Monday, December 19, 2011

The horse

You Ride The Horse You Lead

I have a very bad habit of assuming horses know certain lessons. No, not every horse, in fact just clients that I have worked with before. "Never assume anything," is a cliché that is well heeded in horse training. I also tend to forget some of the very words I teach, "Every rider has different cue spots and cue delivery." Meaning, a horse has to learn those new cues spots with each new rider/handler. Horses do not generalize and although they will catch on quicker than a horse that has never had that cue put on, they need time to adjust.

These truths become especially clear each time I get in a new horse. Due to the fact that I train several horses a day, 6 days a week, I have become above all particular when it comes to my cues. Mind you I do take the time to teach my cue system to new horses, however, I tend to forget to adjust returning client's horses. Either way, I always expect the horse to show improvements. One of those lessons I tend to do the most assuming with is leading.
Leading is actually one of the best ways to learn a lot about a horse/rider relationship. That is because the relationship starts well before you ever place a foot in the stirrup. Leading is where I tend to fail the most at my own teaching. I assume the horse knows to stay off me with its shoulder, not to forge ahead or lag behind, and focus on where we are going. It even has caught me off guard at the tie rack, giving me a broken foot. If you did not take the time to cover a lesson, the horse cannot be held liable for its actions. Boy, how I hate hearing those words in my ear.
As I mentioned, the horse handler relationship starts well before you saddle up. It begins the moment you enter the stall and this attitude continues well into your riding. Yet, it is one of the hardest ideas to plant in a horse owner's mind. If you allow your horse to push into you, forge ahead of you, lag behind, set back, pull away from you, and the list goes on, you are telling the horse he calls the shots and is the head decision maker. At this point, the rider cannot figure out why it is a constant fight on the trail to get the horse to do what they want when they want. In reality, the horse was taught by the rider for the previous 30 minutes before the ride that the horse gets to make the final decisions.
It is here that my training with a new horse begins. There are some days with some horses that the 50 foot walk to the round pen is the lesson of the day. By the time we reach the round pen we are both out of breath and sweating in 40 degree weather. Can't wait for the walk back. Some horses have been successfully taught that humans are just a rag doll that are to be tolerated at the end of the lead rope, and will fight tooth and nail when someone tries to tell them something different.
To make matters worse there are horses that cannot handle that kind of control. Just like people, not every horse makes a good leader and from birth a horse knows its rightful place in the herd. A born leader is very confident and seldom kicks or bites as every other horse stays away with just a look. The lowest horses however, are apprehensive about being pushed down even further and they will become very reactive, kicking and biting to keep hold of their position in the herd. It is the later horse that makes a very poor leader as they become suspicious of all other horses and people, trying in vain to keep what they have. When these horses join up with the apprehensive or hands-off owner, the horse takes up leadership and that is when things get nasty.
Now we have a distrustful horse as top dog and an apprehensive or hands-off owner that has no idea how bad this relationship is going to become. Out on trail this horse fights about where the ride is going, dives for food at every opportunity, snake faces or even kicks every other horse, lags going out, spooks or balks when it has gone far enough and gets chargy going home. All in all it is a horrible ride. Back at the ranch the owner can't understand why the horse acted like that. "He is soooo sweet in his pen, he isn't afraid of anything, you can do just about anything to him, he loves people and doesn't have a mean bone in his body." They fail to see how the horse crowds them in the pen, refuses to be caught, pulls the head away from the halter, balks at leaving the pen, forges ahead when being lead, lags behind when you go to the hitch, steps into them when being groomed and saddled, walks off when they try to mount......the list goes on.
Similar issues arise with the dominate horse paired with a permissive owner, but quite often not as apparent as this personality has plenty of self-confidence. Where the dominate horse will tend not to be as reactive to others in everyday settings, it may take longer to persuade that you are a worthy leader. Your leadership with them will be questioned, as well as the subordinate horse, and you will need to be consistent and fair with both. The dominate horse wants to be leader and the subordinate horse needs a leader. Leader does not mean dictator, yet for everyone's safety and to fully enjoy your horse, you must become a fair and just leader.
And so with either personality trait, you really do ride the horse you lead. When the horse is taught from the first moment to face you when you enter the pen, stay at your side while leading, stop and move forward with the handler, stand quiet at the hitching post, stand still for mounting or in essence learns to wait for the handlers direction, there is harmony, peace and security. Both parties are content and prepared to do their part in this relationship or rather partnership. Now the stage is properly set for an enjoyable ride. The horse has learned to wait on the handler and will wait on the rider as well. There won't be a fight for leadership on trail as it has been firmly and fairly placed from the ground. And even the low horse in the herd will be more content as they know the leader is their comrade and will keep them safe. They will gain healthy self-confidence and lose their defensive behavior. The dominate horse will trust your decisions and be willing to follow your lead. It will rightly become a win/win situation for horse and rider.
Jodi Wilson is a recognized authority on the subject of horse training and has spent almost 30 years developing training techniques and solutions for horse owners no matter the discipline or breed.
Jodi is an Accredited Josh Lyons trainer, and is Certified in John Lyons training techniques. Her website,, provides a wealth of information to improve the relationship between horse and rider. Jodi is also available for clinics and demonstrations as well as lessons, apprenticeships, and horse training.
Jodi has trained and competed in Reining, Sorting, Jumping, Dressage, English and Western Pleasure, Trail and Problem Solving.


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