In today’s fast paced world, many equestrians are being drawn back to the concept of developing an all-around horse – one that is willing and able to participate in anything from local horse shows to team penning events, trail rides, western dressage and perhaps even 4-H events.
What a great feeling it is to enjoy your equine partner while participating in whatever comes your way. An all-around partnership may not mean that you are always the best at a particular event, but sometimes a jack-of-all-trades is better than a master of one.
As a traveling horseman and clinician, it has been vital for me to help develop precisely these types of horses. Since I have the opportunity to work with riders of all breeds and disciplines, both Western and English, the horses I travel with must adapt to ever-changing environments and be able to demonstrate a vast array of manoeuvres and concepts.
As such, I aim to develop horses that are well-balanced both mentally and emotionally, while also physically ready for a wide variety of challenges. Through my work, I also strive to help riders become mentally, emotionally and physically balanced as well.
In this first article of this series, I will explain these qualities and how they affect the relationship between horse and rider. In future issues, I will delve more deeply into the steps I take to develop the true all-around horse and rider.
An Open Mind: Struggle is Necessary
While certain types of horses are expected to excel at certain events, horses that lack the conformation to do well in particular sports, yet are able to overcome their physical limitations with sheer mental determination, continually surprise me.
This leads to one of the key elements necessary to developing a successful all-around partnership: an open mind, or what I like to call ‘try’ in both horse and rider. Whether you specialize in one area with your horse or want an all-around horse, try is one of the most important qualities worth preserving.
But push a horse and rider too far and their confidence suffers. Fail to push a horse and rider enough and the result will be the same or worse. The key to success is a delicate balancing act.
Generally, it has been my experience that most horse and rider teams do not push themselves enough, and this often creates fear of the unknown. Sometimes, the best way to create try is to allow yourself and your horse to struggle at things for a little while. By allowing yourselves to make mistakes, to search and find the right answer, you build something worth searching for again. Confidence in eventual success creates ‘try.’
Keep in mind, however, that if you allow the horse to get lost too often without a final answer, yet still reward him, before long he will quit trying to find the answer you’re looking for. If you hold his hand too much and always provide the solution, you will likely create the same outcome. A balanced mix of both approaches is more likely to produce the desired result.
The Rider’s Responsibility
I have been fortunate to meet a vast assortment of horses and riders. In my experience, the most limiting factor in developing an all-around partnership has been the riders themselves.
Often, a rider will list 100 excuses why he or his horse cannot be as versatile or get as far as those with a go-for-it attitude who give things a try before coming up with an excuse. When a rider holds back, his or her energy often affects the horse and inadvertently creates an “I believe what you believe” mindset. Once again, it all comes down to try. If you will, your horse likely will too. I view the horse as an extension of the rider, which is why these pieces are equally important for the human half of the partnership.
As riders, we need to be mentally, emotionally and physically available to help our horses. It is all about balance – within ourselves first and then in both horse and rider combined.
The Horse: Develop the Mind
Another very important aspect of developing an all-around horse is to nurture his mind. It has many different layers that can be thought about and worked on. In this series, I will talk about the influence of respect and trust in regards to the decision making abilities of the horse.
As the rider, it is our responsibility to maintain a healthy level of respect and trust in the horse. Think of respect as willingness to listen to your requests, whereas trust is your horse’s unwavering belief that you will always keep him safe. There needs to be a balance between these two elements.
The Horse: Emotional Control
Emotional energy plays a vital role in the daily experiences you share with your horse. A highly emotional horse has a tendency to not be as focussed and, as such, can be difficult to control, whereas one lacking in this area can be hard to motivate. An example of a highly emotional horse might be a hot-blooded horse like an Arabian stallion, where a less emotional horse might be found in a cold-blooded horse like a draft-Appaloosa cross gelding.
A simple way to gauge emotional control and focus is to consider the amount of impulsion (forward momentum) your horse has, and the quality of his transitions. For example, on a loose rein you should be able to transition from a stop, to a walk, trot and canter and back down again without touching the reins by simply using your seat. This demonstrates that your horse is focused on you.
The Horse: Physical Control
This is the area where riders typically focus most of their time and energy. Although a very important aspect of creating a well-balanced horse, even highly trained horses can be difficult to control if mental and emotional characteristics have been overlooked.
