What Are Your Legs Doing? (Half-halt Help)

 

How are the half-halts coming? Does a breath and a light thigh pulse work? Or are your legs exhausted by the end of the ride? Is your horse dull to your leg aids? And by that I mean, have you nagged him into a stupor? (There I go blaming the rider again.)

This first question is deceptive: Are your legs and seat soft in the saddle? Can you tell? It isn’t as easy as it sounds because it’s instinct, once our feet have let go of the earth, to grab on with our legs, thighs tight, and calves tense. It’s a reflex and if we’re a bit timid, then even more so.

Be clear: Instinct and intuition tell us to hold on with our legs. It’s the wrong thing to do, but we come by it honestly. Not that it matters to your horse.

The problem with tense legs is that it means that your sit-bones aren’t deep in the saddle, but rather suspending you slightly above the saddle, making a disconnect between you and your horse. To maintain that position, your shoulders want to come forward and your knees want to hold. As your balance changes, your horse might slow up, thinking you aren’t stable. He’s right, but you might not be aware of much of this. You’re busy using your horse as a ThighMaster –and rock hard thighs is not the message of lightness and relaxation you mean to send your horse.

Surprise! Your horse doesn’t want to go forward. We’ve been taught to kick. Or we’re frustrated, so we kick. There’s no response, because it all feels bad to your horse. So you kick harder; your leg never rests. If that doesn’t work, you try spurs (not the real purpose of spurs, by the way) and a whip (not the real purpose for a whip, either.) So, you complain that your horse is lazy and won’t go forward.

At least you have kind hands. Well, you don’t. If the rest of your body is tense and fighting, your hands are doing the same, which means you’re hurting his mouth. No wonder he isn’t moving forward. And you aren’t breathing in any more air than a chicken. But some jerk has told you that you can’t lose this fight because if your horse doesn’t respect you, all is lost. So you double down.

What do I see from the ground? Your horse is mirroring you. His back is tense and his neck is stiff. As you kick, your thighs tense, pushing you farther out of the saddle. With that extra weight on his withers, he resists more. None of this is good, but worst of all, as your aids get stronger and bigger, I begin to see his ribs tense, and the muscle that runs from his armpit to his flank seizes up. He’s defending himself by tensing his ribs. Defending himself from your leg and your seat. He has no idea what you are asking now; he’s isn’t breathing either.

This was never your intention. You know your horse is sensitive enough to be bothered by flies. He probably feels your legs more than you do. There was an instant where things started to snowball to adversarial; so quick you don’t remember making that choice. A rider is always cuing either relaxation or tension.

Finally, do your horse a favor and show some real leadership. Just stop. Release the reins. Say Good Boy because you attacked him like a mountain lion and he had more patience for you, than you did for him.

Consider doing yin yoga. Become familiar with the Butterfly Pose. Sitting or laying down, soles of feet together, and let your knees open; breathe and let gravity do the work. It will feel tight but you’ll just sit with that. Let an eternity pass. Like two whole minutes.

Your horse doesn’t care about yoga, but if you were inadvertently giving him a halt cue with your thighs (you were), then you need to be introduced to the muscles he feels all the time.

Next ride, if your horse is safe, and naturally, you have your helmet on, begin your ride at the walk without stirrups. Feel your legs long and let your sit-bones move with your horse’s back. Let your hip flexor, or more specifically, your psoas muscle, become fluid and soft. The front of your body opens and your heels hang directly below your shoulder, perfect. Feel your feet heavy and your ankles soft.

As your horse walks, your legs flow with the movement of his flank. It’s a slight sway that travels from your sit-bones through your waist, up to your shoulders, and down to your toenails. You could carry an egg under your knee without breaking it. You don’t move more than your horse does, but most of all, you don’t brace your legs against his movement.

When you finally do put your foot into your stirrup, you’ll notice that it feels constrictive. Yes, a stirrup does make a foot brace a bit, but your job is to continue as if you weren’t using a stirrup. Let your weight be on the outside edge of your foot, almost bow-legged. Your leg should feel as light and loose as a bird wing on his flanks.

