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Training Tips

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Q: My horse loves the rundown so much I have to turn and hold his head away to keep him from hitting the barrel, which it doesn’t always work. How can I prevent this?

A: Don’t feel bad, this is very common in competitive horses. Your horse is at the stage in their game where they understand what you’re trying to accomplish. They think their helping to get the job done. It’s no different than you RUSHING a shot and shooting to soon. Don’t punish them for this; teach them to deal with the excitement of competition. Their head needs to be facing into the turn to make a proper barrel turn. It also helps them see what’s going on and where they need to be going. In the practice pen you’re going to have to SLOW down, and show them precisely how you want them to make the turns, by using the proper cues and showing them the right positions.

Cueing with the inside heel to curve the horses body, slight inside rein to bring the nose around.

Q: I continually struggle with whether or not I’m using the right headgear/bridle for my horse; do you think this is a big part of a horse’s performance?

A: Absolutely, and here’s why; it is crucial that the type of headgear that a person uses on their horse fits properly. This includes the bit, the hackamore bit, headstall, bosal and even the curb strap. The mouth piece in the bit should be adjusted on the headstall so it fits in to the corner of the horse’s mouth area. The bit should rest firmly and evenly in each corner of the horse’s mouth. (Shown in picture A. (1374) mouth piece fits up firmly and evenly in the corners of the horses mouth) You will know it is fitted correctly when the pressure is applied with the reins and the bit stays in the same area without traveling up and down in the horse’s mouth. This will give you the best and quickest response. If the bit is too loose in the horse’s mouth they tend to use it as a chew toy and continue to fidget with it. You will also find that with the proper fitting the horse will not fuss with the bit and won’t grab and hang onto it. Another thing that you will want to make sure of is that the curb strap is adjusted right. That means not too tight, but also not so lose that it pinches the corners of the horses mouth between the bit and the curb strap. Shown in picture B (1375) area that can be pinched between the bit and the curb strap)

Picture A

Picture B

The hackamore bit also needs to fit properly. If it doesn’t it won’t work as designed, especially when the nose band is too low. This can pinch the nose and can even restrict their breathing which causes discomfort taking their attention off you and their job. On the hackamore bit the nose piece should be set high enough up on the nose of the horse. (Shown in picture C (1370) Proper placement of Hackamore). This will give you the best response. Again, the curb strap should be tight enough so that when you pull on the reins the shanks move freely, but not so loose that the fastener between the shanks at the end of the bit hits against the tie down strap, or so loose that the shanks are pulling straight back when you pull on the reins.

The bosal should fit half way up on the nose but two or so inches below the jowl. Like the Hackamore bit, if not fit properly it can cause great discomfort for your horse making it difficult for them to pay attention and do their job. (Shown in picture D. (1378) Proper placement of bosal) When used correctly the bosal shouldn’t have to be moved much before getting a response from the reins.

Picture C

Picture D

The poor fitting of bridles can cause discomfort or sore spots in the mouth, chin and nose area. It also makes a big difference in how your horse handles and performs. All of these things have to do with good horsemanship. We believe, especially in the sport of mounted shooting, that horsemanship is large percentage of your performance. Remember that you need to be in tune with your horse and notice the things that don’t seem right. Don’t be afraid to try different things. We often change things many times before finding what works best.

A little common sense is a key to good horsemanship. You need to pay attention to the headstalls and the curb straps that you get. They all come with pre-punched holes but that doesn’t mean that there will be enough adjustment one way or another. The size of each horse’s head is very different, so you may need to put your own holes in them. Over time sweat, moisture and everyday use causes the leather to stretch and wear, also calling for re-adjustment. Even as little as a 1/4” on a headstall can make a big difference.

Another huge issue is the bits and how to tell which mouth piece is right for your horse. Many times it is hard to tell without trying them. You want the right width as each horse’s mouth is different. We have found that the straight solid mouth pieces are not the best. You want a bit that fits the contour of the mouth so it doesn’t put too much pressure on the jaw. Good examples include snaffle bits, some correction bits, mouth pieces with ports and independent movements of the shanks and cheek pieces. We know it seems complicated, but it is something you should really be concerned about. It can make all the difference in the world. If you can, try to visit with a professional bit designer. They have good detailed information that can help.

