Let me begin by defining a death spiral. It’s asking a horse to do something he just avoided, by circling around and asking again. It could be as simple as trying to move your horse a letter on an arena rail. Or repeat an attempted transition to another gait. Or do an obstacle from the ground. Or ask a horse to step into a trailer.
He avoided it, so you circle, pushing him right back. But then you give the outside rein (or lead rope) a hard pull for good measure. It’s asking a little louder and a little faster the second time, hoping that you can push him through, but he braces his ribs in response to your sharp heel, planted and pressing, not all that far from his kidneys. His hind end skitters to the side.
Now your brain is running like a rat on a wheel, it’s personal, so you circle him one more time pulling your inside rein to the exact degree that he is pulling to the outside, with your seat planted and both legs kicking up a frenzy, along with a tap of the whip. And did I mention you are pulling on the reins during your kicking fit? You’re just trying to get him straight, but he has so much tension and resistance from your conflicting cues that now that he can’t take a step.
Wait, I forgot the most important part. What makes it a death spiral isn’t the circle or his refusal. It’s you. It’s your nagging request that gets louder and bigger and faster and never stops. It’s the overlapping use of flailing cues that become a rant that accelerates and obliterates your connection with your horse, as if the goal or obstacle is a matter of life or death.
The worst part: You might not have noticed that you cued this pig-fight but you are the one having a runaway. Not your horse. Stop. Consider yourself in detention. Let your horse breathe.
“If the inside of a person is bothered, it’s for sure that the outside of a horse is going to show it.” -Tom Dorrance
First, you didn’t create the circling back idea and you don’t get all the blame. It’s somehow become common knowledge in riding. Forget it. It’s a lousy tactic unless it’s your goal to fry your horse’s brain.
One calm circle-back might do the trick, but just one. More than that and the circle-back, intended as a way of correcting an evasion, becomes a way for the horse to evade the war of cues, now bigger than the original task ever was. It trains some horses to frantically circle when they get confused. It becomes a hysterical calming signal intended for you; he’s forgotten the obstacle and is evading your over-cueing now. You’ve changed the subject from the original question to letting him know that you’re a scary, warlike leader.
Some horses won’t go forward at all, preferring to stand and brace for the punishment to come. It can feel like disobedience, but a horse shutting down is a calming signal. It’s your horse saying, “I’m no threat to you; you don’t have to yell.”
Meanwhile, you’re still in detention. Take stock in this hindsight moment. Can you tell when your ego kicked in? Can you tell when you went from creating safety and security for your horse to starting a war that you had to win? It’s a good question. The line between these extremes is small, especially once you’ve stopped breathing.
The other side of that line is anxiety. Humans and horses both respond to anxiety the exact same way. We speed up. Then that speed makes us speed up some more.
Most of the time we throw our horses at something scary, pummel them with cues, and yell, “Brace yourself, Baby!” To be abundantly clear, that’s why you’re in detention.
Back to the beginning. Horses need a moment to think. It doesn’t mean they’re refusing. Have a little faith. Ask politely.
You may only ask for one thing at a time. Then you wait for an answer. Count to ten, more than once if you need to. It will feel way too slow but that’s because you’re used to cueing runaways. After he answers, reward him. If the answer was not the one you wanted, then re-phrase the question. Not louder. Not quicker. Ask for something simple that you can both agree on. Cut the task into tiny bite-sized pieces.
Ask for one step. Reward him, pause, and ask for another. Go slow and don’t interrupt the conversation. Mounted or on the ground, do you and your horse have this skill? Walk, halt, walk? You won’t need your hands for this. He should listen to your seat if you’re riding and your feet if you’re on the ground. This is fundamental; you should be asking for halts and walk-offs in your warm-up.
Taking one step at a time toward an obstacle, pausing, and rewarding each try, will get the job done in a fraction of the time that jerking and kicking your horse in circles takes. The result will be fewer ulcers and greater partnership.
In dressage, we are constantly returning to the fundamentals and refining them. They are the foundation of good riding and when trained with patience and reward, horses count on the connection and comfort found in these simple conversations. Isn’t this the place to learn the finesse to ask more complicated questions? Isn’t that the confidence you want to take forward to bigger challenges?
It always seems like we ask for too much or too little. We’re too loud and our horse is reactive. We are too confusing and our horse is shut down. It can feel frustrating when you are trying to do right, but sorry, what you think doesn’t matter. It’s just you talking to yourself.
Talk to your horse instead. Use your body to give clear cues. Practice them in calm situations. Celebrate fundamental connection but more than that, commit yourself to being a leader who never gives up that profound connection with her horse in favor of a silly external distraction. Like a letter on an arena rail or a horse trailer.
Lead with peaceful persistence: Not aggressive. Not conceding. Not emotional.