The first is addressing your mental focus. Often we think of riding as an escape from the everyday challenges and stresses of life. The horse on the other hand can immediately recognize if the person is not mentally present or if they are distracted, stressed, tired, etc.
I suggest folks learn how to mentally “leave reality at the door” when they are heading out to ride. My perspective is that the ride begins when someone thinks about going for the ride. Mentally separating other aspects of life from the time spent with the horse allows a rider to offer the same level of consideration, conversation, and focus they are asking from their horse.
When mentally present, a person can communicate proactively with their horse, rather than only offering input or critique after the horse has made an undesired movement. When people are distracted, they tend to only notice the big and dramatic moments, rather than the subtle ones when the horse is initially asking for guidance or support. If the human suddenly tries to intervene during peak stress or fear in the horse, it can cause defensiveness towards the rider’s aids.
Intentional guidance from the rider (which should not be presented as a dictatorship to the horse), what I call “riding in real-time,” increases the clarity and timing towards what the horse is about to offer. This also decreases the critical, after-the-fact interaction that occurs between many humans and horses.
A rider’s constant critique is a leading contributor to creating defensive horses. By taking the initiative and offering specific intentions, the horse can be clear on what will be asked of him. This can build his confidence and increase his willingness to try because the rider will be offering respectful and specific communication.
Addressing your own mental presence leads to my next topic: riding goals, intentions, and the horse’s thoughts. As they say, “hindsight is 20/20.” Take a few minutes and think about the last one or two riding seasons. What were some challenges that arose between you and your horse and have they been addressed?
For a lot of folks, the traditional “wet saddle blankets” approach is used as a way for horses to learn and improve. I find that solely focusing on the horse’s physical movement leads to a continuous “containment” from the rider trying to keep the horse physically compliant. Instead, I prioritize getting the horse’s thoughts with me first, which then influences his physical movement.
When you think of past experiences with your horse, do you start with “I didn’t want him to…” or “I wish he would not always...” or “I hope we can…”? Those three sentence starters I frequently hear from riders who are having difficulty achieving goals with their horse. Often people fixate on what they do not want their horse to do, rather than how they can change their approach and help their horse arrive at a different outcome.
Imagine someone was a nervous, inexperienced driver and there were bad road conditions. If before they drove their car you told them “Don’t crash,” would that decrease their chance of getting into an accident? Probably not. In fact, it might even add stress while they were driving and perhaps increase their anxiety.
What if the next time they drive their car, you are a passenger and you say things like, “Don’t go so fast… you slowed too much… stop sooner… why did you change lanes?” Would your words relax, build confidence or reassure the already insecure driver? Did you teach them anything? Have you helped improve their driving ability? Has your presence made driving a better experience for them, inspiring them to invite you along in the future? No, it has not. Instead, you have made them feel worse due to your approach in how you interacted with them, even if your intentions were good.
Unintentionally many people create that same experience for their horse. The person wonders why they are not achieving the results in their horse’s performance. If the rider continues offering delayed, critical, task-fixated focus irrelevant to the quality, they are not supporting their horse.
In terms of goals with your own horse, before presenting the backcountry trail ride, the jump, roping the steer, or working on your 20-meter Dressage circle, mentally think through what and how you will need to communicate the small pieces that will contribute to achieving the overall goal. Often through specific, incremental communication from the rider presenting “pieces” of the goal, the horse can better understand the specificity of the movement and build confidence. Below is an example.
Let us say you ask your horse to change his energy at the walk, and he ignores you, leaks out with his shoulder, clamps his jaw down on the bit, or stays stuck at one speed. What will happen when you ask him to move faster? Whatever you are feeling at the slower gait will magnify at the faster energy level.
If you ignore his initial feedback of resistant and defensive behavior and attempt to be more specific, such as trying to improve your flying lead changes, rollbacks, or finding the ideal spot to the jump, is your horse currently mentally available to hear you? Will his response be to softly address a physical change you ask of him? No. Presenting the long-term goal when you are missing the foundation pieces is setting the horse up to fail and be critiqued.
So take some time on those cold, dark days and perhaps jot down your equine-related goals, and what incremental pieces you’ll need to address with your horse to help you both achieve them with quality.