“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?”
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.
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.