This is something that I feel really strongly about. After teaching in a riding school for many years and hearing riders analyses of their horses, or onlookers calling certain horses certain names by the way they behaved, I became a real advocate for trying to teach people what was really happening!!!
The beauty of seeing a horse being ridden by different riders is that you start to see different patterns of behaviour in that horse.
Why does one rider get a tune from a certain pony and the next call it all the names under the sun?
In my opinion horses don’t have a plan on how they’re going to annoy you today. They don’t inherently try to be a total whatsit, but some times the way they respond to our actions can feel like they are against us.
But what happens if we change the angle of view. Then we look at their behaviour not as a disobedience or obstinance issue but rather as a result of being confused by the question?
Just to be clear, by “the question“, I mean by the aids of the rider, or the ask of a task.
We can easily confuse our horses without meaning to, or even being aware that we are, by sitting slightly differently to that which they are used to or in a way that means they can’t perform the task with ease. We can also confuse our horses by over riding as well as under riding, not being clear with what we expect and being too vague with the instructions.
A confused horse can quite often behave like a “naughty” horse or a “stubborn” horse, these labels can be passed around yards without much thought given to what is actually causing the issue. Before too long a label has become so imprinted on that horse that anyone who rides it doesnt ask ”why it’s happening?”, they don’t look at what they may be doing to cause the confusion, because instead the behaviour is seen as a trait of that horse, rather than a problem for the rider to solve.
Always start with you….
Whenever my horses demonstrate a behaviour that is unwanted or unusual the first question I ask is what am I the rider doing and am I being clear enough with my ask for my horse to be able to understand.
I then ask myself, is my position an enabling position or am I hindering my horses ability to perform the task being requested.
The final thing I ask is, is my energy working with what I want to happen or is it blocking it.
Let’s be clear….
Am I being clear enough with my aids?
Our horses receive tons of signals from us as riders every second. The more movement and lack of control or awareness we have over our bodies the more signals we send to our horses. Most of these signals are unintended, where the body moves without the riders awareness.
So in order to be as clear as possible with our aids we need to make sure we’re not sending any extra unwanted signals. The less ”noise” the horse has to filter through the easier they will understand the actual request that the rider is asking.
So often I see riders moving parts of their bodies without awareness of what’s happening, of shifting their weight, twisting their torso, or even making noises that have become habit and no longer affective.
The more this happens the less clear we are when asking for something, leaving it very easy for our horses to become confused as to what really is being asked.
Think of a time when you were confused about something you were being taught, and how you felt when you were getting it wrong? Think how you would then feel if the person teaching you just kept saying it the same way, maybe shouting at you the same instructions and worse still telling you you were wrong but not explaining what was right?
Would you feel frustrated? Demotivated? Angry?
Would you get excited about that training session or eventually come to dread it?
What about your position?
Most things we ask of our horses require them to be balanced and in control of their bodies to be able to perform, from a simple upwards transition, turn or adjustment in pace through to more advanced lateral work or jumping.
To carry out any of these tasks they need to feel balanced and able to achieve them. If they feel unbalanced and unable to control their bodies they will become hesitant, take charge or shut down, because it’s in their nature to pick survival above anything else, and falling over is not part of survival!
Imagine you carrying a heavy bag on your back that was loaded with weight un-evenly, then imagine trying to do something like run in a straight line with this uneven weight on your back. Think what would happen with your own body to compensate for the weight? Would you even be able to run straight? If you could would you be able to hold your body straight?
Those of you that are parents that carry children on their hip or maybe you carry a heavy bag on your side, think how with that uneven weight you change the shape of your body to compensate
So you can see how the positioning of weight on you can affect how you perform? It’s the same with our horses and how we sit, if we are asking them to do a task but not seating ourselves in a way that positively influences their ability to perform we will cause the horse to become confused in how they are meant to achieve the request. This can lead in behavioural changes where the horse is stating that they can’t do it the way you are asking!
Whats your energy?
Before you think this one is a bit woo, here me out! Often I have taught people that say they are having issues with their canter transition or a certain size/type of jump.
And when I see them approach the “thing” they want to work on they are so worried/stressed or nervous about it that their whole body is screaming NO and it’s just their aids that are saying go!
Horses are hugely sensitive creatures, and one of your aids that isn’t spoken about is the energy you are using to ride, if your energy is in opposition to what you are actually trying to do, the horse will pick up on this. They will question why you are against doing the thing being requested and this leaves the horse confused, asking more questions than getting answers. The one thing horses don’t like is a mis-match between actions and energy, this is hugely confusing to them.
Making sure your body language is in-line with the task being asked is key here to having a successful ride. If your body language and energy is tight, negative, fearful or restricting then you are telling your horse very loudly that you are unhappy with the request, so being aware of this body language is key to not confusing your horse.
In my view very rarely to horses wake up “on the wrong side of the bed” or actively go against the rider, most of the time it’s something we have done and is an external cause.
Obviously, other than confusion, there could be pain or discomfort, but once those have been ruled out we really must take responsibility for making sure we aren’t causing this confusion.
Maybe you can think back to times with your horse that at the time felt like disobedience but with hindsight may have been confusion?
If you’re unsure, one thing you can do is video yourself riding. Get a friend or loved one to video you going through the thing you may be struggling with. Video from the side but also from behind. Video your “good rein” and then the rein that’s more challenging, all from the same angle. Then study to see how your body changes, and see whether you’re riding differently on one rein compared to the other, Or towards a
certain jump compared to other jumps etc.
Video can be a great media to explore our imbalances and help us to start rectifying them.
Give it a go.