Whether you're a weekend rider or a professional trainer, there is one thing that we all have in common: There are days when our horses just aren't giving us the performance we want. And when that happens, there usually isn't just one thing going wrong-there are lots of things happening all at once. It can be scary and frustrating, especially if we don't know one of the secrets to training success-setting priorities.
Setting priorities means that you have to evaluate your horse's behavior, and then address each behavioral issue, one at a time, in a logical sequence.
Let's say you are on a trail ride with friends and all you expect of your horse is that he walk quietly down the trail while you and your friends talk. But today isn't your horse's day to walk quietly down the trail. Instead, he wants to trot, putting himself in front of the other horses. When you ask him to slow down, he throws up his head and prances sideways. If one of your friends rides past, your horse tries to bolt or rear. So, how do you set priorities to help you deal with the situation?
Priority 1: Safety
Your number one priority must always be safety-for you, your horse and anyone who is with you. The single most important key to safety on horseback is the one rein stop. You and your horse should be so familiar with this exercise that it becomes second nature. The instant you feel unsafe, you should react by using the one rein stop. This gives you a chance to reestablish control or dismount if you feel the situation is really unsafe. The more out of control the situation, the more important it is to use only one rein to stop your horse. In our trail riding example, you would want to use a one-rein stop if your horse tried to bolt or rear when your friend rode past you on the trail.
Priority 2: Control the Direction
Improving a horse's behavior, any behavior, begins with getting the horse to move his feet consistently and to move them in the desired direction. This priority can be broken down into three steps:
1. Get the feet to move.
2. Get the feet to move consistently.
3. Take the feet in the direction you want them to go.
The first requirement is that your horse move forward when you ask, without needing you to kick him repeatedly. If your horse is sluggish about going forward, use the stop-and-go exercise to improve his responsiveness.
The second requirement is that the horse should go forward consistently. If you ask your horse to trot, he should continue trotting until you ask him to do something else. He shouldn't break to a walk or go into a canter until you tell him to change gaits.
The third requirement is to be able to take the feet in the direction you want them to go. This means you should be able to ask your horse to go forward, back up, and turn left and right. The key to asking the horse to move left and right is to concentrate on moving the haunches under the horse to change direction.
Another consideration when we talk about controlling the horse's direction is the fact that the horse should continue moving forward in the same direction until you ask him to change. Your horse shouldn't wander aimlessly if you allow him to move forward on a loose rein. Think of a reining horse that's been taught to canter a circle with no direction from the rider until he is asked to change direction. All horses should have this basic skill.
Say you're on your trail ride and you and your friends want to stop and watch the ducks on a pond. But your horse won't stand still. At this point, you feel safe, so priority one has been satisfied. Your problem is your horse keeps moving when you want him to remain stationary.
So what do you do? You ask the horse to move his feet-forward, backwards, left and right. But in this case, you get him to move his feet where you want, when you want. After a few minutes, you offer the horse the opportunity to stand still. It may take several repetitions, but eventually, your horse will stand still when you offer him the chance.