I was riding a horse I was starting in a paddock. It was her first ride out of the round yard. The horse was a bit concerned about riding between the jumps, but did okay. The owner pointed out that normally the jumps would not have bothered her at all if she were grazing in the paddock with the jumps.
It was a good observation and she was correct. The horse would not have worried about moving around the jumps if I had just unsaddled her and let her wander. So why was she worried about them when I was riding?
I think the answer really highlights the problem we all have in our relationship with our horses.
I believe the worry the horse felt when I rode her around the jumps was not so much about the jumps, but about giving control over to me. If she were on her own and trotting between two jumps, it would be her idea. If she decided to go between the jumps or around them or avoid them all together, she would have the freedom to do those things. She would be in control of her actions. But when I was riding her, she lost some of that control because I had taught her to respond to MY reins and MY legs. She now had to go with an idea that did not come immediately from inside her brain.
On a horse that was much further along in their education, this may not be a problem. But for a horse that was just beginning to understand the concept of having somebody on their back and directing them, it can be quite daunting.
In young horses and horses that have had poor training, giving over control to a human is a very scary thing to do. For most, there is a natural instinct to resist whatever pressure is placed on them. If we say go right, they initially feel the urge to go left. If we ask them to stop, most will try to keep going. It takes work and education to help a horse feel okay that going with our idea is a good idea and not something they either have to feel concerned about or put up a fight.
I remember riding a 10-year-old pony that was quite worried when I asked him to turn. For that little fellow a human picking up the reins to ask for a turn meant trouble, it meant resistance and it meant run through the shoulder in the opposite direction. The worry did not stem from the ponies fear of turning, he had made plenty of turns in his life. His fear came from the idea of succumbing to the feel of the reins. He couldn’t let himself be directed by me. My job was not to make him turn, but to make him feel okay about me presenting him with an idea – like turning. It comes back to the concept that I keep harping on about of good training being about directing a horse’s thoughts.
A common example of this seems to be some horses that don’t want to go forward. A lot of horses get more and more stuck the harder you try to urge them forward. Sometimes, when they do eventually go forward they buck or pig-root and the moment you stop driving them forward they come to screeching halt. Often these horses can go forward with freedom when they are on their own and it is their idea. But when a rider asks them for forward they feel like they are swimming in tar. This is because of their worry of the pressure to be asked forward. The forward does not worry as much as the pressure the rider applies to get the forward.
With this in mind, it is important that we be vigilant about how the way we ask a horse to do something impacts on the way they feel about giving over their ideas to us.
When a horse is struggling to yield to our pressure, a lot of people have the tendency to ask stronger and become more insistent. And there is certainly a proper time and circumstance for that in order to provide clarity to a horse.
However, it is important to be aware that sometimes being bigger with a horse has the opposite effect. Instead of providing clarity, it creates so much anxiety that the horse is too overwhelmed to think their way out of the pressure.
After all, the purpose of pressure is purely to inspire a horse to search for a way out – not to impose a response. There is no learning for a horse when we make it happen. So we must fight the urge to always use more pressure, just to get a job done. Sometimes, using less pressure calms a horse’s emotions to the extent they can open their minds to the lesson we need them to learn.
Furthermore, by doing just enough to coax a horse to search and consequently find the best answer for themselves, they gain confidence that when we speak it is worth their time to consider our idea. This confidence is important because it helps a horse feel that going along with our idea is not something they need to defend themselves against or get in a fight about. The horse I rode in the jump paddock would not have been so concerned about the jumps, if it had more confidence in me as the conveyor of good ideas.
It’s a huge change in a horse’s view of the world to allow a human to direct their thoughts and trust it will come out ok. To do it well takes a lot of time and consistency to ensure a horse never feels the human has betrayed them and can’t be trusted.
However, we have also have the capacity to force a horse into feelings of futility and helplessness, where they give up their right to express their feelings and have their own ideas. But to do that, something in the nature of a horse has to die first.
I’m thinking the horse in the photo isn’t ready to have the fellow’s idea become his idea.