Now the process of asking your horse to respond to your leg can begin. He’s gone dead on his sides because the pressure never stopped. Now use tiny cues. Inhale and ask him to walk on. If he moves one step and stops, reward him. Refuse to demean him, and yourself, by nagging.

Ask for a bit more. Jiggle your ankle but don’t use muscles. Let the movement feel like a buzzing bug to him. Think energy, not force. Then reward him again, for giving you a chance to do better.

This is about successive approximation. He’s still waiting for you to kick hard and that trust needs healing. So you reward anything that is an approximately the direction you want to go, while refusing to fight. Once he starts walking, follow his body naturally, but stop cuing. Trust him to do his job without nagging. Let him stride on; let your legs rest. In a few strides, just using your sit-bones, ask for longer strides and when he does that, stop cuing and let him carry it on. Now the two of you are conversing politely.

In order for a horse to be responsive to your leg, your leg has to do less. It’s counter intuitive –just like everything else about riding.

….

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

 

 

 

The Mysterious Half-Halt

Thanks to a request, I’m writing about the half-halt. Ever notice how every definition you read starts with the disclaimer that it’s the most misunderstood concept in riding? Not very encouraging. It goes on to say that it’s a cue that combines both whoa and go. How hard could that be? There’s squeezing and driving and pulling, but not too much. Eyebrow squint. WikiHow has an article about how to do the half-halt in twelve easy steps. Are you kidding me? 

Disclaimer: I love the discipline of dressage, but sometimes they make it sound a little harder than it is. (It’s okay, I’m sure they think I’m a little “simple” from time to time, too.) Dressage uses complex concepts, described with intellectual precision. I learned half-halts this way, but it’s enough to make a rider seize-up in the saddle with over-think-itis, a common dressage malady. Especially if you’re passionate about riding and try too hard, like I did.

The USDF definition: “The halfhalt is the hardly visible, almost simultaneous, coordinated action of the seat, the legs and the hand of the rider, with the object of increasing the attention and balance of the horse before the execution of several movements or transitions between gaits or paces.”

It’s an okay set of words. I just wish they hadn’t included hands. Riders tend to over-do with their hands, so why encourage it?

Not surprisingly, horses have a definition that’s a bit more intuitive. I’m bilingual; let me translate for you.

A half-halt is a re-balancing. Can we all agree that balance is way more crucial for horses than we give credit? We want the horse to balance a bit of his weight back, but I hate to say “back” aloud because, again, we tend to use our hands too much to start with. Hands are over-rated; trust your body instead.

The mental part of the half-halt isn’t always talked about but that’s the mysterious part; the part beyond the physical cues. A half-halt is a mental re-balance as well. It’s an instant that affirms the connection between horse and rider in that moment, but also in the near future. It’s a blink of acknowledgment that the two of you are together, as well as a hint that something’s coming …wait for it. The challenge is timing. By the time we remember to half-halt, it’s too late, and the horse can’t respond in time.

To further confuse the horse and rider, there is a long list of actions used to ask for a half-halt, some big and bold, some invisible. Riders tend to like a dramatic cue using several body parts, physical strength, and a few math skills, while horses like the soft, silent kind. They taught me to do it their way.

The first rule about half-halts is that you must do it in time… think of it as a discipline of preparation. You might half-halt to begin to prepare for a transition. One more half-halt to actually prepare, and then the transition. A half-halt asks for his attention but it should feel light and happy to him, like it will be fun. “Oh goody, a trot’s coming…”

The physical part for the rider can be as simple as a breath because a breath resets the body. The inhale realigns your spine, your shoulders slide back as if you have a hanger in your shirt, which in turn realigns your arms and wrists. Let your hands rest. If anything, your hands slow an instant to feel the contact an extra second. Your seat straightens in the saddle. You can think of each of these things separately, because it’s harder, or you can take a big inhale for an upward transition and your body will follow naturally.

An exhale softens your body, stills your seat, slightly deflates your horse’s movement, and like a plane, you glide in for a soft landing. Use an exhale for relaxation or a downward transition, and melt any stray resistance.

If there is no response at all, ask again and perhaps add a slight tightening (upward) of your seat muscles or a loosening (downward). Does your horse respond? Praise him for his attention. Then breathe and cue small again, always trying for less. Think invisible.

