I have just returned from Ocala, FL, where I participated in a Winter Training Session. No, not one of THOSE training sessions—a more personal one, targeted for someone whose ambitions are currently a bit less lofty than those on the High Performance List.
Over the past year and change, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with clinician Verne Batchelder of River House Hanoverians in Williston, FL (formerly of Piermont, NH). Along with wife Jeanie Hahn and daughter Nora, he runs a successful breeding and training business whose products are competing successfully through the Grand Prix level in dressage and elite levels in show jumping, eventing and hunters as well. We are lucky to have a lovely mare named Morocco in our program at UNH who is by their former stallion, Maronjo.
The trainers at River House regularly incorporate schooling on the longe, on long lines and in hand into their horses’ training programs, and in our lessons Verne has frequently made reference to how one technique or another would be of assistance to me. I feel quite proficient with single line longeing, and have used it somewhat regularly with the Dark Mare (Lee) to help better develop the strength in her topline, the swing in her back and self-carriage. However, my exposure to other techniques, such as double longeing or long lining, has been relatively limited. When my schedule caused me to be in the Ocala area anyway, I invited myself over to their farm in order to learn more about how these trainers use unmounted training techniques to improve under saddle performance.
I should preface this discussion by saying that any errors contained within are likely mine, and also that I believe this subject to be one of those on which horsemen tend to be divided, depending on your training philosophy. So please take these comments at their face value; not gospel but rather my observation and notes.
Verne explained that the development of a horse’s ground training is progressive, and begins as you might imagine at the most basic level when you teach a youngster how to lead. Young stock should be regularly handled from both the left and the right hand sides, though Verne admits that at a busy breeding operation this can be hard to monitor. He jokes that the easiest way to ensure that babies learn to lead from both sides is to lead two at a time, and to trade off on which horse is on which side! I think that to do that you need to be a bit braver than I am.
The next step is to teach the young horse to safely longe on the single line. There are many well established and effective techniques for doing this, but at a fairly early age (less than two full years old) the young horse should be able to wear a cavesson and surcingle and be able to maintain their rhythm on a longe circle. Side reins can be introduced but not until the youngster has some concept about what is being expected of them, and they are not used to force a frame in the neck. In many training programs, this will mark the end of a horse’s ground training, which closes the door on other opportunities to develop the horse.
An interesting note here—Verne insists that all of his youngsters are longed off of a cavesson or even a tightly fitted halter, either on their own or over a bridle. He feels it is of paramount importance that when they make a “young horse mistake”, such as slipping, scooting, shying, etc, that they are not then jerked hard in the mouth. Even once the bit has been introduced, a halter or cavesson is worn over it and the line attached here rather than the bit directly. River House’s young stallion, Spot, is currently just beginning his under saddle training, and while Verne rides him off of a snaffle bit, the horse wears a halter over the bridle, with a second rein attached to it where the crossties would go, which he uses to stop Spot if he gets scared. Of course, safety is paramount, and if the young horse is behaving in a dangerous manner, then a stronger means of control may be needed and the bit can be used.
I had the opportunity to watch Nora longe River House’s two and half year old colt; he had had several days off. I was impressed with his overall good behavior on the line, especially given the impending arrival of the ‘polar vortex’, which was bringing rapidly dropping temps and strong winds to the area. This horse was able to stay quite steady walk, trot, and canter and was confident with his side reins, which were attached to a halter worn over his bridle.
Sometime in the two year old year, most horses are ready to begin “double longeing”. Double longeing is similar to long lining, except that for the most part the demands and expectations are more basic, and the horse remains on the circle. Using two longe lines, you attach one to the inside ring of your cavesson or bit (depending on the horse’s experience) and one to the outside. Your horse must become accustomed to feeling of the outside line around their haunches, but once they do, this technique is quite effective in helping them to understand the concept of an inside and an outside rein. This technique can also be used to help review this concept with horses that resist the connection.
Double longeing is helpful for other purposes as well. I observed Verne work with a client’s mare on the double longe, and his goals for her were to use the ground work to improve the quality of her rhythm, increase the activity of the hindquarters and to increase the horse’s overall level of suppleness. Having used this as a warm up, when he began the day’s work under saddle, the horse was ready to work at a higher level of activity and engagement. In addition, work on the double longe can help to increase the horse’s submission.
Long lining is a logical extension from double longeing, and can begin to be introduced from a horse’s three year old year on. The River House trainers sometimes use side reins with their long lines, which helps to increase the horse’s degree of straightness, but for other horses only the lines are used. I was only to get a taste of long lining during my stay, but the ladies were kind enough to show me work on the lines with three quite different horses, all of whom are schooling Grand Prix. So basically in terms of long lining training, we went right to the college level!
