Do you ever get on a horse only to wonder if you are the teacher or the student? Sometimes the horse poses such an interesting challenge that you may feel as if you are listening harder than the horse is; trying to figure out how to make the horse understand you. Other times, we are so sure of ourselves, so sure of our plan and approach that it takes a drastic move from the horse to make us realize we do not have all of the answers. In fact, you realize you missed the question all together.
That is the lure of riding horses – the never ending search for the perfect ride. In reality, we know there is no such thing. It is the journey, the pursuit that pays dividends. Only the best riders can bring out the best of each individual they are privileged to sit atop. But the quest is there for all to enjoy and nothing feels better than when you and your partner get on the same page.
Learning to listen to your horse is part of becoming a better horseman. Sometimes when a horse is struggling in their development or even with something they have done well in the past, it is related to pain. You must first rule pain out before determining a course of action. Most of the time, the way the horse resists tells you where you are lacking.
For instance, you are attempting to leg yield to the left laterally moving the horse left at the jog or canter, using a right leg and a heavier right rein over the left rein, and the horse throws his head up and pushes his rib cage and hip to the right. Obviously, the horse doesn’t get it. But how do you make it clear? Go back to the beginnings.
It is unclear on paper to determine whether the horse is resisting the leg or the combination of your hand and leg being used together to collect for the maneuver. However, the solution is the same for both: slow down.
- Return to a walk then collect the horse in your hands as if you were asking for the lateral movement.
- Keep flagging your leg to continue the forward momentum of the walk – do not yet ask for lateral movement.
- Stop and perform a turn on the forehand off of the right leg (you are dealing with resistance off the right side moving leftward in our example).
- Turn 180 degrees. Continue at the walk on a loose rein for 10-20 steps.
- Collect the walk for 5 steps.
- Stop and side pass to the left keeping both front and hind legs moving together, (instead of moving the front legs left followed by the hind legs or vice versa).
- Keep the side pass fluid. If the horse struggles, face a fence or wall as described below.
- Return to the walk on a loose rein for 10-20 steps. Close your rein and leg to collect the walk for 5 steps.
- Ask for the lateral movement at the walk keeping the front and hind legs moving forward for one step and laterally for one step.
- Return to the walk
The above exercise prepares the horse for the collection needed by collecting at the walk. Collecting at the walk allows you to determine if it is act of collecting that the horse is resisting. If that is the case, you will meet resistance here – do not proceed until the horse understands that when you close your hands and legs and ask for the horse to break at the pole, he must give. Continue to flag your leg as you ask for collection pressing and releasing as you ask for the horse to give his head.
If the horse collects easily but roots his nose as you ask for the turn on the forehand, he is resisting the leg asking for lateral movement. Use the turn on the forehand and the side pass to lighten the horse and make it clear the direction the hip and body should go in response to your leg and hand.
Again, use a press and release with your leg. If your horse does not understand stand facing a fence or wall. Tip the horse’s nose to the right then apply the right leg and ask for the horse to move his hip to the left until the horse is parallel to the wall. Walk forward a few steps then stop and ask for a 180 degree turn on the forehand to the left, tipping the horse’s nose to the left and using your left leg to move the horse’s hip to the right.
The fence can help teach the horse to side pass as well. Stand facing the wall or fence and ask the horse to move sideways to the right a few steps then rest 10 seconds and ask for a side pass to the left. The fence will help the horse understand the lateral nature of the movement. After finding success at the fence return to the open field in the middle of the arena.
Now you are ready to try the leg yield at the trot or canter again. Each time you meet resistance, take the horse back to the basic elements of the maneuver you are asking for. Then return adding impulsion slowly to ensure the horse understands with forward movement.
Riding leaves us in a constant state of reaching for answers. Horses never stop challenging us whether by their behavior or the fears the horse makes us confront. To be a good teacher, you must also be a good student. And all trainers, riders and showmen are teachers if they are to find success on a horse.