I find a light pulse with my thighs backs up my breath even better than seat muscles for most horses… so an inhale, and if needed, a thigh pulse for more energy, or an exhale and thigh pulse for steadiness or relaxation.

At first your horse may have no idea what you are asking for. His response to you might feel like a dubious, “Huh?” Cheer his effort! This is about subtlety; a tiny half-cue that creates an energetic half-pause, lays the foundation for a relaxed transition. Give him time to figure that out.

Does your horse ever resist a cue from you because it seems abrupt to him? Perhaps he’s trotting in a relaxed rhythm, when suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s a canter cue –gasp, toss head, counter-bend, throw out a lead leg, and hope for the best. A well-timed half-halt is the antidote.

Then a few strides into the canter, he begins to speed up. Pull on his face if you want, but he’s probably tense in the poll already. Besides, you’re trying to have better hands. Think about a better rhythm in his canter. Breathe. Focus your body. Reset his speed and steady him as your body realigns. Yay, you did a half-halt.

If this seems entirely too easy and you need to make it harder, may I suggest taking up chess? It’s meant to be a war of the mind and there’s an opponent.

Regardless of the gait, and especially at the walk, if you half-halt kindly, with a generous reward when your horse responds, you might feel his back lift just a few millimeters. Reward him with a huge exhale and soft hands, because when he lifts his back a bit, your half-halt is on the way to becoming the cue to bring his head to the vertical without pulling. It’s this instant that makes you really… no, really… believe that a half-halt has mystical properties.

Half-halts aren’t trained in a day. Every horse is a slightly different individual. Every rider has a unique language. Rather than reading even more books about half-halts that eventually put both of you in a complete tense-halt about the topic, breathe and half-halt your own critical mind. Crank up the music, and while you and your horse are dancing, offer a half-halt. Ask your horse what he prefers, and then let yourself be trainable.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Do You Communicate Like a Coyote?

Some of us baby-talk and cuddle our horses like they’re twelve-hundred-pound teddy bears. Some of us enter the pen with enough flags and whips that we look like a lion-tamer at a circus. It’s possible we’re on a behavior continuum not so different from horses.

My last two blogs have been about working with stoic horses and reactive horses, as opposite ends of a continuum, with the goal of inspiring honest, calm communication somewhere in the middle.

Human behavior runs similarly from one extreme–very shut down–to the other extreme–overly reactionary. In other words, some of us are passive aggressive and some of us just plain aggressive. Too harsh? That’s what the horses thought about the words stoic and reactive, too.

Then one last assumption: If you were the sort of screeching, hard-handed, bone-crushing, slimy-reptile Neanderthal who was brutal with horses, my bliss-ninny positive training blog would have bored you to death years ago.

That just leaves us passive aggressives left. And it didn’t start out being our fault. Most of us are women; we were raised to be polite and quiet. We were rewarded for being good girls.

I, myself, am a recovering good girl, so if I want some wine, for instance, I take a breath and say, “Please bring some red wine home. Thanks, Sweetie.”

A passive aggressive good girl might say,”Excuse me, Sweetie, if you have time and it’s no trouble, perhaps you could detour on your way home, only if you want to, for some wine, if it isn’t out of your way, but if it doesn’t work out, it’s no trouble for me to go later, Honey, even though my foot is swollen and I’m a bit congested, I can limp out later after dinner, I was just thinking you might be able to get a nice Merlot, but it’s fine, just fine, either way.”

Just. Say. It. Already.

And to be clear, it’s okay to be passive aggressive out in the world. I’m just saying horses hate it.

Horses are prey animals, and coyotes (or people acting like coyotes) are their sworn enemies. Coyotes stalk them, passively aggressive, skulking around in the shadows, lurking and feinting. Circling their prey, just out of reach but relentless. They might tip-toe with a halter partly hidden behind their back, or nag-nag-nag with their feet in the saddle, or be twitchy with their hand, or maybe just lurk on the stiff-side rein. They might give a cue, contradict that first cue, then give a different cue, and still not pause for an answer, busily talking to themselves, up there behind their horse’s back.

