Let Your Horse Think

By Terry Golson

As a dressage rider, I obsess over every every stride. I care where each hoof is placed, where the shoulder is, how my horse carries his head, the tilt of his jaw. Everything. In trying to position Tonka’s body just so, it’s easy to turn into a nagging rider.

As a clicker trainer, I obsess over breaking down behavior into the smallest of the components. It’s easy to micromanage each infinitesimal step towards my end goal.

Sometimes it’s best to let the horse think for themselves.

This was driven home for me at a recent clinic that I attended. Jec Ballou is an expert in horse physiology and movement. She’s written several useful books detailing exercises to help the horse and rider move more athletically and fluidly. The two horses in her demo started out stiff. One was built downhill like a classic Quarter Horse. The other was quick and unbalanced. The riders were skilled enough that on their own they could have gotten the horses to move with more energy behind and with more connection through the bridle. But that would have required a lot of leg and hands. Less tactful riders might have used more forceful aids.

Jec’s approach is to set up exercises, often using poles, that intrinsically improve the horse’s way of going. Instead of driving or contorting the horse into a frame, she set out patterns that challenged the horses to carry themselves more athletically. She did this in a way so that the horses could sort out for themselves how best to use their bodies. You could almost see them relax and say Oh! If I trot like this I feel good and just look how I can float! (The rider does steer, control the speed, and might need to set the horse in a good frame on the approach, but mostly you are passive as the horse does the exercise.)

Here’s an exercise. Set up poles in a line, end to end, and raise every other joint. Have the horse walk (or trot) over it in a very shallow serpentine. To navigate the poles, the horse has no option but to become more flexible in the shoulder. A horse that moves freer in the shoulder is also able to bound off more from their quarters. The whole picture becomes more beautiful and ergonomically correct.

I was inspired. My takeaway was to let the exercises do the work, not me. I need to stop obsessing and fussing.

Tonka has been protective of his weak stifles, sacroiliac joint, and base of his neck, so his default is to hollow his top line from hips to poll, so as not to use those areas. I want him to gain confidence that going forward and round isn’t going to hurt. Also, for it to continue not to hurt, he has to get stronger. Pole exercises can play a big part in that.

I set up this circle.

Tonka and I experimented with how many strides between the poles felt right, and what it took to go faster and slower between them. After a few go-rounds, Tonka moved with more cadence and loft.

Using these exercises, I can let Tonka sort out how to use his body while I try to stay quiet and balanced over his spine. My job is to feel when he’s moving correctly and tell him he’s brilliant (and also provide cookies.) My job is to be thoughtful about what exercises I set out, and to create a progression so that Tonka feels good as he does them, and is capable of doing more as the session continues. My job is also to know when he’s at his best, and to stop there.

More than anything, I believe in the intelligence of these animals, and I believe that horses get as much gratification at meeting a challenge as we do. These pole exercises are one way to get your horse to think and take ownership of the ride. Weather, bad footing and biting insects can keep us in the arena, where we tend to dictate every footfall. Do that day in and day out, and you get a passive horse who does the minimal asked, and often without enthusiasm.

I had a great week setting out exercises in the ring to get Tonka to think about what he’s doing under me, not just to follow my every cue. Then on Friday, we went out with friends, which illustrated how different that experience is from ringwork. Out on the trail, it’s easier to treat your horse as your partner and to meet challenges together. On the trail with Tonka, I’m the navigator and he’s my co-pilot. Sometimes we discuss the conditions – he tells me if the trail is unsafe, and we find a way around the obstacle. Sometimes I give him confidence to go on. We’re both thinking and sharing what’s on our minds. That experience is worth dressing up in blaze orange on a chilly day! Besides, the hills are a great way to keep Tonka in tip-top physical condition. We’ll keep doing this until the ground is unsafe.

Meanwhile, winter is clearly on the way, and I’m thinking about how to keep Tonka engaged in our indoor ringwork. Dressage, of course, is more precise, and demands different skills from trail riding. I love the nuance and fine-tuned communication that we get, but it’s all too easy for our ringwork to become repetitive tasks that Tonka tunes out of. I’ve been brainstorming exercises that are mental and physical challenges for him to rise to (and that make me step back so that he has room to think.) I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Let Your Horse Think

  • Johanna Weir-Wright

    A perfect circle! I follow yours and Tonka’s posts and I follow Jec. Indeed I have ridden with Jec in Santa Cruz. How wonderful that the two of you have now worked together!

  • Michelle McMillen

    Loved, loved, LOVED the clinic I took with Jec Ballou, especially the classroom lecture! I wish I had more poles to play with, other than those fixed on “X-ends” that my husband so kindly built for me, but I use what I have and vary what we do in and out of the arena thanks to Jec.

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