Q: I recently purchased a new saddle pad for mounted shooting. I was told I only needed a single pad. Is this true?

A: We recommend that competitive riders use multiple layers of padding or blanketing, preferably two wool blankets and a pad. The thickness depends on your horse’s back and the saddle you use. Layering your padding will reduce the friction between the saddle and your horse’s back. Because there is always a certain amount of movement with any saddle, you want to concentrate on the movement between the blankets and pads - not the saddle and the horse’s back. Too much movement on your horse’s back can cause soreness and other problems, reducing your horse’s overall performance. We feel so strongly about this that we have designed our own blanketing system that reduces the movement and friction caused by riding. You can purchase these on our website www.ajhorses.com or they will be available at the CMSA World Championships in Las Vegas. (Shown in picture E, AJ Horses Blanketing System) Using the proper technique in fitting your horse to its equipment and being conscientious of how your equipment fits is a reflection of your horsemanship. Be sure to check your tack over and keep your cinches tight!

Picture E

Q: I have tried earplugs before and had trouble with them because my horse would shake his
head and they would fall out.  Someone suggested stuffing his ears with cotton.  What do you think?

A: The first time you use earplugs on horses, shaking them out is their first reaction. First of all it’s something foreign in their ears and it’s uncomfortable for them. Secondly, it can make their ears tickle or itch inside, especially if their ears are dirty. The dirt collects on the long hairs and causes a tickling or itchy sensation when compacted by the earplugs. This can be mostly noticeable with winter hair. But if you continue to work with their ears and keep putting the earplugs back in, they will accept them and quit shaking them out. BE PATIENT! This could be a long process, some horses take to the earplugs immediately and others can drag it out. It depends on the horse and the rider’s persistency. The more you handle their ears the faster they will accept the earplugs.

We also recommend riders using earplugs to protect the hearing and other distractions.My horse appears to accept the gunfire and I’m ready to start shooting off his back.  I’ve been told my first shoots should be backwards, towards the rear of the horse, this way he will continue moving in the forward motion.  What is your opinion on this?

< cues. your and you to attention paying flinching) (not comfortable horse keep also but deafness, for only isn’t sound the from ears horses protecting of purpose The gunfire. deaden enough not is ear horse’s in cotton>

Q: My horse appears to accept the gunfire and I’m ready to start shooting off his back. I’ve been told my first shoots should be backwards, towards the rear of the horse, this way he will continue moving in the forward motion. What is your opinion on this?

We would have to disagree on this philosophy, in our training program we believe in gaining trust with our horses. The forward motion our horses give us is because we asked for it. The ideal of shooting towards the rear of the horse is to keep the horse moving forward, which it does, but the horse is moving out of fear.

We suggest that before you fire a gun from your horse you need to continue riding thru courses moving the gun back and forth across the horse, getting them use to seeing the firearm in motion around their head. Once they seem settled with this, dry fire the gun, (pulling the hammer and trigger) so the horse hears the clicking. And, once they are settled with this use the loaded ammo and randomly fire the gun. But not at actual balloon targets. Just get them use to hearing the gun fire off their back without seeing the balloons breaking. This process goes much faster. Introducing the horse to balloons and gunfire separately is easier for them to process. You don’t want one problem to create another.

Q: I have been riding and shooting for a couple years and I am more than ready to take my riding to the next level.  Do you have any suggestions?

A: When you reach a point where you want to improve your performance, there are a number of changes we would recommend.

First, we recommend that competitive riders shorten their stirrups so that there is approximately a 30 degree bend in the knee. This helps with standing in your stirrups when needed.  It also allows you to brace yourself in either direction on sharp turns and helps to keep your body over the center of your horse making for better leg cues and more upper body movement.  Second, we teach our students to ride with your toes down. This helps to keep constant pressure on your feet helping you to keep from losing a stirrup and gives better balance when standing in your stirrups.  It also gives you more strength when you brace yourself against your heels to ensure more self-control.  The most common style of riding has taught the heels down method with longer stirrup length. If you ride with boots and your stirrups are the right size for your feet, our style is very safe and effective.

