Q: I often work alone. Sometimes I don’t think I listen to my horse as well as I should. How can I learn to better perceive his needs and interpret his responses?
New Braunfels, Texas
A: One of the most useful tools a rider can learn is the body language of the horse. Whether he’s being ridden in the arena or handled on the ground, he offers subtle clues that give you a clear window into his frame of mind. The other side of the partnership is realizing that you constantly give your horse clues about yourself. As a result, it is important to become aware of what you are saying to your horse on a regular basis.
When a partnership is in balance, a horse will understand much more easily what is being asked of him. Horses appreciate aids that are clear, fair and consistent. This is what promotes a happy, hardworking partner. I recommend spending time with a trainer who focuses on developing an awareness of this unspoken communication.
Your conversation begins with your horse long before you get on his back to ride. When you lead or handle him, you might find it helpful to ask several questions. The answers can be revealing. For instance, when you halt your body, does your horse halt with you? Does he walk over you if you are not paying attention to your whereabouts? Does he run backward if you suddenly halt? This is a great way to start testing your horse’s response and respect level. I often find that the reactions a horse gives on the ground are directly linked to how he will react under saddle.
Horses want clear rules and consistent expectations. Your horse will gain confidence when the answers you expect from him are simple and well defined. To gauge how he responds, begin by asking him only one thing, say for example, to move a specific foot away from the pressure of your leg. Did he do it? Were you happy with his effort? This gives you the ability to measure his progress.
It can be quite helpful to find a routine that reveals the more challenging aspects of your horse’s temperament so you can work to overcome them. For example, a horse who lacks submission or is lazy may pin his ears when you put your leg on or show some displeasure to go forward willingly. He might make a grumpy face as if to say, “This is too much work.” My goal for a horse of this type is to get him to give me some sort of reaction. In the beginning it can be any response at all. Then we can work toward the desired one. I have always felt that any reaction is better than none. To gauge the progress made toward a horse reacting properly later on, it’s important to have a starting point.
Often before I get on a horse, I establish a starting point by circling him around the mounting block six or seven steps. While he is still in hand, I will trot briefly to test whether he can react to just a cluck from the ground. The timing of his response gets quicker as I raise my expectations. The goal of this preride exercise is to get some energy flowing and to elicit a reaction from the horse that can be transferred to our work under saddle. Again, I am looking for him simply to try to find the right answer. I need to have a sense that I can be successful once I’m in the saddle.
The goal is to gain your horse’s trust and keep his respect while staying within his physical and mental capabilities. By asking him questions and evaluating his responses, you will gain insight into his state of mind and be better able to identify where improvements can be made in your communication with him. As with all relationships, the better the communication, the better the connection.
Jennifer Williams is an FEI-level rider. A 2010 grant from The Dressage Foundation allowed her to take an American-bred horse to train in Germany (summervalefarm.com).