When you are working with a horse that has a mind of his own there will always be things that don’t go quite as planned. This is the moment that I see riders make the most mistakes.
As humans our nature is to try to force something to go our way when we first see a sign of resistance or failure. What do I mean by this? If we try to turn our horse and the horse doesn’t immediately turn we we will generally start kicking and pulling on the reins in an effort to turn. If we want to stop and the horse doesn’t immediately stop we will yank the reins and tense our entire body. If we want to go and the horse won’t go then we clamp everything and try to shove the horse forward with our bodies.
This nature of trying to force the horse into submission almost always results in failure. Even if we manage to get the horse to complete the original task we have introduced tension and anxiety into the situation. We have taught the horse that their voice won’t be heard or listened to.
More often than not horses resist out of confusion. Say we pull a rein to turn but our seat is shoving the horse the opposite way. The horse might speed up and pull the rein out of your hand in an effort to follow your seat. Obviously we know the other choice would have been preferable, but they don’t know that. They are merely trying to oblige our impossible request.
The same thing happens in the halt. We unconsciously grip with our legs while yanking on the rein. The horses plows through in search of the softness and release.
We try to get the horse forward and we brace against them so they suck back trying to avoid our pressure.
Most if not all of a horse’s resistance starts with inaccurate and conflicting aids. If not from you than from the rider before you. The horses are set up for failure and either rise above and get good at picking the right choice or they become a “problem horse” making dangerous decisions out of a place of anxiety.
I have both of those types of horses in my barn. In fact I’d take the one that was the problem horse over the one that got good at picking the right answer any day. The problem horse is with you and trying and ready at a moments notice when you finally make sense. Those horses hang on every word you say waiting for them to all align. The horse that is good at making the right choice is anxious and unsettled. He hates standing and even if everything is right you still might get an entirely different answer. He lives his life by guessing so he will always through a wild card in laced with anxiety. Most people would favor this horse.
So what can we do to prevent the confusion, the anxiety, the pressure, and the dangerous behavior? How should we be responding to failure and resistance.
Here’s a wild thought. What if we just did nothing?
I know what you are all thinking: “but then my horse is going to be a bully! I won’t have any control! That’s crazy!”
But is it really?
Really think about it. What would happen if you just did nothing. That moment the horse resists your turn what if you relaxed and felt instead of getting big and forcing. Why if you took a step back and listened for what your horse was telling you? What would the picture look like then?
If every time you felt resistance you stopped and listened, you wouldn’t have anxiety. In fact you wouldn’t have explosions, aggression, stubbornness, any of the things we worry about creating in our horses. If we just stopped and listened there would be nothing for the horse to fight. Nothing to create that battle of wills.
From that place of just relaxing and feeling and listening we can then piece together what happened to create the confusion. In fact we could prevent that confusion entirely if we just did less from the very beginning.
Why even get to a place of confusion and conflicting aids? Why not be so subtle and soft that as you apply an aid and the horse responds in a different way than you expect you can pause and feel that response in a non judgmental way? From there you can then adjust your body and try something different. Then you can feel that and see if you like the response better.
We always talk about training horses, but what if the horses are thinking the same thing. What if they are just trying to teach you how to be aware of your body and give them the correct aids?
Most aids when riding make perfect sense to horses inherently. If you’ve ever started a horse or ridden one in its first few rides you would feel this. They move off the seat and leg inherently, not because they have been taught to do so.
Horses aren’t the ones that need the training – we are.
So next time you feel that old familiar pattern of resistance pop up, just stop. Take a deep breath, relax, get present, and try again. Be softer, slower, more deliberate and listen for what your horse answers you with. From there you can shape your ride into what you wanted from the beginning. Being a good rider has nothing to do with your ability to deliver aids, but everything to do with your ability to listen.