How to Ride Creatively.

WM moon rideRiding a horse is the simplest thing in the world. Just point ’em and kick. What’s so hard about that? And as long as you don’t care where you go or how you get there, no worries.

But we’re humans prone to having expectations and goals. And horses are sentient with thoughts and emotions of their own. Perhaps the first thing that horses and humans have in common is a dislike of random chaos.

So then the horse or  rider might decide some sort of leadership is needed and that’s when training starts. You ask for something simple: Go away from the barn. Walk on the rail. Canter. But they don’t.

About this time, it occurs to us there might be more to riding than we previously thought. Seeing others ride happy horses with finesse and relaxation, you might even start to think there’s an art to riding. Perfect.

Because a horse has in-the-moment awareness, if you’re in the saddle, you’re the trainer. In other words, you’re the artist. Creativity is your fuel.

Ever tried painting? Paint-by-number exists because a paint brush is hard to control. Tried sculpting? Eye/hand coordination isn’t as easy as you’d think. The worst part is that judgment, seeing what’s wrong in a picture, is always the easy part. Now lay down the paint brush and add a live horse to the mix. All the muscle strength in the world can’t make a masterpiece, but your creativity can.

Being an artist in the saddle means answering a question with creativity. Is this the kind of nebulous idea that makes your head want to explode?

Start here: Any work of art starts with a foundation of technique. In this case, find balance in your seat, be aware of your body is doing, especially your hands. Most importantly, relax. Creativity doesn’t respond well to tension or force, any more than a horse does.

Step one: Let go of expectations and judgment. They only make your mind run like a rat on a wheel. Checking your mental list for mistakes doesn’t help, but even worse, the deafening clatter of self-doubt makes it hard to hear your horse. Breathe; go silent and listen.

Step two: Have an idea about what you are asking for; it might be lateral work or trotting a box or making a water crossing. Then let it go; repeat step one.

Step three: Know they will get it wrong, but since you aren’t judging, you don’t care. Lower your expectations for perfection. Training something new is like you and your horse feeling around for each other in a dark room. He doesn’t know what you want, and you don’t know what he’d respond to, so lighten up. Not because you are a patient saint, but because the most important thing is that your horse gets encouragement to try. Be positive because if he feels like everything he does is wrong, he’ll stop trying. Sound familiar at all?

All animal training systems begin with rewarding a good basic response. The word dog trainers use is “shaping,” meaning the progressive building of a response, step by step. In behavioral science they call it “successive approximation” or implying an approximate answer, not the correct one. It’s a technique you learned early. Remember playing Hide ‘N Seek as a kid and calling out “warmer, warmer, HOT” to help the seeker?

In the saddle it means that you think of a logical cue and ask for something. Then when he gives you the wrong answer, believe him because making him wrong ends the conversation. Reward him, not to affirm the wrong answer but because he responded and a responsive horse is the foundation goal.

Here’s where the creative part comes in: Because asking the wrong way louder never works, ask the same question using a slightly different cue. Let his first answer inform the next cue. If he gave you an answer that was more sideways than forward, for instance, take him at his word and ask again politely, but with a bit more forward. It’s a short ask and a quick reward.

A horse learns what he did was right after you reward him for it.

Teaching an impatient horse to stand still can be a challenge. Ask for the halt and if you get anything kind of like slowing down, reward him. Walk on and ask again. If the halt is just a bit closer, reward that and walk off. Collect good tries and ignore the ones that don’t happen. If you lose sight of the goal and start correcting him for moving, before he knows what halt means, then it’s not fair. It’s scribbling on the Mona Lisa with a sharpie pen. Take a breath and don’t kill his try with correction. Get open-minded and find a cue that he can succeed with. Most likely a smaller cue.

