She wrote, “I struggle with him to stand still. I suspect he recognizes I am nervous.”I’m answering an email question from a novice rider whose horse doesn’t always stand quietly. She thinks that she might be part of the problem. Naturally, I love this rider.
First, what is fair to expect from a horse? If you think your horse should stand flat on a loose rein while the rest of the horses leave for the barn at a high gallop, well, you’re in for a disappointing and fast ride home. If you think that a halt should hold for an hour without moving, or during a dust-devil attack, again, not really fair. If you believe you should be able to control him totally, then I recommend riding something with an ignition.
We can begin with a horse when you’re willing to negotiate. The other word for that is train. Suppose you are sitting in the saddle and your horse takes a step to the right, so your right foot corrects him. But then he steps forward a stride, so you use your reins to pull him back. Then he tosses his head to one side, so you use the opposite rein to straighten him, and then he backs up. You put enough leg on him to stop him but he continues to jig. You’re too nervous to notice you’re tense, your reins are tight and your cues have an edge of panic to them.
Right about now, some idiot will tell you that you need a stronger bit. It would be fine with me if you tell them they’re an idiot. Thank you.
It’s hard to not accelerate one correction after another if all either of you know is that everything you do is wrong. The more corrections you make, the deeper the hole the two of you are in. If you stop to think about it, he actually is being responsive to the cues you give him. And if it feels like you’re training your horse to be fussy, well, you are.
But dear Rider, thank you for your honesty. Yes, your horse feels your nervousness. If it was easy to snap your fingers and make the fear evaporate, I’m sure you would have done it. So you “struggle with him” to stand. Is it possible to cue him to relax; cue him to come to rest instead?
Take a breath. You’re in a rut of nagging and correcting. Some horses will shut down just to make the barrage of cues stop, and some will get worse, but either way, your horse isn’t learning anything going forward, by having his past behaviors corrected. In other words, can you change the tone of the conversation by asking him to do something, rather than correcting what he has already done.
Here’s where some trainers will tell you to circle your horse, with the idea being that eventually he’ll want to rest. But circling can become a kind emotional evasion for the horse; a way to disconnect. Pretty soon anxiety seems to become part of his personality. Yours, too.
If you are emotionally active in the saddle… he will reflect that.
First, before you address your horse, take an internal inventory. Do a literal scan your body for tension. What do you feel? Is your seat tense in the saddle or are your knees tight on his flanks? Consciously soften your seat and let your knees feel light enough that an egg wouldn’t break under them. Grasping him with your legs is a cue to go forward, so take a moment and breathe looseness all the way to your ankles. Then check your shoulders–do they belong up by your ears? Release them soft with your breath, let your elbows become kind and elastic, and your wrists be free and open. Finally, how’s your jaw? If you can’t do a human version of a lick and chew, neither can your horse.
Become conscious of your own body but don’t judge. Thank yourself for the awareness. When you feel anxiety, train yourself to exhale slowly. Fear is something that gets stronger in the dark, so drag it into broad daylight and invite it along for the ride. Pretty soon fear will behave like a sullen teenager because you’ve ruined its fun.
So now you and your horse are walking together. Pick an easy day because training a new behavior in the middle of a rodeo isn’t the best choice for either of you. Feel your body move in unison with his, and his body move in unison with yours. Say whoa, melt into the saddle and rest your sitbones. Slack your reins and trust him. Then count to one, reward him profusely, and ask him to walk on. Muster a laugh. Horses like us to laugh.
Repeat this simple walk-halt transition. Don’t hang yourselves out to dry; try to walk again before either of you get too anxious. Good Boy! Then notice that your horse likes not being corrected all the time and reward yourself for that. Gradually add trots and canters, and let the halts last longer. Take forever, and say thank you every time.