At a stable at which I was once in training, I remember watching someone in a lesson on one of the horses I would sometimes ride. The horse looked like a million bucks.
Since I would bravely look in mirrors when I was riding, I knew I didn’t get the same performance, at least, according to my trainer, not consistently.
Even more troubling was watching my sister ride my own mare at home, and hearing my niece shout, “Wow! Look at Sally! She looks like a real show horse.” Apparently that wasn’t the case when I was riding her. It was humbling and hard to accept. I suspect most of us like to think we’re pretty good at riding our own horse!
While my ego took a hit, the realization helped. I took an honest look at myself and thought about what I was doing in the saddle. I decided to improve my own physical fitness (a huge factor in riding better) and work toward achieving the higher level of performance from the horses I ride. I worked harder, and it made a difference.
Unfortunately, it’s terribly easy to immediately blame the horse. “He hates me!” or “He only wants to do what’s right when you are riding him.”
Of course, the horse can’t have thoughts like that, but they do possess the intelligence to know with whom they can be lazy or who won’t care if they dive for some handy grass. What living creature doesn't want to take the easy way out when possible?
If you’ve noticed someone achieving more with a horse than you can, don’t take it personally. Use it as a lesson and ask the person if they have advice to share.
Sometimes it can just come down to talent. As with every sport, there are incredibly gifted riders and horsemen for whom our horses just “do,” while we work like crazy and struggle through our challenges.
Winning the horse’s respect is imperative. The horse does not run the show, and it can take some energy and effort to win him over and respect your authority.
Consistency is key. When you’re working, you’re working. You cannot insist on an immediate canter depart one day, and the next day allow him to be lazy and trot his way into the canter.
Horses are black and white, and it’s essential you’re clear about what it is you’re asking. If you want him to walk beside you quietly, you cannot become lax one day, and allow him to pull you over the nearest patch of grass. The grass will win again next time and suddenly you’re back at square one.
Just as important as consistency and being clear, is to make sure you pay your horse for its cooperation. No one wants to work for nothing, and what is it they receive for doing your bidding? What’s in it for them? The reward of your affection and, sometimes, treats.
Your horse is working hard, carrying you and your tack around during a ride. Allow him a long rein at times, gently pat his neck and verbally tell him what a good boy he is. You can carry treats your pocket and reach around and let him enjoy one. This same philosophy is equally important when working on ground manners.
Treats don’t necessarily make a horse bite. Once again the fault lies with the human. If you allow the horse to get away with nipping, it turns into biting. Pestering for a treat should not result in one. Treats must be earned, and you decide when it’s appropriate.
Rules. Consistency. Clarity. Rewards. That's what your horse needs from you.
We all dream about having that brilliant connection with our horses. None of us has all the answers, and the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. Even the riders at the recent Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and the Kentucky Reining Cup have trainers and ask others for advice. These are world champions. If they’re smart enough to continue to pursue excellence, and seek help and advice from others, why in heaven’s name shouldn’t we?