Thank goodness horses live in the moment, and don’t hold grudges. Horses are perfect just the way they are, and then you add humans and things can fall apart easily. Luckily, horses are also pretty forgiving animals, once they figure out what we want, they most likely are happy to give it to us. As the human partner in this relationship, its up to us to set our horses up for success. We need to stop doing the wrong things and start doing the right things, and pretty quickly our partnership will grow in positive ways. I really believe in this powerful statement by Karen Rohlf, of Dressage Naturally, “Never underestimate the potential for things to improve in ways you cannot yet imagine.”
Let’s look at 5 ways we commonly frustrate and confuse our horses, and maybe if we stop and think about them we can come up with some ways to help clear things up. Some of these ideas are moments I’ve discovered when riding my own horses, and I felt so frustrated. I’m sure my horse was even more frustrated and confused!
1. Not Being Consistent
Wow, not being consistent is a biggie, and can be terribly confusing to a horse. We all decide on goals we want to teach our horses, and when we succeed in teaching them a skill, its a great feeling. A big one for me is having my horses stand still while mounting, no matter if I’m at a show, at the trail head, or at home. Every time I mount up, I should not let any circumstances compromise what I’ve taught my horse. I don’t want to confuse my horse by expecting him to stand still at home and then when I’m with friends about to go trail riding inadvertently, just let him walk off.
2. Getting on Your Horse Without a Plan
For years I would saddle up my horse, and head to the arena, field, or head down the trail without any thought as to what my purpose in riding was for that day. Horses need leadership, and they get that from their herd, so when we are together with our horses we are a herd of two, and we should be the leader. A good leader has a purpose in mind and a plan for what is going to happen. If you’re planning a trail ride, think about is this a trail ride where I just want to focus on my partnership with my horse to build trust and confidence? Or maybe you want to do some conditioning, and you’ve marked out parts of the trail that you want to pick up some speed and do some trotting. Before you and your horse head to the arena, plan ahead for a skill you’d like to teach. Have a plan in mind for how you will create steps to get there. Or maybe you’ve chosen a really fun pattern you’d like to ride, that will add finesse to skills you’ve already taught your horse. Try to get into a habit of thinking just a couple minutes on the where, what, and how of your riding.
3. Using Aids Too Strongly
I remember from teaching school for many years, that some of the loudest teachers were ignored by students, and calm, soft spoken teachers gained their student’s attention. I think this is the same with horses. Horses are very sensitive, way more sensitive than we are, so why are we so loud sometimes? Whatever you ask of your horse, picture it first in your mind. Ask how can I teach my horse to respond with the use of soft and quiet aids. Think how it should look and feel. Suppose you are teaching your horse to come to a balanced halt at a particular place in the arena or on the trail. My picture would be a horse that transitions to a halt with his hindquarters well under him, responding to my seat and my lowered energy. My picture would not be coming to a halt with my horse on his forehand and me hauling on the reins. One of the most beautiful things, is watching a horse and rider perform movements and the rider appears to be doing nothing.
4. Being Impatient
Whether you want your horse to learn to cross a bridge or jump a fence for the first time, don’t start with the goal. The goal is not the starting point. Again picture in your mind what you want, and then walk it backwards and list all the baby steps it will take to get there. And be ready for those steps to take days or even weeks depending on the particular skill. Horses don’t operate on a time clock. I like this saying from Pat Parelli, “Some people don’t have time to do it right, but they have time to do it wrong over and over again.”
5. Choosing the Wrong Time
I have found out the hard way, that its always best to ride, train, or hang out with my horses when I really and truly want to, and nothing else is on my mind. Horses deserve our full attention and its best for our safety as well. If you’re worried or angry about something, that is not a good time to ride your horse. Second, sometimes we choose the wrong time to teach something. Perhaps you want to work on your horse’s confidence with objects or obstacles and the wind is blowing like crazy or maybe the other horses in the pasture are running and calling. That might not be a good time for your lesson. Third, don’t be in a hurry. Before you go out to ride or work your horse on line, give it the time that it needs. Rushing a horse causes tension and distrust. A horse that is tense, fearful and on top of that doesn’t understand what you want is a recipe for disaster. Take the time it takes to explain what you want your horse to do so that its meaningful to him.
Ultimately, I think we all just want to have fun! We own and ride horses because its fun. I think if we keep that in mind, we will make better decisions about our time with our four legged friends.
Gail Ford is owner of Mulberry River Farm. She is a local amateur rider and competitor who studies Natural Horsemanship and studies the fundamentals of Dressage.