Riding is, by definition, an activity that involves a partnership between horse and rider. Is it then the horse or the rider that deserves the credit for the good rides, and the blame for the bad ones? Examining your answer to that critical question can lead you towards consistently better rides.
It can be nearly impossible to separate horse and rider and see what part we are contributing and what part the horse is contributing, and how the part we contribute affects the part the horse contributes, and vice versa. So most riders fall into one of two camps more due to their general nature or approach to life in general, than by a logically reasoned process of breaking down the contributions initiated by each party.
Consider your last challenge with your horse. It may be some annoying little thing that happens daily or multiple times in a ride, or it may have been one very bad moment when you and your horse had a significant difference of opinion about something. What was the cause?
Are you the type of rider who blames yourself? If so, when things go wrong you tend to think:
- If only I was a better rider, that would have gone better!
- He goes so much better for better riders, I’ll probably never be able to get him to do that…
- I’m sure it’s because I am tired/sore/distracted today…
- My bad habit with my legs/hands causes so many problems!
On the other hand, riders who blame the horse tend to think:
- If only he weren’t so lazy/fresh, things would be so much easier!
- I wish my horse were more focused and obedient…
- He never does that to my trainer!
- He has conformational/health/training issues that will always cause him to struggle with this….
- He’s just so stubborn sometimes!
- Once he has more training, this won’t happen anymore!
Are you one of these riders?
There’s good news. It doesn’t really matter which camp you fall in, as long as you are able to identify when and how you play the blame game. And once you’ve identified your “go-to-blame-of-choice”, improving your ride becomes much easier!
See, with any sort of blame, the rider is essentially making an excuse. Once the rider has come up with an excuse that in her mind justifies and explains away the problem, she is freed from the responsibility of fixing it. Unfortunately, she also gives up her power to make positive changes at the same time. The ability to “catch yourself” when you start to blame is the first step in trouble-shooting your own rides. Each time you hear yourself wanting to use an excuse, go ahead and use it! But then follow it with “What can I do right now to improve that situation?”
Let’s take the examples above, and re-frame them with a more positive, solution-focused outlook and see how this thinking can improve each ride you have.
“If only I was a better rider, that would have gone better!… What can I do right now to improve that situation? Well, I know my biggest weakness is that my lower leg slips out of position, maybe I will do a little work in a two point, and then do some posting without stirrups to strengthen up my legs….”
Now that same rider is on a path towards solving the problem, rather than doing what most of us do, where we continue to ride exactly as we had been, and continue to make the same lack of progress, or continue to repeat the same problem over and over, re-using our excuse-of-choice each time.
Let’s take an example from the blame the horse list.
“If only he weren’t so lazy….”
“What can I do right now to improve this?”
“Well, let’s see… he feels lazy because he’s behind my leg. One way I can get him more in front of my leg is to ride quick transitions between the trot and the canter, back and forth, reinforcing my soft aid with a tap of my whip, until when I trot he’s just *waiting* for that canter aid, and canters off obediently from my light aid. Then once he’s in front of my leg, I can go back to the original problem, and see if that helped!”
Now the rider has a plan to improve the ride, rather than just getting frustrated, blaming the horse, and giving up by accepting the status-quo as the best work that is possible. Bonus points on this one for correctly identifying a very common and usually very fixable basic training problem!
Ok here’s another, one of my favorites! I hear it all the time. “He wouldn’t do that with my trainer in the saddle…” This one can imply that the horse is at fault by deliberately choosing to respect the trainer and not the rider (what a jerk!), or it can imply that the rider is obviously just not good enough to ride like the trainer does (so that excuses her from trying).
This is such a common one, I use it when a student is having a problem getting her horse to do something. I will ask the student “If I got on your horse right now, do you think I could get him to do it?” and usually the response is, “Yes!”, so I then ask them to imagine that happening, and to describe or picture what I would do to make that happen. Then I ask them to do what they imagined I would do. And you guessed it…. usually just like that they can get the horse to do whatever it was that was giving them the problem to begin with! So the answer to the “what can I do right now to improve this situation” in that case is “what would my trainer be doing differently, and can I do that same thing?” Often in these cases, the “difference” imagined by the rider is simply riding with a bit more confidence and a bit more insistence that the horse respond to the aids.
“Ok, fine,” I hear you saying, “but what about the stubborn horse? I’d need a magic wand to improve that right now!”
You’re right, that one is a bit harder. But let’s think about how we would approach a stubborn person. The stubborn person creates a wall. Each time we say “Please?” they just give us “Nope.” Back and forth. So if you get more stubborn with them and say “DO IT!!” you are apt to get a stronger “Nope!” back (assuming they have the choice to give whatever answer they want anyways…). And you could repeat that over and over, and maybe eventually your stubbornness could out-stubborn theirs and they might fatigue and give in. This usually seems to be the approach riders take with “stubborn” horses. But if you think about the stubborn person example, is this really a good approach, and how often do you expect this to work, and how much time and energy do you waste going back and forth until it does work? Does it ever create a good partnership with the other person, or do they try to avoid you in the future?
