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Jack Brainard: Elements of control shown to horses in a manner they understand

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Living legend, Jack Brainard.

Written by Meg Cicciarella

Achieving flying changes is a logical progression of training exercises, according to legendary horseman Jack Brainard. At a recent private lesson session, Jack led four riders through the preliminaries of the flying change. Laying the proper foundation makes flying changes become alarmingly simple. The process of accomplishing both is the subject of this article.

“When you do this 600 times, you’ll see a big change”
Why do we want solid flying changes in the first place? Jack’s response is characteristically pithy. “I want my horses to change leads every stride I want them to; then I know I’m not in trouble.”

He estimates his colts get to attempt approximately 600 lead changes in 30 days, and his description of the process is simple and pure: lope the horse just about to the center of the arena; open your leg on the side of the new lead a half stride before checking him to a trot; crowd him into the new lead at the arena’s center, then lope off. Ultimately, he says, he eliminates breaking down to the trot.

“The one secret of horsemanship” in three words, give or take
Those who have read even the tiniest bit about Jack’s methods or who have been at one of his clinics know how much he emphasizes getting your horse straight.

“Straightness is everything,” he says. “Too many people have gotten away from that. The three secret words to horsemanship are calm, forward and straight. The horse’s neck is the tight- rope walker’s pole,” he says, offering riders an indelible mental image that underscores his point. Add to this the minor item of helping the horse learn how and when and where to place his feet—something Jack describes as “the one secret of horsemanship”— and you’re set.

Checking your foundation
Jack assessed one rider in the group by asking her to lope in a figure eight as a way to assess her horse’s foundation for beginning flying changes. The process helps the horse to be offered the opportunity to find the correct lead. Jack says with the right amount of face from the horse and appropriate leg cues at the intersection of the two circles, a rider can ensure he’s communicating correctly to ask for the appropriate strike-off leg. Problems at this point can mean some foundational issues aren’t right.

Ready, set: Jack’s foundation
The prior preparation for flying changes is actually a lengthier process than learning the cues to change. There are seven things the rider must be able to ask of his horse:

  • The horse must respond so quickly to our leg that he flies off it.
  • The horse is in the bridle.
  • The horse can canter straight from a standstill, or at the very least within eight feet, the equivalent of a horse-length, without loading himself to one side to get the lead.
  • The horse can canter calmly and straight the length of the arena.
  • The horse stops at the wall straight.
  • The horse will break down to the trot straight when asked.
  • Once he takes just one stride at the trot, prior to asking for the change, we eliminate this step.

Start at the beginning…
To begin the lesson, Jack makes sure the horses and riders are warmed up well by walking and jogging on a long rein and asking for a little face, as he calls collection, first several times in one direction, then changing. He checks to make sure the horses are in the bridle, and likes what he’s seeing.

“Things you must bear in mind when you’re working with these horses”
While the group continues their warm-up, Jack offers some observations.He says he likes to think of the horse’s body as a collection of areas which the rider learns to influence. “We need to control the poll, the neck, the front end —especially the front feet because they are the direction finders. The back feet are power.”

As a conductor leading an orchestra, Jack says,” We control these parts
individually and in unison.” Emphasizing his point, he adds, “We must have face in conjunction with the back end and the front end.” By face, Jack means the horse is yielding his face to the rider; his nose is perpendicular to the ground. He is certainly on the bit and may even be a bit behind it.

“Logical is the important word”
But key to it all is this. “We continually work on the parts of these horses in a manner the horse understands, quietly and softly. Horses learn in a logical progression of training exercises, and we do it with reward.

“Everything must be logical to the horse,” Jack reminds the riders. “And every horse is an individual. We try to help every horse based on his needs.”

Presenting consequences is one example, because Jack’s logical progression does include them. “Sometimes, we have to go to punishment,” he says. Though Jack calls it “punishment,” his definition is softer. Because it’s about getting the horse into an uncomfortable situation, it’s more like a correction. Cautioning us, he says, “Here there are two things to remember: (1) timing is everything. The punishment must be delivered when the infraction occurs; and (2) the degree of punishment is important: we never punish a horse 50% for a 10% error.”

Part 1: Elements of front end control: what we want to accomplish in setting the horse’s face and the degree of lateral flexion
As part of the building blocks of the flying change, Jack outlined three distinct elements of control we need to have with our horses: the front end, lateral flexion, and the hind end.
Included in the horse’s front end, of course, is his poll. Setting the horse’s face as an element of controlling his poll is important to him to accomplish flying changes; Jack talks about the ways to arrive at this: the soft way and the soft way.

“Schooling for collection,” he says, “requires hands four inches below and on either side of the pommel, four inches behind contact. We need the horse to be collected so the load he carries can be shifted from the front to the hind end. We don’t ask for collection above the pommel.

“Lateral flexion is okay, but when the horse follows that rein, that’s what we’re looking for. Tom Dorrance said to ask to see the corner of the horse’s eye. That was enough.” Now Jack is asking the riders to participate in a lateral flexion exercise, an extension of the warm-up and further check of their horses’ foundation.

“Every lateral movement requires the rider’s leg to open in the direction of the turn,” he says. “You’re going 180 degrees. Go to the outside leg with the second step. Doing it on the wall helps keep the horse straight. After this gets easy, ask him for two turns—which is a spin. This is the basics of turns on the hind end: an open leg is critical on the first step; then push with the outside leg on the second step.

“What we are looking for is correctness of foot position. The major step is the inside fore. When he hangs on to it, or backs up, make him take a few steps forward. This is how I school all my two-year-olds.”

