Seminar Presentations by Donna Snyder-Smith
2008 PNER Conference January 26 2008
Article © Nancy R. Skakel 1/08
Donna Snyder-Smith, noted riding instructor and trainer, presented a day long seminar at the 2008 Pacific Northwest Endurance Rides Conference in Pasco, Washington. Her morning lecture dealt with the rider's posture and how being out of balance in our own bodies affects our horses. The four hour afternoon session, held in the commodious arena at the Trac Arena, focused on the horse and rider partnership with six demonstration riders. Three of the riders were accomplished 100-milers "of a certain age," another a young rider 17 years old; all average riders. The horses were primarily endurance mounts. Arabian or Arab cross, and one older appaloosa western pleasure horse.
As the riders warmed up their horses in the arena, one horse became more and more anxious, frequently calling and getting more and more skittish and difficult to control. Snyder-Smith had the rider dismount, and remove the reins from the bit. She put the horse on an indirect lunge line. This was a 25 foot half-inch rope tied to the girth just above stirrup height, then run through the bit ring from inside to the outside, and to the trainer's hands. This was a mature horse and a 100-mile campaigner so she was able to start lunging him on a fairly small circle (perhaps a 15 foot radius). She cautioned that you would only use this technique with a horse that already understands walk-trot-halt on the lunge, and is at least 4 years old in order to not over stress immature joints. Her goal in this exercise was to achieve a rhythmic trot, maintaining tempo with a relaxed longitudinal stretch. By teaching the horse to trot in this manner on the lunge you can encourage the same relaxed trot on the trail and stabilized, rhythmic gait has a calming effect on a horse's emotional state.
Each time the horse became distracted and threw his head up to whinny, she shortened the radius of the circle and gently encouraged the horse to keep trotting. This caused the horse to work harder by having to step under his body with his inside hind leg, and required the horse to focus on the work instead of worrying about his buddy. As the horse gradually started paying more attention to the work his head would come down and he would slow to a walk. Each time he walked Snyder-Smith would quietly push him back into the trot. As he maintained better rhythm and stretch she allowed him to work on a larger circle. When his attention wandered or he tried to avoid working, she gently pushed him on in a smaller circle to refocus his mind.
After ten or twelve minutes of this work the horse started to settle and work more consistently. She then changed the lunge to his weaker direction and moved the center of the circle (where she was standing) closer to the scary bleacher wall. The horse tried to evade by stopping and facing the handler with his neck thrown high and back hollow. Again, she gently encouraged him to trot on. With this lunge line arrangement if he threw his head up he would pull against himself, an instantaneous self-correction. "He is just going to have to deal with it," was Snyder-Smith's comment. She kept up a running lecture during all this work. She described an escalating level of distraction. If his attention wandered, he sped up, or threw his head up, she would shorten the line working him on a smaller and therefore more demanding circle. At one point she asked him to halt and his attention immediately went elsewhere. "He's gone," Snyder-Smith noted and added that she often observes a similar lack of focus in endurance horses.
This exercise is not effective if the trainer walks around as the horse circles. "If you walk around to much, the horse does not learn to give to the rein or achieve a steady tempo, and much of the suppling effect is lost," she noted. As the horse strengthens his inside hind (both hind legs get equal attention by working in both directions,) you teach the horse to carry himself with his hindquarters under his body. The same effect can be more difficult to achieved on a standard lunge line attached directly to the horse's head because the horse can easily evade the work by leaning on the inside shoulder while its haunches drift out.*
Picture the horse's body as a teeter-totter. Going on the forehand tips the teeter-totter one direction. Shifting the power and driving force to the hindquarters evens or slightly tips the teeter-totter the other, desirable direction. The belly muscles have to shorten to bring that hind leg under which causes the shoulders of the horse to rise, allowing more freedom of movement in the horse's front end allowing for better control of the horse and less concussion over the miles on the horse's front legs as well. We can encourage the strengthening of the abdominal muscles by asking the horse to contract those muscles by doing belly lifts (as seen in the TTEAM work). Do them frequently, while grooming, tacking up, untacking, hanging out, petting. You can also ask the horse to tighten his buttock muscles to strengthen the lumbo-sacral joint. Keeping flexibility in this joint is important to insure the horse's access to his natural stride length capability.
It is natural for the horse to contract his back muscles, "dropping" or "hollowing" his back when a saddle is placed on him. Many western trainers address this by asking for long backing movements or rollbacks, riding the horse close to the fence and asking for a pivoting turn, forcing the horse back on to his hindquarters. While these tools work, it is rather aggressive and must be used with good judgment because it puts a lot of strain on a horse's hocks which can cause injury to the joint.