At the time of the Moorish invasion in the 12th century, the European knights rode with very long stirrups with their saddle set behind the withers of their horse which limited their mobility and speed.  The Moors set their saddles on the withers and rode with their knees bent (which meant shorter stirrups). This gave them more flexibility and allowed them to stand in their stirrups to increase upper body mobility allowing them to handle their weapons more efficiently and also ducking the weapons of their opponents.

Take note of other aggressive equestrian sports. You can see that riders that are taking quick turns and fast starts generally tuck their toes down.  This style of riding is a great technique. Give it a try!

Q: Many of the mounted shooting students we train at our practice facility ask us, “Why don’t you inflate your balloon targets with a compressor?”

A: We immediately chuckle and admit that we do own an air compressor but we have a good reason for everything we do. Blowing up each balloon target by hand is actually one of our training methods.  Many of our students are surprised something so simple could be so effective.  This particular training method teaches a horse many different things, like patience and control, which we find very essential in this sport. It teaches them to stand patiently while we blow up and tie the balloon.  If they move at any given time without being asked we start the process over.  On an untrained horse it can take several minutes to set one target.  Besides patience they learn voice commands, leg and rein cues.

Another advantage this method is that it teaches the horse how to respond to cues in conjunction with each other.  Remember that you as a rider need to be patient and work on these skills with your horse.  And, besides the training method it’s good for your own lungs!

Q: “When I’m riding through a course I find myself popping away from my saddle, usually on take offs and sharp turns. Is there anything I can do about this?”

A: You are not alone with this problem. When we train individuals to ride more competitively, the first thing we tell them is to adjust their stirrups so their leg has a 30 degree bend at the knee.  The second thing is to start riding with their boot all the way in the stirrup and push their toes down. Many times the rider need to find a more  narrow stirrup to make an easier transition from riding with heels downs (which most people are taught) to our style, toes down!

The bend in the knee along with downward pressure on the toe of the boot tends to act like a shock absorber.  It is obviously better to absorb the roughness in your legs rather than in your butt or upper body.  By pointing the toes down and pushing the boot all of the way into the stirrup, you put the direction of the shock upward in the leg allowing the bent knee to move up or down freely with the jarring.  In addition, you reduce the risk of losing a stirrup and avoid needing rubber bands around your boot and stirrup to keep it in place. Try it, it’s a great technique.

Q: My horse has a tendency to shut down on or between the fourth and fifth rundown targets. How can I encourage him to run through the timeline? 

A: This is a common problem for many competitors. One of the first things to consider is the physical condition of your horse. Is your horse ready for a full shoot? Has it adjusted to the new climate if you’ve traveled a distance to compete?

Beyond physical conditioning, the most common reason for a horse to slow down between the fourth and fifth target of the rundown is simply that it is contemplating the end of the stage and wants to slow down or quit. You can remedy this with several common sense adjustments. First, be sure that you are not thinking or concerned about stopping at the end of the rundown. Your horse is probably getting the idea from you. If you’re mentally passing this cue to your horse you will need to work on that separately. Recognize your fears and concerns and work on them in your practice pen. You need to trust yourself as well as your horse. Remember that good horsemanship is getting your horse to listen and wait for your cues. Trust your decisions. Now believe it or not you can practice this exercise at a nice and easy pace. You don’t need to practice this wide open. At a slow canter go down the rundown both ways (up and then down) but maintain a steady speed until you get close to the end of the arena fence and then stop your horse as it comes to the fence. When you’re going the opposite direction you will notice your horse will try to slow up as you pass the barrel. This is because they are thinking of turning it. So, encourage them to continue at the same pace. The key is to keep your horse listening to what you are asking and not to let them try and assume what is next. They will also realize that they are not to change their speed until you cue them to.

One final note, when your at a competition be sure you know your horse and that you are not using them up to early in a stage, or not frustrating them by trying to push them beyond their ability. Remember practice good horsemanship.

