John’s mare: gaining evenness on lateral flexion

Text & photos by Jenny Barnes with quotes from Mark Langley.

We’ve had constant rain, day and night all week. We’re not complaining – this is drought breaking rain and has been badly needed.

Mark continues to work through it, riding his horses in full length oilskins and persevering as best he can.  The horses must knuckle down and accept lessons through it too.  Work carries on.

John’s mare has missed a couple of lessons though because of the rain. The yard is now too boggy to ride her and thankfully we are about to go leave for 10 days of clinics further south in NSW.  But during the last 2 lessons, Mark got her to a stage where he could ride her out in our big yard; she has now been ridden in a bit; and her education continues as Mark fine tunes her responsiveness to lateral flexion on her bad side.  These photos show Mark working on her, now her 3rd & 4th ridden rides.

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All sorts of things get introduced in these first lessons – here Mark cracks his stock whip over and around her whilst on her back. He has done it on the ground with her but this is the first time on her back. He cracks it whilst she moves until she settles and can stand still. The cracks penetrate the still wet air like rifle shots.

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Then it’s time for the bridle and bit. She takes to that with little problem. Mark has already done a bit of long reining with her, which he doesn’t normally, just to speed up her education process as this mare has been with us a long time.

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Now you can see the problem that Mark is trying to fix – her lateral flexion to the right is stiff and awkward compared to the left. It is as if even when she bends that way, she still tries to put her other eye on Mark.  A huge part of both lessons were just spent on Mark working on this – continually flexing her that way, asking her again and again whether she was walking, running or standing still. Mark is as persistent as I guess he needs to be – which is a lot. I have heard him quote people at clinics that some horses need to be taught things 500 or a thousand times for it to become a habit. There is so much time involved in training horses and I am amazed at just how much sheer dedication you need to get results. I think I would be out there doing it for about 10 mins before I was looking for the next task to move on to. Not Mark. He works and works on it. Moving her this way and that, asking her, reminding her; then she gets it right and he’ll stop everything and just sit on her, swinging his legs and stroking her mane. The message is clear.  Then they go again.

I watch and scrutinize through my camera lens. There are so many subtle things going on; so many perfect timings that have to be made. No one talks in these early rides. Everyone concentrates – John’s mare, Mark, myself. To spend so much time working on such specific things reaches a level of intensity that I find fascinating.

“She is not confident going to the right. If she is offered a loose rein whilst she is going to the right, she will always turn her head left. And when you pick up the right rein to make her look/bend right, she finds it quite difficult.  The bend will fix when she decides to look and commit to her right.  I want her to look and to commit to that direction.  She needs to switch her brain from the left to the right and that is going to take a lot of time and a lot of little repetitions and rewards.”

The turns also get more controlled. Mark is no longer riding her and giving her a free head, he is guiding her. He turns her one way, then the other, then stops her. She listens and follows, obviously understanding and obviously less stressed by it.

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The back up  – two handed rein pressure – is much better. Remember, this is only the 3rd ride.


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Time for a change. Mark rides her out of the round yard & into the next one. Straight away, she reaches for the space and humps up a bit. Mark uses one rein to bring her back to him and then carries on walking her around a bit before taking her into the big yard.  We hold our breath as Mark steadies her. She wants to go – we all sense that.  Mark keeps her turning, keeps her attention on him and doesn’t seem fazed at all. He calmly takes her back through the gates and into the round yard before getting off and on again.

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“Hopefully when we come back in 10 days, the ground will be less slippery and the rest of her education can be spent outside of the yards on our property.”


Working John’s Mare: trotting

John’s mare must be keen to stay here. The day after Mark rode her in the big round yard covered in the last post, she came in with a swelling on her shoulder that has effected her mobility. Not only did she have to have more time off, just at this crucial stage where consistency can be so important, but Mark has also had to treat her with injected antibiotics. On a very sensitive mare this could have sent their trust and relationship backwards. But it seems she has come along way and she is perhaps more accepting of us than we give her credit for.

The course of antibiotics did not make her go sour. She stood there for them, and after 7 days, she was good enough for Mark to continue with her.

These photos show him working her on that ride and the ride he gave her yesterday.

So after a few steps at a walk, then a week off, Mark brings her in and in no time at all is on her. This time he asks for a trot. Mark is not just sitting on her, now he is riding her. Her tail clamps down and she props occasionally, sometimes stopping suddenly or turning back on herself. “She didn’t know whether to go forward or stop and was sometimes looking for ways out. I would just let her go wherever and try to let her get a relaxed forward. I only touch the reins and guide her when she felt ready to be guided.”

Her trot is not her smooth natural rhythm but an unsure, tense one.  “It felt like riding a rabbit. She was concentrating so hard on me that it was hard for her to move forward. This will come with confidence and understanding.” But there is no buck. On either day.  “I did think that if she got a fright or rushed, she may have bucked. She was so sensitive on her back. I was happy that only clamped her tail and hunched up.”

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She was quite sweaty on Saturday. “She got sweaty quite quickly, due to tension and exercise.” This sweat is noticeably reduced on Sunday’s ride though they were about the same length, possibly longer on Sunday. 

At the end of the lesson on Saturday, Mark is careful to rub her in different positions whilst on her back.

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But on the next day (yesterday), Mark was waving his arms and slapping his legs as she moved.  And at one point she popped into a canter.

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He then reminds her to give to pressure – on Saturday it was flexion to the sides and a little tiny bit of vertical flexion.

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But on Sunday he found she was so in tune with him that she would stop with his seat. This is from a trot. Her second trot with him on her back.

