Willfully Guided

 Zach trot cropDoes your horse understand the difference between punishment and discipline? Do you, as a rider, understand the difference between the two? Horses and riders often get confused between what is discipline and what is punishment. While some horses cannot understand the distinction between the two, most can and the resulting difference in their reaction is night and day.

One instills fear evoking reactions from the horse that are fear based and the other furthers your communication, fine tuning the horse’s training. One creates more problems, spooking, overreaction, kick-outs, running off, and the other creates confidence, better departures, more seamless transitions and lighter aids.

Often riders do not intend to punish the horse but their actions scare or hurt the horse because they are too fast or too harsh. Everyone has ridden some very dull or hard mouthed horses; maybe an old school horse comes to mind. The hard mouth is usually the result of repeatedly being ridden with the heavy hands or in the case of school horses, the result of riders balancing off the horse’s mouth.

Fear based reactions result when a horse is jerked or spurred inappropriately, too hard or when whipped repeatedly on the ground. The reactions are distinctly different when discipline turns to punishment. The horse learns to fear punishment from the handler without making a mental connection back to any particular behavior.

Unfortunately, the only way for riders to gauge their reprimand is by the horse’s reaction. Through experience riders learn to correctly read how much pressure a horse needs prior to disciplining the horse. Often riders feel as though they have mere seconds to make a correction and overcorrect based on a sense of panic for time. This is not true.  Like a good driver, a good rider foresees changing conditions and responds with timely adjustments.

Gauge your level of success by the horse’s reaction. If it seems that each time you have to pull harder perhaps like the school horse, you are making your horse’s mouth hard by repeatedly checking without giving the horse clear reward for his response. If your horse’s behavior escalates, he or she isn’t getting it, find another way to get your point across; change directions, go into a circle, gallop and make the horse work a little harder or put the horse back on the longe line.

For instance, your horse wants to look off in a corner of the arena. You respond by checking hard on his the inside rein while spurring to get his attention back on you. Next time around the horse sticks his head straight up in the air, gets stiff and scoots forward. You have taught the horse to fear your leg and hand in that particular spot of the arena when your goal was to keep his attention on you.

Judging from the horse’s reaction, you overdid it. Next time, back off on the pressure or use a different technique to keep the horse’s attention on you. In this instance, cut the corner so you have a reason to be in the horse’s mouth a little harder and you literally turn the horse away from the distraction.

As with all aspects of riding, the best discipline happens as a course of natural progression. You feel the horse drifting to the left and close your left leg and rein in response while tapping on the right side to bring his attention back to the right. With practice, and confidence, your leg naturally closes the gap and your hands quietly redirect the horse on the correct path. When the horse fails to respond to your cue, you become more direct in your methodology. Always reward with a release for good response – do not wait for perfect behavior before you reward your horse. Remember, rewarding does not mean giving it all away; it is simply a release of pressure in return for a proper response from the horse. Your hand and leg should never be out of the loop.

You and your horse must move in concert. This is again why it is important to practice and drill the basics. Becoming proficient with fundamental riding skills brings you closer to your horse. Your ultimate goal as a rider is to read, react and correct errors before they occur. This happens only after some cues become automatic, like closing your left leg along with your left rein when you feel the horse leaning to the left.

Training fear is fast and easy with immediate results although without understanding. Take a moment, rethink what is happening, slow it down and pay attention to the details of your horse’s response to your actions. The National Reining Horse Association has a great description for its reiners: “The best reined horse should be willfully guided….”

Most horses have the ability to determine when they have done something wrong and make the link between their behavior and the resulting reprimand. Teach your horse to respect you and he will allow himself to be “willfully guided”. Good Luck and have fun – horses are the best teachers.

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