Or worse yet, we might have so much compassion for our horses that we listen and listen, and never really say anything to them at all. We crane and squint and worry, wondering how they are responding, and is this what that blog meant? In the meantime, a horse picks up on the doubt and confusion and they can do nothing but lose confidence. We chatter down to them, over them, beyond them, until nothing we say has meaning. In other words, if we often stop and start, walk on eggshells to keep them calm, or over think everything in the saddle, we’re stalking them.

Do you find this prattle confusing? Imagine you’re a horse.

Bottom line: We lose our natural rhythm when we try too hard. We’d hate to consider ourselves abusive so we whisper, and even if we know horses are confused, we tend to commiserate with them about it and not clarify. They see a dog answer a sit command and get a cookie, and wonder why they have it so hard. It’s enough to make a stoic horse to shut down further or a reactive horse start to scream.

Truth: A horse will never confuse you for a horse. You will always be either a coyote or a human. Sorry for the bad news, but now let’s set about being a better human; honest communication is appreciated because it’s understandable. Think short sentences, with a thank you at the end.

Horses are looking a quietly confident leader who respects their intelligence. Let your body be still. Listen without expectation of good, bad, or otherwise. Breathe. Plan ahead. Ask for a transition with awareness in your body. Then breathe again. Wait for his answer. Reward him.

If he’s wrong, reward him for trying. Then “re-phrase” the question more simply. Go slow so that he can reason the answer. Slow yourself down so that you are clear. Be patient because there is nothing more important than a foundation of understanding. Speed is easy but real trust takes time.

Let him accept you for who you truly are, and if that’s a bit of a mess, don’t give him a whiny apology. Instead, smile, relax, and try to do better. Trust that he can tell your intention is good. Horses absolutely know honesty when they see it.

Horses not looking for groupies and they don’t want to be put up on a spiritual pedestal. They don’t need adoring humans to give them purpose. They want a whole lot more from us than treats.

Scientists tell us that horses have feelings similar to humans, but that is not the same thing as feeling what we do in the same situation and we’d be arrogant to think so.

Try to find the middle of our human continuum. Horses are drawn to calm leadership. They like a herd that feels safe; they appreciate emotional clarity. Leave your puny insecurities and your frail feelings in the house. No baby talk, no coyote stalking, no apologies. Square your shoulders and speak your truth clearly. They expect us to be nothing less than their equal.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Part Two: Norman, Is That You? (The Reactive Horse)

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Last week, I wrote about horses who are The Strong Silent Type. This horse is the opposite.

Describing him sounds like reading the judge’s comments on a marginal dressage test: Tense in the back. Tight in the poll. Hollow. Too quick. It doesn’t stop there. He has twitchy eyes, a furrowed brow, and he clenches his jaw. Sometimes his head is so high you almost unable to see around it and the muscle under his neck is stronger than the one on top. His flank feels rock hard and his breath is as shallow as yours.

“We all go a little mad sometimes.” -Norman Bates, Psycho

And it isn’t just physical. It’s the way his mind works, as well. He reacts; when a different horse might reason it out, he jumps to conclusions, usually the worst. Everything seems like it’s on the big screen; he’s dramatic and impulsive.  Sometimes he gets sullen, almost pouting, and a minute later, he’s hysterical, jigging as if his hooves were on hot coals.

People cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately!” -Norman Bates, Psycho

He’s just really sensitive, they say. Really? I consider most horses on a continuum; one end being stoic and the other end being reactive or demonstrative. It isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

My horse acts this way because he’s hot-blooded, they say. Sure, some breeds are more energetic and athletic than others, but to my eye, many of these reactive horses look frightened or in pain. Can the rider truly tell the difference between personality and behavior? Are they certain he is sound?

Does your horse make strange faces? Maybe he twists his neck and chews his tongue. He paws with impatience and pins his ears when it’s suppertime. Or he grinds his teeth, or flips his head, or you can routinely see white around his eyes.

Could your horse have ulcers? They are ridiculously common and practically all the behaviors I’ve listed so far could be symptoms. Think about it; no one denies the connection between ulcers and colic, still horse’s number one killer. On the high side, we didn’t always know as much as we do now; it’s actually a great time to have ulcers. There’s so much help available. (Just to clarify, stoic horses have as many ulcers as reactive horses do, but worse, they just keep it to themselves.)

