If I had no idea what a horse looked like, what is the likelihood that I could draw an accurate picture of a horse? There is probably only an extremely slim chance the drawing would look like a horse. But what if somebody told me a horse had a tail, two ears, four legs, long neck, eyes set to the side of the head, long face, what are the chances the drawing looked like a horse? Well, probably somewhat better, but still very unlikely it looked anything like the horse.
Yet, we often ask a horse to do something with only the smallest idea of what it is we want it to do. In our mind, we have a general picture of what a halt may look like - such as the horse’s feet stopped moving. But the image is so broad that if we take that as the definition of a halt, then we would reward the feet stopping with the horse leaning on the bit or stopping abruptly or dribbling to a stop or stopping with an upside down top line or swinging the hindquarters to the outside etc. Any of those stops would be acceptable if we only think of a halt as a stopping of the feet.
To complicate things even further, because we don’t have a set of specifics that define our halt, sometimes our halt will look like one thing and other times we reward when it looks like something else. There would be a lack of consistency as to what we want our halt to look like. Imagine how distressed I would feel if the person asking me to draw a horse kept telling me different details about what a horse looked like. I would end up not knowing what to draw to keep them happy.
In my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship I devote an entire section to the concept of clarity because along with focus and softness it is one of the pillars underpinning good horsemanship. A large part of this clarity is consistency. In fact, it could be argued that consistency is the most essential element of clarity. It is impossible to convey our intent during training without it.
This entire ramble is building towards emphasizing the importance of people having a clear picture in their minds of what the task they are asking a horse to do will look like when it’s done.
It is such a common issue that when somebody asks a horse to do something their own understanding of what they want is so vague that they don’t know what they are looking for. At clinics, many people will try to get a horse to do something, then stop and then turn to me and ask if that was okay. I try to impress on them the importance of knowing what they will reward before ever asking anything of their horse.
Without that clear image in a person’s mind they can’t convey the same clarity to their horse. They won’t reward for the same result each time, but for different results. This will often create a huge stress in a horse’s life and make situations worse. Horses need clarity in order to have confidence and if we are not clear in our mind what we want we can’t communicate the clarity that a horse needs because we will lack consistency.
So the first part of the asking a horse to do something begins with knowing what it will look and feel like when a horse gets something close to being right, even before we ask.
But there is a second part that is equally important.
When a rider or handler is working with a horse I want them to ask themselves “was that okay, what could have been better, was it better than last time” in everything they ask of their horse.
We need to compare what a horse gives us with the image of what we wanted. It is the only way we can be sure if we need to do more or do less and what we need to change in how we ask the second time.
Many times at a clinic I will ask a student how a transition felt or how a turn felt and the answer will come back “I don’t know.” That lack of awareness will get in the way of progress.
I think people often lack the focus of keeping track of several things at once and so when they are thinking about say a walk to trot transition, they notice how much effort they needed to push the horse forward or how fast the trot was. But in doing that they are unaware whether the horse leaned on an inside shoulder or flew his head up or ground his teeth or swished his tail. Having more than one thing to be mindful about seems to be a big ask for many riders.
However, if we are not capable of asking ourselves “was that okay, what could have been better, was it better than last time”, there is no point in keeping a mental picture of what it should look and feel like before we present a job to our horse. Both sides of the equation of knowing what a change should feel like and knowing what it felt like are inseparably linked. Keeping track of one is useless without being aware of the other.
I know this is often hard for people who are struggling with awareness of what is going on under the saddle. It is normal for a rider to be unsure of what they want and be able to compare it with what they got. But it is a learned skill that every rider who strives towards progress must learn through making the effort to keep remembering to ask themselves “what do I want it to feel like and what did it feel like?”
Photo: Do you think this rider is keeping track of the resistance in her horse?