Performance Horse Development and The Training Scale

Some of you might be familiar with the Dressage Training Scale. Pictured below, I have the Dressage Training Scale with my notes on how a Performance Horse Development Horse, or PHD Horse, should display the parts of the Training Scale.

We start at the bottom of the Training Scale, and work our way up. Like the foundation of a house, if the base of the Pyramid is not solid, the parts at the top will fall apart.

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So what does Performance Horse Development have in common with the Dressage Training Scale?

A lot!

IPHDA has created a set of progressive patterns that increase the physical and mental demands on the horse and rider as they move through the levels. Each level is designed to make sure the horse accepts the cues from the rider, allowing the horse and rider to perform the gymnastic and control maneuvers of each level in a manner that develops the horse’s strength and suppleness.

Let’s take a look through the progression of PHD patterns and how they relate to the Training Scale.

Level 1A: These patterns are to establish the rider’s balance and rhythm and the horse’s longitudinal and lateral balance to a point where they can:

  1. Walk and trot with forward energy.
  2. Transition down from trot to walk, and walk to halt, while maintaining longitudinal balance. Transition up from a standstill to trot and walk, and walk to trot, without losing longitudinal softness.
  3. Start to develop some lateral softness by being able to perform circles with an arc in their shoulders and hips so that the horse’s feet follow the arc of the circle.
  4. The horse will start to listen to the rider’s rhythm as they begin to become supple at this level. Listening to the rider’s rhythm will help the horse maintain a steady cadence and smooth transitions

Level 1: These patterns are to establish the rider’s balance and rhythm and the horse’s longitudinal and lateral balance to a point where they can (in addition to the level 1a requirements):

  1. Transition from a trot to a stop while maintaining longitudinal balance.
  2. Back while maintaining longitudinal softness.
  3. Perform 180 degree turns on the haunches while maintaining longitudinal balance and with forward energy. It is the forward energy and longitudinal balance that allows the 180 degree turns to have lateral balance.

What are we looking for in a Level 1A & 1 PHD Horse?

RHYTHM and SUPPLENESS/RELAXATION

A Level 1/1A PHD Horse should have a steady, consistent rhythm at the walk, trot, and back up.
A Level 1/1A PHD Horse should have lateral suppleness to be able to walk and trot circles, to change bend, and to perform 180 degree turns on the haunches.
A Level 1/1A PHD Horse should have longitudinal suppleness to be able to transition up and down between a halt, walk, and trot.

What about Level 2A/2?

Level 2A: These patterns are to establish the rider’s balance and rhythm and the horse’s longitudinal and lateral balance to a point where they can (in addition to the Level 1 requirement):

  1. Lope with forward energy.
  2. Transition down from lope to trot while maintaining longitudinal balance.
  3. Transition up from a standstill, walk, or trot to a lope without losing longitudinal softness.
  4. Start to develop more lateral softness by being able to perform circles at a lope, and smaller circles at a trot, with an arc in their shoulders and hips so that the horse’s feet follow the arc of the circle.
  5. The horse will further develop their willingness to listen to the rider’s rhythm as they begin to become supple at this level.

Level 2: These patterns are to establish the rider’s balance and rhythm and the horse’s longitudinal and lateral balance to a point where they can (in addition to the Level 2A requirements):

  1. Have control over the horse’s stride length at the trot,
  2. Stop from a long trot, while maintaining longitudinal softness
  3. Back up, and then turn, 180 on the haunches without a hesitation, this requires maintaining longitudinal softness while changing the amount of lateral balance and softness required.

What are we looking for in a Level 2A & 2 PHD Horse?

RHYTHM and SUPPLENESS/RELAXATION, and Introducing CONTACT & CONNECTION

A Level 2/2A PHD Horse should have a steady, consistent rhythm at the walk, trot, lope and back up.
A Level 2/2A PHD Horse should have lateral suppleness to be able to walk, trot, and lope circles, to change bend, and to perform 180 degree turns on the haunches.
A Level 2/2A PHD Horse should have longitudinal suppleness to be able to transition up and down between a halt, walk, trot, and lope.
A Level 2/2A PHD Horse should accept the rider’s contact and connection to change between a regular jog and an extended jog.

