There’s a moment, sometimes at the beginning of a lesson or during a clinic, where I meet a horse for the first time. I might ask him a question, a simple thing like taking a step back and I might ask him with my feet. The horse isn’t sure what I’m asking so he’s thinking about it.
Meanwhile, his rider is anxious for him to do well, so she tells me how she cues him and sometimes steps in to demonstrate it. Meanwhile, the thinking horse becomes what we see as an obedient horse. He goes back to habit along with his rider.
There is a comfort for both horse and rider in familiarity. It is a cue that they have drilled; a known answer exchanged between partners. Like starting church with a hymn or a ball game with the national anthem. It has a comfort we all understand.
In the beginning, training is repetition. We ask for something, the horse tries a few things, and gets a release when he finds the right answer. We cue him, he steps back, and the cue stops. He learns in hindsight and then gives us the right answer when we ask because he likes it when the cue stops. Simple success.
The problem is that we want more. More cues, more obedience, more good feelings. Most horses oblige to a point. Then we want bigger progress and get frustrated when he doesn’t keep up. A cue that makes sense to you leaves him blank. Or something changes; the routine gets altered and the two of you lose rhythm. Or the horse is distracted when we ask and we startle him with a correction. Somehow, things come apart. Because they always do.
Or you might want to change things in your training for the very best reason. Maybe you are aware of how hard your horse tries. Aware that he gives you the benefit of the doubt at times you might not entirely deserve it. You see past the surface of obedience, recognize his intelligence, and decide you need to do better because you want to match his kindness. He has inspired you; wonderful.
The two primary training principles that seem to carry across disciplines are these: You must be consistent. You must change things up. This is why so many longtime novice riders get stuck. It’s a crazy contradiction so our behaviors go nuts to match.
Repetition isn’t a bad thing unless we repeat it too much. But that’s kind of how humans do things, left to our own instinct. We turn the key in the ignition switch, happy that the engine roars. Gas. Brakes. Gas. Brakes. We love that control. It’s too bad it doesn’t work the same way in a saddle.
One of the ways that learning and understanding sinks deeper, allowing for breakthrough work with horses, is by re-defining old words and taking that new awareness into the present moment. We might evolve from wanting an obedient horse who answers by rote to wanting an engaged horse who is answering spontaneously. The secret to improving your riding is to give up some desire for control to encourage your horse to be more curious and willing to take a guess. It’s the kind of counter-intuitive idea that feels just like a stone in your boot.
Riding more often, repetition, doesn’t make a horse better. If that was true, those old sainted lesson ponies would be in the Olympics.
Consider evolving the definition of a new word: Consistency. Being consistent is more than scheduling rides a certain number of times a week. It’s altering the quality of those rides. It’s being aware of each cue, even the ones you didn’t mean to give. As a rider lifts her awareness, it means that engaging his mind becomes more important than giving the stock answer. It’s the act of having a conversation of cues rather than a command to be obeyed. The challenge for a rider is to keep a horse interested in the conversation; it takes mental focus. We must stay engaged in each stride if we hope to have a responsive horse.
It can start as simply as asking for longer strides in the walk. Do it with a subtle cue, using just your sit bones in the saddle. If you feel a tiny difference in his stride, good, reward him with an exhale. Then return to his working walk and in a few strides, as for some shorter strides, again just with sit bones. Feel his response. He’s right there, connected in each stride. That part was almost easy.
Eventually, the canter. Instead of a jerk-and-kick canter depart, breathe and relax yourself at the trot. Be still, keep your shoulders back, and feel the landing of each stride. Allow him to stay relaxed and cue in rhythm with his movement, so he can make that transition with balance. Keep your energy in check; you’re asking for a change of gait, not a change of speed. Give him time to understand the difference and reward his effort to understand. Let the canter depart have the steady confidence of a jet plane on the runway.
Prepare for the day when you think the cue, allowing subtle changes in your body, and letting time slow down. You feel a lift in his supple shoulders, his neck is long and soft. His head is on the vertical, not because you are pulling on the reins, but because when he is forward and relaxed, and that’s his natural head position. On your inhale, he lifts you to a swinging rhythm, your body follows as he glides over the earth. It’s a canter that feels like more air than ground. It feels like being weightless and powerful; the peace inside the eye of a hurricane.
Consistency isn’t about drilling the same question, judging right and wrong, punishing or rewarding. Consistency is an ever-evolving mentality that stays present with energy and an openness. It’s rewarding his curiosity with your creativity; a witty repartee of cues and releases that feels like laughter between equals. It’s knowing that he’ll give the best answer if you focus on asking the question in the best way.
Trust, first defined as not being afraid of falling, grows into the confidence to fly. Consistency is a rider working toward being the best they can be, allowing their horse to do the same.
Horses reward us for our uplifted consistency, usually with something a little sweeter than what we expect. Generosity.