. Children feel like they’re playing games when actually they’re learning,” states Shellie Carmoney, a CHA certified master instructor and assistant clinic instructor from Howell, Michigan. Games like “Hokey Pokey”, for instance, can give students the ability to steer with either hand—they must steer with their left hand while they “put their right hand in” during the game. Beth Powers, who has been a CHA certified instructor for eighteen years, still remembers the day that using her leg aids to steer finally clicked with her. Powers was playing a game on horseback that involved weaving, and was so intent on winning that she put more effort into steering correctly with her legs than she ever had before. “It was an ‘aha!’ moment. I won a bag of M&Ms.” She recalls. “It was exciting!” Simple, rewarding activities can make a lifetime of difference in a rider’s skills. A game that Powers now uses to teach her own students is “Red Light, Green Light”, which provides an incentive for students to transition from a walk to a halt quickly. Powers adds the command “yellow light!” to this game, which her students know means to reverse. Powers believes that playing games helps riders gain confidence as well as teaches them to look where they’re going instead of down at their horses’ ears.

Laura Hamrin, who has been a CHA certified instructor since 2006, points out that playing games is a great way to prepare riders for horse shows. Games improve a rider’s ring etiquette because they require the rider to pay close attention to his or her surroundings. One such game is “Leap Frog.” In this activity, students ride around the arena on the rail while the last rider in line changes gait to pass the others and reach the front. Students learn to keep their spacing while passing to the inside and to find a safe spot to return to on the rail. “Simon Says is also wonderful for horse show preparation because it accustoms students to listening to the announcer. Games are a great way to teach safety and have fun while doing it!” Hamrin says.

Shellie Carmoney adds that “students of all ages can learn life lessons on horseback. Everything transfers.” Carmoney believes that some of these invaluable lessons are control, communication, hand/eye coordination, and the ability to follow a director. One creative game called “Tortoise and the Hare” teaches students to have control by enforcing that they monitor their horses’ walking pace. In this game, the last person to reach the finish line is the winner!

Although games are exciting and fun, instructors must make sure they do not become reckless. If not used correctly, games can be a disaster rather than an enjoyable learning experience. Felicia Tracy, who has been a CHA certified riding instructor since 1976, points out that games have the potential to become chaotic if the riding instructor does not know the horses and riders very well. “You can get horses very annoyed and upset when kids get excited. You have to protect your horses,” she says. Tracy advises not having relay races that involve saddling a horse unless the riders are advanced. Speed-saddling often results in improperly saddled horses and consequently injuries during the riding portion of the relay race. Games should always be modified to the level of the riders and the ability of the horses.

As well as giving their opinions of playing games on horseback, instructors Carmoney, Hamrin, Powers, and Tracy provide us with instructions on how to play some of their own favorite lesson games. One of these games is “Musical Stalls.” This involves lying lead ropes out in the center of the arena to make several “stall” shaped areas, with one side of each “stall” left open. The riders are told what gait to move around the arena at as music is played. When the instructor stops the music, the students must ride to a stall and halt inside it. The last student to halt in a stall is out! Felicia Tracy says that her students’ favorite game to play while riding is tag. Tag can be dangerous if not closely monitored, though. “You have to know your horses to make it work at all.” Tracy warns. Laura Hamrin’s students love to play “Red Light, Green Light”, while Shellie Carmoney’s younger students adore “Hokey Pokey”. The riders aren’t the only ones who benefit from playing games— Tracy points out that “horses are normally competitive. I think they have a great time!” Hamrin adds “I think the horses enjoy games because they’re not in a routine. It makes it more exciting for them.”

All four instructors agree that as long as a proper amount of caution is exercised, playing games on horseback is an effective and entertaining way to teach students the essentials of becoming better riders. The next time you find yourself searching for another way to encourage riders to keep their chins up or shoulders relaxed, remember that a simple game of “Leap Frog” or “Musical Stalls” could actually make all the difference!

About the Author: April Leonard spent the summer as an intern for The Instructor before beginning her senior year of college. She is working toward a degree in Equine Business Management at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, New York.