For me, the joy of riding is that mind-meld that happens when my horse and I are in sync and communication flows between us with subtlety and nuance. To achieve this, not only do I have to listen to and understand what Tonka is saying, but he has to understand me. I have to ride with clarity, and be fair in what I ask for. It takes observation, practice, athleticism, focus and hard work. Becoming a centaur is a lifelong endeavor.
It gets even more challenging when you’re aiming for an advanced level of movement, whether it’s jumping a course, or doing a dressage test, or traversing wilderness. Those challenges require the horse to work as hard as you are, and to buy into the endeavor. You can force a horse to do any of those things, but although that gets the activity done, you don’t have true collaboration.
Don’t we all say that we like being with our animals because they live in the moment? And yet when we’re training, we seem to forget that. We get what we want and then push for bigger and better. So often, when watching dressage lessons, I see the trainer tell the rider that’s it! but there’s no living in that good moment. Instead, the rider wants another, and taps the horse with the whip to get more. The rider might say good girl, but it’s followed by that whip. All the horse hears is Not enough, work harder! The horse has no incentive to keep going, and has no desire to buy into the conversation.The horse is overwhelmed by trying to figure out how to avoid the pressure that the rider applies – by whip, by spur, by leg, by seat, there are so many ways to get compliance.
The starting point to a true partnership is actually quite simple. Say thank you to your horse, and do it often. Saying thank you is a paradigm shift. There are so many ways to do it when riding.
The most obvious thank you is to stop and give your horse a cookie.
Or, you can say good boy! and give him a break, so that Good boy actually means something. Here Tonka has done a couple of strides of shoulder-in at the desired energy and angle, and he gets a clear, positive, response.
For some exercises, the reward can be to allow the free flow of movement. As Tonka becomes stronger and more athletic, riding quietly and letting him surge forward is reinforcing to him. In this clip you can see that I slowed Tonka with a half-halt to balance him, then let him go at the pace that he wanted. Tonka is a little behind the vertical and forehand heavy, but this is the first step to better movement. If I waited to reward until I got the end goal, we’d both be frustrated and exhausted!
If your riding entails keeping the horse in an upright, collected frame, a thank you can be going into a stretch. Here Tonka goes from a working to a stretch trot. (Note how his tail swings as he trots. That’s a clear indication of a relaxed and confident horse.)
You can make that communication more precise by using an “event marker” to tell the horse exactly the moment that they got right. In this video, my trainer clicks at the instant that Tonka gives us a balanced downward transition from trot to walk. In previous attempts, Tonka had hollowed his back and shortened how he went with his rear legs. In this one he stayed strong through the top line. It’s worth a click and a cookie!
Sometimes, simply showing appreciation and affection makes the entire ride better for your horse. I love this series of photos. Kim and I are discussing the exercise that I just did. We’re giving Tonka a break as we talk.
I pat him.
Tonka says that’s not enough and wants some attention from Kim.
Message received and acted on. He loves forehead scratches.
Finally, the biggest thank you is to know when to end the training session. Yesterday I trailered to take a lesson from Kim. We did a lot of canter to trot to canter serpentines. Tonka was working willingly and moving beautifully. (It’s new for him to be this engaged and balanced in a corner.)
I paid for a 45 minute lesson. We stopped after a half-hour. It was time and money well-spent.
I do this at home, too. I call it a day when we’re both still feeling good. I say thank you, and we go for a walk.
How do you thank your horse when you’re riding?
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