Maybe instead you could bargain with the person “If you do it, I will give you xxx in return?” or try re-framing the request in a way that makes it sound easier, or like fun! Or, you might follow your request with another question, “Why not?” and see if you can come up with a way of eliminating whatever it is causing them not to want to do what you’re asking.
Well now it shouldn’t be such a leap to see how this could work with your horse. What can you give your horse in return? Maybe you are giving aids for something, and then when he responds, instead of quieting your leg you are continuing to kick and demand more and more? In that case, being more careful with your aids might be all it takes, and in return for his good response, you will give him relief from the aid! “Horse, if you canter, I will quit kicking you”. Does it work? It’s easy to try…
Or maybe what he needs is reward and praise… “Horse, if you trot over that little jump, I will stop you afterwards and praise the heck out of you, maybe even give you some sugar!” Well that’d be easy to try too, and if it works, now you have a super easy way to get him more engaged in the job and interested in doing what you want, something that’ll be easy to use in other situations too! Oh, and it’s something that will improve your relationship with him as he becomes more interested in working with you and you become a rider that spends more time giving him positive reinforcement for a job well done. Win-win!
The biggest challenge with this approach is getting him to do it the first time so you can give him that praise or piece of sugar, demonstrating the new game for him. You might have to break it down more and reward smaller successes before attempting something that’s been a problem. But still, you have a potential solution here that you can try instead of just doing the same thing over and over that hasn’t been working.
What about the approach you could use with a person to re-frame the question to make it sound easier or more fun? This can take a little more creativity with horses, but it still works! Let’s say you want your horse to do a trot lengthening, but he keeps cantering instead. You have double and triple checked your aids, and you’re pretty sure your horse just finds the lengthening hard and falling into a canter much easier. One easy solution to help make the trot lengthening easier than the canter would be to set up ground poles. If they are spaced for a long trot stride, it will help him find a natural rhythm and increased impulsion through the poles that make lengthening the stride easier, and on the other hand, if he tries to canter through them instead, he will likely find that extremely difficult!
Or, if instead of pulling him up when he breaks into the canter when you asked for a trot lengthening, what if instead you just go with it. Say to him “Great idea, let’s actually do canter lengthenings instead!” Often it doesn’t take long before the horse doesn’t want to canter anymore and when you return to the trot, you find you now have a trot with a longer stride and more forward energy that you can get a better lengthening out of anyways, besides the fact that lengthening the trot now seems easy to the horse after all the big, forward canter work you did!
Lastly, we had thought to ask the person “Why not?” in an attempt to understand and hopefully eliminate whatever made them not want to do what we asked.
Listening for the answer when you ask the horse “Why not?” is much harder than with a person, but it is probably one of the single most useful skills you can develop as a rider.
Once you get good at identifying possible reasons a horse may be resisting, you can simply check each one, eliminating possibilities, until you discover which one is the reason for the resistance. Once you have the reason the horse is resisting, do what you can to alleviate that, and you’ll have a much more willing horse! The challenge with this approach (although also the reason this approach is often necessary and such a good skill to develop in yourself!!) is that there are many possibilities ranging from saddle fit to sore hocks to rider error to lack of strength. Often, until the cause of resistance is eliminated, good work will not be possible.
Sometimes you won’t be able to concretely identify a single cause, but often a single solution would treat multiple causes. For example, poor saddle fit could be pinching the horse’s shoulders and causing him to not want to move out, and also throwing the rider off balance, making her compensate with a pinched knee, causing her to ride “with the brakes on” and give incorrect aids when asking the horse to go forward. Fixing the saddle fit could fix both of those other issues at once!
No matter which approach you choose to try first when working through your “He’s so stubborn” blame-game, you’re already winning because you have become focused on moving past the problem and finding a solution, rather than continuing to operate under the assumption that what you’re doing and the responses you’re getting from your horse are unchangeable due to his stubbornness.
Ok, your turn. Make a note to yourself or add a comment below:
- What is your favorite excuse to use when you ride? Do you tend to blame your horse or yourself?
- What could you do to improve that situation right now, or next time you get on your horse?
If you need help coming up with solutions, feel free to post your question in the comments, or email me privately, I’m happy to help!
I know that 99% of what goes wrong between me and my horse is on me as a rider. That other 1% is on the horse, who every once in a while gets it in her head that spooking for absolutely no reason other than hyper-vigilance is a nice idea. I do not make excuses for myself except as concerns how long it takes me to fix my faults. I am not a “natural” rider and everything I do requires intense study, analysis, understanding and practice on my part to gain the “feel” necessary to ultimately automatically make the proper corrections without having to actively think about every one of them. Instead of mentally going through numerous possible “solutions” I am learning to notice that something just doesn’t feel right and instantly adjust for it. It’s a long road, but so worth it.