We have to remember that the body parts are integral, and the pastern, hock, stifle, sacrum, and the back all work together. In order to confirm new movement patterns in the horse, the horse needs to learn and practice training exercises in a relaxed, calm state of mind and perform them quietly and consistently repeatedly, over time. Remember that the rider's aids, legs, weight, torso, and reins, are our tools to have a conversation directing how the horse moves.
After about 15 minutes this particular demonstration horse had calmed down and had his mind on the work at hand. The lunge line was removed, the bridle reins replaced, and he was asked to do some work in hand. Standing by his head with light contact on the inside rein, she used an in-hand whip to tap lightly on his flank, asking him to step under his body while she controlled his forward movement. It took the horse a few moments of worry before he made an effort in the desired direction. Snyder-Smith remained calm and relaxed, gently asking for the step under his body. "Let him experiment until he gets it right." When he made a good effort he was rewarded by walking straight forward a few steps, then was asked to repeat the exercise.
Once he understood what he was being asked to do, he was asked to two-track on the quarter line. "With this exercise you can place that hind foot wherever you want it." She advised that if the horse evades by walking around the trainer, be patient, set him up, and ask again. If he tries to push into you, raise your hand to keep him out of your space. Notice that controlling the head with the bit does not control the horse. To control the front end you have to control the shoulder, so step into the shoulder to move it over as you are asking the hind leg to step under (control of the hind end.). Controlling the exercise so the horse performs it one step at a time, teaches the horse discipline, strengthens the joints, and encourages him to carry more of his weight over his hind legs. He also learns to listen to and gains respect for the trainer/handler. The result will be an improved, forward trot that floats down the trail instead of one where most of the horse's weight is landing on his front feet in a ground pounding mannor. With consistent work a horse will eventually be able to trot downhill with his body level and no change in cadence.
Snyder-Smith had the owner take over and continue the in-hand work. She corrected him to not ask for too much angle (by placing too strong contact on the inside rein,). If the horse is asked to step on the diagonal while over bent the longitudinal stretch is lost and may cause interfering in front. Straighten him out a bit and he can lift his feet up and over. After a few minutes the owner mounted the horse and it was clear the groundwork had transferred to work under saddle. He had stopped whinnying, his back was more relaxed, and he was ready to go for a ride. All this took less than a half hour.
Watching the six demonstration riders circle the arena, Snyder-Smith had the audience observe the horses for unevenness. One stepped short on the left hind, another was short on the right hind, another was short on both hind legs, and one was significantly hollow and inverted in his whole frame. Muscles that are under or over developed result in a minimum of striding up (the hind foot stepping into the print left by the fore foot.) To assess a horse she recommends looking closely at the horse. Are the shoulders muscled equally? Is the length of stride even? Some of this is influenced by conformation. The length of the bones and their relationships to each other dictates the possible length of stride. Muscular development, strength, suppleness, and being right or left dominant can also influence stride length, but it is the rider's job to work with his or her horse until the horse moves evenly and in balance.
The first horse was a small freckled Arab with a very short, choppy stride in front. The head and neck were carried high and tense. The rider's hands were constantly, gently seesawing on the reins, asking the horse to drop her head. She tended to hold her hands too low and with the fingers very open but constantly flexing, annoying the horse. Snyder-Smith asked the rider to quiet and relax her hands and the horse's nose dropped. This was an ingrained habit with this rider and she was reminded throughout the afternoon to relax her hands. (Sound familiar?) "Only pick up the reins to help the horse." While you want to maintain even contact it needs to be with a soft, following hand. The constricted neck, resulting in the short strides, was evidenced by the way the horse's ears bobbed back toward the rider instead of forward toward the ground as it walked. When she relaxed, the head movement altered, going more forward, toward the ground and the horse also exhibited a slightly longer stride in the trot as well.
The next horse and rider pair was the older appaloosa. This horse had the western pleasure shuffle, neck carried very low, with very little energy in its gaits. The rider was very relaxed and did not ask the horse for much effort. Snyder-Smith asked her to shorten the reins and pick up contact, then ask with her leg for more engagement and to step up. The horse did not want to work that hard and leaned on the bit to pull the reins back to their usual position. Snyder-Smith encouraged the rider to not give up the contact, to keep it steady, and to let the horse find its own position of comfort in self-carriage. Again, the very low, open hand allowed the horse to pull the reins, so she had to set her hand and ask the horse to carry itself with increased energy. If you pull the horse's head up you get an inverted, tense neck, and the horse will tend to drop or hollow its back.
