Your Horse Hates What?!

“My horse hates to longe … detests dressage … loathes lateral work … can’t stand circles … grinds his teeth over groundwork.”

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have heard someone tell me how much his or her horse hates some basic exercise. And I always think to myself, “Your horse hates it, or you hate it?”

Of course free longing isn’t fun for a horse who is allowed to be heavy on the forehand, slamming into the ground at every gait.

Why in the world would a horse dislike any exercise he was carefully and respectfully taught to do? If the human thoughtfully plans and competently executes a progression of training exercises designed so each skill builds from what has been mastered before, most horses are pretty happy to play along.

Of course some skills will come more easily for each horse, depending on breed, conformation, temperament and experience. The build that makes rollbacks and spins a breeze might render extensions more of a challenge. The horse who loves to gallop cross country might find quiet, collected work more mentally difficult. But there’s no reason for any horse to take special exception to being asked to trot a correct 20-meter circle, to walk quietly when being led from the off side or to canter in civilized fashion over a pole.

In my own experience, my horses have only balked at doing what I ask in a few situations:

•    Instances when I got in a hurry and didn’t teach the mechanics of the movement well enough in an orderly sequence. I hit the ground a few times from horses who had natural talent but who hadn’t mastered the mechanics of jumping well enough to help them problem solve in less-than-perfect conditions.

•    Times when I didn’t adequately prepare my horse physically to accomplish the task without discomfort. It took several years before I could school lateral work with my long-backed race-bred Quarter Horse without his loin are getting really sore, but eventually I figured out the combination of conditioning and bodywork that let him learn lateral work happily.

•    Situations when imbalance, imprecision or incomplete understanding of my own biomechanics meant my body was moving (or not moving) in a way that either confused the horse or actually prevented him from doing what I thought I was asking him to do. Not long ago I had to apologize profusely to a very frustrated horse after a session in which I was trying to work out the “geometry” of the seat aids to transition from leg yield to half pass.

Teach the horse to balance and move with ease and comfort, and the same exercise becomes fun and beneficial for horse and handler.

I’m working with a couple of horses now whose posture choices and balance habits mean one “hates the round pen” and the other “kicks out a lot, so be careful of him on the longe line.” Both of them exhibit some combination of classic bad carriage on a circle – head high, hollow back, hindquarters disengaged and nose tipped out, shoulder dropped in, hindquarters disengaged. And both display the discomfort of their lack of balance on a circle quite similarly – they careen around at top speed, slam on the brakes unsolicited and try to cut across the circle or turn without being asked. Hyperness, histrionics and generally much ado about nothing. Walk/trot/canter/halt/turn on a circle is not difficult, advanced work. But those skills do form the basis for advanced work, so it’s important for both horse and human to find a way to practice and perfect them happily, completely and with confidence in their abilities.

I’m betting that after I invest some patience and time, a little bodywork and a lot of miles of groundwork, both of these horses will be converts and will enjoy learning new, fun exercises in the roundpen and on the longe line. I like it! And I’m betting so will they.

Old Humans, New Tricks?

Horse people can be so impatient. They want their skills and their horses’ training to progress on a predetermined schedule, often based on a competition calendar or a chronological list of some kind.

This is a mindset I used to endorse, but which now just makes me smile. (Sometimes grimace, sometimes chuckle.) Why? Because I know that developing a physical, mental and emotional partnership with a horse is a process, not an event. You can’t just complete a set number of lessons or schooling sessions or shows and then declare that you are “there,” that you are now an accomplished horseman or horsewoman.

You can try, of course, but I’m betting your horse will have something to say about your personal milestone. And it might just not be what you want to hear.

When I ran a traditional lesson and training barn years ago, prospective clients almost invariably asked during our first conversation, “How long will it take before I can jump?” That usually came after they had told me at length how many lessons they had taken with which trainer or how many times they’d been on a dude-string trail ride or some such. At first I made the mistake of trying to give them an estimate based on what they had told me about their past experience. (This was before I learned that almost everyone inflates his or her experience at first!)

After I wised up, my standard answer was, “Anything from six lessons to six years.” That tended to be followed by a moment of mutual silence, which I generally followed with a laugh and the statement that although I was joking, I was also serious. This led to an explanation that every rider and every horse progresses at a different rate, and that my focus was on teaching good basic skills to keep both members of the partnership safe, sound and happy. The people who just wanted to run fast and jump high never called back. A good number of the sensible folk who actually wanted to learn to ride as well as they could showed up and generally did stay safe, sound and happy. Seemed like a fine business model to me, and it still does.

This approach does, however, present more of a challenge than you might think. Over the years a number of older riders, those lovely folks who take up riding in their 40s or 50s or even 60s, have lectured me about my firm insistence that they practice and master all the basic skills. One particularly prickly older gentleman got quite heated during a session in which I was focusing on improving his abysmal sitting trot despite his wish to lope circles at varying speeds. He informed me in no uncertain terms that at his age he didn’t have time to trot around and around until he was no longer bouncing on his poor horse’s back like a sack of potatoes. (Okay, my words, not his!) He was only interested in practicing the skills he needed to go work cattle. I was being unfair to him, wasting his precious riding time on things he didn’t like to do.

My response was that while I understood his sense of urgency, it wasn’t really relevant. The one who was putting up with his rotten seat was his horse, and she didn’t care how old he was. In order to work with her, instead of hindering and annoying her, there were certain things he needed to learn. And he couldn’t learn the advanced skills without mastering the basics any more than he would have been able to read classic literature without first learning the alphabet.  “See Spot Run” before “War and Peace.”

Your horse doesn’t care that a month from now there’s a show, a cattle drive, a group trail ride or your 50th birthday. All he knows is that today, in this moment, you and he need to come together – body, mind and energy – to build on what you learned yesterday and the day before and the day before. Learning is a progression – one thing leads to another leads to another. That’s true for horses and for humans.

And it’s not a straight line, either, no matter what some calendar or checklist might indicate. During the good times, it’s one step forward at a time. In challenging times, it’s one step forward, three steps back. It takes as long as it takes. And if you skip a step along the way? You might get away with it for a while, but I guarantee holes left in the basic skillset will come back to haunt both rider and horse one day.