When I was learning about training horses, I’d feel so frustrated sometimes because horses would push on me, and with poor timing on my part, or ineffective technique, it didn’t seem to get better. I felt like I was endlessly nagging. Then, my teacher would take the horse, and either never have the same problem, or with one quick moment of firming up, have it fixed, and go back to being light.
It’s taken me years of practice and study about equine behavior and rider biomechanics to understand how to firm up and when, but most importantly, it’s forced me to take a close look at myself.
How do you know when it’s appropriate to firm up?
Striving for softness is always my goal, but this does not mean horses should push on you, ignore you, or put you in danger. Before I firm up, however, I run these checks quickly through my head:
-what is my emotional state? Firming up should never be with emotion. If you’re angry, frustrated, upset, it’s time to pack it up and go home. It’s ok to be human, it’s not ok to unleash a ball of emotion at a horse. If you’re emotional, it’s likely you aren’t thinking the situation through logically, are missing important details, and aren’t able to navigate the situation in a calm manner. Horses don’t thrive where strong negative emotion gets involved (people don’t either), and they aren’t apt to understand the cause and effect of your anger with their behavior. (A good source for horse’s brains and behavior is the book “Evidence Based Horsemanship” by Steve Peters and Martin Black).
-Am I on time? If a horse is biting me, and I smack him afterward, I have engaged in punishment. Punishment occurs after the event has taken place. The horse has already bit me, which means I was late with my timing. I either wasn’t paying attention, or missed the signs that he was shaping up to bite. The better option is to block and redirect this bite, before it happens. This way, the horse is given a different behavior to practice, and what they practice is what they perfect. If your horse always slows down at the gate, asking them to speed up before the spot encourages them to stay engaged, maintain rhythm, and prevents me from having to get after them later. But if I miss this timing, I end up sucked into an argument about the gate and our speed, plus my horse has already been released for slowing down, reinforcing this behavior.
-is my technique effective? If you ask your horse to speed up, are your hands, hips, lower back, and legs allowing this to happen? If you ask your horse to slow down, are you in a position to support this?
-Am I rewarding the little tries? Too much correction can be discouraging. It’s easy to get caught up in worrying about what we don’t want the horse to do. How much of your ride is providing input on the what you DO want, and making that obvious? Before you ask your horse to go, do you have a direction, rhythm, and shape in mind? If you haven’t answered those questions before you ask your horse to go, and they answer them differently, it’s not very fair to correct them.
I try not to correct horses as often as possible. Horses who have learned to push or ignore sometimes need to run into a boundary they didn’t think was there, or be reminded of what you’re asking. Sometimes they need to know there are behaviors you won’t accept. But, the more I learn, the more I understand more often than not, most corrections were unnecessary, inappropriate, and unfair. I strive for better timing, achieving better direction, and setting the horse up to succeed in everything I do. It’s not just about making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard, but about making the right thing OBVIOUS.