Glitches in the training ring or show ring can usually be sourced to communication issues: mixed messages or muffled cues.
When I started to study the science about horse behaviour and learning, it confirmed many things I’d discovered by trial and error as a coach and trainer. Learning WHY gave substance to the HOW. And to be honest, I encountered evidence that changed my mind about some of the ways I understood and trained horses!
- The horse doesn’t understand the cue and the rider assumes he does. “He should know better!” “He never does this at home!” Our goals, traditions and time limits can influence riders to force the horse into our human mold. To convince ourselves that the horse shares our goals or thinks like a human. But what’s it like to be a HORSE?
- Noisy signals and conflicting aids from the rider. As the song says, The ankle bone’s connected to the knee bone, connected to the hip bone…Developing independent, intentional use of each aid is key to clear conversations with our horses.
- Vagueness. I often ask riders to describe their cues out loud. For example what is the precise signal you use to ask your horse to accelerate? Or your aid for a canter departure? If my student struggles to put it into words, she’s likely sending a fuzzy message to her equine partner. Teaching has made me more intentional in my own riding. Carefully thinking through and verbalizing (without horse-trainer jargon), exactly how I ask a horse to do this or that, in a way the rider can replicate.
- Emotions. As in any human misunderstanding, when we’re angry or nervous we don’t say the things we mean. When a horse is worked up, he can’t focus on the rider’s aids. Sometimes he can’t even feel them. When the rider is exasperated or anxious his signals become abrupt or clutching. Take a deep breath or a time out.
- . Over-concentration. Riveted on a pattern or distracted with navigating arena “traffic”, a rider may be unaware her right heel is laying on the horse’s side, or one rein is elevated. Cycle your attention from the task to what your body’s communicating to your horse and back to the task.
Much horse show frustration arises due to differences in perspective between rider and horse!