I was working with a student a few months ago who I knew from past years, but whom I had not seen in a long time. She had been concentrating on educating her horse in dressage and had been competing for some time with good success thanks to some help from her dressage instructor.
I was surprised by how resistant to the feel of the reins the horse had become since I last saw it. When I rode the horse it felt like a plow horse bearing down on the shoulders and through the reins. The woman had done some good work with her horse since I last saw them together, but she had paid the price of losing softness through the reins. This was no surprise to the owner. In fact, it was the main reason she had come to the clinic. She didn’t know how to get her horse off her hands and free up the shoulders. She knew that until this was addressed she had reached the limit of how far her horse would go in competition.
I began by working on the horse to disengaging it’s hindquarters in response to the inside rein. When I rode the horse I felt how hard it pushed from behind like it was pulling a wagon loaded with rocks. I wanted to loosen up the hindquarters and get them to step under the horse more so that when I asked it to rebalance and lift off the forehand it had a set of hindquarters in place to carry the extra load as it shifted from the front to the back. I needed the hind end under the horse, not parked out and pushing forward. Until that happened the horse would not be able to free up the forehand.
After I got a nice change in the mare, I had the owner ride her horse as I talked her through the process. Immediately I noticed the rider was applying inside leg to direct the hindquarters. I pointed this out and the poor woman dropped the reins, stopped using her legs, turned and looked at me with an expression of exasperation.
“But I’ve been taught the rider’s legs control the hindquarters and the reins control the shoulders. That’s how it’s supposed to be done!”
I felt sorry for the woman because she was obviously aggravated at what appeared to be a contradiction between her dressage training and what I was asking her to do. It not unusual that we are confronted with a training approach that clashes with what we already know. I feel sorry for everybody who believes they’ve finally understood something and then find out somebody else tells them it is wrong. How frustrating.
At another clinic last year, a lady brought a horse that would chronically rush when asked to trot or canter. The horse leaned on the reins and slowly built up more energy like a kettle building up steam. It took a lot of effort for the owner to slow it down or get it to stop.
When I suggested that she give the horse more rein and use only inside rein to ask for a turn small enough to encourage the horse to slow down, she was miffed. She was not happy that I was asking her to do the opposite of everything she thought was the right thing to do such as ride the horse with the brakes always applied. I was accused of telling her that everything she had learned in 30 years was wrong. She was no happy.
The thing that these two episodes have in common is that both owners felt challenged and distressed with ideas that seemed to oppose what they thought they already knew.
But why would they feel that way?
I believe it’s because they think of riding and horsemanship as something you learn from somebody else. When a person with years more experience, a good reputation and a record of success, tells us how to do something, we tend to believe them. – especially if it makes sense. Maybe they know what they are talking about. Maybe they have had fantastic results with lots of different horses using the same approach. Maybe they can even get those ideas to work with our horse.
However, when we have been trying to apply our teacher’s teaching for weeks, months and years without making much headway we need to ask why. If an instructor tells us that we should ride or train a certain way, but our horse tells us something different, which are we going to believe?
In the case of the women with the “plow horse”, it made perfect sense to her that the reins control a horse’s shoulders and the rider’s legs control the hindquarters. She had no reason to question her instructor because it seemed so obvious that two different parts of the horse must require two different methods of control. It didn’t even occur to her that using her reins to direct the forehand and the hindquarters was something worth trying. In fact, it was such a total contradiction to what she already knew that the idea was hard to accept. It created a conflict between what she thought she knew and what she was trying to achieve. If I hadn’t ridden the horse and got a good change, I doubt she would have given my suggestion a second thought.
As riders and trainers, we constantly face these conflicts. Every horse, every instructor, and every clinician tell us something that appears to contradict something we thought we already knew. We are always in conflict with what we presently know and what we are about to learn. It is the essence of learning that we are always in an adversarial debate between what we learned yesterday and will learn tomorrow. But if we are not making progress with our horse using what we already know, there is no risk in trying a different idea.
Photo: Belinda doesn’t seem conflicted at all about my approach to working her horse – unequivocal rejection!