What if these behaviors that we correct or punish are actually calls for help?

She’s just mare-y, they say. No, mares aren’t just naturally cranky. Their hormones make them more like stallions than geldings… and ovarian cysts are one of the most under-diagnosed conditions. On top of that, the discomfort of that situation could cause a secondary condition of ulcers. So, lighten up on name-calling mares already.

He’s an alpha horse, they say. But just like humans, leadership isn’t the same as dominance. The herd hierarchy has much more nuance than that. In my experience, alphas like a break from trying to control the universe and enjoy the peace that comes from positive training.

He’s never quite mean, they say. It’s almost like he tries too hard. Exactly! Reactive horses are responsive, intuitive, and connected. They have contagious enthusiasm, backed by intellect. They are radiant and intense and luminous. And yes, they have hearts that burst with try. Don’t believe me? Watch a thoroughbred run in slow motion.

More often, it’s us that fails them. We think it takes courage to ride a reactive horse, but what if compassion is really what’s needed?

Disclaimer: Horses are fully dimensional sentient creatures. The continuum between stoic and reactive is meant to help understand that horses are not brain-dead plow-horses or ditzy hotheads. They are individuals with complicated combinations of temperament, training, and past experience.

Anxiety is a different thing entirely, not necessary, or permanent. There are positive solutions that will build partnership, and from that place of security, allow the horse to give you his most brilliant work. Essential point: A good rider listens to every horse with wide-open ears, accepts who the horse is, and then begins the conversation right there.

How to best partner with a reactive horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. And you might want to sharpen your own attention a bit. Now, if you want to dominate something, control your own self; make your seat soft. Breathe slowly, deep into your lungs. Require your cues to him to be invisibly small. Most of all, don’t pull on his face. Why make him feel claustrophobic when the responsibility for elastic, soft contact belongs with the rider?

Horses and humans both tend to speed up when they get nervous or think they’re losing control. Resist the urge. Go slow. Runaways happen one step at a time and if it seems like the energy builds stride by stride, perhaps he’s never been taught the joy of a downward transition. (Stoic horses excel at this.) Reward him for doing less.

Walk a lot, then ask for a trot, but in just a few strides, before he accelerates, exhale back to the walk. Repeat, and for now, always bring him back before the anxiety grows. (Neanderthal training methods would say that you’re teaching your horse to quit by cuing a short trot, but nothing could be farther than the truth. Running a horse until he’s tired and submits doesn’t train him; it institutionalizes anxiety.) Downward transitions allow his trot will be more relaxed because he knows how it ends. Teach half-halts and halts from your leg. Leave his face alone.

School lots of downward transitions, with immense praise. Breathe. Let it be a slow dance.

Reward the least thing, so he understands that less is more. Let your mind be slow; he’ll take the cue from you. Give him the confidence to let go of his fear and know he doesn’t need to try so hard. Then, when his poll is its softest, shut-up, jump down, and step a few feet away from him. Watch him bask in the glow of being anxiety-free. See him stand quiet and still, let his eyes go soft, and droop that bottom lip.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

The ultimate goal is riding well enough to help each horse find the center of this stoic/reactive continuum. So, with trust and contentment, the horse is free to feel the dynamic strength and power of his own body. Relaxed and forward. 

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Now What? (and Other News)

Now is the winter of my discontent. Hurry spring.

A post from my other blog. Yes, I have another blog. Click: Now What? (and Other News)

Part One: The Strong Silent Type (Of Horse)

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I’ve said it before: While growing up, I saw She Wore a Yellow Ribbon more often than I saw my relatives. My father oversaw the TV and he liked real men like Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne. (I’m sure you can guess what he thought about James Dean.)

Later, like lots of us, I bought the notion of a strong, silent leading man when it came to movie star crushes. They had square jaws and walked with a swagger, always a little mysterious. I should stress here that they were acting. It was my mid-thirties before I connected the crash between my taste in movie idols and my constant whining that the man I was dating wouldn’t talk to me. Duh.

