Episode 194: Which comes first; the head or the body?

Everything that creates safety or leads to advancing requires an ability to clearly communicate to the horse’s body. Yet, the system of communication changes as the horse’s understanding grows.
Often the horse is first taught to turn from direct rein pressure…but many riders ideally want to steer with a neck rein or their body.
How is this transition possible? It is possible when the horse realizes that all the cues that are given are communicating with the body.
In this podcast, I share two ways that riders often disconnect the feet and body instead of connecting them more and more.


Episode 194_ Which comes first; the head or the body_.mp3
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] When you focus only on the head and neck, you will accidentally allow different things to go on in the body that you don’t want.

Announcer: [00:00:12] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill,this is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:33] Hi. I’m Stacy Westfall and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly and get better results with their horses. In this season of the podcast, I’ve been sharing with you some of the concepts that I teach to my students inside my programs. This podcast is almost an extension of last week’s and the idea of the messy middle this week. What I want to talk about is how sometimes riders can lose the main point. And the main point in case you didn’t hear that because Willow was clearing her nose, the main point is that when we ride, we are first and foremost and last and always interested in controlling the horse’s feet. As you can probably hear, I’m out on a trail ride with Willow. I thought it would be fun to come out here and record again. I got a lot of good feedback from the one earlier this year that I recorded out on the trail, and I haven’t been back out to record because we actually had a tornado go through here and the trails just opened up yesterday. So it’s kind of perfect because I’m having to apply this theory while I’m riding out here because our once familiar trails are now unfamiliar because there are so many trees down and they’ve had to bring in big equipment to do so much work to get them open that Willow has some questions about why it looks so different. And I’m having to answer those. And keep in mind, the main point is about controlling her feet. Here’s how it goes. When I’m riding Willow right now, I picture that I am riding the part of her that is her main body, basically minus the head and neck. So lets for this podcast, separate the head and neck as one part of the horse and everything else–that’s the shoulders, the withers, the back, everything behind that shoulder and whither that base of the neck–everything back behind there is the main part of the horse. And here’s how I think it gets confusing for people, especially when they enter the messy middle that I talked about in last week’s podcast. When we very first start riding a horse, the first thing we do is we use the reins or the halter or whatever we put on the horse’s head. We use that to communicate to the horse’s body. So it’s pretty traditional that when a horse gets started under saddle and let’s just pretend that they’re being ridden in a bridle, that the rider would teach the horse, Hey, horse, when I pick up on the left rein, you’re supposed to bend your head and neck to the left and move your feet to the left. And then the same thing to the right. Hey, horse, when I pick up on the right rein, you’re supposed to bring your nose, your head, your neck, your shoulders, and everything and come over here to the right. And so in the very beginning, the very first thing we teach the horses is what is considered direct reining or left rein means go left, right rein means go right. And this sounds like a pretty basic concept and one of the mistakes I think riders often make is that because we teach that first to the horses, it’s easy to think that that always works, but it doesn’t always work. And if you’ve ever been on a trail ride like I am right now, and you had a little narrow spot in the trail that had mud and let’s say there was a big tree on your right-hand side, but that dry spot was real close to that tree and the horse didn’t want to step in the mud. So let’s pretend you’re riding up there and the mud is on the left and the tree is on the right and the little dry spot is beside the tree and you’re riding down the trail and the horse thinks, I think I’d like to stay on the little dry spot. And you think, I think I’d like my right leg to be safe. So you pull on the left rein, but if you pull on the left rein and your horse really wants to be on that little dry spot beside the tree, oftentimes what will happen is they’ll bend their head to the left, but their body will still go over to the right on the little dry spot and possibly scrape your leg on the tree.