Q: I’m having trouble getting my horse into the arena. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Wow! This is a loaded question. Lets first start with what could cause a horse to do this. There are many things; it could be excitement, fear, anger, anxiety, pain, or training. Let’s look at each of these separately.

Excitement: Horses are a lot like we are. As soon as there is competition involved it makes for excitement. Sometimes it’s hard to control but, with proper training the energy involved with excitement can be a very good thing.

Fear: Sometimes bad experiences happen. And if a horse does not understand or is scared by this, it can take a long time to get them over it. Time, patience and common sense will do wonders.

Anger: First determine the cause, if it is a stallion or mare it could be the time of year. Is it possible you and your horse are not a good match, and you just don’t get a long? Do you and your horse end most of your practice sessions frustrated? Learn how to work with your horse and not against it. It has to be a give a take, don’t over do the demands.

Anxiety: This is a normal emotion for horse and rider alike. You need to learn how to channel this in the right direction. Give your horse and you time to deal with these things as you are training.

Pain: Does your horse have a fresh injury? Old injury? Improper fitting equipment? Does gunfire bother their ears? Are you using horse earplugs? Are they afraid of pain they may feel because of the way you handle them in the arena? Be aware of your horse and their condition.

Improper training: Take time when you are practicing and work patiently with your horse by running slow and easy. Try letting your horse spend some leisure time in your arena with cones, barrels and balloons present to reinforce the positive. Another helpful technique to improve your training is to vary your methods including speed and direction.

Remember, most worthwhile training techniques are common sense. It relates to building a relationship and understanding your horse. This process can take time, its not one of those things that come to you over night.

Q: I have started riding harder and faster, but have noticed my horse is tripping and has even torn off a front shoe. What do you think could cause this?

A:There could be several things causing this problem. First, consider the health of your horse. Are you sure that it is sound and capable? Many equestrian sports like mounted shooting are physically demanding for any horse. Since a horse has so many moving parts from the top to bottom, there is a good chance that something will go wrong from time to time. Second, a horse’s age and how hard they have been used can have something to do with it. Some horses compete longer than others depending on how they’ve been taken care of over time. One very important thing to consider is a horse’s feet. They need to be trimmed and shoed properly. Try to make sure that there aren’t too many alterations to their hoofs and their strides. Their feet need the right amount of heel and toe to help the horse break over properly, to be able to place their feet where they belong and travel naturally. Also, be sure not to leave to much heel of the shoe trailing out of the back of the front feet. In this sport there is a lot of sharp turning, stopping and accelerating, and we need to give our horses the best advantage that we can. Remember to be observant and patient.

Q: Is there any value to riding multiple horses in competition?

A: There is value in riding more than one horse, but not necessarily in competitions. Practicing on different horses teaches you to feel the ride and the horse underneath you instead of just being a passenger. It will also improve you your horse’s performance and yours as well. In mounted shooting and other equestrian sports we need to know exactly what our horse is doing and capable of doing. Your horse needs to know the same about you. Which brings us to the second part of this answer; most successful and consistently winning competitors ride the same horse as long as they can. In most cases they ride the same horse for years. Riding the same horse over and over again, in and out of competition is a big advantage. You and your horse get to know each other well enough that you feel each other and your movements. That’s what makes a winning team.

Q: When I watch other riders compete some seem to ride so smoothly and others seem so choppy? Is it the horse or is it the rider?

A: It could be both. Without observing first hand it’s hard to say what exactly is causing the problem, but we would probably start with evaluating the horse. How much has the horse been trained for mounted shooting? Is the horse able and willing to do what he is asked and will it accept the gunfire without resistance? Our training program begins with exercises in the arena done at a walk or trot. After horse has observed riding and shooting from outside the arena, we will move them into the arena and begin periodically firing at targets until they seem comfortable. We assure the horse they are not in danger and as they become more and more accepting of the gunfire we will move them thru the patterns and targets at an increased rate of speed. We start shooting off the horse from the 1 to 2 o’clock position so the horse can see what we’re doing. (Remember as we stated above the horse has already been exposed to the balloons and shooting). At this point we never shoot toward the side or rear of the horse. This only seems to scare them. This cannot be done in 1 or 2 days as the horse will notice different things as time goes on, and may react to all of them until they are completely comfortable. During all of this we continue to work on the leg cues and the reining. Eventually all this has to be put together. We will start moving them faster and then slowing them down with the reins, legs and most importantly our voice commands. This is one of our favorite techniques and when you use them together you can hardly go wrong. It has never failed us yet when it comes to teaching our horse’s rate. Another thing we look at is the equipment, especially the head gear. Does it fit the horse’s needs and is it adjusted properly? This includes the saddle and padding. If done right it should be comfortable and fit the horse. With the right equipment and the right fitting of the equipment is real important in how the horse moves and how smoothly he will perform.