It took longer for it to dawn on me that my horse was stoic, too. His resistance wasn’t easy to read. He hid lameness and acted tough. He did what I asked, even if it was too much. Neither of us wanted to admit that we probably held a grudge. We liked each other, so instead it was more like passive aggression on both sides. Truth be told, you can’t force a horse talk to you anymore than you can a man. In hindsight, I think some of our training problems were more from ulcer pain than anything, but again, he didn’t give me the usual signs that a more reactive horse might have. I’m still apologizing for that.

Disclaimer: I am extremely aware that trainers love to classify horses into personality types that over-simplify horses, so it’s easier for novice horse owners to make assumptions. None of us are that easy to pigeon-hole.

Instead, I consider most horses on a continuum, one end being stoic and the other end being demonstrative. I deliberately choose these vague words, give lots of room for individuality, and always remember that it isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

That said, people like stoic horses because they seem quiet and easy on the surface. They’re commonly lesson horses, therapy horses, and kid horses.

Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com– Stoicism: the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint. Synonyms: patience, forbearance, resignation, fortitude, endurance, acceptance, tolerance.

Does this definition make you a bit sad? What sounds heroic in a movie character is kind of soul-killing for a creature as beautiful as a horse. If you are a dominating rider, you might want that kind of hostage mentality, but if you are hoping for an equine partner, this is leadership without heart.

Old timers had another word they used for stoic horses who seemed almost too easy to read: Counterfeit. They looked like the real thing, but there was something not quite right.

It isn’t that stoic horses are dishonest; they’re subtle communicators. If our cues get loud or inconsistent, he just tucks inside of himself. It isn’t disobedience so much as self-defense. He could look well-trained, but his eyes are dead. You might want to think everything is fine but as time passes, and he gets more withdrawn. He might drop his head between his knees in submission; he might look like a push-button pleasure horse on the surface, but he gives you none of his heart. He doesn’t want to try. Maybe you’ll call him lazy and kick harder, but louder cues will just shut him down more. If you are honest, it feels more like coercion then partnership. (Don’t even dare consider spurs.)

Then it happens, just like the big bloody shoot-out at the end of a western movie. After he’s taken all he can, a stoic horse might explode with emotion. The rider says, “Everything was just fine but suddenly, for no good reason, my horse just started bucking.” Or worse, all the light in their eyes finally goes totally black and they just lose the will to live, looking years older than their age. (Not that it’s my business, but if this is your goal–a blindly obedient, soul-dead ride–then please, don’t have children.)

How to best partner with a stoic horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. Especially if he’s a draft breed. Assume he hates being under-estimated and talked down to just as much as you do. Breathe yourself quiet. Show him respect and don’t interrupt his thought process. Wait for him to volunteer. Listening will require better patience and effort; stoic horses aren’t as blunt as demonstrative horses. Rather than bullying him through work, let him be who he is and answer in his own way. Yes, he will answer eventually, but you don’t get to be the boss of that. Allowing that horse to volunteer is your single goal.

When he gets the answer right, or even partly right, reward him lavishly. Let him know that his input matters. He might act a bit like the shy kid who blushes when the teacher praises him in class. That’s how you can tell it’s working.

Now the tendency of your work together is starting to shift. Instead of being a robot, he might even offer something more than you ask for. Yay, and don’t you dare correct him for trying too hard. See the big picture: He’s learning and shaping his behavior is much more important than demanding perfection.

Nurture this little sprig of confidence. Reward him with a big release. Like that same shy school kid, he doesn’t want to be hugged until he faints; instead slack the reins or the lead. Release! Let him stand on his own feet and feel pride in himself. Pause. Let his introverted bravado bask in the broad daylight. Then reward that; thank him for his honesty.

The day will come when the two of you will be together and you’ll show him a challenge. Just reveal it; nothing more. In your quiet mind, you’ll hear him say, “I got this.” You’ll feel him breathe; your legs expanding with his chest as his steps out.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

 

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

What To Do When Your Horse Is Wrong

WMIntoSunsetIt started small. It started the way it usually starts; the rider pulled on her horse’s face. It’s a fundamental disagreement: the rider thinks it’s her right to control the horse and the horse doesn’t like having metal jammed on his jaw bone. They weren’t even on the same subject.

