First and Foremost, Create a Partnership
My aim is for horse and rider to understand each other and work together towards human goals. Let’s face it, horses have far less ambitious goals than we do (“just feed me and let me outside!”). I want my horses to want to work hard for me, and to enjoy our time together. I want my horses to think and solve problems on their own - within the parameters of their training. I want to prove to them that I am a worth caring about, and that I have their best interest in mind. If there are any such thing as horse-eating monsters, I want my horses to let me save them from those pesky things! To do this, I have to earn the horse’s trust by showing that I am a fair and responsible leader. My first step to any achievement with a horse is to teach them that we are partners.
In this partnership, rider and horse have different and equally important jobs to do in order to hold up each end. Riders set boundaries in order to keep ourselves and our horses safe while striving towards our ridiculous goals, and horses are obliged to respond and operate within the boundaries. I think of this as a see-saw; perfect balance is difficult to maintain, so each side is constantly making small adjustments to remain centered. “Sit, stay” is pretty impossible for a horse and rider pair to pull off, there are a million tiny pieces to keep lining up, so our jobs are forever ongoing. Watching great partnerships is what leads non-riders to believe “horse riding is so easy, the horse does all the work!”. In a well established partnership, the horse and rider pair communicate seamlessly and give the impression that the horse is acting of its own accord.
How we set the boundaries for our horses is hugely important to the relationship. Riders need to use tactful, clear cues to communicate “yes, exactly that” and “not that, try again”. Allowing the horse to make mistakes and always remaining sympathetic to their learning process goes a long way towards earning trust. Try to foster “win-win situations” with the horse: the horse’s “win” is receiving a reward (release of pressure, praise, a treat); our “win” is getting the desired response to the aid. The horse will be inclined to repeat whatever behavior earned the reward, and our aids can continue to increase in complexity as the horse learns and consistently gives correct responses. (Remember, it's an ongoing process! Nobody said it would be easy). Being open to recognize the horse’s “try”, rewarding him for taking steps towards the correct response, will make for shorter and less frustrating work for both of you. Be patient, and let your session be only as long as it takes to create relaxed success.
Knowing the correct aids and utilizing them consistently becomes increasingly necessary as we progress. Often times, in the beginning of a partnership, or when horse or rider is green, the horse will do exactly what you asked, but not what you meant. Each part of our body influences some part of the horse (especially on a Thoroughbred!), and without precise control of your balance and your aids, you may be inadvertently asking for things which can overwhelm the horse. It is important to pause and think “Am I being clear? Have I asked in a way the horse understands?”. The key is to keep it simple. Be interesting enough to keep the horse's attention, and easy enough to allow success. We will all make mistakes, so take the time to breathe, reset, and ask anew. Sometimes, it will be in both of your best interest to just try again another day. Pat your horse, cool him out, thank him for not killing you, and let him be. It will be okay.
Each horse is an individual, just as each rider is. While foundations should be similar (two legs on means go), there is wiggle-room for you and your horse to come to an agreement about what aids are effective. Through trial and error, paying attention, and time together, you will come to understand your horse, which is just as important as the horse understanding you. If you're consistently going about your interactions thinking "This horse is so annoying, why won't he listen?" there's a chance that you haven't been holding up your end of the partnership, and you may need to rebuild the foundation of trust in your relationship. We will all benefit from setting aside our ego, and focusing on working together with our horses. If one day you’ll want your horse to save both your butts in the face of a scary jump where you miscalculated the approach, the horse needs to believe that your butt is worth saving! Be kind.
[photos by Caitlin Estep Photo www.caitlinestepphoto.com]