Confidence and Communication for the Trail Ride

This time of year equine enthusiasts are excited to take advantage of the good weather and to enjoy the amazing scenery while riding in nature. One of the many emotional draws towards the freedom of riding is to escape the stresses and realities of jobs, family and daily responsibilities... Because of this draw, folks tend to approach riding trails as a time for relaxation, which in turn can cause them to unintentionally offer passive, after-the-fact communication with their horse.

“Passenger” style riding can appear successful during uneventful circumstances. The “wait-and-see” approach also is used in a variety of scenarios when the rider realizes the horse might be concerned with something. Folks quickly realize that their lack of communication and inability to influence their horse’s behavior under stress causes them to feel at the “mercy” of how ever their horse chooses to respond to a situation.

Between inconsistent terrains, unexpected wildlife encounters, herd behavior among multiple horses on a ride, there is a lot for both the human and horse to mentally process. As much effort and energy goes towards logistics in finding new riding trails and planning adventures with friends, the reality is the least amount of time is often spent on what I consider the most important part of the equation- preparing the horse for a quality, “uneventful” ride by building a solid foundation.

Preparing for riding out is not a matter of desensitizing a horse or practicing riding past scary objects multiple times. The old “wet saddle blankets” theory I agree with to a certain degree; if there is quality conversation during those long trail rides, they add to a horse’s education and build his confidence. If instead each ride is making the horse feel more concerned, the increased frequency/length of ride will only add to the horse’s “spookiness” or reactivity.

A horse’s natural defense is to run when unsure, but if he offers this response, there is usually a “fight” with the rider, teaching the horse that every time he feels fear, he gets critiqued. What if instead we taught the horse the unnatural response that when he is unsure, to physically pause, and mentally check in with the rider, and to willingly hear the rider's instructions as to how to handle/navigate the situation?

This approach is not an easy answer, nor a quick fix, and counters the idea that the primary focus of trail riding is social hour for the human. Tolerating mediocre proficiency in the basics such as steering, brakes, and using a gas pedal that often “sticks,” is not polite nor supportive to the horse, and will add to any insecurity he may have. Rather than feeling like we survived an unexpected moment, if we have effective tools to communicate, we can use it to build our horse’s confidence, decreasing the chance of injury and increasing the horse’s curiosity every time something new occurs out on the trail.

The ideal response to an aid is a soft and immediate “try” from the horse. Often a rider’s aid is received as a critical attempt at blocking a horse’s thought or focus, and creates defensiveness in the horse. His mental stress is reflected in excessive physical movement and dramatic behaviors.

While in a safe environment perhaps take a moment and assess the current effectiveness of your aids and communication with your horse. On a “boring” day, what is the willingness in which your horse participates? Does he present himself to be caught (or run away), is there lightness on the lead rope (or dragging- indicators as to how he’ll respond to rein pressure), is he mentally and physically quiet while groomed and tacked up (or wiggly, pawing, fussing, chewing, fidgeting), can he stand when mounted (without being contained by the reins), is there sensitivity (or hypersensitivity) towards the rider’s seat and leg, is there mental willingness to hear the rider’s opinions during a ride, does he try something once and then just quit if asked again?

What if our standard was happy horses don’t exaggerate an obstacle like jumping six feet over the six inch stream, don’t jig when asked to adapt their energy level to the slower horse in the group, don’t paw if left tied unattended for a few moments, are able to stand still quietly, can ride at the front, middle or rear of the group, are willing to leave the group and ride off by themselves, or anything else we might need to ask of them for the sake of practical and safety purposes?

By supplementing trail rides with short, incremental, quality conversations, the horse could begin to recognize how to mentally and physically “stay” with their rider, without feeling contained. Tasks or obstacles can be a tool for teaching a horse to think through a scenario, but presenting one isn’t about the physical accomplishment of the task, rather the quality of the conversation that occurs to complete the task with slow, intentional, relaxed movement. If the horse rushes through the task, even though he may have complied with what was asked of him, it made him defensive, and then task would no longer be a tool. Slowing down the anticipation that caused the rushing, presenting a task in pieces, allowing the horse the time to think, search and try to address the task with quality, builds the confidence he’ll need for the trail.

Sometimes in order to achieve the most quality, we have to slow down and perhaps fill some “holes” in our partnership with the horse. Rather than feeling like riding out translates into chaos and hoping to survive the ride moments, the more specific and intentional we are in what we ask of our horse, the timing of how we ask it, and the sensitivity in how we use our aids to communicate, will influence our horse’s physical behaviors and mental attitude towards us while experiencing the real world.

Could you and your horse benefit from a REMOTE COACHING session with Sam? Click HERE

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment!