The Horse Will Teach You If You’ll Listen

Those of you that have been following my blogs will have noticed that I question things. A lot. At times this leads to my own special blend of insanity but mostly I tend to think that it serves me – and my horses – well, as I am always looking for better answers for us both.

But that’s not the same thing as being inconsistent and indecisive around my horses, or indeed when I teach. At the end of the day, while it is useful to challenge oneself to always want to find a better way to do things, at any given point in time, one can only work with what one has.   In other words, sometimes you need to just get on with it and try something, as the alternatives of procrastination and trying nothing seldom help.

But how to reconcile the questioning with the need to crack on and do something? Well, as you might have guessed, I have thought about this a lot. My thoughts go something like this.

I think the big thing is to look to the horse for feedback. Hardly rocket science, I hear you say. However, the catch of course is how you judge the feedback you get from your horse. In other words, what particular coloured spectacles are you looking at that behaviour through?

For example, I ask my mare for right lead canter and what I get is a lot of tail swishing followed by left lead canter. Why?

Was my mare:

  • Being belligerent (well, it is a mare, after all…..)?
  • Weak on her left hind and therefore finding it difficult to strike off on a right canter lead?
  • Naturally crooked to the left?
  • Sore in her back (when did that saddle last get checked?)?
  • Unbalanced at the particular moment in time I asked her to canter?
  • Telling me that she had ulcers?
  • Young and confused and not really clear on there being a different aid for right and left lead canter?
  • Unhappy in her mouth?

Was I:

  • Crooked in my pelvis (or elsewhere!) when I asked for canter?
  • Poor in my timing for when I asked for the canter?
  • Confusing my mare because her prior jockey had asked for canter using different aids to the ones I choose?
  • Using too much of my outside leg while asking for canter?

Should I:

  • Stop the mare immediately and ask again for right lead canter, this time on a small circle, so she “has no choice” but to do right lead canter?
  • Show her who’s boss and reprimand her for doing left lead canter then “make” her do right lead canter?
  • Let the mare canter on a bit and see if she will put a change in herself?
  • Let the mare canter up the long side then ask for a quiet downward transition before the next corner and try again?
  • Pop over a little cross-pole that was anyway set up in the school and hope we land on the right lead.
  • When asking for canter right again, do so from a haunches in or a shoulder in position?
  • Change rein, to then be able to do half 10 metre circle to the right, and then move diagonally to the fence, asking the horse for the canter right position as I come off the half circle onto the diagonal?
  • Touch the horse with the whip on his left haunch next time I ask for left lead canter?
  • Touch the horse with the whip on his right shoulder next time I ask for left lead canter?
  • Trot over the little cross pole I have set up and push on with a plan to land in right lead canter?
  • Ensure that when I then get right lead canter, we carry on a bit in canter so that the horse knows that’s what I wanted?
  • Ensure that when I get right lead canter, I then click and treat, so that the horse knows that’s what I wanted?
  • Change the bit?
  • Leave cantering for a while and go back to doing exercises in walk and trot to build up her strength and straightness?
  • Go do some other exercises to see if the tail swishing is specific to asking for canter right or if it happens in other situations?
  • Go back to ground work and practicing right lead canter while lunging?
  • Finish up riding for the day, she’s probably just muscle sore from cross country practice yesterday and could do with a day off?
  • Call the vet/ physiotherapist/ chiropractor/ farrier/ saddler?

Or as Freud might say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe she’s just tired and she’ll be just fine tomorrow so I shouldn’t over-analyse this time?

OMG, suddenly this has just got even more complex than rocket science! I asked my mare to do something and she did something that wasn’t what I had in mind and seemed grumpy about so doing (yes, by the way, I do count tail swishing as a sign that the horse isn’t happy about something, and no, it’s not normal ridden behaviour – at least not in my world). So was that a training issue, a balance issue, a physical issue, a communication issue, etc? Or am I just a bad rider (I’m sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen to Monsieur….)?!

Well, I could probably spend a lot of time procrastinating about this predicament.   There are doubtless internet forums that I could go to where people that have never seen me or my horse would be able to diagnose unequivocally what it is that I must do. However, when I’m up there in left lead canter when I want to be in right lead canter, that’s just no good (especially if my horse is young and we won’t survive well cantering around a corner in an unbalanced counter canter)…. For better or worse I must do something. So how to decide what to do?

For me, it really helps to already know the horse you are working with, or to at least have done a few other things with it before you start cantering around. So, for any horse I work with, I would want to quickly assess a few key points about it, such as what it’s natural crookedness is, how well it does (or doesn’t) cope with any loss of balance, how easily it accepts responding to my aids, it’s level of pre-existing education and its general disposition (is it a horse that worries about life/ is it pretty secure in its own skin, etc). These things will then all inform what my next step would be.

