“To see the wind’s power, the rain’s cleansing and the sun’s radiant life,
one need only to look at the horse. “
What methods and styles of horsemanship do we use at Léttleiki Icelandics? There is a saying that you´d have to live 200 years to learn all there is to know about horses. At Léttleiki Icelandics we use a variety of methods including natural horsemanship, western training, classical dressage, and traditional Icelandic methods. As long as the method is kind and fair to the horse and gets positive results – we use it! Every horse and situation is different and therefore good trainers need to always be ready to change and develope their training methods whenever nescessary.
These are some basic principles that we always emphasize in our training. The key to a successful relationship between horse and rider is trust and respect. We build this trust and respect by applying theses simple concepts:
1. Understanding horse psychology
Horses are motivated by comfort and safety. Undesirable behavior is simply a learned response to a situation or their biological need to protect themselves.
2. Rewarding the horse consistently at the right time
Training successfully involves feeling and understanding the horse and then responding at the right time. A rider needs to have good balance and an independent seat to be able to do this.
3. Being as gentle as possible but as firm as necessary
Our goal is to be able to control the horse with the lightest and smallest aids possible. To achieve this it is important to consistently begin with the aid that you want the horse to respond to in the future. If the horse does not respond to the smallest cue then it is important to progressively strengthen that cue until you get the proper response.
Correct training should turn the horse into a partner who enjoys, choses, and wants to do what you ask.
No horse is the same! Each horse has a different character, conformation, and way of moving. It is important to take account of those differences and use training methods that systematically build up the horse´s mental and physical strength. Horses need to learn to carry the weight of the rider and move gracefully useing the correct muscles. Teaching the horse to move in this way takes thoughtful training, time and patience.
Icelandic Horse Training Pyramid
At Léttleiki Icelandics we train in accordance with Hólar´s Icelandic horse training pyramid.
Here are some explanations of the different concepts in the training pyramid:
Horses have been evolving for over 60 million years, but they were domesticated only 6,000 years ago. Because of this it is important to understand equine behavior and work with horses on their own terms. Horses have three basic instincts: 1. Flight instinct 2. Herd instinct 3. Instinct to establish a trustworthy leader. For trainers the third instinct is very important. To have a calm responsive horse we need to establish ourselves as the “leader” and build up the horses trust and respect. How do we do that? A basic rule to remember is that the one who controls the feet is the leader. This control is established first by work in hand and then in the saddle. To train this control we need to understand how horses learn. Horses learn primarily through operant conditioning, which usually involves putting some sort of pressure or stimulus on the horse until we get the response we want – then we reward!! The reward is the most important part because the behavior we reward is the behavior that will be learned. The reward is the release of all pressure. Timing is very important! Good training involves trying to always apply aids in a systematic fashion – meaning start with the smallest cue possible and then reinforce that aid systematically until the desired response is achieved. The training is usually divided into two categories: sensitizing as opposed to desensitizing work. Our goal at Léttleiki Icelandics is to train horse so that they are calm (desensitized to a variety of things) but responsive (sensitized to the aids).
Why is it important that horses are relaxed and focused? As Monty Roberts says “Adrenaline up, learning down; andrenaline down, learning up.” A horse that is tense or distracted is not only mentally unbalanced, but is also often physically unable to perform or proceed to the next levels in the training pyramid.
When training it is important to make things simple for the horse to learn and make sure that the horse is physically capable of performing your requests. If you ask a horse to perform in a way that is too difficult for that horse then you will lose the horses trust. Our goal is to train horses to become a trusting and willing partner.
The term “rhythm” refers to the regularity of the steps or strides in each gait. Good rhythm is when each stride covers an equal distance and the steps are of correct duration. For example in the tölt the time between footfalls should be of equal duration in a four beat sequence. Icelanders often describe the rhythm of the tölt as “ti-ka-ta-ka.” Sometimes tölt is pacey or trotty meaning that the rhythm is incorrect. Rhythm is important for competition and breeding horses because it is one of the primary things that is judged. Rhythm is also important to pleasure riders because, for example, a clean four beat tölt is more comfortable to ride than a tölt with beat faults. Training good rhythm is an individual process and the methods used depend upon the balance and conformation of each horse. One of our primary goals at Léttleiki is to train horses to have a clean beat and correct rhythm in all of their gaits.
Suppleness is maximum flexibility in the muscles and joints so that the muscles contract and relax in a controlled and appropriate fashion. Suppleness is generally divided into two types; longitudional and lateral. Lateral suppleness is softness to the sides in the topline/spine. Some dressage literature says that this lateral bend should be even throughout the horses body. This is physically impossible. If you look down at a horses topline when the horse is moving on a circle it is obvious that horses are very supple/bendable to the sides in the neck and first set of spinal vertebrae. The suppleness/abilitiy to bend to the sides decreases in the middle of the horses spine and is even less in the lumbar and sacral regions. Therefore achieveing lateral bend/suppleness throughout a horses topline can be quite challenging. Exercises that help a horse stretch and bend laterally include circles and shoulder ins. Longitudional suppleness is suppleness in the topline up and down as opposed to the right and left. Longitudional suppleness involves either collecting and raising the topline or rounding and lengthening. This type of suppleness can be trained through exercises such as teaching the horse to stretch forward and down or by doing collecting exercises such as transitions and speed changes. Suppleness is important because it is healthy for the horse, comfortable for the rider, and beautiful to watch. A supple horse has loose and free movements because energy can flow through their body free of stiffness and tension. Often a supple horse will have clean and comfortable gaits and will be light in response to the riders aids.
