What’s the difference between driving a car and riding a horse? Horse are biologically alive; they think, feel and react. They stay that way from birth to death. Cars are mechanically alive – their drivers do the thinking, feeling and reacting. They come alive only when the driver switches on the ignition. With the horse, you are a better rider if you take the trouble of familiarizing yourself with horse psychology. You are a better car driver if you familiarize yourself with car mechanics.
The similarity is that both horse and car can be whimsical!
The degree of personal attention you need to give to a horse is much higher than with a car. You need to understand their natural instincts and their social instincts and use that understanding to achieve maximum results when training them. You need to learn how to care for them, how to handle them – and easily the most important aspect – you need to be able to communicate on a two-way basis with them.
If your horse declines to proceed on the leg when you are riding, you have just opened up a communication gap. Your horse’s refusal to obey is the seed for continued disrespect, and this needs to be nipped in the bud. If you continue to squeeze hard with your legs, you are restricting your horse’s freedom of movement, and he will continue to resist you. You need to move forward in a way that achieves two things: assertion of your domination over your horse and recognition of your horse’s desire that you communicate with him in a way that is painless, secure and comfortable for both.
You must pay attention to the communication your horse is sending out to you. If he is facing discomfort – with a trailer, a float, something he sees ahead on the trail, your leg movements, your rein movements – he will let you know about it. If you react immediately and relieve him of his discomfort, you will not have lost anything. But if you ignore him, he is going to do whatever he considers necessary to get rid of the discomfort. That whatever may not quite be what you yourself would have deemed appropriate. When you compel your horse to seek his own solution instead of providing it for him, you are losing ground. You are losing your authority and your leadership. Worst of all, you are losing his trust and respect, and that is simply no way to maintain your position as his leader.
You must constantly work at building up the comfort zone you and your horse mutually share. You must keep the initiative and stay the leader. Part of that process involves constant attention to your horse’s genuine needs. His needs are not confined to his physical food, water and shelter requirements. They also include his psychological requirements – getting him to trust the trailer, letting him see that whatever lies ahead on the trail is actually something harmless, going easy with the legs and the reins.
Have you ever had occasion to envy the easy with which professional riders seem to communicate with their horses? It is based on mutual dependence and acceptance. In a professional event, the rider is incomplete without the horse, and it works the other way around, too. You can’t achieve that level of dependence and acceptance unless you are permanently alert to your horse’s well being.
You begin by asserting your leadership, and by achieving a very clear understanding with your horse that you give the cues and he executes them. This kind of understanding starts with training on the ground, and continues with training in the saddle. A horse is going to be perfectly amenable to your commands in the saddle only when he is perfectly amenable to them on the ground.
A strategy of punishment is not going to work, especially if it includes corporal punishment. The best way to punish a horse for failing to do something you want him to is to have him do it again… and again, till he gets it just right. Then you reward him with a treat. A strategy of rewards works great, as long as your horse understands that he is getting rewarded for getting things right.
An uncomfortable horse is going to be a poor follower. He won’t be focused on your commands, and that erodes your leadership. It is always going to be a hard fight to regain lost leadership initiative.
Be alert to the fact that horses are intuitive. They sense your mood, and they react accordingly. If your horse shies at some on the trail and you act nervous, he may take that as confirmation the object is dangerous and do something silly, like bucking or bolting. If you are calm, that is going to rub off on him.
Remember – you are the creature with reasoning power and initiative. You have the power to make an effort to understand him and working with him accordingly. You reach out to your horse without expecting it to be the other way around.
With every step of training that you and your horse complete successfully, you have reached the next level in your mutual communicative abilities.