So, if I know the horse has a natural crookedness, then following the theory of occam’s razor (the obvious thing is probably the right thing), probably I got left lead because of the mare’s natural crookedness. So I would then quietly bring the mare back down to walk or trot and ask again, but this time from a position where I am putting her balance in the necessary position to favour the canter right strike off. If I’ve tried that a few times and have had no joy, I might then think about whether the crookedness is deeply ingrained, and probably also coupled with weakness, I may well go back to supping exercises in walk and trot for a bit.

Alternatively, if the horse is just young and uncoordinated, I might accept a little bit of canter on the “wrong” lead on the straight side of the school before going back to trot and then try again, this time again putting the horse in a better balance to get the right lead canter (e.g. coming off a half circle to change the rein and shifting the weight by going from the half circle to a short diagonal to the outside of the school). If the young horse is really very green, and probably weak, I’d think about whether we just need to go and hack for a bit (to build up strength in straight lines) or perhaps have someone help me on the ground by lunging the horse in canter with me on board.

On the other hand, if the horse is already well educated, I’d probably more immediately go back to trot or walk and ask again. If I still don’t get it, and I’m on a horse that doesn’t normally have a problem with it, then I’d be thinking more along the lines of whether there is a soreness somewhere I need to address.

I could go on…… but the point is, there isn’t necessarily a single “right” answer for every situation. However, what you need to do is try and work through the different possible solutions to a problem in a way that is ideally helpful, but at least not harmful, both to your horse’s education and your horse’s body.

One of my particularly ingrained beliefs is that horses are social creatures that generally just want to get along with us (and if a horse doesn’t fit that description then probably a person screwed that up for them at some point and so it’s my job to find a way for the horse to feel able to go back to being a social creature that wants to get along with us). So, I see everything to do with horses through those particular coloured spectacles. I don’t ever see a horse not doing as I asked as pure belligerence/ malice/ naughtiness, etc……. I see it as a lack of understanding/ balance/ communication/ bravery/ training, etc, or as a response to pain/ fear.

This point of view actually then makes things a lot clearer for me when deciding how to go about rectifying issues. So then when thinking through how I deal with a problem, I have a mental checklist to ask myself:

  • Whether the horse understands what I’m asking of him? (am I asking him right/ have I correctly assessed his pre-existing education/ have I ensured that my training has built things up in small enough increments that I have given my horse the ability to understand what I’m asking of him/ do I need to do something to help my horse understand what I am asking of him, etc).
  • Whether the horse is physically able to give me what I’m asking of him? (i.e. is he crooked, is he sore, etc).
  • Whether the horse is mentally able to give me what I’m asking of him? (is he scared/ lacking confidence/ distracted, etc).
  • Whether, given all of the above, I am being reasonable in my request (if not maybe I need to go back a few steps in the learning process for the horse) and, if so, whether I am asking him in the best possible way? (and “best” in this context can be interpreted as anything from tactful to blunt, depending on the needs of the situation).

So, OK, I’ve assessed the situation and done as I think best given all the above. Then what? What if what I thought best in fact doesn’t work best? Maybe it didn’t really work at all? Maybe it worked OK but something else would have worked better? How do I know? That’s the real brain teaser, eh?

That’s where, quite frankly, informed trial and error comes into it. You have to try something and see if it works (and if in doubt I might be tempted to try a more “mild” solution first – I’m not going to call the vet the first time I get a wrong canter lead any more than I would go straight to using a stick on a horse). Then you probably also have to think about whether next time you therefore try that same thing or whether you try something different.   All you can then really do is make a decision on whether what you are doing with your horse is making the situation better or worse. In truth, it actually really is that crude. I believe that is what they call “judgement”, and of course one aspires to acquire “good judgment” – though I am reminded of the saying by Ray Hunt that good judgement comes from living through bad judgement!

And here we come full circle. We must try something and look to the horse to see if it worked. We can ask other people for help along the way, and indeed we should do that, and fundamentally what you will be doing is acquiring new and (hopefully) improved tools for interpreting your horse’s actions and finding ways to change/ improve them. However, two different trainers can tell you two different things and still both be potentially “right”, just as surely as a trainer can tell you something that probably isn’t that great at all. It is then for you, as the horse’s guardian, to take a judgement call on what it is that you are being told and which thing best suits your particular horse at that particular time. It is therefore the horse’s expert judgement – and critique – that you must learn to follow if you ever hope to be a good rider.

The horse will teach you if you’ll listen – Ray Hunt

I listen to Fin a Lot.....
I listen to Fin a Lot…..

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