A couple of years ago, I was training a mini-mule to drive. Focus was erratic and we had a time finding our rhythm. Our halts were a nasty combination of distraction and anxiety. The usual exhale/butt-scratch did nothing, and even as she spun around in the long lines, I had to stay behind her in the driver’s position. Her anxiety was getting louder…

Is the leadership being questioned? By either you or your horse? Wonderful. Take a breath. Do you want to inspire your horse to confidence and partnership? Now is a good time to remember training is an art. And you are an artist. Exhale again.

… So rather than increase the mule’s stress, I found another place to scratch. It’s that hairless place on the underside of the top of their tail. Do you know the spot? Horses love it too. Sure, passing cars wonder what you’re up to; another reason to be glad that you gave up judgment of both you and your partner. Meanwhile, the mule got quiet and still, loving that gentle touch on the downside of her tail. She cocked her hip and we let time pass in this positive place, even if my hand wasn’t thrilled at the location. Beyond that, we waited long enough that she had some time to assimilate the whole interchange into the big picture. It involved her seeing me differently. Soon an exhale and hand on her hind was a reward enough, and from there, just my exhale brought the relaxation of a reward.

(Just in case you think what works with a mule is different that what works with a horse, you are totally correct. If it works with a mule, it works at least twice as well with a horse.)

One training technique will not work on every horse; they’re individuals who respond individually. Looking at training this way, isn’t creativity a greater asset than a huge, expensive box of harsh aids? Now it boils down to the confidence you feel in your own creativity.

The bad news: you can’t buy creativity. The good news: we are born with infinite creativity. So it follows that we can all be Nuno or Klimke or Hunt or Dorrance…at least in our own minds, but that’s exactly where it matters to a horse.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

32 thoughts on “How to Ride Creatively.

  1. JKS

    It’s funny how often I notice that what you blog about is something I’m going through right at this moment with my own horse. At present I’m teaching him how to handle a specific thing that scares him. I’m not desensitizing him in any conventional sense, I’m teaching him that calm is the right response to the “cue” of the scary thing. At the start I’ve been mostly asking him to trust me as I help him relax, with lots of soft, calm praise once he’s stopped losing his little horsey mind. Just this week, though, I noticed that his first response to the scary noise was to look to me like “mom! help! scary thing!”. LOTS of praise for that- he’s thinking and not just reacting. We have a long way to go but he’s getting there. 🙂

    1. Thanks for sparing him the torture of what they call “desensitizing” and what is sounds to me like you’re doing, in other words, is going slow. Wonderful; slow as it is, it’s still the way home. Thanks for your comment, it makes me smile, too.

      1. Sherry Walter

        Makes me think of a time my mare didn’t want to walk between the short corn stalks. It was like ‘oh my gosh! corn stalks, they’ll bite my legs off!’ So we walked NEXT to the corn stalks until we got near a tree that had blown down, suddenly walking between the corn stalks wasn’t so scary and I told her what a wonderful brave smart horse she was. Now she looks at corn stalks and it’s ‘pffft! those silly things’. We’re still working on that horse eating tree though – ha.

  2. Just perfectly timely as always. Trying to teach mine something….he just didn’t get it. After trying many cues just gave up and moved on to something else. As it happens the cue I tried for the next thing was the secret password for item one.
    I always think of it as a game for us both. Keep it fun.

    1. Nice job of listening… or maybe trying less. I love it when a horse offers something like that. Here’s the best part: you were listening!! Great comment, Diana.

  3. You do seem to have a wonderful way of breaking down something into easy to understand bits that my brain can actually see in my mind. And that’s where that end goal begins – in my mind – and from there, the request that begins on our journey. I am guilty of having too many no’s in my vocabulary at times, sometimes scrambling for a cue that my horse will understand. I really enjoy your posts, and appreciate your common sense and ultimately kind way of teaching. And I always try to remember to breathe and relax. Thanks so much!

  4. Jean McCormick

    I look forward to your blogs. They are always informative and laced with humor. I wish you had been around for me years ago. Now I am horseless and wishing I had done so much better by the three I had over time. We had a great time together, but I now see where I could have been much improved. I thank Derby, Drifter and Tattoo for their patience with me. Each taught me a lot – way more than I ever taught them.

