DON’T DIG HOLES - FOR YOU OR YOUR HORSE!!!
I’ve been taking a friend out recently to help her bring on her young horse, accompanying them with an experienced older horse so they can see the world. I’ve done this A LOT over the years, and also been riding the youngster whilst someone else rides the older horse to help me. What I’m noticing is how many details you can be aware of in bringing on a horse and showing it the outside world and how with knowledge, experience and, dare I say it - hindsight - you can save yourself and your horse a lot of little niggles and problems, basically by avoiding digging holes - big or small - that will later require tons of unnecessary work. What I try to do is think about the big picture, the long-term building of confidence and trust, which means avoiding using pressure as much as possible and instead being mindful and relying on mine and the horse’s intelligence to work things out.
Examples of this which I have found to be ‘good practise’ are things such as dismounting on the way home, at least a half a kilometre or so before getting home. Every time! That means the horse never gets ridden home to the stables, so the habit of rushing home with you on board is usually avoided altogether.
Other little practises of the same ilk are to choose faster paces away from home and slower ones when heading homeward, however far from home you might actually be at any given moment. Of course once your horse is well established you can and should be able to go any speed anywhere in any direction and still have the horse ’underneath you.’
Avoiding the creation of a jogging habit is another one… If the older, more flexible horse walks out too fast for the youngster then the youngster jogs and jiggles to catch up. Far better to work as a team and have the older horse wait for the youngster to catch up whilst at the same time help the youngster to figure out how to swing more in the walk which, I have to say, cannot be pushed. Another way of helping a youngster not to flop forwards into jogging is to keep a slight, passive soft bend in the rein on the stiffer side of the horse (usually the left) when I can feel they would like to start that jiggly stuff.
We crossed a stream for the first time with the youngster a couple of days ago. She’s from a dry area of the country and never been over water so she got well stuck and, at one point, tried to turn and run. I did what we always do, which is to ride the old horse ‘under the nose’ of the youngster in a small circle, creating a flow of energy behind the old horse’s tail which the youngster naturally picked up and followed through the water. Nice, easy and non-confrontational. The next day the youngster crossed with confidence.
Not using stronger aids to put the youngster under pressure is another example that cropped up recently: she didn't want to leave the yard and was even backing up. Instead of using a stronger leg, which makes her resist more and become more tense, I ‘scooped’ her up with the older horse again to help her follow. What has worked equally well in similar scenarios is to nonchalantly dismount and lead the horse for a while, thereby creating a different story and successful outcome from which you and the horse have a positive experience. Contrary to people’s assertion, it is not a ‘failure’ to dismount and lead for a while - especially if done as though you were planning to do it anyway - it is a wise way to get what you want without any negative interactions between you and the horse… I may use the same casual ‘dismount and lead’ idea if a young horse is really afraid of passing something: I rode a youngster along a narrow ledge above a steep drop used by tourists once and a lady with a kid’s buggy came along. It seemed a prudent moment to dismount and lead passed the scary object - not least because that horse had previously jumped off a ledge with me and I could feel her fear rising. After that calm experience she was cool with baby buggies forever.
Routine is another tool that can work for and against the rider and its also something we’ve been thinking about with this young horse. If you do the same thing three times with a horse it will learn it as a habit: in my early riding years I went out with a friend who’s two horses ALWAYS galloped a particular stretch of Windsor Great Park and, as soon as we hit that patch of green they were gone! I’m fortunate to live in a National Park with miles of riding options so we can go a different way every day, but even if your choice of routes to ride is limited you can still look for ways to alter things each time, perhaps by choosing to walk in a place where you trotted or cantered the day before.