Stacy Westfall: [00:05:18] There are lots of different examples of that. You can apply that to barrel racing and a horse knocking into a barrel or a pole. You can apply it to basically any time when the rule of, hey horse when I pull in the left rein your nose, neck, and feet go to the left. You’ll start to see that that doesn’t always happen. Here’s what I want you to think about. When a horse learns that when the rider picks up on the left rein, it means the nose goes to the left, the neck goes to the left, the feet go to the left I think sometimes it’s often assumed by the person riding that the feet are always going to be included in that sequence. But what oftentimes happens is that as people go out and ride this horse that may have learned in the first 30 rides that that’s what is supposed to happen–left rein means nose, neck, and feet go left. Even if the horse learned that in the very beginning, what often happens is that when people are out, let’s say trail riding like I am, is that they pull on that left rein and the nose and the neck go that direction and maybe the rider is not paying that much attention to how well connected the feet were to that. Did they pull a lot on the rein and get a lot of nose and neck but not much feet? That’s usually how the slippery slope starts to happen. So that’s just one tiny way that the horse can begin to become disconnected from its feet. So the sequence of, horse, when I pick up on the left rein and your nose bends and your neck bends and your feet follow, although that may have been trained in the beginning, the example on the trail ride is just one way that that can start to come a little bit undone if the rider’s not paying attention.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:50] Another place that this starts to come undone is actually when a rider is starting to try to think about collecting the horse or doing some more advanced movements. And in the rider’s mind, part of that involves the overall shape, including the head and the neck. And the way that this happens a lot of times is real innocently because the rider might even be videotaping themselves riding, and they notice that when they’re doing a transition that the horse is raising their head and neck up. And so the rider innocently starts trying to communicate to the horse, Hey, horse, can you keep your head neck down while I do this? And if the rider does a lot of repetitions of, Hey horse, can you keep your head in your neck down while we do this? The rider may or may not be focused on where the feet are going. I was actually doing a Zoom call the other day inside of my riding program and I was explaining to a rider while I was doing a video review that if they wanted to advance their horse, I wanted to see them loping the four-leaf clover pattern. And I explained that when you are able to do that, it is both about controlling the horse and it’s also about physically conditioning the horse. And I was explaining that when the horse is asked to do something like lope the four-leaf clover pattern, as they do the turns, the first level of collection is created by the horse simply making the turns. When a horse makes a turn, they need to choose to collect or some choose to break gaits, you can’t keep them going. And then I jokingly often throw in, or the horse may fall down, which is something that you see young foals do out in the pasture. Now, seriously, young foals out in the pasture don’t understand that when they make tight turns, the rule is when you make this tight turn, you must either collect, break gait, or you’re going to fall down. So typically by the time we’re riding the horses, we’re not dealing with number three. And as I explained this to the rider, the rider said, I have another problem. And I said, What’s that? And she said, Well, when I start to do it, the horse just leaves the pattern. And this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about when I say that if we think about the horse’s body and the fact that every time we communicate with the horse, we are ultimately wanting to steer the feet. What the horse was saying to this rider was that when the rider picks up to steer, the steering is not going all the way through to the horse’s feet.

Stacy Westfall: [00:11:16] So when I thought about recording this podcast and the number of different ways that I explain this when I’m teaching, the example of thinking about your horse in only two parts, the head and neck, that’s just one part and then the body is the other. Every time you pick up on the reins, you always want to make sure you are communicating with the horse’s feet. And it might seem like you want to just get the horse to make an adjustment in the head and neck. Hey, horse, can you keep your head and neck a little bit more framed up? Don’t throw it up in the air during this transition from a walk to a lope, please. What I’m encouraging you to think about is that you need to always be thinking that this is affecting the body and the feet somehow. When you focus only on the head and neck, you will accidentally allow different things to go on in the body that you don’t want, like slowly disconnecting your steering from the feet. And when you only can steer the head and you lose the shoulders, the horse can still go wherever it wants. Remember the tree example? You end up with your knee in the tree. When you are asking the horse, even for something that may look like it’s about the head and neck, like, Hey horse, could you keep the head and neck down during this transition from the walk to the lope? I’m encouraging you and telling you that the true secret to this comes from addressing the rest of the horse’s body while you also work on, Hey Horse, can you keep your head and neck in this frame? Because what you’ll start to find is that if you keep the horse’s body in mind and then you also add an awareness to the head neck, you will end up with control over the whole horse. If you spend a lot of time where you think you’re simply working on shaping the head and neck, but if you don’t have in the back of your mind that you are always, always communicating to the horse’s body, you may accidentally start to disconnect the head and neck from the body of the horse. And in the most extreme examples of that, you see horses that will bend and give their head and neck, but it doesn’t affect the body. And these can become examples of horses that do just leave the arena while bending their head and neck. These also become horses that feel like you can’t quite affect their body anymore. Sure, you pick up on the reins and they bend or they give and they do something to their head and neck. But it doesn’t go through their body. And oftentimes if you start recording your rides and you start tracking this back, you’ll start to realize that somewhere along the way you started to get fixated on the head and neck, and you lost the focus on the fact that the whole body needs to be impacted. If you are listening to this and right now, you’re kind of grasping right at the edge of the concept, you’re like, Oh, maybe I understand what Stacy’s saying. Maybe I don’t. Here’s one way you’ll know. You’ll know that you are focused on impacting the horse’s body as well as the head and neck if you watch a video of you riding and you can see your legs actively working when your reins are actively working. If you record yourself riding and you see your reins actively working, but you don’t see your legs actively working, then that will be your first clue that you are not riding the whole horse, that you are probably riding with a concentrated focus on the horse’s head and neck. And maybe it’s more of a hope that you get the horse’s body. But whenever I see riders who are truly getting the whole horse through the body, including the head and neck, one of the dividing lines is how much the rider is using their legs. Because when you are affecting the body, you’re going to be using your legs more with and eventually without the use of your reins.

