Why do you ride?
Is it because you love horses? I think that we need to keep that love in mind when we are working with the horses. We need to get out of our heads and into our hearts. Riders tend to get so caught up on technique, methods, goals and results that we forget about the relationship and the experience. Even individuals who are working on natural horsemanship with the goal of creating relationship with the horse end up getting caught up in the tools, cues and exercises of the methodology that they follow. All methods of training have value and point to the same truths. What makes an individual great with horses has nothing to do with special equipment or special exercises.
If we stop focusing on performing specific techniques and start developing our intuition and feel we can gain really wonderful results. Not every technique is right for every horse in every situation. It is important to have a big toolbox of knowledge but ultimately the best results are gained from responding to the horse in the moment. When we become too rigid in our way of thinking we end up missing the subtle communication with the horse that allows us to transcend any issue.
To do this you have to ride from the heart. You need to stay grounded and present with the intention of riding compassionately in partnership with the horse. If you allow yourself to just breathe and sense the horse’s movements you can interact with the horse with timing and feel. Stop looking for the things that your horse is doing wrong and start focusing on what is good. If you pick a fight with your horse he will always fight back in one way or another. It is much better to work in cooperation with him. Be still in your body and wait for the slightest inclination that your horse is trying and then release the pressure and say “thank you”. This is similar to clicker training where you use a distinct sound to capture the behavior you want. It helps to break a task down into the smallest possible increments.
For example, if you want to teach the horse to back up you apply the cue that you will use to ask the horse to back. Typically, we teach horses to yield to pressure so if you are riding you will squeeze the reins, add a little leg and maybe slightly lift your hand if you are riding western. You ask with the smallest amount of pressure possible – just a whisper. When the horse shifts his weight backward you release the pressure and reward him. The next time you ask for a bigger shift, then one step back and eventually you have a flawless, light rein back. You have to be tuned into your horse to accomplish this. It is not a fight or an ultimatum or a demand. You ask respectfully and reward when there is effort. The initial goal cannot be “flawless rein back” or you are setting your horse up for failure. You also shouldn’t put a timeline on it – all horses learn at their own pace and will be more willing to perform if you give them a chance to work out the problem.
You want to build trust between you and your horse and deepen the relationship. This is developed through consistency, boundaries and compassion. If he trusts you he will always try to do his best. You want to create a black and white world for horses. When I apply this cue it always means that I want this result. It is never okay to kick out at other horses while we are riding. I always want you to stand still while I mount. A lot of time we throw shades grey into the picture which will confuse the horse. When you apply this cue sometimes you are looking for you to rein back and sometimes you want your horse to square up. Sometimes you ignore when your horse kicks out and other times you get frustrated and lash out. When you get on and your horse walks off you correct it randomly.
Choose a set of aids for each movement and those aids always mean the same thing. If you are correcting a behavior there needs to be a specific consequence that makes sense to you and your horse and you always reinforce it. For example, if your horse kicks out at other horses on trails you could choose to ask for a side pass away from the horse, ask your horse to be last in line or send your horse in a circle at the trot. Any of those could be good consequences for the behavior but you need to choose one and stick with it. If you ride in wooded areas then a side pass might not always be an option so you might want to choose having your horse drop back to last place. Once you decide, stick with it. Every time your horse kicks out you react be calmly sending him in a circle rather than sometimes getting frustrated, yanking on his mouth and whipping him around in a circle.
Horses don’t understand this type of “sometimes” behavior. They prefer “always” and “never”. If you create a boundary and consistently and kindly reinforce that boundary then the horse knows what you expect. It isn’t fair to punish a horse or use harsh aids if you have not clearly defined the expectation. Compassion plays into this because if you are consistent and riding from your heart then you can ask for things with intention and subtleties rather than aggressive corrections or demands. If you are listening to your horse and trusting him in return you also have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Does he understand what you are asking? If not, can you make it more clear or break the problem down into smaller components? If he does understand, is there a physical issue preventing him from performing the task that you requested?
Horses are sensitive creatures and we need to develop better feel if we want to communicate clearly and develop better relationship with them. The next time you ride try catching your horse in the act of goodness. Try waiting for the horse to offer a solution. Try listening to your horse. Try to use lighter and lighter cues until all you have to do is twitch a muscle and your horse understands. Make it easier for yourself and your horse. Get out of your head and enjoy the moment. Relax and have fun.