I have had a busy time lately. Attended clinics from a wide variety of clinicians. Harry Whitney, Ken Faulkner, Mark Langley, Ross Jacobs, Sofia Valencia and the list goes on. Clinicians in teaching the things they have to share can be dogmatic in the application of the their methods. They can be prone to using words like ‘never do such and such’ and ‘always do blah, blah’. Generally, their advice is very good. Any surviving clinician these days has to have have something pretty good to offer or they don’t fill clinics. What I have come to appreciate however is the advice my mother gave me growing up, ‘all things in moderation’. So while clinicians may instruct riders with strict prescriptions to help them learn, I think riders are wisest to apply what they feel is appropriate when educating horses alone. In this way each rider develops their own style as they must because, as I have found, no two people will do things the exact same way, particularly when you add the randomness of individual horse behaviour.
A rider can do a lot in the saddle to help a horse. A big part of this is how they manage themselves on the horse’s back. The obvious means of helping here is coming down lightly in the saddle. It is helpful to remember that just because a rider stands in the stirrups, this does not mean their weight just disappeared into the ether. Of course when the rider stands in the stirrups the weight shifts to the stirrups, up the stirrup leathers, through the bars back into the saddle. The distribution may change but the weight is still there. What goes up comes down soon enough.
Soft hip motion can also do a lot to help a horse feel comfortable. In sitting trot and other more subtle movements a rider can really do a lot to help a horse, but this takes a lot of experience to learn. People that used to joy ride bareback as kids will have had an accelerated learning process here.
Finally I will finish by talking about the tilt a rider might put in their hips. This can have a significant impact on how the horse carries the weight of the rider. Buck Brannaman pointed out that people who tip forward slightly, tend to have an advantage in staying on a horse that scoots around. But the freeness a horse feels across his back is the real advantage a horse gets from a rider that tips forward and even takes their weight out of the saddle. Deciding when this is most beneficial to the horse is also a matter of experience.
A good upright posture is nice to have and can look very impressive, but sometimes I am more impressed when I see a rider deviate from the rigid upright position to something that they feel is more appropriate for the horse in a particular moment of time. So don’t feel like if you don’t sit like statue on your horse you are a bad rider. A comfortable horse will be happier and progress faster, so forgo you feelings and hang ups about what you might look like up there and help your mount out.
The only reason we can get anything done with our horses is because they like us. We guide them through everything we ask them to do. How closely they follow our guidance depends on how keen they are to be with us in the first place. so the best way to train your horse is to be great a friend to him. This is why just hanging out quietly with your horse maybe some of the most valuable training you can do.
You ask a horse for intense exercise and when you finish you just drop them out. Is this how you like to work out? For intense weight training maybe yes. For fitness aerobic work, not so much. Having to come in and out of a routine can be quite annoying. You lose your flow and each time you start you have to find the motivation to re-engage with the work. Same for long breaks, the longer you break the more difficult it is to come back to work. Even for intense weights I normally only stop for a couple of minutes at most while I catch my breath and my muscles recover a bit. I think for aerobic work for horses it pays to go from fairly intense to less intense, but not to stop. And for hard work like piaffe only stop briefly and then maybe drop back to easier aerobic work. I used to be critical of letting horses walk during breaks but when I think about it when I take breaks at the gym, unless I am super tired I normally keep walking and moving as it fits with the energy in my body and keeps me motivated for the next burst of work. Why should your horse be any different? Why make your horse stand still and have to do mental work as well as physical work?
When I want my horse to have a cruisy ride, it is tempting to just wander around and not ask anything of him. But my horse knows when I am pleased with him. If I want my horse to have an easy period, I try to come up with simple challenges for him. This way he can still feel a sense of achievement. The flip side of this is of course not asking the horse too much, or over challenging him. If it felt good to you, chances are it felt good to the horse. A series of simple challenges for a horse will do more to rejuvenate his mind than just wondering around.
Getting a horse good out and about. The horse needs to have seen a scary thing and realise that it will be OK. So that the next time the horse sees the thing or is in the same situation, it knows it will be OK. It is that simple, you just need to get a horse through a scary situation without trauma. The horse doesn’t need to make super investigations, the horse doesn’t need to do fifty laps. The horse just needs to have enough exposure so that when the horse sees the same thing again the horse can say to itself ‘well last time this happened I turned out OK’.
A good example is dogs. A horse might be nervous around dogs, but normally once it sees one particular dog, it’ll work out pretty quickly that that particular dog is not a threat to it. If the horse gets past a few dogs without drama, it learns that dogs typically arn’t a big deal.
When riding in the arena or at home, we often spend our whole time convincing our horses to work with more energy. When we finally feel that our horses are educated enough, we eventually head out and spend our entire time trying to dissipate our horses energy. By constantly riding at home in the same place, we miss the opportunity to educate our horses on the wider world.
A horse needs to see a lot of different things in order to get familiar and comfortable with them and this takes time. Often when horses see new things, it also comes with a high level of energy. The same energy we are looking for when riding at home on the arena. Our time out and about can be used to help the horse get comfortable being out and get them used to productively using their energy. So don’t constantly ride your horse in the very limited environment (the cupboard) at home.
You don’t have to give the horse big rein releases for them to feel a big reward. Horses are highly attuned to the reins and therefore even little releases can have a big meaning for them. Often little rein releases are more effective because in big releases the horse can feel shocked by the sudden loss of communication and guidance from the rider.
What does your horse think about you and your ability to keep him out of trouble? Not just people in general but you in particular. What have you done to build rapport with your horse?
Horses really don’t like trouble and a horse that really has no idea ho to find an answer to a problem he is presented with quickly becomes troubled. If troubled enough a horse will panic. So it is very important that a horse feels comfortable enough to search for answers and that the horse has some idea of things it could try. A talented horse person educates a horse in searching for answers and takes the time to make sure the horse has some basic concepts of what it might try before presenting a horse with a question.