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Bookending with Dr Kate Fenner

with Dr Kate Fenner

B. Equine Science (Hons). PhD Horse Behaviour and Training

Article: Anna Sharpley.

Photo: Adam Turner- Getty Images

Photo: Adam Turner- Getty Images

I have lost count of the number of times during my conversations with firstly Dr Andrew McLean and more recently with Dr Kate Fenner that I have exclaimed; ‘if I had only known that during my competition career, how much happier (and successful) my horses and I would have been.’ There is regret for not knowing more when it was most needed, and it is to be hoped that in these modest articles, Dr Kate is saving horsemen and women from continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result. And again, this month, I had an, ‘of course, that makes sense’ moment.

Bookending is the very basis of self-carriage, about which a great deal has been written. Self-carriage exists when the horse is able to maintain their frame and balance without the rider having to use the aids every stride in order to support the horse. Only then can the rider use the aids to change the horse and or improve their way of going. But way before we get to that, self-carriage exists when we ask the horse to do something, staying tied up, lifting their foot, standing on a float, etc, until we ask them to do something else. We give the horse a cue to do something, say to canter, and they canter until we give them a cue to come back to trot. That is what Dr Fenner calls ‘Bookending’. It is not only horses that benefit from Bookending. A dog is in self-carriage if it is asked to sit and remain sitting until we ask it to come. We don’t need to teach the dog the ‘stay’ command because if they are not staying, then they are clearly no longer sitting, meaning we don’t have self-carriage in sitting. A clear request that has a beginning, “sit”, a middle, where the dog remains sitting, and an end, “come.”

“Bookending,” begins Dr Kate, “is something I developed as I was trying to explain self-carriage. It occurred to me that you cannot really have self-carriage unless you are prepared to cue your horse to go into a movement or something like a halt and then a cue to come out of it. So that’s the bookend.

Let’s say you are riding your horse, they’re trotting, and you want them to canter. You cue the canter, the horse canters and then just falls out of canter. Why did the horse stop cantering? It could be myriad reasons, but basically, we haven’t taught the horse to wait for the signal to stop cantering – we haven’t bookended our manoeuvre. What we need to do is give the signal to canter and then the signal to not canter. This is how we can teach our horses about self-carriage in everything they do.

The training starts at the very beginning. We are teaching a young horse to canter. What happens is that we get so excited that the horse has cantered that we accept those three or so canter strides, and we let the horse fall back out of the canter, and then we ask for canter again. It was the horse’s decision to stop cantering. As riders, we might feel that this is ‘nicer’ to the horse; we’re being kind, but in reality, it’s confusing for the horse because we aren’t being clear. Most riders with some experience can always feel when the horse is going to break and fall back into a trot, and what we tend to do is flap and kick and wriggle and giggle in an effort to keep the horse going in canter. Forward is good, right? Yes, it is, but what we are doing in this case is getting the horse to rely on us to maintain its gait, which is the opposite of self-carriage. Horses habituate very easily to leg cues, and they desensitise to them, so all the work we do to keep the horse going leads the horse to need that to keep going. You see this in some riding school horses that have, due to the lack of a timely release with their inexperienced riders, become desensitised to pressure cues.
“What I am going to try to do is cue the horse back to trot before they decide to trot on their own. Initially, be content with two or three canter strides and then ask them to come back to trot. Then, as the horse builds greater strength and balance, you will get more and more strides of canter and eventually indefinite canter in self-carriage. The horse learns to keep going until you ask them to stop because they know that you will, at some time, ask them to stop, and they will be waiting for the cue. We really want our horses to be more sensitive to pressure cues. What we have always felt was the right thing to do, keeping them cantering, for example, at all costs, is not very fair on the horse. We should always try to work towards using less pressure. Always try and work towards making the horse more sensitive to voice, rein, leg, etc, and we need to be more aware of when we use and have pressure.

“But self-carriage is not all about riding; it is about every request we make of the horse. You want self-carriage in lifting the horse’s foot. You want the horse to pick their foot up when you ask and hold it up until you are ready to place it down. If you just randomly drop the foot on the ground, not only does it bang the toe and cause discomfort, it is random for the horse. Because it is random, the horse will try to take their foot back when they want to because they cannot see an end; there is no Bookend. The horse makes the decision when to put their foot down rather than knowing and relying and waiting for you to put their foot down. You give the horse a clear signal when you pick their foot up and when you place it back on the ground. That is Bookending. You must remember that the questions you ask and the duration of the task are relevant to the age and degree of training of the horse. Take small steps. You only need to hold the foot up for a couple of seconds before placing it down. Make it your decision and not the horse’s.

“Trailer loading is another example of Bookending. I want the horse to load, and when they’re on, I don’t ask anything, and then I ask them to get off. The self-carriage part of this is the horse learns to stay on the trailer until they are asked to get off. I always teach the horse to get on and off the trailer at the same time. I ask the horse to put one foot on the trailer ramp, then take that foot off. Then two feet on and, when asked, two feet off, etc. And so on until the horse is fully on the trailer and standing and waiting to be asked to back off. If you think the horse is going to pre-empt backing off, you need to try and ask them to back off so that it is always your decision, which is a proactive approach. If you are not quick enough and the horse backs off of their own accord, try not to let their nose leave the centre of the trailer and ask them to walk straight back on, no walking a circle or moving away from the trailer, and once on, give the horse an opportunity to rest. The horse will get the idea that they don’t have to do anything but just stand there.

“Self-carriage is the principle of asking the horse to do something and continue to do it until you ask them to stop. Our definition of self-carriage is often too narrow, and we tend to underestimate the usefulness of the concept because the concept is in everything the horse does, whether it be standing when tied up, picking up their foot for the farrier, or cantering a twenty-metre circle. Self-carriage adds so much clarity for the horse because all the horse needs to know is I do this until I am asked to do something else.

“By Bookending things, we are more aware generally about what we are asking the horse to do because we have that start, middle and finish that adds clarity which is really helpful. Bookending leading to self-carriage is effective when adopted as a method of training from the outset. But with retraining, we have to be especially clear about a start, a middle, and an end. We need to be really clear with our signals to be fair to our horses.”

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