Breaking the Arena Boundaries… Creating Adaptability in the horse

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 (tough I know,) 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 they often hinder people’s creativity and a horse’s enthusiasm the  more often the similar lessons are taught.
People and horses easily fall into patterned 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.
Horses have their brain and emotions.  So learning how to work with the horse’s brain, creating a mental availability within him so that he can then be influenced will then increase his confidence when the unknown or unexpected is presented.
One of the factors that contribute to this is keeping the horse's mind focused, rather than just addressing his physical movement. The more creative sessions are, 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 quickly get used to a routine, and you can physically accomplish the task at hand, but often be mentally somewhere else. This is often the case with horses. 
Stories regarding a horse’s undesired behavior frequently start with, “All of a sudden, he just…” Unfortunately, this is the human's perception, but not usually an accurate assessment.  More often than not, the initial, minor resistance or defensiveness from the horse has been ignored because it was still "manageable," or the person was able to contain the symptom, but did not address the source of distress. Therefore when something unexpected arises that finally causes the horse's proverbial emotional cup to "overflow," the horse reacts in a "suddenly" more drastic and dramatic manner, which is his only defense in a scenario that reflects his level of insecurity.
Because horses can get comfortable with routine, they can seem very willing when they have repeatedly been shown what will be asked of them.  This gives the human the false illusion that everything is fine with the horse. And then comes the day when there is a change in the routine, and the saint of a horse turns into a fire breathing dragon.  Frequently it isn’t until the day of a sudden emergency, or unplanned change, when the person really needs their horse to comply, that they find out how little adaptability, or mental availability the horse has towards trying something different.  
So the next time you head out to work with your four-legged friend, take some time to experiment with how, what, and the why’s of your interaction with your horse.  Slow down during the “normal” or “basics” and start to notice if you ask something different than the norm of your horse, how does he respond? It will give you a starting place as to what needs to address to help him learn how to willingly participate, rather than TOLERATE working with you.
The more clear the communication is, the more that can be accomplished with quality.  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 focus on riding straight as you approach the narrow opening between the two fallen trees, and you can practice increasing and decreasing energy levels or 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 accomplished with our horses.  Why not start the New Year by getting creative to better support your horse’s mental and emotional needs in order to improve his physical willingness to participate?
So head out and start breaking the boundaries…

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