“The conversation between rider…and horse is never-ending; always, during every stride, the rider asks little questions. The horse may query, the rider will explain, then the horse understands and improves his answers day by day, until gradually the mutual conversation reaches higher and higher levels and becomes more interesting, light, and pleasant for both participants.” – Henry Wynmalen
There may be an instructor (someone who tells you what to do) or a teacher (someone who guides you with explanation in doing things) on the ground giving you riding lessons. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, you are the teacher for the horse. You are the only one physically and mentally connected with the horse. It is you who interprets and translates what the instructor/teacher, is saying to you and it is you alone, who conveys it to the horse. So, as much as you may not want to be, you are the teacher.
Responsibility and Accountability
You and only you are responsible for the development of the horse – to improve and build up his physical condition, to increase his understanding of what you want him to do (which involves you having clarity of thought and purpose in order to give the horse direction), and to develop in him a genuine desire to work for you.
You and you alone are accountable for all his actions and behaviors –good or bad. You may love your horse all you want to (and you should) but horses want and respond to someone who is a leader and in whom they can trust (meaning, by my definition, not being afraid) and respect to help them build up their confidence and understanding.
A great riding master once said “Horses go as they are ridden”. Another said “We ride like who we are”. So make yourself worthy of the horse and give him your very best effort each day you are with him – he deserves it and you owe it to him!
Make Yourself Worthy of the Horse
You can make yourself worthy of the horse by committing yourself to improving yourself. Horses are extremely sensitive and are like vacuums. They will absorb whatever feelings, emotions, thoughts, mental issues, physical imbalances etc. you bring to them each day which will be returned to you immediately and, in turn, will affect your relationship either positively or negatively.
You must develop emotional stability and calmness, improve your physical fitness and sharpen up your mental alertness and concentration so that the horse will be able to operate efficiently and effectively with a calm mind. In the words of an old song: “You got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don’t mess with mister in-between.”
The horse you mount will not be the same horse you dismount from. He will be better or worse but he will not be the same. So you have a choice. You can either step up to the plate and do your very best each day or sit in the dugout and do little or nothing. If you choose the former there will be days of strike-outs, hits and misses with an occasional home run but you will still be in the game. If you chose the latter (no hits, no runs, no errors – but you will be safe) you will be cheating not only yourself but more importantly the horse, and that is the worst of all.
Cheating the Horse
How do you cheat the horse you might ask? By not developing him correctly and making him physically fit. Do not confuse being healthy with fitness. Health is a result of taking good care of the horse by feeding him the correct type and amount of food, looking after his feet and teeth, having regularly scheduled vet care for shots and parasite prevention, and bathing him when required. But having done all that you could still end up with a horse that is not physically fit and/or correctly developed (two different things) to perform and sustain the demands you place on them.
Like humans, horses tend to use their strengths and protect their weaknesses. This means that the strong parts tend to get overused and overdeveloped and sometimes the human adds to the problem by constantly favoring one side of the horse over the other when riding – because it goes easier.
The Value of Gymnastic Work
The whole purpose of doing gymnastic work with the horse is to regulate the parts of the horse, more precisely, its skeletal frame. In order to do this you must first be able to loosen the muscles that move those parts so we can direct them and fix the asymmetries in the horse so he becomes equally developed on both sides.
This means building up his muscles so he gains strength and suppleness in order to relieve the burden on his tendons, ligaments and joints. The result is that he increases his ability to respond to your signals and meet all of your requests equally well – and as an added bonus it has obvious safety consequences.
That having been said, the common dominator with all sizes and shapes of horses is that they all need a rational gymnastic plan to move their parts and direct their minds. In other words, when gymnastic development of the horse is pursued by you with diligence his accuracy, obedience and his performance and safety will improve as he becomes more physically able to comply with your signals. Then you can use their talents to the fullest.
This means that developing a horse’s full athletic potential begins with identifying any tendencies to move irregularly, right down to how each foot operates in each stride, i.e. alignment with each of the other feet, placement on the ground relative to the movement requested, length of stride, and regularity of footfall in each gait. Inconsistencies in the basic footfall can almost always be traced to some physical limitation which can be identified both visually from the ground and felt while riding.
Develop a Plan
After identifying the problem areas then a plan can be developed setting out what particular gymnastically beneficial exercises are best suited for the problem and therefore should be used in order to strengthen the weak parts of the horse. However; an important element in all this is to not focus so much on what you do with the horse but rather focus on how the horse is doing it, i.e., his correct structural alignment and placement of the feet.
So through these developmental exercises, as the horse’s spine gains in suppleness and strength, he will be able to perform movements with more balance as well as with speed and fluidness. An indication that the horse is gaining suppleness and strength in his topline is how elastically his back, neck, and poll can transmit his body’s forward motion to the bit without leaning on it for support.
It is important to recognize that the degree to which you correctly explain what you desire from the horse in the beginning of the schooling process will have either a positive or negative effect on his physical and mental being for the rest of his life.
Subjects such as getting the horse to understand the meaning of the five rein effects (and their infinite combinations), subtle weight shifts of your body, stirrup stepping, leg use (pressure, duration, location, timing) make up the foundation for the horse’s educational development. All the natural talent in the world is of limited value if you don’t understand technique and the correct use of your equipment before you embark on your teaching journey.
Horses as well as teachers/riders both need a sufficient storehouse of technique in order to fully develop together as a team. One without the other will diminish the value of the partnership.