When I think of having good physical control of a horse, I start by balancing the feet, meaning that I focus on developing a horse that can move his feet equally in all four directions – forward, backward, left and right.
To assess your own horse’s balance, compare leading your horse into his paddock versus backing him into it. A balanced horse would require the same amount of time whether he was being asked to walk forward or backward. An unbalanced horse will be quicker to lead and might struggle to back into the paddock.
The Rider: Think Outside the Box
An open mind, a laterally thinking mind and a problem-solving mind – these are important characteristics found in the all-round rider.
As humans, we tend to be linear thinkers. Instead, we have to become more open and learn to plan ahead. One way to put this into practice would be to opt to use more brain than brawn with your requests and try alternate approaches to your tasks.
If you are having trouble getting your horse to do a certain thing, rather than struggling repeatedly with the same approach, try causing the wrong thing to be difficult, while allowing the right thing to be easy, thereby encouraging your horse to make better decisions. This approach is often a better option than forcing something upon your horse. See Flipping the Pressure Zones for an example of this kind of thinking.
The Rider: Check Your Emotions
The best riders I work with tend to stay in a constant rhythmic motion with their horses, which is, in part, achieved by keeping their emotions in check and staying focussed in the moment. As the horse’s energy rises or falls, the rider adjusts to fit the situation. It is feel following feel, not an action causing a reaction.
The least successful riders tend to be very timid and withdrawn from the process of trying to get their horse to move with them. When something goes wrong, however, these riders are often the first to get overly upset, thereby putting an end to any hope of rhythmic motion.
The Rider: Physical Awareness
Riding horses takes a combination of strength and stamina, but also, and more importantly, feel, timing and balance. Taking the time to care for yourself and improve your own abilities will increase your likelihood of developing a better partnership with your horse. We often expect our horses to be evenly athletic on both sides – during lead changes, for example – yet how many among us can write legibly with both hands?
Riders also need to consider how a lack of physical balance and awareness can affect their horses. Consider this, for example: when your horse is sore, is it because of something he did to himself, or something you caused, due to our lack of feel and timing?
FLIPPING THE PRESSURE ZONES EXERCISE
Normally, when we are attempting to do something with horses that is challenging, such as loading onto a trailer, crossing water or even approaching a mounting block, we take our time approaching the obstacle, and the horse doesn’t feel pressure to act or comply with our request until he is right up close to the obstacle, because we don’t ask much of him until then. In this sense, the area up close is the “pressure” zone and the area away from the obstacle is the “release” zone.
If you have a horse that is difficult to load, for instance, why not try reversing the pressure and release zones? In diagram 1, the pressure zone is close to the obstacle – in this case, the trailer door. The pressure is released when the horse moves away from the obstacle – either by resisting, quitting or bolting. For the horse that doesn’t want to load, this confirms his thoughts: the best place to be is in the release zone – away from the trailer.
So, how do we create a positive change? We switch the pressure and release zones and follow diagram 2 instead. When the horse is away from the trailer create pressure by moving his feet. Send him in a circle, back him up – anything to keep his feet busy will work. When he is in the release zone, stop asking him to move. The equation is simple: the horse will always seek release as a primary form of reward. It may take time to achieve the result you are after, but the idea is to create a rhythm of pressure and release, until your horse seeks and discovers the answer to the challenge. The key is in the concept, not just in the accomplishment.
Using this method you will learn to go with your horse (out away from the obstacle), and then your horse will learn to go with you (near the obstacle). In no time at all you will both learn to go together, as a team.
*Note: It is recommended to have your trailer or other obstacles in an enclosed arena with safe footing, for the first few sessions.
INTRODUCING STEVE ROTHER
Steve Rother is an internationally acclaimed horsemanship clinician and the winner of numerous Trainer’s Challenges.
Known as The Horse Teacher, Steve is dedicated to working with horse enthusiasts who strive to educate themselves as they develop a partnership with their horses, regardless of their chosen discipline.
Steve conducts horsemanship clinics throughout the USA and Canada and also at his ranch, The School of Horse, located in northeastern Washington State. His Excel with Horses club and various DVD series provide students with an interactive home-study program, designed to allow participants to advance their horsemanship goals.