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Breaking the boundaries… of “traditional” lessons

Over the years of teaching I have had to get very, very creative at times with lesson “formats.”  Whether it was due to weather conditions, arena footing problems/access, and so forth while working with one or sometimes as many as 12 or 13 students, I’ve learned to “roll with” whatever a scenario presented and make the best learning situation out of it.  I call it Real World Riding.

From working while riding down 15’ wide canals next to huge irrigation ditches, to working on literally the side of a hill with fallen timbers, to meandering through woods or orange groves, to lessons on the beach (yes, tough I know ;0) ,) to having a lesson evolve in the “in between area” when trying to just get from point A to point B and something unexpected comes up.

I wince when I arrive at a facility and see grooves around the rail of the arena.  I try to remind and ask my human students about how quickly they can get bored, if they are “brainlessly” repeating an exercise over, and over and over again, how quickly do they think their horse will get bored? 

In my own initial riding lessons as a student, there were the traditional “rules,” which do have value, but I find often hinder people’s creativity and a horse’s enthusiasm the  more often the lessons are taught.

People and horses easily fall into patternized routines, such as tacking up in the same spot, mounting in the same place, initially always riding off in the same direction, without even realizing what they are doing.  And often, as long as they keep asking a task of their horse in the same pattern, the horse will offer what seems to be a complacent response, but what really is a conditioned response, which then can lead to a lot of problems.

I have my own brain and emotions and so does a horse.  I cannot ignore that just because I may want to do something specific, that the horse may not have the same agenda.   So learning how to work with the horse’s brain, creating a mental availability within him, so that I can then influence his thinking, which will then allow me to present specific tasks, I can in the end get “us” on the same page and enjoy a quality ride.

The more creative I am, often the better a horse responds.  How many times have you been in the shower thinking about something and suddenly stopped and asked yourself, “Did I already put conditioner in my hair?”  You can get so used to a routine, that yes, you can still physically accomplish the task at hand, but often be mentally somewhere else.  So too can your horse.

The stories regarding a horse’s behavior that start with, “All of a sudden he just…” usually are not the case.  What mostly has occurred is that neither the human nor the horse has been mentally present during the ride. Therefor when something unexpected arose the horse reacted in a dramatic manner, which is his only defense in a scenario that makes him feel unsure.

Because horses can get comfortable with routine, they can seem very happy and willing.  It is often when you change the routine, that suddenly your saint of a horse turns into a fire breathing dragon.  And it isn’t until the day of a sudden emergency, or unplanned change, when the human really needs their horse to comply, that they find out how much resistance their horse has really been keeping pent up inside of him.  Horses are FABULOUS people trainers.  They can get people to work around the horse, rather than vice versa.

So the next time you head out to work with your four legged friend, take some time to experiment with the how, what and why’s of your interaction with your horse.  Slow down during the “normal” or “basics” and start to notice if you ask something different of your horse, how does he honestly react?  I want my horse to be honest in his opinions even if he isn’t initially “agreeing” what I’d like him to do.  It gives me a starting place as to what to I need to address to help him feel more warm and fuzzy about our relationship so that he chooses to participate, rather than TOLERATE me working with him.

The more honest and clear the communication is, the more that can be accomplished.  So yes, you can work on leg yields in just a 15’ wide path, or you can practice flying changes as you weave through the orange groves, you can work on riding straight as you approach the narrow opening between the two fallen trees, and you can you work on increasing and decreasing energy levels and shortening and lengthening strides as you navigate the holes in the open field. 

The physical boundaries of the fencing in an arena, are really just mental boundaries for the human and horse, and more often than not, handicap what we could really be accomplishing with our horses.  Why not start the New Year with getting creative and real to better support your horse’s mental and emotional needs in order to improve his physical performance?

So head out and start breaking the boundaries…


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