When I work with riders who are brand new to riding, I find they focus first on the techniques and the positions. Where do I put my leg to get him to go faster? I’m using my rein, why isn’t he steering? How do I make him back up?
They expect the horse to be a sort of furry motorbike – hit the right buttons and you’ll get the expected response.
On a well-trained horse this can work, and learning the cues a horse has been taught is important.
But, at some point, the horse will become distracted, or uncomfortable, or he may simply choose not to respond.
Every rider eventually realizes that riding is more than just staying in the saddle and hitting the right buttons, it’s about communicating with the horse. It’s about creating some rapport and a relationship with them, even if you only ride that horse one time in a lesson.
You may have heard the phrase “every rider is a trainer” before, and it is entirely true. Every interaction we have with a horse (your horse or a school horse) matters, because we are teaching them something – whether we like it or not.
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The first step to begin thinking like a trainer is to see the big picture of riding and horsemanship.
Riding is a challenge… there are many components to good riding
No doubt, riding is a tough sport. Frankly, there is a lot going on – the balance of the rider, the way the horse behaves, how has he been trained, does his tack fit, etc, etc.
If you continue to strive for improvement, the learning never stops. The more you learn, the more you often realize you still don’t know.
With all the moving parts, how do you work through a challenge? Whether that challenge is feeling out of rhythm in a particular gait or dealing with a problem from your horse: pushy behavior, dragging you off when leading, or not wanting to go forward under saddle.
It is always important to look at ourselves as riders – to be sure we are not doing something goofy in the saddle that is preventing the horse from doing what we ask, for example leaning off to the right while attempting to ask our horse to move left.
But the solution to a challenge often involves more than simply improving our “technique” as a rider.
Because unlike a motorbike, there is more at work influencing the behavior of the horse than how we are working the clutch and accelerator.
What influences behavior
To be clear, everything the horse does is “behavior”. Whether or not he stops when we ask, spooking, performing a lead change, leaving too long for a jump, drifting towards the gate, moving faster, moving slower, etc.
There are four main influences on a horse’s behavior: genetics, environment, past experiences, and their physical state.
Let me explain each of these more in depth:
A horse’s genetics will affect how he acts. We expect an Arabian to be more sensitive and reactive than a Percheron Draft.
When tracking the lineage in many breeds, the offspring of certain mares or stallions are often known for similar personality traits: they are quiet, intelligent, head strong, easily excitable, etc.
Recent increased knowledge in genetics suggests that the genetic component may play an even larger role in behavior such as cribbing or increased fear.
Environment is everything going on around the horse – it includes where he is at – the quiet home pasture vs a busy show arena. It includes common distractions, other horses running around, barking dogs, or bursts of wind blowing leaves around. Environment also includes us and our interactions with the horse.
A horse’s past experiences affect his behavior, this includes his prior training, and generally whether experiences were pleasant or unpleasant for him. A scary ride in a trailer will make him more difficult to load the next time, just as getting a carrot and being turned loose again after haltering in the field should make him easier to catch the next time.
Physical state also plays a huge role, and unfortunately, just as with any living creature, our horses can have many ailments. From gastric ulcers creating internal pain to a sore back being pinched by an ill fitted saddle to a sore tooth getting banged by the bit, many behaviors chalked up to a horse being “stubborn, disrespectful, or otherwise disagreeable” may simply be the horse protesting discomfort.
However, knowing what could be causing a behavior does not necessarily tell us what is causing that behavior.
Some factors of a horse’s behavior, we have no control over. We can’t change a horse’s genetics or what they have experienced in the past, but we can influence many factors in their environment, and we can also help resolve many physical issues as well.
Let’s take a closer look at what we can influence. An easy reference tool to help understand this is the horsemanship wheel.
The wheel consists of six key areas of horsemanship. This includes our abilities as a rider and how we interact with the horse (summed up under “rider”) as well as the equipment we use and how the horse is cared for, their nutrition and dentistry, hoof care, how they are managed (think stall time vs pasture, their social life, etc), and their body care, which becomes more important depending on the level of performance expected from the horse. Body care may be taking the time in training to focus on the flexibility, strength, and body awareness of the horse or getting outside help with massage or chiropractic.
This wheel provides another visual of this bigger picture of riding and horsemanship. The goal, at least for most of us, is not to become an expert in every area, but to learn enough to recognize what may be the root cause of a riding challenge or behavior problem from our horse, and know the next steps to solve that problem and continue progressing forward.
For example, imagine a rider asking for the canter. Your horse doesn’t go into it, instead as soon as the rider asks, the horse tenses up and pins their ears.
Many riders might give up here saying “he just doesn’t want to canter” or “I must not have asked him right… never mind.”
A rider who understands the big picture and can think like a trainer will stop for a minute and think… “I didn’t notice any back-soreness grooming, the saddle was just fitted two weeks ago, so shouldn’t be anything wrong there… I was asking softly, not in a way that should be irritating… I saw him doing this with another rider so perhaps it’s a learned response to the canter cue.”
This rider spends a few minutes schooling transitions into and within the trot, reinforcing the forward response from the horse with a quick release. Within about 5 minutes, the horse is going forward nicely, so this rider again asks for canter. Because there has been more reinforcement built up for going forward, this time the horse steps into canter nicely.
Instead of continuing to teach this horse to get tense when the canter is asked for, this rider worked through the problem, but to do that effectively, they first saw the big picture: the horse’s back, the fit of their saddle, how they were asking for canter.
Success, whether for you that means more happy rides, progressing to a new level, or competitive success, requires an understanding of this big picture of riding.
Success also requires thinking like a trainer. It doesn’t matter if you own a horse, ride lesson horses, or ride a friend’s horse, anytime you interact with a horse, you are teaching them something.
I’ll explain more next week! Until then, watch this video to see how I worked through a canter problem with one of the horses here, Henry.
Now it's your turn, leave a comment and tell me one problem you've been having that you would love to solve!