Prior to beginning their work on the long lines, the horses were each longed on the single line in side reins to allow them to warm up their bodies. Long line work can be quite concentrated and focused, and as I learned, timing is everything—timing in giving the right aid at the right time, timing in terms of ensuring that the work is long enough but not too long. Knowing to quit when you are ahead is a mantra that all excellent trainers subscribe to, but unfortunately sometimes the ability to recognize that moment only comes from having missed the moment at other times.
Each horse was worked with Jeanie at the head, holding a lead line clipped to the bit, while Nora expertly managed the long lines and the driving whip. The long liner stands much closer to the horse than they would as a longer; most of the time she walked just off the horse’s flank, where the contact could be maintained quite steadily and the whip used as a tactful aid. This trainer team works all of the upper level horses on the long lines weekly, and it was clear that they have developed quite a partnership.
The first horse, in retrospect, seemed to be the least confirmed in his work, though this could just be my impression, as I did not see any of these horses go under saddle during my stay. On the lines, Nora explained that they were mainly focusing on trying to develop better rhythm in the passage work. On this day, they had left him in shorter side reins, a technique which had worked well on their previous school. Today, however, this horse still seemed confused and wanted to swing the haunches or get ‘hovery’ in his movement, rather than maintaining his rhythm. “Oh well,” shrugged Nora. “Back to the drawing board.”
The second horse they brought out was a lovely, refined, tending towards hot mare who is aiming to show in the developing Grand Prix this year. The difference in her level of confidence and focus from the first horse was remarkable, and her ability to truly sit to collect herself in this work was impressive. The ladies worked the mare in both directions, not more than ten or fifteen minutes total, and through the work there was a clear improvement in quality. I noticed here that the handler at the head tended to bounce in the rhythm she was looking for from the horse, whether consciously or not I don’t know!
The third horse they worked was a big, expressive mover. In his work, the trainers emphasized the development of increased rhythm, impulsion and straightness, as well as the quality of transitions in and out of each movement. Some work was done with transitions between the movements, as well as transitions from the walk. This horse at times showed his power by trying to push away from the women, who needed to quickly coordinate their efforts to steady him but also provide a release from the pressure. As he came to a better place in terms of clarity, impulsion and cadence, the trainers stopped work for the day, even though they had only gone in one direction. Mentally and physically, the work had taken him to the edge and he had found his way back, so it was the moment to “quit while you were ahead”.
Overall I was quite impressed by the quality of the team work and the accuracy of the timing demonstrated by Jeanie and Nora. As Jeanie later emphasized during a lesson, the most important aid a trainer can give is the release. How many times have we heard this, and how hard is it to always effectively do it?
The pinnacle of the ground work is the work ‘in hand’, which Nora demonstrated as a warm up with their stallion, Bretone (Tony to his friends). Using just a cluck, a dressage type wand and a light feel of the reins, Nora showed Tony’s piaffe and passage; he is clearly quite well schooled in this work and knows what is expected, and it was an excellent demonstration of the fact that these movements initiate with the hindquarters, not the reins.
I had the opportunity to work Tony in hand myself the next day, which was quite a thrill. Tony is a big fellow, but quite a gentleman and rather tolerant of my attempts to tell him what I wanted him to do. Working the horse in hand should not be begun prior to their 5 year old year. It requires a fair degree of coordination on the part of the handler. You carry the whip (which is a longer, driving style whip) in your dominant hand, and hold the lead line close to the bit, all while walking backwards. Using your lead, it is possible to half halt the horse as well as elevate the poll, while the whip cues the hindquarters. Ultimately, though, the majority of the cues should come from the handler’s body language and the length of your step. We began with the piaffe, which you initiate with a touch of the whip at the hock and a cluck. To transition to the passage, the whip is raised and can touch the horse at the point of hip, along with an increase in the handler’s length of step.
A few notes on side reins—the adjustment in terms of both length and height is quite important, and the trainer should not hesitate to adjust them as necessary. For younger horses, the side reins should be set higher on their sides, while more advanced horses can handle the lines being set lower. The horses at River House that I watched work all warmed up in their side reins on the longe, a technique that I myself prefer, though I can imagine many scenarios in which this would not be safe or sensible. Clearly, these horses are accustomed to their ground work and are conditioned both mentally and physically to the use of the side reins.
Another useful piece of equipment that the River House trainers use (we used it on Tony, in fact, during my in hand practice), is what Verne nicknamed the homemade Willi Schulteis bridle. This is a basic cavesson to which a bridoon sliphead (what the snaffle bit on a double hangs off of) is added. It is then possible to easily add a bit to your cavesson, which then allows much flexibility in the training along with a close fit.
I am most grateful to Verne, Jeanie and Nora for taking time out of their busy schedules to accommodate me and my questions and for sharing a glimpse of their training with me. If you want to learn more about them, visit their website at www.rhhanoverians.com.