As riders, we need to decipher between which response should be most beneficial in the various situations we find ourselves. Ideally, we would train both ourselves and our horses to set up the conditions so that problems never happen in the first place.
However, we know that especially in horse riding, unforeseeable events occur. We need to be prepared with several different tools, so that we are prepared for most scenarios.
Please note: the assumption here is that there are no tack or otherwise physical or mental discomfort producing the unwanted behavior.
* Safety first! As per John Lyons, here are three rules to live by to keep you and your horse safe through any training session:
- You can't get hurt.
- Your horse can't get hurt.
- The horse is better at the end of the training session than at the beginning.
Assuming all those parameters are in place, here are some suggestions on how to train your horse through the rough times:
1. Stay On
It's often tempting to bail when your horse starts bouncing around and disregarding your aids. Assuming you are safe enough, do your best to stick through it. Getting off reinforces your horse's behavior. Instead, ride through his exuberance to let him know that you are still there at the end of it. As soon as you have good enough balance, go right back to what you were doing, without any indication of emotional upheaval on your part.
2. Stay Cool
Nothing screams 'not leader' more than losing control of your emotions. Assuming that the horse is already in a mental conundrum, getting mad/even/scared/tense will only feed his confusion and result in more of the same. Be calm, ride it out and then get back to the topic at hand.
3. Ask Again
Some horses are over-eager to the point of getting worked up when something new or challenging is presented to them. In this case, it is wise to just quiet your aids until the horse settles down. When you think the horse can respond to you, simply ask again. Stay on topic and don't waver when your horse spots the horse-eating monster in the corner of the arena. Wait through the next confusions and then ask again. Staying calm and consistent can help many a horse become more reliant on you as the herd leader.
4. Change the Topic
Sometimes it is easier to completely change the topic. If you are asking for more throughness and you meet even more resistance, skip the forward and go to a lateral exercise. Asking for something different often gives the horse a different feel and something new to focus on.
5. Go Forward
Bucking/rearing/side stepping... they all start with a lack of 'forward'. If you allow the horse to stop his legs (even momentarily), you will effectively be asking for him to get creative. If at all possible, teach your horse to respond to moving his legs when you ask him to, so that when you're in a bind, the muscle memory is already in place and will overtake the mind. Just move. It may resolve many situations before they even have a chance to develop.
6. Focus on Straightness
When things start falling apart, the first thing to go is the horse's straightness. Although it seems that the horse loses straightness as an avoidance strategy, the resulting imbalance is often disconcerting for horses. Do your best to encourage the horse to step underneath his body, staying straight even if on a turn. Keep the shoulders in the body and the hips in line with the shoulders.
7. Be Prepared to Stay For the Long Haul
This is when stubborness is useful. Sometimes, you have to demonstrate to the horse that you will stick with the program regardless of how many obstacles he throws your way.
8. Finish As Soon As You Get A "Yes"
Other times, quitting while you're ahead may be just the ticket. Be sure to always finish on a good note - when the horse is calm and after even one step in the right direction.
There is no one-size-fits-all in riding. Though we'd love to have that perfectly compliant horse all the time, the reality is that even the sweetest horse finds something to say once in a while. If you know your horse well enough, you can get through the dicey situations in a way that helps you reach your training goals sooner than later.
Your turn: What do you do when your ride isn't going exactly as planned?
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