There comes a time in many riders’ lives when they go from being a passenger in the saddle to riding with influence, when a circle becomes the most difficult arena shape to ride well and when phrases like “ride him into the contact” appear.
I have recently spoken to a client marvelling about how many different ways of teaching of that “influence” there are, how every single instructor will have different methods, views and approaches and how confusing this is for a learner-rider.
So how is an average, less experienced rider supposed to know what is the right or not so right a way? How should they know what will eventually make them a better rider or horse-person and what will give them a plethora of bad habits, years of struggle and perhaps a broken horse in the process?
It seems that, generally speaking, there is a descriptive divide in the horse world between schooling methods, one being “the soft one” and the other “fast/hard/effective one”…On one side of the spectrum we might have various ‘natural horsemanship trainers and riders’ taking long time to understand and improve communication between horse and rider and on the other side we might have those who proudly present their project horses winning various shows within several weeks of being in training.
I personally struggled for many years to find a training style that would match my values when it comes to working with both people and animals and it was part of the reason I recently took 2 years out of full time teaching to fully focus on my own training. There are days when I encounter something – a specific problem, behaviour or an issue – which still makes me wonder about how little I really know about training and coaching. However, I am in peace with that now and have built fairly solid foundations on which to base my doubts and continue with training process that is educational for both horse and rider.
If you teach or are taught on regular basis I would love to hear your views and opinions…
I work primarily with grass roots riders and junior riding instructors or instructors-to-be i.e. non-professional riders or pleasure riders whose main source of income is not connected to competition performance. Majority of those riders are at the stage where they commence learning about riding with influence. It is of course worth noting that my approach is just one of many and it is up to you to make your own mind whether it might help you or not…
Foundations of my approach to teaching a less experienced rider how to school a horse (listed in no particular order)
1. Understand motivation and desire to move forwards
The first and most important element of schooling a horse to me is to enhance its motivation to work with the rider and to enjoy co-movement with the rider. Any methods that make the horse sour and or reluctant to move to his [at least] average abilities are to me the ones not to pursue. I like to observe the general demeanour of the working horse – what their ears are doing, the facial expression, the nostrils, breathing, general feel of the muscles and level of cooperation with the rider. This is my starting point – all healthy, content horses like to move. Most strive to cooperate because they like easy lives. They don’t like to fight with the rider, it’s something the rider [or previous riders] have done or not done with the horse that makes it react in certain uncooperative way(s). Young horses might question some discipline requirements and training needs but it is up to the rider to recognise the basis of each reaction. More often than not it comes from body discomfort which more difficult demands might bring. That discomfort is part of training of every athlete, whether equine or human, and it is up to the rider to teach the horse to accept certain level of pressure without crossing the thin line of acceptance and enjoyment. The same applies to the rider – to improve, a rider needs to leave their comfort zone but still feel it is there and that they still derive some pleasure from learning process. It’s up to the instructor not to push the rider into sour zone where they lose all confidence in their ability to ride better.
2. Quality of basic paces comes before quality of shape
Rider needs to discover their “schooling seat” before they can ask the horse to work with engagement in a healthy way. What I mean by schooling seat? It needs to be good enough to allow the horse free, quality stride in walk, trot and canter. I often see horses that trot really short behind, canter crookedly yet are asked to maintain vertical nose position or take uneven steps when on circles or in changes of direction. These losses of quality of basic paces are to me areas where the rider needs to address their posture and seat. If, upon presenting the horse with shorter reins and an opportunity to maintain rounder posture, the horse loses the quality of the walk, trot or canter then either rider or the horse are not ready to work in that rounder outline. You might sometimes hear than you need spurs, whip, be more assertive, more demanding, more something or the other but to me, what rider needs is time and patience to develop posture, muscle awareness and timings of aids that allow them to maintain the paces while keeping basic, even contact on both reins. It’s achievable by older, weaker riders and children so it’s not always strength that is the answer.
If positioning the horse’s head on or close to vertical causes loss of quality of working paces or when rider has to drive the horse’s every stride “into contact” with strong leg/spur/whip to keep the horse moving more or less forwards then that position cannot be the right one for that moment in training…
3. Outline = Balance
I believe in matching the balance of back of the horse with the front of the horse with the ability of the rider…What is an outline? It’s simply a certain way of shifting weight in the body by means of certain muscular effort. It takes time for the rider to understand it not just intellectually but through own muscles…
Teaching balance over shape or outline means that horse is never forced into postural alignment that makes him look mismatched – either within himself or with his rider. I often see horses that, if seen cut in half, they might appear to be working at some form of Grand Prix test and the back end works like a 3 or 4 year old youngster’s would. The fact the horse’s neck vertebrae are easy to manipulate isn’t helping.
When the horse is in a relaxed balance suitable for certain exercise or movement and when the rider has learnt to coordinate seat aids with rein aids adequately, the horse will relax the under neck muscles and the head will drop near vertical.
The more the rider improves his ability to balance the horse, the more he wins the right to ride with more compact outline. If the rider struggles with maintaining basic impulsion in working paces or if the horse finds it difficult to balance (still needs his neck for balance at times), bend one way or the other on larger circles, the only outline I allow is the one that the horse offers himself/herself for particular rider.
4. Understanding straightness in schooling of the horse
There is not much beauty and ease in the moving horse when he or she moves crookedly…If a horse struggles to bend, leans on one front leg or the other (or in other words falls in or out through the shoulders), steps inwards or outwards with hindquarters etc etc then the very basics of straightness are still in progress and again, the only shape asked of the horse needs to be one within his current abilities.
I teach every single rider, from Start programme onwards, about the role of basic straightness in basic performance. I prefer in-hand work for this purpose but very skilled, thoughtful rider with great feel can achieve the same results from the saddle. I feel that working on symmetry from the ground trains a grassroots rider’s eye and feel to an extent that is difficult to achieve otherwise.
5. Schooling is fascinating – why rush?
I don’t consider myself a particularly “soft” instructor, rider or trainer…Horses are working partners for me, sporting partners, athletic partners, companions. I see schooling as sports therapy for horses 🙂 I rarely if ever “baby talk” to a horse, I appreciate them for what they are, what they teach me and how schooling them makes me feel focused and thoughtful. If we are not in a rush to produce the horse for a quick sale, if we don’t have to push it through any series of classes just so he or she is seen going at certain level to prove value, if we ride a horse for sheer enjoyment, self-improvement, satisfaction and feeling of camaraderie with the animal then why rush…isn’t it better to help the horse learn become more content and more able in his work in his own pace?