Contact and Muscles

“I’m not strong enough to ride my horse on contact.”

This is something I recently heard, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly strong, but I do ride my horses on contact as soon as they’re able to do so and feel good about it.
In this photo, I’d just had my daughter and was decidedly not strong, my core was extra weak, and I hadn’t ridden in several weeks since giving birth. My mare carries herself, and does not require strength to ride (though I sure did miss my core!!) The green rope is there to demonstrate over a video lesson I had done how to ride without disturbing the reins.

I remember riding horses growing up that I needed gloves to ride, or I’d have giant blisters between my fingers. Half way through my lessons, my fingers and arms would give out, and the horses began to lean on me. I didn’t love it, and I’m certain the horses didn’t either.

From time to time, I encounter someone who says their horse “has to be ridden this way.” Maybe they are accustomed to being ridden this way, but they certainly don’t have to be.

I’m not saying you don’t need to be fit to ride. Being fit is always a great idea. But if you find yourself muscling through your rides, maybe it’s time to rethink you and your horse’s understanding of contact.

It takes some time, dedication and thinking to educate a horse to self carriage. But step by step, they can learn to carry themselves, to not lean on your hands for support, and to actually love the contact. You’ll know this when they feel buttery soft, sneeze, blow, and have happy ears when you ride. The payoff is worth the work!

It Takes Time

It can take some time to adjust when you have a horse who wasn’t raised to be a horse. Healthy herd socialization, dealing with weather, navigating terrain and feeling comfortable in their own skin are some of the major challenges that face horses raised in isolation and stalls, as opposed to learning socialization and spending their time outside.

Don’t despair if you have a horse who is struggling, and make the adjustment easier by presenting it in little pieces as much as you’re able. You wouldn’t take a kid who was raised in seclusion in a basement and throw them into a crowded public environment because they lack the skills to manage it. Teach one thing at a time and give it time. You’d be surprised at how adaptable horses are, even ones with poor starts in life.

Bellus has been with a herd for a few years, and while his social skills aren’t perfect, for the first time ever yesterday, I saw him play.

Think!

Some food for thought, and maybe somewhat controversial-

Traditions in horsemanship have been around for centuries. Some better than others, but most have been around for so long because they generally work. For instance, the classical dressage training scale, when adhered to, mostly produces excellent results. But, in my opinion, the order depends on the horse – sometimes I address rhythm first, sometimes relaxation first. In my mind, there are great principles to adhere to, but flexibility when applying them to different horses is key.

Similarly, the traditional vaquero training methods tend to have some really dogmatic followers. Folks who say things like, “if so and so does it, then that’s just how it is.” The truth is that every horse is different, and imagine if science and medicine took this approach? As time marches on, we learn more about horses, we evolve, and understand them better. I think it’s great to adhere to classical principles, but not so great to fix yourself dogmatically to a system of any kind.

This is why I choose not to follow or endorse any program, and there are billions out there. In general, there’s lots to be learned and lots of good that can come from them. But sooner or later, over a wide enough range of experiences and horses, they will miss the mark. It’s inevitable. So it’s important to be able to think outside the box.

As Ray Hunt was known to say, “observe, remember, compare.” The horse is the true teacher.

The Horse is Always Right

“The horse is never wrong” – this is one of my favorite expressions, but I think sometimes it’s misunderstood. It doesn’t mean they are always reflecting a rider’s error, it means they are doing what they think they should be doing, based on their education level and experiences.

A rider may be doing everything perfectly and the horse can still not do what we want. It’s our job to educate. Sometimes, fixing the presentation in how we ask is enough to fix the problem, but sometimes the horse isn’t capable quite yet, or has very ingrained habits.

The biggest difference between the best riders and amateurs is not the lack of mistakes, it’s the willingness to experiment until you get it right, and the ability to break tasks down into achievable steps for the horse. Mainly, it’s looking at the big picture.

Tools without Understanding

Frequently I run into a student who has been following a horseman or woman, often many different ones at the same time. They study their system and methods and apply them at home. Nothing makes me happier than a student invested in their own education and taking initiative. The problem arises, however, when a broad picture solution given by the instructional video is applied without the student actually understanding the cause of the trouble they’re in.

Take for example, bending to a stop. The video says if your horse rushes, don’t pull back on two reins, bend them to a stop with one. The horse in the video looks relaxed and the exercise seems effective. The problem is the horse person making this video can’t see you or your horse.

Maybe your horse is rushing because you are squeezing with your legs; or sitting too far forward, in which case bending them to a stop doesn’t fix your positional issues and they will just become more confused- they are being chased and then blocked. Or maybe they’re totally out of balance and rushing because this worries them, in which case bending to a stop has the potential to easily put them on the forehand and cause more rushing. Maybe not if you do it well, but it takes a lot of practice and self control to do things slowly when your horse is fast.

