Do You Play The Reacting Game?
While conducting clinics and working with riders it is overwhelmingly common that many people share the same concern, and in some cases severe anxiety, over how their horse behaves. They are all reacting to what the horse is doing and what the horse might possibly do. A saying I repeat over and over again when working with nervous riders and their unfocused horse is this: if you want the horse to focus, you must give them something to focus on. This will break the cycle of the Reacting game.
The scene goes something like this; you go to the barn with the intention of having a nice relaxed ride on your trusty steed. You catch the horse from the pasture, and after tacking up the horse, you leave the barn to begin your ride. However, because the last time you rode this horse, with his unfocused nervous energy, you had a less than enjoyable ride, you just assume that is basically the same ride you will experience today as well. So this begins the cycle of the REACTING game. In this game you become a forecaster that can predict what is going to happen. Why? Because history repeats itself and because that is how the game is being played, unknowingly, by you.
The relationship between horse and handler must have a leader. Regarding our relationship with our horses, the leader will either be you, or it will be the horse. In most cases the horse prefers that they are not the leader, that is their nature. Horses are not generally gifted leaders. Leadership is not forcing the horse but rather being the partner that the horse naturally wants to follow. This creates a two way street of trust, a true partnership with all strengths being utilized to form a bonded team.
Horses in a herd setting have the leadership role clearly defined. They don’t question if it is Johnny, Blaze or them. They know who it is because it has been clearly established beforehand. Leadership gets established by the dominant horse forcing the subordinates to move their feet, controlling the subordinate’s feet both in speed and direction. This is the same psychology we need to replicate to establish leadership to our horse.
The problem often times is that if we as the leader allow the horse to dictate when, where and how fast they move their feet, we have allowed the roles to reverse and we are no longer being an effective leader. We are simply following the horse’s lead or reacting to them.
Here is how to become an effective leader, start with a goal. Begin with the mindset that first off you have to be the one filling the leadership role. Then keep in mind your goal and what it takes to accomplish that goal. Maybe it’s a particular maneuver, or maybe it’s just a nice relaxed ride on the trail. Either way, have a goal in mind. Next, remember the concept that if you want the horse to focus, you have to give him something to focus on. As soon as you get on, start by working on something; turn left or right, stop, back up, turn some, and then turn some more, do some speed transitions, etc. The point is simply to make the horse move his feet in a controlled way. Remember that the way you get connected to a horse’s brain is through their feet. Now, after having moved their feet, allow them to show if they have begun to gain some focus. Do they seem more relaxed and focused? More than likely, if you have made the horse move their feet enough in a controlled manner, both of you will begin to gain focus and this helps to relax you both. Remember success builds confidence. If the horse still lacks the desired amount of focus then get those feet moving again in that controlled manner until they are focused. The key is to make them move their feet in a controlled manner, not just to run them until they are tired. By working on specific maneuvers the horse now is waiting for the next cue from you.
Now that the horse is focusing on you and patiently waiting for your direction you are ready to begin your trail ride. Whenever I ride, it is on a loose and relaxed rein. My expectation is that the horse remains relaxed and focused on me and what the next request might be from me. Any time I feel the horse begin to get tense or nervous about anything I simply go back and give the horse something to focus on again by moving their feet. For instance, if we are amongst trees I will use the trees as a focus point to help teach my horse to turn better, become softer and more controlled. If in a field or meadow, we may work on our speed transitions, both up and down; or perhaps even using fallen logs to teach the horse to watch where and how they place their feet. Again, simply give them something to focus on. Not only is my horse learning focus but he is learning to control his body at the same time. This is the process of establishing to the horse just who the leader is. Once a horse clearly identifies you as a competent leader they will begin to want to follow you as they trust your judgment. They will begin to trust that you will lead them through the times that they are unsure of, or even in the scary situations you both may encounter.
We all want a calm and willing partner. The horse doesn’t want to be ruled by anxiety or nervousness. We owe it to ourselves and to our horses to be the leader that our horse needs. The problem is that most people never ask or expect much of anything from their horse. When we ask more of our horse it requires us to ask more of ourselves. Being the leader is hard in the short term, however once learned, it becomes fun and much easier in the long-term.