Schooling a “difficult” horse – defence, vulnerability, trial and error

By Wiola Grabowska
I had this post in a draft form for some weeks now but wasn’t sure if to post it. It’s tricky to make oneself clear on a wide subject such as this one. However, last week’s message from the owner of the pony featured here made me think that perhaps I should just tweak the content and let the post go live…

Last week I received a message from an owner of a pony I’d been schooling twice a week for about a year and a half. The pony was seen by his regular physiotherapist and for the first time since we started his “getting better programme” there was nothing specific for the physio to work on. It’s the sort of message I was hoping for since taking the pony on as he’d been one of the more “difficult” cases I have ever worked with.

April19th – stretching after canter work

The meaning of “difficult”…

What I mean by difficult here has nothing to do with the pony being dangerous. The difficulty lied in the fact he had (and still has but we will get to this later) so many ingrained defence mechanisms that most exercises or even simple things like trotting or cantering around the arena in a balanced posture, were impossible for him. Thankfully, he is a small pony as the extent of his crookedness and evasions in the decent size horse would be a much harder task to tackle.

At the time we met, Jack was a strongly inverted, incredibly one-sided with very high neck carriage, fairly spooky and quite anxious pony in the arena but very loveable on the ground, very people oriented and despite his issues, very willing to “do something”.

Getting the basics right

For about a year I worked him with emphasis on relaxation and straightness with combination of ridden and in-hand work and together with his owner doing her best to match all I was doing and the physio helping us re-educate his odd movement patterns, we made a fairly good progress.

The true breakthrough in my work with him though came when I realised the extent of his defence patterns.

Making mistakes

About six months ago, I had an incredible ride on Jack. I was riding him a bit more for a couple of weeks and at some point it was as if he said, ok I get it, you do this I do that, I relax my back you sit quiet. I said to Jack’s owner that wow, I think we fixed the canter.

But then I made a mistake – I expected him to pick up in the next session from how we left off. Even though I know full well not to ever do that. It was a costly mistake but one that eventually led me to discover how deep the problem sat and what I needed to do about it. This kind of get it – lose it game is part of the reason I encourage all the riders to experiment and make mistakes because without them there is no learning, just military drilling.

“Defence – the action of defending from or resisting attack”

Jack with his owner at my Intensive Training Camp – end of April 2017

I pushed his schooling on and lost him for some weeks again but I had my answer. “Schooling posture”/Dressage posture (however you want to call it)  is for a horse a vulnerable posture. It’s a posture and a way of moving where the horse allows the rider to influence and instigate change. It’s relaxed yet active. How often would you allow someone else to tell you what and how to do something? How to move your legs? How to hold your head?

Dressage posture is everything but flight readiness which is Jack’s preferred option.

In our own social interactions vulnerability is defined as “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally”. In simpler, less dramatic terms this can mean allowing someone to see that we want and need them in our life, and trusting them not to hurt us. The horse needs us to help them move better with us on their back but it also needs some level of confidence to believe we are going to be fair. I don’t mean to anthropomorphise horses but we are humans after all and comparisons can help get the head around a problem.

Some horses are very trusting and being vulnerable comes at what seems a small price. So small in fact we don’t ever think about “offending them”. Others seem to see everything we do on them as an attack and that is more of a Jack’s mentality.

The solution

I needed to be absolutely consistent and confident in everything I did with him from rein connection to amount of impulsion. No chancing, no random aids, no random questions. It seems obvious but if you think about it, how many times do we ask the horse to “go” in EXACTLY the same way? How many times do our left leg acts PRECISELY in the same way in every single step of a leg yield? How many times do we stop for a moment and ask for that halt EXACTLY the same? It’s the kind of focus riders at top level have but not when pleasure riding a 13.2hh pony 😉

I don’t have a grand prix rider body control nor the skills to repeat every movement exactly the same but the moment I became aware of the extent of the problem, I started seeing his reactions differently and came up with different ways of dealing with them.

I do realise that this mental side of training is often disregarded in many “horse training” articles or is considered a “soft” approach and somewhat inferior if we train for “sport”. If you do have a “difficult” horse that you think is in turn making your life difficult, it might help to look at how he might be perceiving the aids. Physical defence is what the rider is fighting but it starts way deeper than the skin and muscles level…

Jack is a work in progress and simply realising how to train further doesn’t mean he is “fixed”. He will never be as dependable under pressure as some less sensitive and less defensive horses but I am happy he is comfortable in himself now and gives both the owner, myself and his sharer plenty of good rides 🙂

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