Too often I have seen riders and even trainers continue to relentlessly do the same thing over and over without ever achieving any different results. People get stuck in patterns of doing what they know and are comfortable with. The problem arises in that horses are unique individuals. Just because something works with most horses, doesn’t mean it will work with all horses. Also horses, like people, will change day to day depending on the mood they are in, the weather, their surroundings, etc. and something that worked yesterday, may not work today.
The key is flexibility and the ability to recognize when something isn’t working. Now that’s not to say that if something doesn’t work the first time, it’s never going to work. Training does take repetition and consistency, but you should see progress. If there is never any progress, then it is time to change tactics. Often times people are afraid to try something different. What if it doesn’t work? Well…if what you are already doing isn’t working, then what have you got to lose but maybe some wasted time. And who knows, maybe it will work.
Most of the time a horse misbehaves because it is either in pain, is scared, or does not understand what is expected of it. If pain is the reason then your first priority needs to be eliminating what is causing the pain. If the horse is scared, you need to back up and work on something the horse is more comfortable with, then gradually ask more of it until you achieve the desired results while at the same time ensuring that the horse stays calm throughout the entire process. If the horse is confused (most often the case), you need to find a way to explain what you want. This often means asking in a different way or breaking it down into simpler steps that the horse can understand.
For example, if your horse bucks every time you put your leg on, continuing to kick the horse with your spur while the horse continues to buck is just not a smart way of training. You need to stop and figure out why the horse is bucking. Is he in pain? Is he scared? Or is he confused? Maybe he doesn’t understand what it means when you put your leg on. Maybe he hasn’t learned to move willingly forward (this should be taught on the ground first).
This is one reason why working with a good trainer is so important. Trainers have worked with a large number of horses and have an arsenal of different ideas to try.
I have an Arabian I am working with that has a tendency to cross canter while being lunged. I have had to get creative with my lunging and deviate from how I normally lunge horses. I’ve recently completely changed the way I lunge her in effort to eliminate the cross cantering. Will it work? Time will tell. What I do know is this: continuing to lunge her in a way that causes her to cross canter is not going to teach her to canter correctly.
Another horse I’m working with, a Paint gelding, has really struggled with learning the shoulder-in. Physically he is more than capable of performing the movement, but he had developed a mental block. A naturally nervous horse already, he would lock his jaw and brace his neck. So I went back to the basics- teaching him to yield to the bit and soften his jaw when I applied pressure to the bit. I did this for several sessions, first on the ground and then under saddle. When he had a firm understanding of the concept, I asked for the shoulder in again. And guess what? He went right into it.
So the moral of the story is to be flexible when working with horses. Remember that things change, and you need to be able to adapt and flow. Most importantly: if something isn’t working…change what you are doing!
To learn more about how to achieve a better relationship with your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about French Classical Dressage training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!