ZigZag for front end control
A zigzag exercise offers the riders the opportunity to check out how well their horses understand the kind of front end control Jack’s looking for. He demonstrates: walking two steps, stopping, then changes direction by 45 degrees to the right – then walks off for 20 feet. It’s a straight-stop-straight rhythm.

Part 2: Lateral Flexion
As he made clear earlier, Jack is not looking for the riders to ask their horse to make a huge flex – the nose to boot toe kind; seeing the horse’s eye will do. He likes to practice lateral flexion from both sides along a wall, stopping, turning on the backhand, and walking off. Going clockwise along the arena wall, he asks the riders to use their right leg to hold the horse against the wall, and the right rein (in this case) asks for the horse’s head, making this a one-sided cue.

Part 3: Controlling the back end
“All we’re doing is showing the horse how to move his feet. I don’t know which is more important, the front end or the back end. I have mixed emotions. With lots of control of the back end, you can almost control the front end, so I suppose the back end is the most
important,” Jack muses.

That said, he points out he likes to ask the horse to move his hind end by tapping with his calf instead of his heels, and waiting for the horse to take one step. He then stops and asks again.

“The secret is opening your inside leg,” he says of turning on the forehand. Jack goes from turning on the forehand to turning on the backhand. The logical progression is a turn on the forehand, then on the backhand in place, then walking off. “Good! Good! Good!” he calls to the riders, clearly pleased they have “gotten it.”

Good back end control opens up lots of new maneuvers. Now Jack asks the riders to back off from the wall to about 8 feet, and to ask for two turns on the backhand in place to move the front end 360 degrees, explaining, “This is how we start horses spinning.”

A little on transitions…
Jack now asks the riders to “go to the horse’s face… see how soft you can bridle your horse up,” he says, asking for them to jog in the bridle, defining it as getting one step at a time.

From here, the riders go into an extended trot; Jack comments here that upward and downward transitions are the hardest things for a horse to do.

While the riders keep trotting, Jack asks them to think about slowing up to a jog without planting their feet. In other words, it’s a downward transition with out checking, which is coming down a gait, stopping and pulling on their face. “You have to have some speed up to do this,” he continues. “Don’t touch the reins AT ALL, and SIT! Then go on a free walk with slack for their reward.”

GO! Getting the change: Canter departures and why being straight is so critical
Once Jack established the riders did indeed have control of their horses’ front and hind ends, poll, face and neck as the foundation for tackling flying changes, the afternoon session began with canter departures. Here, the goal is to get the horse to strike-off on the correct foot in one step.

“The immediate strike-off is the secret of lead changes; the horse must be straight to change,” Jack says.

“Many people teach their horse to take off from an angle, but a horse’s hind feet cannot push underneath him without his hind feet under his hip and (being) straight. The horse needs one hind leg to stop driving and the other to start driving, which happens during the moment of suspension. From the horse’s standpoint, (to do a flying change) the horse must have an immediate canter departure, be in the bridle, check down and break stride, and lope quietly from one end of the arena to the other.

“From the rider’s standpoint, the rider must have the knowledge about when to issue the cue, which is when the lead foot strikes the ground.”

To retrain horses that have learned to take off from an angle, Jack uses a two-step process that includes a pre-preparatory command followed by a command of execution. The rider prepares the horse for the eventual request by opening his leg that corresponds to the foot the horse will strike-off from, then asking for two steps with the opposite leg.

The actual cue to strike-off the requested foot at the canter would be to stick the horse hard. This works best if the rider has some hindquarter control, Jack says.

What if…
“If the cues upset the horse, ask him to walk forward a few steps with no cues,” Jack counsels. “Be prepared for more work on the right lead, a side where most horses are weaker.”

Horses that strike-off on the wrong leg can be taught to work it out themselves. Jack asked one rider whose horse struggled with this to continue to lope in a circle until the horse found the correct lead.

The mechanics of the change…
The change will occur at the center of the arena. With an immediate canter departure in place, Jack asks the students to check their horse – break down to a trot- being sure to open their other leg a half stride before the check – and use the opposite leg to crowd the horse into the change.

Missing is not a problem when the horse is learning…
Jack returns to the subject of getting straightness: “If a horse misses, we always go to the wall; we don’t jam him to a stop because he doesn’t know why we did it (jamming to a stop). We do not worry about him missing it (the canter departure on the right lead) as long as your cues are correct. If your horse gets into the wrong lead, check him and make the change. That’s okay he didn’t get it; you don’t care. Pay no attention when a horse bucks during a change. Some horses just need the rider’s calf, and not their spur.

“It’s a good idea to open your leg a half stride before you check your horse for that downward transition, because he‘s going to hunt for that open side. It’s always a good idea to cant a horse’s head off the new lead. And don’t be afraid to stick that open leg way out there: throw it away. They’ll get to following that open leg.”

Don’t expect miracles in three days, he cautions. “When the horse strikes-off quiet, that’s what we want; the more you do, the easier it gets. The first day, you might get one change, the next day two, the next day four, and pretty soon, you’re getting 10 out of 50. You can get lead change-happy, too; the fix would be to lope without changing.

This is what’s so difficult—to get people to realize there are building blocks. The slow way is always the fastest way. When you’re riding your horse, you’re either training or untraining. Someone’s got to be the leader. Either you or the horse is the leader. These are the things we need to think about when we’re riding these horses.”

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Meg Cicciarella
Meg Cicciarella is a freelance journalist who lives and writes in Homer, on Alaska's banana belt, the Kenai Peninsula. Her articles have appeared in local, regional, and national newspapers and magazines.