Levels 3A through 8 continue on with this gradual progression up the training scale.

As you can clearly see, the PHD Progression starts at the bottom of the training scale, and works its way up. If you take the time to work through the PHD Patterns, you will develop your horse into a solid, well broke horse that can go on to excel in other disciplines.

Why does the PHD Progression work?

Because by working through the PHD Progression you are ensuring that a solid foundation is laid in your horse’s training-there will be no holes or skipped steps.  The PHD Progression also gradually develops the muscles in your horse’s topline, making it a great exercise program and reducing the chance of injury to your horse, because you are not asking him to perform maneuvers that he is not ready for.

Using the PHD Progression:

When I got a new horse in for training that was “broke”, the first thing I would do was ride a Level 1/1A PHD Pattern. These patterns are a great diagnostic tool, and quickly helped me determine where the holes in the horse’s training were. By riding the patterns throughout the horse’s training, I could easily see where the horse was improving, and where the horse needed work, for example, if the horse was stiff to the left, I would have trouble with circles. If the horse was ignoring my forward cues, my upward transitions would be rough, etc.

By continuing to test the horse by riding the PHD Patterns, I was a lot less likely to ignore or cover up holes-the PHD Patterns are great truth tellers!

So if you have a broke horse at home, start with Level 1A. Film the pattern and submit it in a V-Show, or send it in for Video Coaching with one of the IPHDA Professionals. Then listen to the feedback, and work on the areas where you have trouble. You will be amazed at how quickly your horse improves at other events when you use the PHD Progression to find-and fill in-the holes in your horse’s training.

So go over to the IPHDA website (www.iphda.com), download the PHD Patterns, and get to work!

You already own a PHD horse-you just need to get out there and develop it! 

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Becoming a Horseman: The Importance of Consistency

One of the great mistakes people make is to not ride often enough and to try to accomplish too much when they do. -Ian Francis

Strive for 1% Improvement Every Ride. 100 Rides, 100% Improvement.

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Becoming a Horseman: The Importance of Feel, Timing, Balance, and Experience

You don’t have to do much research about horsemanship to hear that it takes Feel, Timing, Balance and Experience to become a Horseman.

Of these words, Balance and Experience are pretty easy concepts to understand.

Timing is a little more complicated, but most riders can be taught the idea of the timing of their cues.

Feel, however, is much harder to define, and hard to teach. Feel is a vague word that is often used by trainers, clinicians, and instructors. Most of them agree that to become a True Horseman, you must develop feel.

It is a word surrounded by confusion, with the connotation of having an almost magical quality, leaving the reader confused and wondering if “feel” is some magical talent that only horse whisperers possess.

In this blog, I will examine different definitions of Feel. Some of these definitions come from Natural Horsemanship trainers/clinicians, and some from top Performance Horse trainers. I will look at the connection between Feel and Timing, take a quick look at Balance, and also at the role that Experience plays into developing Feel, Timing, and Balance.

Hopefully this will help clear the confusion around “Feel” and help you on your path to becoming a horseman!

What is Feel?

In Bill Dorrance’s book “True Horsemanship Through Feel,” he describes feel as “the language of horses.”

In his book, he describes two kinds of feel that we can use to communicate with our horses.

Indirect feel is the feel that we use when the horse is loose, in the corral or round pen, when we use our body language to communicate with the horse.

Direct feel is the feel we use when we have a direct connection with the horse, such as a halter and lead rope, bridle, the rider’s leg and seat, etc.

Using these types of feel, the person can influence the horse to respond into doing different things.

Feel & Collection

For a lot of people “feel” is synonymous with vertical flexion and collection.

I think that this is because it takes a good rider with a decent amount of “feel” to be able to achieve collection with their horse. However, I think that constricting “feel” to collection is a mistake. The rider should be able to “feel” the entire horse.