So, the gelding got fussy. The rider kicked and steered, trying to make him go. But the horse heard more whoa than go; all the steering happened by pulling the rein back, not that is was ever the rider’s intention to give the horse conflicting cues. There was head-tossing and mouth-gaping. It started small.

The next part is tough. Maybe it’s because we’re predators or maybe it’s our ego about having our way, or maybe we’ve been taught that we must show them who’s boss in some Neanderthal version of dominance, but it’s as if the rider has blinders on, unable to see (hear) her horse. The horse notices it immediately. It takes the rider longer, of course. It isn’t that the rider is mean or belligerent; she just believes she’s right.

It’s just about now that things can start to speed up. It’s like we have a snowball theory of disaster that says if the horse hesitates a second, or gives just one thought of resistance, then all is lost. That one small action will necessarily gain speed and size, like a snowball rolling down a hill, and so we panic and accelerate. Which, by the way, works like a cue for the horse, too. Now things are coming apart quickly.

“If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that’s just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong.” -Ray Hunt

Yes, it’s a quote by a western trainer, Ray Hunt. Lots of classical dressage trainers say the exact same thing, but not with the same blunt honesty.

So right now, I’m hoping that the rider is frustrated. And if the rider pauses before throwing a temper tantrum, she might actually feel that frustration and anxiety, and take it as a cue to herself, to go slow. Hooray! It’s a huge win to recognize an internal feeling and stop the snowball race long enough to become self-aware.

And in that tiny pause that feels almost like surrender to the rider, the horse can take that cue, too, and things begin to decompress immediately. It seems like an accident at first, almost a kind of butt-fall into better leadership, but it counts. Your horse just confirmed it and rewarded you for better behavior. You have to wonder who’s training who? But if you’re smart, you accept the invitation to partnership and start the ride again.

First, let a moment or two pass. It’ll feel like forever, but you are teaching yourself patience. When you label it that way, it should feel slow. Learn to enjoy it.

Now the game begins. It’s that game that we all played as kids; we called it Hot and Cold. As we searched for something hidden, others let us know we were getting warmer and cooler.

It’s a good comparison because training should feel a bit like the two of you feeling your way in a dark room. You are directing your horse toward something he doesn’t have a word for. And if the only answer you accept is perfection, then it’s you that’s failed. Instead, you are negotiating a better answer each time, by rewarding him as he gets warmer. The dog training term for that is shaping a behavior, step by step. Or if you’re a behavioral scientist, you call it successive approximation, meaning an approximate answer on the way to the right answer.

Regardless of what you call it, it means that you have evolved away from being someone focused on failure who makes serial corrections; nagging the horse about what he’s done wrong, again and again, making each ride a punishment. Now training becomes more like a game of cooperative hide-and-seek, with habitual rewards for the efforts your horse puts into the work. The more he offers, the happier everyone is. Now it’s as if you nag him about being a smart horse.

Here’s where creativity matters the most. Knowing that your horse is never wrong, it’s the rider’s challenge to ask a better question, then accept and reward that answer, and continue patiently and cheerfully, until the best habit is consistent. Training is nothing more than the “serious work” of playing a game of collecting and rewarding good experience for your horse.

A moment for the cynics in every discipline that will say that positive training is fine for trail horses or amateur horses, but if they’re asking for really hard advanced work, then pushing the horse hard is justified, whether it’s reining or dressage or jumping. Shame on them for selling their horses short, and for thinking so little of their own skills.

So, there you are in the middle of your ride. Take a breath and remember the best ride you ever saw. It doesn’t matter what riding discipline, but the horse’s ears weren’t pinned and his tail wasn’t clamped. He lifted his feet and his body looked strong and soft at the same time. It was freedom and partnership and trust, and most of all, you could tell it was art because it lifted your heart.

Then, whether you are a beginning trail rider or an ambitious competitor, ask your horse if he wants to play a game. Start where your horse is at right now. Ask for just a stride of walk, and reward him generously. Let it be enough, as you set about helping your horse be totally right.

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