"When do you start riding your horse?"
This question was being posed to me by a very respected and horse-wise mentor one day long ago, early in my riding development.
I thought about it for some time, and responded, "When I lead the horse to the riding ring." During the time I'm leading the horse to the ring, I usually start mentally running through my goals for the day. I quickly review my last ride and think of the small "next steps" I'm going to address.
She stopped me in my tracks.
"That's already too late," she said.
These words have stayed with me to this very day. She emphasized that "riding" is not limited to just being on the horse's back. Whether you are leading a horse from or to the paddock, grooming, or just playing in the round pen, you are "riding". Riding a horse is about EVERYTHING!
The truth about horses is that they do not differentiate between riding and handling and just plain socializing. In their world, every contact you have with them is first about herd dynamics.
Whether you like it or not, or know it or not, your horse is in vigorous conversation with you from moment you start interacting with him. And the dominant question in his mind is, "Are you a leader?"
Your physical responses then point him to his answer.
How to be a leader
1. Attitude matters. Be sure in your step. Know where you are going, and kindly but firmly expect the horse to come along with you.
2. Establish your "personal space." In the herd, horses regularly test each other's boundaries by pushing into personal space. While you lead your horse, feed him or groom him, be aware of the slight tests your horse puts you through.
3. "Test" your horse. Always ask questions of your horse. Will you put a foot here? Will you get out of my space? Will you let me give your head a long and squishy hug?
4. Always follow through with your requests. If you happen to get a "no" for an answer (it does happen all the time!), you have to be ready to continue that particular conversation until you get the "yes". If you accept the first "no", then the next and the next, you will be sabotaging your relationship with your horse. And he will know it before you do.
My mentor looked at me squarely. I realized then that she had KNOWN what my answer was going to be all along. She wanted to make sure that I understood clearly about the horse-human relationship.
I hesitantly asked her, "When do you start riding your horse?"
Her answer: "When I pull into the driveway."
So, when do you start riding your horse?
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