And from that, he thought he would see if she could give him backwards. She did. Not just one hesitant step, but some steady even paces.  “After I let her travel forwards in a calm and relaxed trot, I started to soften her to two hands. She responded very willingly. It was a good opportunity to ask her to gently go back. I was extremely happy with how calmly and softly she backed under saddle, as backing for her did cause quite a lot of tension previously.”

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Following John’s mare: mouthing & the first rides

Text & photos by Jenny Barnes with quotes from Mark Langley

I’ve lumped a few days together in this blog. Mark has continued to work John’s mare every day since the last post. He has covered different lessons with her such as mouthing, lunging outside, ponying in the forest, and as you will see, he has ridden her twice now.

Normally Mark mouths them from their backs. But John’s mare needs to keep learning and moving forward even though there is not a lot of riding going on. To catch up, Mark starts to mouth her from the ground. She has had the bit in her mouth a few times before.

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Following the mouthing, Mark took her out on the property – through the forest and over logs.

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Later, Mark is ready to sit on her. A big test. Mark has to make sure he has no pressure on her head. He is prepared to ride whatever comes and to go with whatever she wants to do. She takes a few steps in a circle. She wants to keep her eye on him. Some horses just stand still on for the first time Mark sits on them. He will get on and off on both sides, and that is enough for the first ride. Similarly, this is a short lesson. She copes, and he leaves it on that good note.

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A moments reflection and a catch of breath. Should he get on again? She coped so well…Look her standing so calmly.

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No, he leaves it. The ride is over and the relief for everyone is palpable.

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Today, Mark wanted to give her the space to move a bit more, if she chose. The deeper sand and the greater width of this round yard also gives Mark a bit of a help if she was to buck.

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Nothing. Phew!! She only walked again. Both circles – keeping her eye on Mark. She was yet to properly walk forward.

“She could walk around but she was quite weary. She had a lot of attention on me which was expected. She walked around me on both eyes reasonably well and remained calm.  I felt though that she wasn’t relaxed enough to ask for anything more than a walk. I think that she could have gone either way – she may have panicked and ran a bit but I think that after that she would have stopped and wanted to stand still, shutting down, because moving is too scary. So I was happy to just relax her at a walk and reward her for that. This will develop confidence for the next lesson: a very important thing for horses that have allowed all their barriers to be broken down and accept the more submissive situation of being ridden. Asking extras can sometimes work and won’t matter on certain horses but on some, like this mare, it can take away confidence and make the next ride a little bit more difficult. There is no gain in nervous or hot blooded horses to push a win one day only to create tension for the next. As I left it, we were both winners.”

Following John’s mare being started (blog 8): back in work after 10 days off

(Text & photos by Jenny Barnes with quotes from Mark Langley)

John’s mare is currently being started by Mark. She came to us as a 3 year old without any prior handling a few weeks ago.  Mark is in no rush to get on this mare – he knows her bloodlines & he knows her personality type. She is an independent, confident mare, that is very weary of Mark & not ready to be ridden yet. But she is getting to know him, and hopefully, as Mark teaches her from methods developed from starting hundreds of horses (many of them wild) in his own passionate and caring way, she will start to enjoy her interactions with him.  Mark is highly aware of her sensitive nature & as you will read, his methods that he is using with her are very deliberate.  Incidentally, another horse that was started at the same time as her is almost ready to go back to its owner.

This mare is a special league. And that’s why we’re doing the blog.

During the last lesson, it was not only raining, but she was a little lame. Mark kept the lesson very simple with hardly any pressure on her. Following a break of 10 days as Mark ran horsemanship clinics, John’s mare is now back into work. What follows are the photos from the first lesson back.

She came in where she left off, quiet and kind. She is consistently being calm around Mark now and it is only the things that Mark does that seem to make her nervous or not, as oppose to Mark simply being there. “If you trap a horse then when it next comes in it is different.  But if you build up trust it will come in comfortable. Comfortable and curious.”

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With more confidence around Mark, her curious nature is indeed coming through.

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As Mark puts the halter on her, he explains why although she is so good with ropes and things he still doesn’t feel she is ready to be ridden. “The difference between a wild horse and a horse that has grown up around people is that wild horses will cope with inert objects, but not people, because they know the object won’t kill them. She can cope with a whip (cracking around her) but a tame horse couldn’t (at her stage).”  Mark has deliberately used a lot of ropes with her training as a step to her getting used to him. “The rope offers a connection between us. I can connect through the rope to her”.

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Mark goes back to desensitizing on her by jumping up and down near her and on both eyes. She has found this hard before and Mark wants her to be able to stand calmly as he does it, in preparation for her being able to cope with him on her back. “She is still very sensitive.  Her self-preservation will lead her to spin and kick very quickly. Some horses will run.  I want than side right because that’s the side she’d going to look at me and panic on.”

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She’s a beautiful mare.

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And you can see that all of this work will be well worth it. Mark concentrates on her, watching her every reaction as he works. Looking for areas to work on and ways to increase her trust in him.  She is calm and allows him to touch her down the sides again but her nervous state rises and falls as he dabbles with different pressures. He knows that she is starting to anticipate the work – if he put on too much pressure, she will anticipate that pressure the next time she comes in. He wants to keep this lesson simple for her again.

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This is not about just getting on and riding her. Aside from her lightening reactions; tendency to kick and bite; her highly weary nature; this is about a pure horse and her being able to understand and accept Mark when he rides her. A far bigger task than riding the bucks out of her.

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The pathway to knowledge and understanding about horses never ends…but where there is trust and honesty, the way is easier for all.

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