Videos can be really helpful, but they can’t and shouldn’t replace regular instruction with someone who can see the root of the problem. If you’re not careful, the blanket application of the step by step program can add a problem for every one it proposes to fix.

Study equine behavior, classical equitation, learn to really ride – you can’t replace a quiet and effective seat with a million one rein stops. Sorry: it will never be as effective as learning to direct, read your horse, and absorb and effect a horses gaits. It takes more time, true, but it saves the horse a lot of worry and trouble.

Power Struggles

Every horse and rider from time to time will run into a bump in the road where the horse is resistant. The way of thinking where the rider is always right and the horse always follows can sometimes lead to power struggles with the horse- if we are fighting to win, we may win, but often at cost to the relationship. This frame of mind often produces shut down or robotic horses who don’t participate or engage in a conversation.

When you ask for something, are you thinking of the long term picture? Are you working toward an end goal, or are you fighting to win?

This doesn’t mean you let your horse walk all over you, but if, say, they’re scared of the things in the corner of the arena, and you make them go there because you’re the boss, they may go there, but they have lost confidence in you and in their world. Some battles are not worth it.

When it comes to troubled horses, picking your battles is especially important. Here is a picture of Q when we first began working together. Picking my battles with him was essential. I tried to ask for things I knew he could do for some time, and then slowly began asking for things that he had to try at. Now we can do plenty together, but if I’d began our relationship with a dictator like attitude, things would not have gone well for either of us.

Ray Hunt said, “first you go with them, then they go with you, then you go together.”

Sounds

So much about how our horse feels is indicated by sound – how does their breathing sound? Do you hear sneezes, rhythmic breaths and blowing? Or do you hear quick, short breaths, or a rhythmic breaths? How do their footfalls sound? Are they rushed, heavy and loud, or soft and steady? Can you hear their tail swish quickly or does it sway easily? Do you hear teeth grinding or the sound of licking and chewing? The devil’s in the details, as they say.

Notice the Try

It’s so easy to notice what our horses do wrong. In a given ride, we can pick out a million things we didn’t like or that we thought should be better. With this mind frame, it’s easy to miss the little changes and little tries, and far too easy to discourage a horse. When a horse’s try isn’t noticed and rewarded, they have less interest in trying again. Aren’t we all like that? Imagine struggling to learn something, but someone says “well you did x, but you still didn’t do y and z well enough.” That would shut down the confidence of many of us.

Keep the improvements you’d like to see in mind, but be gentle with your expectations, and start noticing each and every improvement, no matter how small.

Here’s a pic I love from a clinic where a young girl without a horse brought her family’s driving ox. She was thrilled with his every effort.

Talking

What I love the most about working with horses is the quiet, peaceful opportunity to communicate with an amazing being. I love not having to talk, at least out loud. I love all the subtle forms of communication between me and my horse- the sound of their breathing, the movement of their ears and tail, their expressive facial movements, the sound of their footfalls. Working with horses offers me the opportunity for respite from the over complicated and often tiring world of words – nothing to misinterpret through tone or bias, just me and the horse talking through feel.

Some people find comfort in talking to their horse. There is nothing wrong with that. If it helps you relax, that is great, and you should keep doing it. Some people enjoy talking and others don’t – again, nothing wrong with that at all. The problem comes when incessant chatter and communication through words interrupts the person’s ability to read expression, have good timing, and communicate through feel – be it their riding aids or lead rope. When we can’t stop talking, we aren’t noticing, and we aren’t listening to the horse.

Sometimes when people get into trouble with a horse, they talk to them as if the horse had the ability to speak English and communicate like a person. “Stop crowding me!” “Cut it out!” Or my personal favorite, “we talked about this!”

All these expressions might work with a person, but a horse, lacking the ability to understand complex sentences, needs direct communication in the moment of trouble, or better yet, if your timing is good, before trouble begins.

You can say all the words you want, but don’t mistake them for communication the horse can connect with. Even if you use voice cues such a “walk, trot, canter”, these are simple cues given in the moment needed.

Beware of incessant chatter. It takes you out of the moment, and keeps your horse from being able to truly tune in to you.

Winning and Losing

Changing things to suit a horse better isn’t “letting the horse win.” They don’t know what win or lose is. They only know what works and what doesn’t. When they are learning, struggling, or worried, making things easier for them benefits us, too.

However, there is a difference between an adjustment and a crutch. The difference is adjusting to fit the horse is a temporary measure used to help them learn. A crutch is something you always have to do or the horse falls apart.