Nearly all horses are crooked to a certain extent – just like most people are right or left handed. One of our training goals is to help horses become straight. Straightness is important to the horses physical health as well as key to high performance and the next steps of the training pyramid.
To be able to correct crookedness it is nescessary to be able to define/identify where that crookedness is and how it effects the horse. Below is a list of six ways to define and identify crookedness:
Concave vs. convex side
Generally crookedness is defined and discussed in terms of a convex (longer) and concave (shorter) side. In the picture above the horse´s left side is convex and right side is concave. But which side is the stiff side? Trainers opinions vary. Philippe Karl and Walter Zettl say that the concave side is stif and tight – causing it to be shorter. Sue Morris and Deb Bennett say that the convex side is more muscled and stiff causing the horse to bend in the other direction. My opinion is that it depends on the individual horse and a variety of methods should be tried in an attempt to lengthen or shorten a side and help the horse become straight.
Most trainers say that a crooked horse is more likely to be stiff on the rein that´s on the convex side. This makes sense because a horse will generally find it more difficult to bend to the convex side. Sometimes I find that a horse can acutally be more stiff on the concave side rein. The problem is that riders have more difficulty taking up contact on that side because the horse is hollow/overly bent in that direction. Often when contact is taken the horse turns out to be more stiff on that side. When training the goal is to have equal contact with both reins by decreasing the contact on the heavy rein and increasing it on the light rein.
It is easier to bend a horse that is crooked in the concave direction because that is the direction in which they already bend. Differences in suppleness between the right and the left when riding curved figures is a clear sign of crookedness.
Depending on how the horse is crooked, certain exercises will be more difficult going in a particular direction. For example the horse in the picture would be easy to ride in haunches in to the right but difficult to the left. Dressage exercises are a great way to help correct crookedness. The horse in the example could benefit from doing haunches in to the left.
In extreme cases of crookedness the horse may be more muscled in certain places and the hoofs may even be deformed in a way particular to the type of crookedness. This is obviously unhealthy for the horse and requires careful and consistent training over a long period of time to correct.
Pushing vs. carrying power in the hind legs
Crookedness is also defined in terms of the pushing vs. carrying hind leg. A hind leg that carries more tends to step more underneath the horse. A pushing hind leg tends to stay behind the horse pushing the horse forward. In the picture at the top of this section you can see that the right hind leg on the concave side is clearly more “under” the horse meaning that it is the carrying hind leg.
Correcting crookedness can be tricky and take time and patience. Classical dressage literature often discusses lengthening the concave side and shortening the convex side. When doing this it is important that the horse is relaxed and can stretch out his/her topline. If the topline is “crunched” together then correcting crookedness is nearly impossible. Also it is important that the horse stay relaxed because tension often increases crookedness. Sometimes a horse becomes straight as soon as they are relaxed and allowed to lengthen their topline.
Another method for correcting crookedness is aligning the front of the horse with the back of the horse. It is important to move the front of the horse because the back part of the horse is like the engine so you are moving the front part in front of the pushing power of the hindquarters. The horse will then push straight forward.
Often correcting crookedness involves engaging the pushing hind leg so it steps further underneath the horse. This can be done through exercises such as shoulder in. For example shoulder in to the left would engage the left hind leg. The key to using dressage exercises to correct crookedness is to train the exercises on both hands but ride them with different emphases. For example when riding shoulder in in the concave direction it is important to limit the bend and increase the sideways movement. Then in the convex direction it is important to ride the exercise with less sideways movement and more bend.
There are two schools of thought in terms of straightening the horse. Everyone agrees that it is nescessary for the horse to be calm. Steinbrecht famously said “Ride your horse forward and straighten him.” Other trainers such as Alois Podhjasky and Deb Bennett disagree. Deb Bennett uses the example of a crooked toy train. If you push a crooked train forward from the back it will just become even more crooked. On the other hand if a horse has no forward impulsion they will be like a noodle and therefore difficult to correct. My opinion is that it depends on the individual horse and it is simply important for the trainer to keep in mind the importance of forward impulsion in straightening the horse.
Form/ On the bit
When discussing the horses form it is important to define two important concepts. The first is the topline. The horses topline is the series of muscles and ligaments that stretches from the first vertebrae or poll to the tip of the horses tail. The second is the underline. The underline includes the stomach muscles that stretch from under the chest to under the horses hips. These muscle help bend the thigh muscles and pull the hind legs underneath the horse and lift the back.