The left hind on the compact chesnut Arab came down more quickly than the right hind. The stride was a little short, but mainly quicker. The right hind needs to extend all the way back, bearing the weight as the left hind swings forward. Donna's assessment was that the horse's left hind was coming down quickly to protect its right hind leg from having to extend completely. The rider posted the rhythm of the horse's short trot. She was encouraged to free up her pelvis, open her hip joints and allow her pelvis to float forward, staying up out of the saddle bit longer in the rise. The hip joint closes and the knees bend slightly like shock absorbers as you sit. If you sit too soon, the horse shortens its stride to match the rider's posting rhythm. By slowing your own posting rhythm by staying up longer in the rise, you allow the horse to complete its natural reach, lengthening its stride and many times helping the horse to find its natural suspension; the time the horse hangs for a moment in mid-air, between strides, with no feet touching the ground. You have a lot of influence on your horse's trot rhythm.
The badly inverted horse had warmed up enough to begin to relax a bit, allowing its back to rise slightly. The rider was using a hackamore and Snyder-Smith notes that she feels the usefulness of the hackamore is limited, and that even the western trainers that start out in a bosal graduate to a snaffle and eventually a curb bit as the horse's training advances.
Now she had the riders go on a 20-meter circle around her. She had traffic cones set up and encouraged the riders to guide the horses close to the cones to maintain the round circle. Then she assessed the riders individually. Most of the riders had the typical posture with the pelvis tilted forward and the back swayed and hollow. The motion of the horse leaves the rider behind, causing them to make an effort to catch up. The horse has to tilt its pelvis back in order to bring the hind legs under the body, lifting the loin. A rider with a forward tilted pelvis drives the seat bones into the horse's back like sticks jabbing its back. Rider's were shown how to take their feet out of their stirrups, grab the pommel, and pull their seat forward, rocking the top of their pelvis backward to help position their seat bones correctly on the horse's back and then eventually allowing their pelvis to settle into the saddle on a vertical line from bottom to top, right over their feet.
One saddle had the stirrups set way too far back, impeding the rider's ability to put their leg where it belonged on the girth. Snyder-Smith had her pull herself more forward in the saddle, and flatten the small of her back. She had the rider place her own hand in the small of her back and pull her belly button into her hand. She described how the trochanter on the head of the femur makes distance between our legs wider than the width of our pelvis. Tightness in the groin reduces that space. To sit deeply on our horse's back, especially if they have a wide barrel, we have to rotate the femur at the hip joint, accessing all of the potential width available in that area, and allow our leg to hang in a relaxed manner down the side of the horse's rib cage. Donna showed how you can even grab your pant leg behind the thigh to pull the leg back under you. When she asked the rider how that felt, she replied. "It feels deeper." The trick is not to grip. Donna recommended practicing riding without stirrups as an exercise to deepen a rider's seat, but only on a horse which was reliable and safe. Snyder-Smith said that the Chinese have shown that it takes 2000 repetitions to train our muscles to a new movement. Another study indicated that it takes 21 days to create a habit.
Another saddle was much too small for the rider. When the rider rocked her pelvis forward and lengthened her leg, she was jammed against the pommel with barely two finger widths between her buttocks and the cantle (it should be 4 finger widths.) Donna cautioned, "the saddle must fit both the horse and the rider!" The rider's seat is a combination of physical ability and the saddle. The youngest rider had the easiest time to open her thigh and rotate her hip, draping her leg around the horse. She was reminded to use the inside of her calf against the horse's ribs, rather than twisting her leg at the knee in order to kick at the horse's side with the back of her heel.
