Deep down we all know this. If something doesn’t happen the way you want it, it is almost certain because of you. A horse is by nature a prey animal that lives in a herd. All his reactions lead back to this. If you scare him, hurt him or you make him uncertain, he wants to flee. If you restrict him in any way to do so, he wants to run even harder and will panic if he’s not able to. In that state he is certainly not open to learning anything, let alone improve what he’s supposed to do.
If this is done over and over and he’s got no way of getting away from it, he’ll go into a dull, switched off state, which is referred to as ‘learned helplessness’. Not something you want from your beloved friend. It also robs him from that beautiful glow that seems to come from happy horses working in harmony with a rider.
Being a herd animal means that horses are quite happy to follow orders, if they understand what it is you want. But that’s a key point.
Does he understand your predator and sometimes ego driven language?
Following orders is promoted when there is a reward in it. If an action or a behavior is somehow beneficial to the horse, it will settle in his brain quite fast and will be repeated. Unfortunately, this also goes for bad behavior. So if he manages to tear away from you and dive into a lush, green pasture, you can be sure he’ll try this again.
Taking away pressure is a reward. It comes in all kinds of forms. If you put your leg on and he moves according to your wishes, take away that leg and he’ll feel it as a rewards. Release pressure on the bit and you reward him with that. But be sure you don’t reward him accidentally for something you don’t want him to do.
Communication amongst humans can be confusing, as we tend to use all kinds of words to diffuse, negotiate or to soften a blow.
Horses like it simple, in black and white.
They can’t handle grey. Be very straightforward. Your question and your reactions should always be the same. If you put your legs on to go forward, and he doesn’t react, you’ll have to repeat that aid again a little more firm. If he still doesn’t move, you might even have to give him a little tap with a schooling whip. If you do this the same every time you ride him, he’ll move at the first light aid. But if you are on top of it one day, but the next day, when you are tired or otherwise distracted, you’ll let it go, how’s he supposed to know when you mean business? And make sure you have one aid for each thing. But we’ll get back to this in a later episode.
Make your riding live easier by thinking about those nature principles. Horses will enjoy working with you, if they understand what you want from them. So explain. Reward little success, don’t wait until he gives you the full Grand Prix movement. Repeat those little steps until they become easy. Then go from one step to two, from two to four and so on. If you (and thus him) have an off day, take a step back. Make work easier and be happy with what does go right. Make sure you give the same aid with the same response. If you are his gentle leader, he will trust you and try to do his best for you. But he won’t if you are this very unpredictable human to him.
If a horse is not willing to work with you, the most likely option is he doesn’t understand you. Or he doesn’t trust you, which comes mainly from not understanding you. It is also possible he’s physically unwell or in pain. Of course you need to be sure he’s not. But don’t expect all solutions out of a jar of supplements or an expensive therapist treatment.
It is very human to want those quick fixes, so we don’t have to work too hard ourselves.
But if you truly want results, you’ll have to work for it. Mind and body alike.