Let’s consider this quote from Tom Dorrance’s book “True Unity.”

“The older I get the more it’s beginning to dawn on me how most people seem to have so little feel of the whole horse-of what’s going on in what part.” (Page 9)

Later in his book, Tom Dorrance tries to define feel:

”I’ve looked in dictionaries for the definition for the word feel. I haven’t been really satisfied with the definitions I’ve found for this thing I’m talking about with the horse-this thing between the horse and the person. When I talk to people about this feel and the timing, I realize how difficult it may be for them to try to get what I am trying to say.” (Page 12)

Like the Tom Dorrance quote above suggests, Dr. Robert Miller agrees in his book Natural Horsemanship Explained that feel is something between the horse and rider. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to feel (Chapter 8). In Dr. Miller’s chapter on Feel, he discusses feel from the standpoint of the horse, and has many examples of how riders can use more subtle signals to produce horses with feel, that respond to light cues. He states to “Reward the slightest try by releasing the pressure. That’s how lightness is developed. That’s a horse with ‘feel.’”

Dr. Miller also describes feel from the standpoint of the human as “the ability to detect the response of the horse and to anticipate its consequences.”

Martin Black defines feel in his book Cow-Horse Confidence as more than just physical, more than just where the horse’s body parts are. He states, “We must be aware that, where the horse is concerned, ‘feel’ is emotional, mental, and physical.”

He also describes his training methods as the Feel Approach: “With the feel approach, you support and encourage the horse through each step of the process, motivating him through pressure and relief, and rewarding each ”try” he makes along the way. This allows the horse to make decisions, learn, and understand the purpose of what you’re asking.” (Pages 34-35)

Craig Cameron also agrees that feel is more than physical. In his book, Ride Smart, he explains:

“Feel is more than just a physical touch, it’s also an emotional response and a mental approach to whatever situation you find yourself in with your horse…You’ll have to develop your own lightness and understanding of the horse, or feel. For example, when your horse is giving to the bit in response to one of your requests, the most important thing you can do is give back, or release the pressure you placed on the horse. The release is the only thing in it for the horse. What you’re trying to say to the horse is: ”When you give, I’ll give.” That’s a feel. “When you’re soft, I’m soft.” That’s a feel. “When you yield, I yield.” That’s a feel. It’s something that you’re going to have to work on over a period of time. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your horse. It’s about give and take and truly a game of feel.
You can recognize that you’re developing feel by your horse’s responses. It’ll take time for you to learn when to use more pressure and when to use less. In the beginning it might take a lot, but in the end it should take less. The result is a feel that’s more of a suggestion and finally just a thought.” (Pages 38-39)

One of my favorite definitions of feel might be the simplest:

“Feel is knowing where all your horse’s body parts are at all times, and if they are in the correct position for whatever maneuver you ask your horse to perform.”
Mike Major, Ranch Horse Versatility, page 80

Jack Brainard agrees with Mike Major’s definition. In Jack’s book, “If I Were To Train A Horse” he states:
“Good trainers develop a ”feel” for the horse, which means they know where his feet are and when to cue (the horse).”

Now that we have examined some different viewpoints from different trainers on feel, what do they have in common?

The rider must be attuned to the horse’s body placement and response to the rider’s cues, and the rider must be able to feel when the horse is doing right, so that the rider can encourage the correct response.

How does the rider “feel” the horse?

The rider “feels” where the horse’s body parts are, so they can be sure that the horse is in the correct position before asking the horse to do something, so that the horse will be a lot more successful at doing whatever we ask, and the horse and rider will both be happier with the result.

The rider “feels” how the horse is responding to the rider emotionally, (is the horse mad? scared? irritated?) then the rider adjusts what s/he is asking the horse to do to change the horse’s attitude.

The rider “feels” how the horse is responding to the rider mentally, (is the horse ready to perform the requested maneuver? has the horse remembered previous lessons that build on the requested maneuver?) so that the rider makes sure that the horse can actually do what the rider is asking them to do, so that they build the horse’s confidence instead of creating fear and confusion.

