It 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.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm