Proactive Riding- Raising the Rider’s Awareness
Creating conditioned and patternized behaviors, or routines, while interacting with our horses can lead to “dishonest” conversations between the human and the horse. Whether heading out on a trail ride or focusing in the arena, there frequently is a sense of “wonder” from the rider regarding what the ride will “be like” on any given day. I dislike repetitive movement as there becomes a familiarity and “dullness” to the conversation between the horse and human leading to brainless responses and a lack of adaptability. The day the person changes the routine their “quiet” horse becomes a fire breathing dragon because the pattern has changed.
There should be no mystery when working with our horses. Every interaction with the horse is an indication as to what is about to come. Weather issues, location limitations, and time urgencies can influence people and horses falling into behaviors that contribute to a lack of awareness, lack of clear intention and lack of mental presence.
Unfortunately the standard with horses is that as long as the horse isn’t offering enough resistant behavior that the human sees their life flashing before their eyes, dramatic behaviors from the horse are tolerated. Anticipative movement, the lack of softness towards a light rein, seat or leg pressure, the dramatic, flamboyant responses to an aid, are all indications that the horse’s brain and emotions are having a problem, and therefore his physical response will mimic the worry, fear, pain, insecurity, misunderstanding, leading to a less than ideal ride.
Assess your relationship with your horse by asking yourself the following: Do you work with your horse at the same time of day? Catch him in the same manner? Enter/exit the gate the same way? Tie/groom/tack up in the same place? Mount from the same side, in the same location? Start off always tracking in one direction? These basic behaviors when done without intention, lead to mentally unavailable and resistant horses.
The moment you think about going for a ride, the ride begins. “Reality,” other distractions and stresses from life need to be put on hold. To be proactive by making decisions to influence how the ride will go, you’ll need a mental clarity as to what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it. Every moment you’re in close proximity to your horse, you are teaching him something, whether or not you mean to.
Mental presence allows you to honestly assess what your horse is offering in his behaviors. My approach is to first address the horse’s brain, and then the desired movement will follow. Opportunities for assessment can begin in the pasture or stall; notice if your horse moves off as you approach? If so, why? Is he distracted by new events at the barn? Wildlife that recently passed by? Does he prefer to stay with the herd rather than being ridden? You may not initially have a clear understanding of his behavior, but it will be the beginning of awareness from you of noticing initial resistance from him and be able to prioritize addressing it before you ride.
As you lead, is he ahead of you physically and actually “leading you”? If so, he’s already telling you what the ride is going to be like. If he believes from the start that he is in charge, by the time you’re in the saddle, you’ll be at his mercy.
If he is pulling, hanging or ignoring your pressure with the lead rope while you’re on the ground, he’s already telling you he is going to be heavy on the bit and slow to respond with the rein. Why wait until you’re in the saddle to address his concept, or lack thereof, of following, softening or yielding to pressure?
If he’s become fussy as you tack up as you ride more frequently, have you assessed if your saddle is fitting correctly? Perhaps pain issues from ill fitting tack have begun, and you’ve assumed he’s just being difficult with his excessive movement. He only has so many ways to convey his distress before he has to increase his behaviors until you can no longer ignore them.
Humans often anthromoporphize equine behaviors, giving human characteristics to them and wrongly interpreting what is occurring. Taking the time to slow ourselves down from the rushing mentality, by addressing the little details, can help us break down overwhelming scenarios and understand our horse’s behavior.
By learning to recognize the signs leading up to potentially unwanted behavior, we can influence a change within the horse, before he has committed to doing something we don’t want. But the small details, the finesse isn’t the “fun” or “exciting” way of doing things, therefore we humans bring chaos to horses, causing much turmoil.
Let us raise our standards. What if the new “normal” became a horse that presented himself quietly to be caught irrelevant of if feed had just been put out in the pasture or riding at an odd time of day? Ignoring discipline, riding goals or experience, what if we could straight tie, ground tie or cross tie our horse in a field, to a trailer, or to a post, as we groomed and tacked up, without any fussing, wiggling, pawing, swinging of the hindquarters, holding his breath while we tightened the saddle, or tossing his head while we bridled him? Let’s be practical and forgo outdated tradition and learn to mount/dismount from either side on the ground, from the fence or a mounting block, without having to lead our horse to a spot and quickly scramble on while holding the reins tight to prevent him from walking off. What if at any point we expected our horse could stand mentally and emotionally calm and therefore physically relaxed, rather than anticipative of what we might ask next.
If the above mentioned behaviors became our basic foundation that we built our partnership with our horses on, imagine the possibilities. Here’s to proactive riding and raising our awareness!