We've all had those days where we dismount, untack and wonder why on earth we just wasted an hour of our lives getting disheartened and frustrated because our horse is not doing anything that we’ve asked On days like these we feel that we aren't connecting with our horse at all. We ask ourselves “Doesn’t she like me? Doesn’t he like being ridden? Or is she simply being 'naughty'?”
Well here are a few key things to remember when we enter the ménage and expect our beloved friends to fulfil our expectations.
Firstly, the key to being on the same wavelength as our horse is accepting that we won't always be on the same wavelength. Remember our horses are living, breathing beings just like us and it's ok for them to have an 'off' day. When we are not feeling it, we simply don't tack up that day, but if the horse isn't feeling it, we continue to push until we have a fight on our hands. I am a big believer that if you feel the horse is not on form on a particular day, change your plans and try again another day.
Secondly, and I think something that can never be said too much, is that as riders we are always expecting the horse to know the answer to the questions we are putting to them through our seat, leg and rein aids. Now, if we asked a child in school a question, that we know the correct answer to, but they can’t get it right, how do we make changes to help them get to the correct answer? We can keep repeating the same question over and over until the child gets frustrated, anxious and shuts down, or we can readdress the way in which we ask the question. The same applies for a horse that’s learning. If they are not cooperating, are evading the aids or displaying undesirable behaviour, we should turn our attention to ourselves and how we are riding. For instance, if our reins are saying 'slow down' but our seat is tense with shoulders and elbows locked in a fixed manner and our pelvis rotating forward causing the spine to arch, we are actually saying quite clearly 'move on forward and lean on my reins please'. Then before we know it, we are labelling our horse strong, a bolter or out of control. So before we repeat this consistently until we lose the will to live, let's simply take a moment to think about how we can change the way we ask. By making just a few minor changes such as drawing in through our core, losing the arch in our lower back, rolling the shoulders back and down, keeping the wrists and elbow supple and and relaxing the power grip of our thighs, we can discover what a big difference we can make to the answers that our horse gives us!
And remember, when the horse answers correctly, make sure you immediately praise her and go straight onto an easy exercise such as a simple walk before returning to ask the question again. If you do not do this, you are in danger of the horse assuming that she’s given you the wrong answer and so she will try to answer in different ways and you will lose that perfect response.
Finally, it's no secret that I am not a fan of gadgets such as side reins and draw reins which pin, force and restrict the horse. I am also not a fan of flash or tight nosebands, unnecessarily strong bits, spurs and standing martingales. These are all silencing tools and I do not believe the horse’s communication should ever be silenced. We all talk of how much easier our lives would be if our horses could talk but when they communicate with us, we ignore it. Let's take the flash noseband for instance; It’s purpose is to stop the mouth from opening and unfortunately too many riders use them because 'my instructor told me I needed one!' And this is ok because they are a professional and it worked. Very few people challenge and ask ‘why does my horse want to open his mouth?’ What is he saying? How can I make changes so my horse doesn't want to open his mouth?
Any good instructor should welcome questions and have an array of different potential avenues to go down which don't include silencing the only line of communication the horse has. Usually the answer is that the horse is experiencing discomfort, maybe from the bit, saddle, back, bad riding or evasion of gadgets. A good instructor should be able to offer guidance from a static and dynamic assessment of the horse and rider during lessons. I think the reason we see so many 'naughty' or 'broken' horses nowadays is because we expect the horse to listen to us 100% of the time but we never take the time to listen back.
So to summarise - how do we get the best out of our horses? The answer is simple: Take time! Take time to listen, take time to take a step back, take time to teach slowly and correctly and take time to try new things. A happy horse is the best version of your horse!