Q & A with Samantha Harvey- Jumping Students and Resistant Horses

I had an instructor write from New York recently and thought I'd share our Q & A.

Question: I have just recently changed stables where I teach hunt seat. All of my students have also made this change with me. This new barn has some older lesson horses who have been allowed to follow closely behind each other. I have never allowed this and have always had my students ride separately and independently. These horses know absolutely nothing about steering! When my students attempt to steer they pull in whatever direction they may wish to go, usually into a corner or into the center of the arena. I've tried having them ride straight and then apply leg aids along with either a direct or indirect rein but to no avail. The students are getting frustrated which I am trying hard to avoid. At this point both the horses and riders need reinforcement! I'm open to any suggestions you may have. Thank you very much!

As in a lot of situations, the "obvious" issue, isn't the problem, rather it is a symptom of the underlying issue. Most of the lesson, school, trail and dude horses I encounter are what I call "shut down." That means that mentally they are "unavailable" to hear a rider's aids if there is a change in the routine they are used to. It sounds like the horses you are dealing with have similar issues. A horse can feel a fly land on him, so it's not a matter of if he doesn't feel your students; rather it's an issue of refining the quality of communication.

I believe a horse's physical actions are a reflection of his mental state. If his brain is shut down, his body will be resistant. So if you use severe or harsh aids you may initially see some changes in the behavior, but they will be short term as you are not addressing the root cause which is the mentally checked out horse.

Typically with horses that have learned to tolerate novice or inexperienced riders, they can do so within a certain level of "expectations" asked of them. But there is an unwillingness in the horse to "change" the "patternized" behavior they offer as it may be outside their comfort zone. They know what they do, how they do it, with whatever level of tolerance.

Novice riders are typically more worried about staying on the horse without understanding the concept of conversing with a horse. Unfortunately not enough professionals teach students how to"help" the horse throughout the ride. So the horse has to learn how to cope on his own with any issues, worries, concerns, fears, etc. he may have and the safest and easiest way for him to do that is to not change the routine he is familiar with.

In regards to my approach to teaching jumping, I view it as flatwork with obstacles in the way. If you don't have quality flatwork, then you have a limited ability to influence the horse's jump and confidence.

Many people ride with a "This is what I want" attitude without ever offering clear two-way communication with their horse. Because there is no acknowledgment at the horse's mental and emotional state, they attempt to control the horse's physical movements, unintentionally ignoring the times their horse may have asked them for help. When the horse has reached his limit, riders start to notice that "all of a sudden" the horse is physically acting out or trying to "take over".

Just as with people, the horse's physical movement is a reflection of his mental and emotional state.

Many riders have a hopeful attitude or a "surviving the ride" feeling. So they offer passive, repetitive and "unclear" communication until eventually the horse figures out how to comply enough to make the human quit asking things of him. Misinterpreting the compliance from the horse as his understanding, the rider then immediately demands more of him. This teaches the horse that no matter how much they try, there'll never be a "release of pressure" or acknowledgment for their participation. This decreases their willingness to continue participating "reasonably."

So you'll need to start focusing on teaching your students how to ride one step at a time, literally, and think about what they offer the horse with their aids, how he responds and if there are any silences in their communication. The horse needs a black and white understanding of what behaviors work and those that do not. The faster he realizes he can "get it right" the faster his unwanted behavior will dissipate.

You'll need to assess the attitude towards the basics- how clear, sensitive and willing in the basic flatwork, in transitions between and within the gaits, how softly can he trot over poles with no flee. Or is there tail swishing, grinding of teeth, inability to stand still, "rushing" the jumps, over-jumping the fences, etc.? 

In your group lessons, you may need to experiment with changing the demographic of what horses are ridden together to help decrease the attachment. You may have to adapt your teaching goals for your students from solely focusing on jumping. Offering flatwork with figure eights, serpentines, students riding in different directions from one another, lots of turns, circles, etc. will keep the horses' brain participative rather than mindlessly traveling along the grooves of the arena railing.

If you ignore teaching your novice students to achieve quality when working on the basics, the remainder of the ride decreases in quality.

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