Make your horse an easier ride with these training tips
I have a novice horse for sale, and a lovely young adult came to try him on Saturday. I got on the horse first, as customary, to put the horse through his paces and show he can perform as advertised. He was a little distracted during the first few minutes of warmup, but he eventually settled and showed a pretty good walk, trot, and canter. I hopped him over a few low fences, and then the potential buyer was ready to give him a try. I advised her that he was pretty straightforward, ride leg-to-hand, with light, small aids.
She struggled a little bit to figure him out, and the horse was working to understand her style as well. She carried a bit more tension in her arms than the horse is used to, and he reacted by flipping his head and bouncing on and off the contact. After some circles, she managed to ride him steadier and had some lovely moments. As she finished, she looked at me and commented, “You make him look SO EASY! He is not an easy horse at all! I don’t mean that in a bad way– he isn’t difficult, but I thought you were just sitting there.”
As a seller, it’s not reassuring when a potential buyer says your horse “isn’t easy.” As a rider, though, it’s a nice compliment. It isn’t the first time I’ve heard that, either… quite a few other times, trying to sell other horses, I’ve had riders tell me I make it look too easy and they are shocked that the horse isn’t as push-button as I made him seem.
Isn’t it supposed to look easy, though? Isn’t that the point of riding, to make something difficult appear simple? To make it look like the horse is practically performing on its own? Of course we all know riding isn’t easy, but some horses make the job less work than others.
As I was hacking horses today (including the sale horse…he hasn’t sold just yet, though the young lady would like to see him again) I thought about what I do that must make it look easy. I think the most important thing is that my horses respond to small aids. I rarely have to yank, pull, kick, or make big motions with my body. Most of my horses are quite sensitive, and closing my fingers or lightly squeezing my calf is all it takes to influence their way of going.
How do you train your horse to respond to small aids? First, they have to be in front of your leg. A dull horse behind the leg will always look like work! Your horse should “shout” a response to a quiet “whisper” of your leg. You may have to use a whip or some big thumping kicks to reinforce that light leg aid (see the “Sensitizer Test”). Similarly, your horse should respect your hand and seat: slowing the motion of your elbow or seat should inspire the horse to slow down, before you ever have to use your hands. David O’Connor is a big proponent of riding the horse off your seat. Starting at the walk, use your seat to influence the horse’s length of stride, and teach him to halt by stopping the motion. Build on this at trot and canter, so that you can use less hand or leg to stop and go.
When your horse fully understands and responds to the aids, there is still something important in the “easy” equation: timing and feel. This is probably what separates the wheat from the chaff among riders. Can you FEEL when to use your aids? Timing is important; the horse cannot respond promptly if you ask at the wrong moment of the stride. “Feel” also includes catching minor errors or misbehaviors before they turn into major ones. If you wait a whole circle (or longer) before correcting the horse for dropping his inside shoulder, you may have to use stronger, more obvious aids to fix it. Conversely, if you apply inside leg when your horse just THINKS about dropping his shoulder, just a simple squeeze of the calf may be enough to keep him straight. Every day you ride, try to influence your horse’s thoughts before he has a chance to act on them in a negative way.
What else about the rider? A rider blessed with good body control and awareness goes a long way. When the horse wants to drop his inside shoulder, as a rider I do two things: first, quickly check my position to make sure I’m not ducking, leaning, or sitting unbalanced. Then simultaneously, I apply aids to correct the horse: a little leg or hand as needed. Riding isn’t all about “fixing” the horse’s mistakes: it’s first about correcting yourself, knowing your own weaknesses, and then making both you and the horse better.