Every horse has a certain amount of work they are comfortable with and a certain level of work they are comfortable doing. As riders it is our job to slowly expand that comfort zone while keeping the horse happy to work with us. This can be quite the challenge. Just like you may hate your fitness trainer for pushing you, horses can easily resent you for pushing them. So how do we build the horse without causing resentment?
The first step is to understand and respect the horse’s limits. Know what is comfortable and easy for them to do both physically and mentally. If your horse knows you won’t force them out of their comfort zone they will be much more willing to try for you.
The key to getting to that point is to make sure that your foundation is solid every ride. You don’t want to have to be getting after your horse for the hard stuff because that is where your horse is struggling. Make sure he is soft, supple, and light to the aids in the beginning so that in the hard work you can ask and capture the horse’s best effort.
All too often I see this fall apart in warm-up. No one wants to use their whip or get bigger with their leg to establish forward in the walk or trot. Then when it comes time to canter they are at a loss as to why they are working so hard for so little return. The canter is a bit harder, right? So you want to have established basic stuff like moving forward off the leg first. That first walk off the mounting block and first trot transition are good places to establish sensitivity to your leg while the work is easy.
The harder the work is the less you should have to demand and the more you should be able to ask nicely. If you did your homework in your warm-up and made sure your horse was relaxed, supple, and responsive this will be true.
As you continue with your work eventually the horse will start to be less responsive and offer less quality. This is okay. A lot of times i see people getting into fights with their horses at this point because they feel the horse is becoming unwilling and lazy.
We think like this, but horses don’t. So instead of getting upset and starting a fight we need to understand that the horse is genuinely tired from the work either mentally or physically.
Of course if you quit right here the horse will never gain muscle and improve, but this is no longer the time or place to work on it. Instead, go back to the basics and ask the horse to repeat his warm-up. Do some simple stretching and relaxed walk and trot work. Let the horse be done before he is exhausted with work that he is able to complete willingly. This ensures your next session starts relaxed and responsive since that is where you ended.
Over time when the horse knows he can trust you to respect him and not take advantage he will be able to offer more to you and be a more willing partner. Slowly your work time will get longer or your work will get more intense as the horse’s fitness increases.