Next we would evaluate the rider.

Experience - doesn’t necessarily mean years of riding, but understanding your horse, equipment and how it works. Are you comfortable with riding and shooting?

Ability - meaning can you ride without bouncing, grabbing the horn, back of the saddle, or hanging on by squeezing with your legs and feet? These things can give a horse the wrong cues or even discomfort. Are you able to handle the horse around the arena and thru courses? Can you control your horse and shoot a gun safely?

Common sense – are you new to riding or handling guns? If so, have you had proper instruction or did you just get on a horse and start running patterns and shooting?

All of the things together make for smooth runs but if just one of these things isn’t right it can also cause a stage to be choppy. That’s why we find it important to train and practice good horsemanship skills.

Q: My question is about spurs, I wear spurs but the only thing is how do I know I’m using them correctly?

A: First of all there are many different styles, sizes and types of spurs. And what we’ve notice in the sport of mounted shooting is that a lot of spurs are purchased and worn for the “look” and that can create a HUGE problem when it comes to horsemanship. Before a rider decides to wear spurs they should evaluate whether it is necessary for their horse and also evaluate their own horsemanship skills if they can properly handle them. They should NOT wear them just for the “LOOK”. A horse that’s more sensitive and higher strung will most likely become more difficult to handle especially if your using them wrong. With this type of horse you will most likely have better success if you take them off. When used properly the spur is a very important tool. The spur is meant to cue the horse, a rider should never use the spur to hang on or grab the horse for balance. Anyone who doesn’t have control of their balance at all times should not wear spurs until they have master balance. If your cueing improperly with the spurs this can not only confuse the horse it can also make them mad. This in the end can result in a disastrous ride. As far as your question, we can not tell if you’re properly using spurs or not unless we can evaluate you and your horse. Again, the spur is an awesome tool in horsemanship if used properly. If you have more questions or concerns regarding this please feel free to contact us personally.

Q: I’m a level one rider; I’m generally clean of penalties but can’t seem to take a win. I’m consistently 2 to 3 seconds slower than the riders in my level. How can I shave off the time? What am I doing wrong?

A: It’s not necessarily that your doing anything wrong, it’s more what can I do different to improve my times. Without seeing you and your horses ability, we can’t give exact judgment but we can give you the most common things riders can do to improve on their times. One of the basic suggestions is RIDE. The more you ride your horse the more confident and trusting you will be with them and they will be with you. Even thou you may ride all the time; we mean horse and course management riding. You don’t need to practice shooting all the time, you need to practice getting to the targets and rating with timing. A lot of the courses have distances before your first shot. You need to practice the timing in getting there faster and rating smooth enough to draw your gun. There are even some courses where you have a distance between targets so you need to practice accelerating your horse from one point to another. We see a lot of riders who spend too much time trying to control their horse during a stage. Exercising horse and course management helps keep your mind and your horses mind together at a shoot.

Another exercise that comes from course management is knowing your course. That sounds pretty basic, we’ve seen some patterns so much we think we know them. Well right there you’re not managing your course properly. Every arena is different and besides the certified courses they are never set the same. Study every set course. Everything, including where the timers are!! So many riders start shutting down before the time line. They feel once they’ve shot their last target their done. That’s not always so, you need to RUN thru the time line, know where your timers are. Knowing where the timers are also helps you to know where to cross the time line. You don’t want to start the time line in an area that causes you to cover more ground than necessary. And stopping is the same, run as straight as possible thru the time line. Veering off will cost you time.

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