Therefore, as both the teacher of the horse as well as a student of the horse, it behooves one to accumulate the necessary knowledge before the schooling occurs – not during or after it. In other words, you will be doomed to mediocrity without a solid base of knowledge.
Four Stages of a Plan
Any good plan should be well thought out and presented in a logical, progressive manner to the horse. This plan can be broken down usually into three distinct periods of time (there may be a fourth one for some of the more recalcitrant horses and this one will be the forerunner to the others) which will look something like this:
- The Persuasion Period – getting the horse to the point where he wants to hang around to be trained. This period is usually reserved for ‘tough’ horses. For these cases, when you are finished persuading him to hang around the rest of the stages will go more smoothly
- The Learning Period – this is where you start to train the horse to learn how to learn. This is usually the beginning one for normal horses.
- The Practicing Period – this is the repetition phase, and it is critical to the horse retaining what you are teaching him. Repetition est mater studiorum (translation: Repetition is the mother of learning)
- The Development Period – This is where you start to improve the fundamentals to a higher level of understanding
End Result of Executing the Plan
The end result from all your hard work should be what a good horseman would refer to as having a broke horse or what others would label a well-schooled general utility horse. The horse would exhibit the following qualities:
- It would be able to fluently move the hindquarters around its front end and the front end around its hindquarters
- It would move smoothly in a forward-lateral manner; commonly referred to as a leg-yield or a full side pass
- It can move all its parts when requested without reluctance or resistance, e.g., sideways, forward, back, stop instantly when asked
- It would be balanced in that it would weigh the same on both ends
- It would give the impression of “breaking in the rib cae”
- It would be able to do flying lead changes in either direction
- It would carry its face at or a little in front of the vertical
- It would willingly move away from the leg at the slightest indication
- It would be able to step away from the bend as well as step into the bend
- It would move away from the outside rein
- Its shoulders can be regulated, both laterally and longitudinally
- It can flex at the poll; not as is generally seen behind the poll
- It can flex at its loin
- The weight of its head and neck would be on top of its front legs, not in front of them
- It would willingly accept training
- It would follow directions and take instruction
- It would patiently ‘wait’
- It would hunt for peace and not look to get into a fight
A Cautionary Note
A word of caution is warranted here. Namely that the development of the horse is not a casual deal and that always being easy on the horse under the mistaken notion that he needs a rest or a soft place to go after a few minutes of schooling is, in the long run, doing more harm than good to the horse. Horses don’t improve when given time off. They improve with consistent, deliberate practice with you doing a little bit often and not a whole lot seldom. If you don’t ever ask much of the horse, you won’t get much back in return either.
So in order to help the horse you must reach beyond your grasp and be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Your confidence level can only grow when you step over the line and into that other place where new knowledge is waiting for you.
If you practice what is uncomfortable for you until it is not, then the new experience and knowledge can become an expanded part of your working repertory, and you will have more freedom to continue on and grow. Many times, freedom is just over the walls we build around ourselves and are then too afraid to climb over.
But, this is not to say that all will be smooth sailing. There will be days or maybe even weeks of teeth-clinching, nail-biting, hair-pulling, head-banging utter exasperation, but that is alright and is to be expected. That is part of the growing and learning process. You just need to be persistent, insistent, and consistent in your work. Remember where knowledge ends, frustration begins followed shortly thereafter by force and/or violence.
Prerequisites to be a Good Teacher
So what does it take to be a good teacher? To be a good teacher you must, first of all, have the desire to be one. You must want to be good both in your mind and in your heart. And then you must pay the price – and keep on paying the price. You must study and work hard and never become complacent, because the worst kind of teacher is the one who believes that they can never be taught anything more.
A good teacher is one who always remains a student so that they can become a better teacher. Further, a good teacher takes the wider view. This means exploring all disciplines in their particular field (horses in this case) in order to glean the best from each one of them for incorporation into their own methodology of teaching. If you, the teacher, lack the needed depth of knowledge then you won’t understand the horse’s problem and you’ll end up not being able to help him.
And finally, as always for a good teacher, your approach to and presentation of the subject matter to the student is of critical importance as it will determine the success or failure of what you are teaching.
Ride the Horse You Have
When all is said and done the reality is that riding is essentially a physical, practical endeavor and must be practiced with diligence. You must ride (and teach) the actual horse you are riding on, not some imaginary one in the textbook. Because when you are on the back of a horse everything happens for real, in real time, and very quickly, so you also have to act quickly, and in an appropriate way, otherwise you will cause or worsen the problem.
This scenario is continuous; the horse looks to the rider (you as the teacher) for leadership – and if the leader (you) doesn’t help, then both are in trouble. So both theoretical knowledge and practical experience must be sound and consolidated if you, the teacher, want to succeed. Hans van Manen said it best when he said, “It is hard not to act, but it is easy not to educate”.
Perhaps, after reading this, you may decide that with a little luck everything will work out – and I agree with you. But what is your definition of luck? If you can’t clearly articulate what luck is, let me help you by closing this article with my personal definition of luck:
L – Lots of hard work
U – Understanding what it will take to get what you want
C – Combining a commitment to excellence with concentration of thought and
correct coordination of signals
K – Knowing what you want to begin with
“To be successful the rider must be able to distinguish between cause and effect. The effect will be easy to see, but the cause will be recognized only through knowledge, which is supplied by theory.” – Alois Podhajsky