Siobhan’s Simplified Definition of Feel:

Feel is the ability to know where the horse’s body parts are, to be able to communicate with the horse to move it’s body parts, and to be able to read the horse’s physical, mental, and emotional responses to the rider’s requests.

What about Timing?

If you have taken my How Horses Learn Lesson, you should already have a good idea of what trainers mean when they say that a rider has “good timing.”

Remember the Teaching Moment? That split second immediately after the horse performs the requested response? That split second when the rider should be giving reinforcement, whether it is negative reinforcement by releasing the rein/leg cue, or by petting/rewarding the horse?

If the rider has good timing, they give the reinforcement during the Teaching Moment, to help the horse learn.

In Sandy Collier’s book “Reining Essentials,” she states that “Timing is everything.” In the following paragraph, she describes why it is necessary for riders to develop great timing:

“Remember, horses learn from the release of pressure, not the application of it. And when you release, your horse will associate this reward with whatever he was doing immediately before the release. So if you’re a split second late releasing, you’re confusing your horse and slowing his learning, or even inadvertently ”rewarding” something else entirely.” (Page 12)

Timing and Feel are often mentioned together, because they both need to be used together to be effective.

Mike Major describes how Timing and Feel are intertwined in his book, Ranch Horse Versatility:

“Timing and feel intertwine and are such an important thing. Timing is a state of mind, knowing when to put pressure on a horse-or not. Good timing in training is one of the biggest virtues to develop when you work with a horse. Your training is effective, and it takes less time to accomplish your goals because you understand the right time to ask your horse to do a maneuver. Feel is knowing where all your horse’s body parts are at all times, and if they are in the correct position for whatever maneuver you ask your horse to perform.”

Chris Cox’s definition of feel in his book Ride the Journey also combines the concepts of feel and timing:

“Feel is applying the pressure you use to set boundaries with your horse and knowing when to release that pressure. Developing feel takes time and practice, but you can perfect your feel so that you release pressure the moment the horse gives to you. You might be applying leg pressure as you ask the horse to side-pass, or holding a brace with your rein, asking him to give laterally. In either case, you want to maintain consistency in setting that boundary until your horse gives. As soon as you feel that softening, that give, from your horse, you must release the pressure.” (Page 27)

Siobhan’s Simplified Definition of Timing:

Timing is the rider’s application, and release, of the cues to the horse, keeping in mind that the horse learns from the release, not the application, of the cue.

Balance:

Balance is a much easier concept to explain. A rider that is balanced is able to move with the horse, instead of getting in the horse’s way. A balanced rider enable the horse to more easily perform maneuvers. A balanced rider is not bouncing on the horse’s back, making them sore, or hanging on the horse’s mouth, giving conflicting signals. The quickest way for a rider to develop balance is by taking riding lessons from a good instructor.
For more about Balance, watch my “Performance Position” video by clicking here.

Experience:

A rider must ride a lot of hours, on a lot of different horses, to develop feel, timing, and balance. Find a mentor to learn from that is successful in the event/discipline that you want to ride in. Take lessons. Go to clinics and expos and demonstrations. Read every book and article you can. Watch training DVDs. Ask questions. Take my online horsemanship lessons, or contact me about online video coaching.

It takes years of dedication and hard work to become a horseman. It is not something that magically happens overnight or after one lesson.

That’s why it’s called a Journey!

Please feel free to leave a comment-I would like to hear what other people feel about “feel!”

Recommended Reading:

Bill Dorrance, “True Horsemanship Through Feel”

Tom Dorrance, “True Unity”

Ray Hunt, “Think Harmony with Horses”

Jack Brainard, “If I Were To Train A Horse”

Sandy Collier, “Reining Essentials”

Chris Cox, “Ride the Journey”

Mike Major, “Ranch Horse Versatility”

Martin Black, “Cow-Horse Confidence”

Craig Cameron, “Ride Smart”

Dr. Robert Miller, “Explaining Natural Horsemanship”