    1. Jean, I think that’s always the way. And years ago I was no prize; just ask my Grandfather Horse. But they forgive us. It’s crazy but they do. As for the horseless part… I don’t know. I think you might have a heart stuck on a few of Melanie’s horses. Thanks, Jean, for reading. I appreciate your time.

  5. My usual comment after reading one of your blogs–wish I (or you) lived closer so I could lesson with you. Such important life lessons for more than just training horses.

    1. Thank you. I wish the same. I stalk all my friends at Mainstay on FB, but it isn’t the same. Hope I get to see you all soon. And thanks for staying in touch.

  6. Sherry Walter

    I am about to attempt to teach my mini donkey to drive (and I don’t think I’m a masochist). He’s fine with the harness, pretty ho hum, it’s the moving he has problems with. I’m going to try that tail scratch, feeling dumber than a donkey is quite humbling!

    1. Sherry… I love driving and the first one I trained was a mini-donkey. Good for you. Here is my getting started tip: the first few time until he is used to everything, have someone hook on a lead rope. At first, they can lead him. Then transition to you driving while they walk along, with the rope but not actively leading, then walking without the rope, until you are on your own. It’s just a way of making it easier. And he’s a donkey; slow means slow. 🙂 Good luck, have fun.

      1. Sherry Walter

        Thank you, I think I’m going to need all the help I can get to stay one step ahead – or at least keep pace with the amazing Winston!

      2. I have to agree, Sherry. Sorry, but I never quite kept up with my Ernest. I have to admit; donkeys are just smarter than we are. But no, really, good luck. 😉

      3. Maggie Frazier

        I helped a friend of mine teach her filly to drive and that’s the way we did it! WORKS!

  7. Thanks for an article that really speaks to me and my internal “clatter of self-doubt.” As someone who didn’t become a horse owner until I reached my mid-50’s, it’s hard to shake the feeling of inadequacy, even after my riding instructor assures me I’m making progress. After 6 years of horse ownership, I am still painfully aware of how much I don’t know, and at time it’s quite the mental stumbling block.

    1. I’ll let you in on my secret: back in the day when the trash in my own head was more than I could see my way around, I had a thing that I did. I pretended to be my trainer. Meaning I mimicked her while I rode–mentally and physically. In other words, I faked it. I’m sure I didn’t trick my horse at all, but he did like me better when I pretended to be more confident. Truth is I liked it better too. Keep it up, Georgie. You are so far ahead of the people our age who think it’s too late!

  8. Tremendous, Anna! I had just finished art school when I started to train the first mare I’d raised from a foal. She was easily distracted, and any attempt to push her for attention resulted in a war. I quickly learned to be creative in my approach to her, and finally had that lightbulb moment that this was truly as much of an act of creation as what I was doing with clay and paint. Only I had a living partner who gradually learned to participate in and enjoy the process. I’ve tried ever since to instill that idea of creativity in my students – so I teared up reading this! Bravo!!

    1. Did I mention my first 30 + year career was as an artist? When I switched to training professionally, I told my disappointed clients to consider it a change of media. Thanks, Lia.

  9. Frances

    Wonderful!! But why am I surprised…? I feel like the proverbial ‘nodding donkey’ when I read your posts, everything seems to strike a chord with me, not just around horses but life in general. That ‘deafening clatter of self doubt’ is much too present in my life at the moment, especially after a horse riding accident…. Your books have been keeping me company (re-reading them AGAIN!!). Will need another soon though!! x

  10. Great article. I love horses because they live in the present. The more we do the same the better the ride. Sometimes it’s hard to leave out your worries and thoughts alone and focus but it’s well worth it. I love your article and your thoughts on riding.

  11. Judy Shaub

    This is wonderful. Those 3 steps are filled with compassion for self and for others. So liberating. Thanks!!!

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