Horse Training Lessons from the Boxing Ring Part 2
Spins with Little: The Flower Petal Exercise
By Jonathan Field
In Part 1 of this series (Footwork to Free Up the Shoulders) I wrote about remembering what it is like to be a student, and shared some of my personal trials from joining a boxing club this past winter when I stepped into a completely unknown field. These lessons illustrate that horses benefit when their riders are more patient, just as students benefit when coaches are patient.
The previous article included exercises for turning your horse on the hindquarters in preparation for spins, and I hope you found them to be beneficial. These foundation maneuvers are not just for spinning horses, but also to develop coordination of the front feet and footwork, which helps free up the shoulders to improve many aspects of the ride.
Staying with the same theme, I want to share one more lesson I gleaned from training in the boxing gym. One of the first things you will notice when you step into a boxing club is the pattern of work based on timing of the bells. Everything is timed in rounds just like a real match. The beginning and end of each round is signaled by a bell with three minutes busy and thirty seconds rest. These short lessons can be really physical, such as running stairs or practicing technique with an opponent. Or the one I “loved” the most, which was getting hit with a medicine ball in the belly. Ouch!
One assigned task was to hit the speed bag for three rounds. You’ve all seen Rocky do this but believe me, when I hit the speed bag, it looked nothing like Rocky! This was a very difficult exercise for me and every time this task was assigned my whole first round was terrible. The second round would be a little better, and by the third I would get into the rhythm. I noticed this was common for some others as well.
I asked about this and was told that with something like the speed bag, it takes time for your eyes and nervous system to adjust and wake up to it, so to speak. I found that quick footwork with horses, such as turn-arounds (spins) or pirouettes, is very similar. These movements require a quick athletic reaction from your horse to get in balance on his hindquarters and move his front feet around. For a young horse learning this, it must be very difficult because he not only has the weight of a person to cope with, but is also taking his cue from this person. At least with the speed bag I had decided to do it. I never recall my young horse, Little, asking, “Can we please work my spins today?”.
I notice many parallels with boxing when it comes to training technical footwork with horses, so when training Little to do his spins, I did them in only three rounds each day with consistent breaks between, then moved on to other activities. After only a few weeks I was really happy with the results.
When I first started Little with footwork, I could feel his learning curve as he tried to figure out his balance, carry me, and free up his shoulders enough to turn around. His first round, just like mine, was never as good as the third, but just as I did at the gym, we ended on that third round high note instead of continuing on to the fifth and sixth rounds. Allowing the muscles and nervous system to rest for 24 hours makes a huge difference for next time.
There are many ways to teach quick footwork, but the one I’m going to share is called the Flower Petal Exercise.
You may be asking: Why do this when I’m not a reiner or a dressage rider? The answer is simple: The better your horse can move his shoulders and adjust weight to his hindquarters, the better he will do nearly everything else. Freely moving shoulders are very important – add quick footwork to that and a horse that’s typically a bit thick to the aids becomes really fun.
The Flower Petal Exercise
Ride a lively walk on a circle about 20 feet across. The idea is that at one consistent point on this circle you will spiral slightly to the inside, tighten the turn into a turn on the hindquarters for one full rotation, then carry on with your circle. This is about teaching the horse to adjust his balance, getting good footwork, and therefore more body control. As you ride this you will begin to see one petal of this imaginary flower begin to appear in the inside of the circle. At the foundation level, this is an excellent exercise for riders of any discipline.
Getting started, you want to have your horse keep his hindquarters roughly within the size of a hula-hoop while the front steps around at the petal point. The pivot point is the hindquarters. You need to be very aware that your horse doesn’t begin turning like a top, or that the pivot point moves to his middle or his shoulders. When this is happening, the horse turns around but the front feet barely move and the hindquarters do all the turning; this is not a turn on the haunches.
Start with only a quarter turn at a time, stopping when you get the right balance and footfall. You want the hindquarters fairly still while the front outside foot steps over the front inside foot, and then continue back to the circle.
I give Little approximately three minutes of trying to work it out, then at least one minute of rest at the standstill. During the three-minute stage, I ask him to start and stop many times to reset him but constantly make the adjustments needed to balance him using my seat, leg, and rein aids to get the desired footwork. I stay going in one direction for the whole round, starting with the other direction next time to even it out.
Just like myself at the speed bag, I noticed that at approximately nine minutes he is warmed up to the concept and moving more freely. At this point, with some improvement, I would move on to other training for the day.
Start the Flower Petal exercise with a forward free moving walk on a circle about 20 feet in diameter. Stay on one direction for the whole three minutes. Photo: Angie Field
Pick a point on the circle where you will initiate the turn on the hindquarters. Being consistent about this spot will help create some anticipation and consistency for your horse. It also helps you keep track of your path so you don’t end up all over the arena. Photo: Angie Field
Walk your horse forward into this turn and forward out of it, keeping a smooth, lively, and rhythmic step. As the horse moves around, tighten up the turn causing him to transfer his weight to the hindquarters and move his forelegs one over the other. Keep him looking only slightly to the inside; the outside aid does the asking here. Photo: Angie Field
Near the end of the session, finish by walking past the petal point on the circle several times removing the anticipation. Some anticipation is good but too much and the horse will attach to the pattern and lose connection with you. Photo: Angie Field
The hindquarters should stay within an area approximately one metre in size, while the front outside foot steps over the front inside foot. Photo: Angie Field
Keep a longer term perspective and give the horse a minimum of three weeks to sort it out (like I had on the speed bag). This is important because with time and patience you will end up with a horse that is confident, athletic, and relaxed about quick movement with his front feet. You may be able to get a horse moving quicker sooner, but getting the relaxation and acceptance takes time and is well worth the few weeks spent building on each session. Three weeks is really just the beginning, but a great start.
I hope this offers you some lessons that you can take from my experience to help get further down this path. Stay “Inspired by Horses!”
Main Photo: Angie Field