Correct form is when the horse has a long and rounded topline. The horse holds his/her back up and the horses forhead is slightly in front of the vertical. The poll (in between the ears) should be the highest point. Correct form is important because it is healthy for the horse and the most beautiful way for the horse to move. Horses are not meant to carry riders and therefore it is important to remember that much the way an arched bridge is stronger so is a rounded topline. When a horse moves in correct form the hind end is engaged, the back rounds, the whithers come up, and the head carriage is rounded and raised.
Correct form is achieved by training the horse to be “on the bit.” This means that the rider should feel as if his/her hands are connected to the horses mouth by elastic bands. The energy in the horse should flow from the horses hindquarters forward through the back and neck into the riders hands, while signals from the reins flow back through the horse to the hind quarters. The driving aids engage while the restricting aids control.
Correct form should result from correct training. When the horse understands the riders aids and is relaxed, supple, straight and engaged it should be easy to develop a round topline. Correct form also varies between horses depending on the conformation of the horse.
When discussing impulsion two concepts are very important: pushing power and carrying power. If you draw a longitudional line down from the point of the hip on a horse you can see that when the horses hind leg is in front of the line it is carrying the horses weight (marked red in above picture) and when it is behind the longitudional line it is pushing the horse forward (marked green in the above picture). Increased carrying power (the horse collects more and the foot moves more in the red area) actually increases how powerfully a horse can move or extend – increases impulsion. This is because when the hind legs bend and move underneath the horse they become like loaded springs and can then push more powerfully forward when they straighten. This is just like hopping with straight versus bend knees. It is difficult to hop powerfully into the air with your legs straight but when you bend your knees it is easy to bounce up into the air. Therefore to obtain true impulsion and power it is nescessary to increase the carrying power of the hindlegs and obtain a certain level of collection.
When training impulsion it is also important to be able to control the level of willingness in the horse. The horse should move energetically and willingly forward without tension and without needing to be forced. Impulsion can be improved by improving a horses reponse to the driving aids. A horse must also learn to be in between the aids in order to develop true impulsion. This is because as I mentioned before developing the carrying power of the hind legs is crucial to developing true impulsion. To be able to push powerfully forward the hind legs have to bend. If the restricting aids cannot regulate the impulsion/power then it will be like blowing into a balloon with a hole in it – you can blow as hard as you like but the balloon will never get bigger or more beautiful. Training all kinds of transitions and speed changes can help develop impulsion.
What is collection? A collected horse bends it´s hind legs and steps underneath itself causing the croup to lower. A collected horse has a rounded topline which means that the barrel of the horse lifts. The neck is rounded but raised so that the poll is the highest point. In collection the horses front and hind legs function differently. The front legs push the front part of the horse more into the air and the propulsive force of the hind legs increases. This causes a collected horse to feel “big” under the rider because the horse lifts the front end and dances.
Collection is obtained by increasing the horses understanding of the interplay between the driving and restriciting aids so that the horse can become more “in between” the aids. Energy should flow through the horse and be received in the riders hands. The rider can then transmit that energy back to the haunches. Collection can also be obtained through dressage exercises such as shoulder in and haunches in.
Collection is physically challenging for horses. This means that especially when the horse is first developing the muscles for collection it is important to only require collection for short periods of time and reward the horse often. Albrecht von Ziegner once said that “one can teach any horse more or less dressage, but not every horse is a dressage horse.” The same goes for collection. Different horses have different abilities and conformation making the level of collection that a horse can achieve variable although collection can be beneficial for all horses. Collection helps horses learn to move in a physically healthy fashion. A collected horse is beautiful to watch and gives the rider a better feeling
Fast tempo refers to training the fastest speed that a horse can go in a certain gait while maintaining a clean beat. A horse in fast tempo lengthens it´s strides and stretches it´s topline. Often the movements of the front legs increase. Fast tempo can be ridden at the tölt, trot, and gallop. The Icelandic horse´s fifth gait the flying pace is only trained at fast tempo.
Fast tempo should only be trained for short stints, on even surfaces, and with the proper protective boots. The rider allows the horse to stretch the topline without allowing the horse to fall apart as the speed increases. A good rider will help a horse maintain their balance and correct beat as they increase speed. Fast tempo training usually occurs outside. A great way to increase the willingness of a horse is to train fast tempo with other horses. In training gallop, a hill can help a horse stretch and spring forward. Speed changes and transitions can also help train fast tempo. For example taking fast tölt after canter can help increase a horses speed range at the tölt. It is important that the horse understands the rider and has the physical strength to perform fast tempo, otherwise the horse may not be willing to perform the next time fast tempo is asked of them.
Interference is always a concern when training fast tempo, which is why protective boots are important. If trainers are not careful a cronic cycle may start where an unbalanced horse interferes and hurts his/herself, then becomes afraid/tense which causes unbalance and interference.
The Training Pyramid:
The training pyramid is designed as only a guideline for trainers to keep in mind when training. While problems can arise when too many levels of the pyramid are skipped, the pyramid should be adjusted to suit each individual horse. Sometimes it is necessary to move up to another level of the training pyramid to achieve a lower level. For example to obtain good rhythm/clean beat with a pacey horse we may have to travel up the pyramid and train suppleness so that the tölt will be clean.