Stacy Westfall: [00:16:42] So as I ride up through this part of the trail that really got struck with the tornado and Willow becomes unsure and wants to lean left or right, the coolest thing is when you start riding with this focus that the body is always the main point and that the head and neck can help influence that shoulder and the whole body of the horse, when you ride like that, that’s how you get to the other side of the training whereas I’m riding along here on the trail, I can have my reins pretty loose, but I can do a lot with my legs and control my horse because she understands it’s about the body. When I got to the point with all of my horses that I’ve taken to the bridleless level, one of the main things that I focused on when I started really zoning in on, I’m getting ready to show you at competition level reinings and I’m going to do this bridleless I told myself this is all about the body. It’s one of the reasons why when you watch my bridleless rides on all of my bridleless horses. All their head and neck sets were a little bit different because I let them use their head and neck how they wanted at that point because to me it was all about the body. And absolutely inside of my courses and when I’m coaching people, I’m showing you how to use the head and neck to get to the body. That’s what the bend and the counter bend does is it helps us even though it sounds like it’s focused on the head and neck. The way that I teach it, it’s also about the body. And it’s so about the body that eventually we have all the control that we need of the body without necessarily addressing the head and neck, which is how I did the bridleless riding.

Stacy Westfall: [00:18:51] If you were only going to take away one thing from this podcast, I would like it to be that you’re always talking to the horse’s body. I’ll say it another slightly different way. The problem with only adjusting the horse’s head and neck over and over again is that you run the risk of disconnecting the horse’s feet from their head and neck and ultimately, we really, truly want control over the horse’s body. And where this really gets fun is that if you ride the horse with the idea that everything you do should go through and affect the horse’s whole body, that is when the horse starts to assume that when I make an adjustment with my seat or my legs, that it should affect the horse’s whole body. When that starts to happen, then my horse begins to follow more than just my reins. If my reins are there, and the horse has the idea that the reins are just here to mess with the head and neck, then I never get through to the whole body. But if I spend a lot of time with my horse where my reins adjust the body, when that happens and the horse truly understands, Oh, this is about my body, then what happens is I’m then able to adjust my horse with my body affecting their body. That’s what the messy middle, that’s what the collection work in high school is all about. I kind of love that it sounds like a contradiction. That in the beginning it feels like it is about the head and the neck communicating to the body. And I love that in the messy middle, everyone discovers that we were doing all of that work with the head and neck to get to the body. Because then on the other side, when we get to college, the horse understands so much of it being about the body that we are then now allowed to adjust the head and neck, kind of like adjusting the curtains or fluffing the pillows. We can adjust the horse’s head and neck and keep the body wherever we want. And some of these concepts are so inside out. And I love, love, love making this clear to my students because as I see that clarity moved over to them, I am able to see them truly teach their horses to neck rein with excellence. I am able to see them do flying lead changes on horses that they trained themselves when they’ve never ridden a horse that knew how to do a trained lead change in their life. If that is something that you would like some guidance on, you can come over to my online program where you can have immediate access to all of my riding courses and the opportunity to join me on live calls four times a month and ask your questions, have your video reviewed, and watch other students who are learning these concepts right along with you. Thanks to all of you for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Announcer: [00:22:32] If you enjoy listening to Stacy’s podcast, please visit stacywestfall.com for articles, videos, and tips to help you and your horse succeed.

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