The national show horse was used to going in a very inverted frame. When the rider "fixed" the horse, the horse would "fix" the rider and revert to its habitual form. The rider sat with his torso behind his legs. He tried to keep his knees bent, but the horse's head would come up, his back hollow, and the rider would brace his legs, his back curved forward to compensate for the imbalance. This re-inforced the horse's posture and his excitement level would escalate. Being out of balance, and tense is not a position of authority and strength for the rider, and the horse responds with increased anxiety. Upon examination Donna found that the horse's saddle was tight over the withers. She noted that when a horse hollows its back, a saddle which might fit the back when the muscles are lifted, rides down into the hollow caused by the contracted muscles, and pinches behind the withers, this in turn prevents the horse from wanted to "lift" its back muscles into the discomfort of the "pinch;" setting up a vicious cycle. The rider had a secure seat and usually sat the trot. She complemented him on having elasticity in his hip and thigh joints, and a flexible lower back. However, she also noted that he could better activate the hind legs of his horse by using the posting rhythm. She had him drop his stirrups one hole and slide forward in the saddle without leaning back. After lengthening the stirrup she had him tighten his right hip, then his left hip, unlock his knees, and lift his toe into the stirrup. The longer leg, with Achilles tendon extended and the foot flat, the toe level or slightly above the heel, allows for a more flexible ankle and better shock absorption.
She said usually endurance riders tend to have their stirrups too long, resulting in less support but less strain on the joints. They avoid the shorter stirrup because of cramps and pressure on the ball of the foot. A shorter stirrup is appropriate for the top ten endurance riders who rides quite a bit at canter or gallop. She advised against assuming the forward two-point position of the jumping rider, because, unless it is biomechanically accurate, it weights the horses's forehand. Instead, she suggested, endurance riders should learn to ride in what she calls a "light seat," which is the seat that was used by the U.S. Cavalry.
Next she had the riders, still on the 20-meter circle, ride voltes (smaller circles) to the center. If the rider or the horse leans in on the bend it places more concussion on the lateral edge of the hoof. The rider needs to bring the inside hip slightly forward and advance their outside shoulder slightly to mirror the desired position of the horse's body from ears to tail on a curve. It is very important not to lean. When riding a curve, it is a good exercise to try to keep the horse's head, neck and shoulders evenly between both reins, with the reins held with even contact and of even length. This will limit your tendency to pull too much on the inside rein during a turn, pulling your horse out of balance and onto its inside shoulder. Do not cross your hands over the horse's neck. Frequent, small adjustments are needed to keep the horse flexed and bent on the circle. If you thrust your hip to the outside and lean inward with your torso or shoulders, your horse will do the same. Don't nag your horse with your aids, but use them occasionally to correct and guide the horse.
The riders struggled with this simple exercise. Stored kinesthetic sense told them that their habitual postures; for example weighting the left hip more than the right hip on a circle to the right, felt "normal". When you actually get centered in your body your brain will make you feel unbalanced at first. Riding without stirrups and exercises to open the groin will help to re-educate our mind-bodies.
Giving the horses a rest, Snyder-Smith demonstrated the use of a mini-trampoline to both assess and treat a biomechanical problem in one of the riders. This rider complained of a lot of tension in her back. Snyder-Smith had her jog lightly on the trampoline. She could see that one leg was tighter, not allowing the rebound of the trampoline to flow through the body. Holding hands with the jogger, Snyder-Smith encouraged her to relax her arms and shoulders. With slightly increased energy she had her bend her knees more and rhythmically touch her right knee with her left hand. After a few moments of that, she switched to the opposite knee and hand. Lastly she had her continue to jog, holding hands with Snyder-Smith, torso bent forward with a flat back, letting go of the tension in her neck and shoulder. Snyder-Smith talked about allowing the rebound energy to flow unrestricted, without tension.
Next Snyder-Smith had the riders trot four caveletti. It took several times through for the horses to maintain a true trot through the course. Each horse and rider pair had their own issues to deal with. Preparation as they approached the obstacle, gaining trust, maintaining energy and rhythm in the trot, posting to aid the horse, keeping the eyes up and forward. As the pairs improved in their rounds the audience enthusiastically rewarded the correct efforts with applause. We could all see the results of their concentration.
Next she had the riders trot their horse between to poles set about 4 feet apart on the ground, then ask for a square halt. Again, this seemingly simple exercise proved to be a real challenge, requiring quiet, supportive aids, balance, timing, preparation, and relaxation. Again, we saw some improvement each go 'round, with coaching, but really only one square halt during this exercise.
Running short on time, the last exercise was a set of six traffic cones set in line with about one stride spacing between cones. The riders were instructed to trot a serpentine through the cones. This was the most athletic exercise of the afternoon, asking the horse and rider to balance and change bend (and diagonal!) between each pair of cones. Cones were missed, run over, and a few slalomed through the line with a minimum of bend. I'll bet some of those riders will go home and set up some of these exercises in their home arenas to work on what they had learned in this seminar. I look forward to getting on my own horses to try some of these exercises with correct biomechanics in mind.
Note: Donna Snyder-Smith reviewed and approved this article.