The Failed Art of Riding a Horse Through a Problem


I find that typically when someone has an issue with a horse and I ask how they deal with it, the answer is usually they “ride them through it” or “work through it”, etc.  This is one of the biggest horsemanship mistakes I work with these days. “Working through” problems will usually come to a head when the horse will finally out maneuver you with his speed, strength or intelligence.

The real source is usually a lack of education, discomfort or confusion on the horses’ side. The human has a clear understanding of what they want the horse to do but often it is not clearly understood by the horse. My way of helping people understand the horses’ perspective is an example when teaching someone a skill. Let’s say a child is learning addition. You ask the child “what is 2+2?” The child hesitates and then says the answer is 3. Most people will tell the child, “No, that’s not right, the answer is 4.” What usually happens next is they ask another question like “what is 2+3?” Again you don’t get a right answer, you tell the child the correct answer and then you ask another question. This type of work, doesn’t teach the child how to do math, in fact, it teaches a child that he’s wrong a lot of the time. When they feel like they are wrong a lot, they lose confidence in their ability to do math. A better approach is to go back and teach the child how to add, using props so he can use his basic skill of counting for example. Teach them how to solve their own problems by giving them the tools they need.

Working with horses is very similar. We have goals for our horses, we want them to usually do a specific discipline and we don’t have a lot of extra time to spend. So we get on our horse and work on our event that we want to do. When we first start riding the horse we work on some basics, when they do the basic thing, most people do the next basic thing. But the question is does your horse know how to do the thing you want him to do, or are you just giving him the answer so you can go to the next thing? Let’s break down steering at the stands still. Does your horse know that when you lightly pick up on the left rein that he should bend to the left without hesitation or resistance? Can he repeat the behavior at any time without hesitation? If not, chances are, you are giving him the answer when he is wrong rather than working on the question until he can’t get it wrong.

My favorite saying is “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.” When you practice with your horse and have to give him answers, he will not be confident, comfortable or understanding of your requests. Furthermore, if you then ask him a harder question, he will feel more insecure, uncomfortable and confused than he did on the “easier” question. But if you “take the time it takes, it takes less time” approach, the horse will know exactly what you want, when you want it, and will feel confident and understanding of what is expected of him. A confident horse is more likely to put out extra effort because he knows he gets rewarded for trying.

So what does giving a horse answers look like? When a horse is acting out in fear, frustration, anxiety, aggression, worry, etc they tend to have habits of bucking, rearing, bolting, spooking, balking, jigging, etc when you work with them. Most horses that have problematic behaviors are really just showing symptoms of not being educated well enough. When we take the time it takes, the horse will know what you want and be willing to do what you ask. Comes down to making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult without being passive or abusive towards the horse.

Next time you work with your horse, take note of any undesirable behavior. If your horse is distracted or spooky when you first get on him, he’s telling you he needs to have further education. If every day, you have to lunge your horse to get the fresh off him, he’s telling you he’s missing something. If your horse is lazy or rushes under saddle, he’s telling you he needs some work to fix that. Ultimately, a well-trained horse is a balanced horse. A horse that is responsive to your aids but relaxed about the job you are doing. You can ask him to work in lots of environments without needing to do remedial work. By skipping the little signs your horse gives you, you are giving up so many opportunities to educate them better. Good horsemanship is a journey not a race, there is not finish line because you can always improve on yourself and your horse(s).

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