Think Ahead of Your Horse

If you're having ongoing control problems with your horse, it could be that you've become a reactive horseback rider.

Imagine a world in which the horses said, “Jump!” and the owners said, “How high?” That’s essentially what happens when an owner quits being the active partner in a rider-horse relationship and becomes the reactive partner.

I can mentally see some heads nodding, thinking, “Yup, my horse has done a good job of training me.”

Perhaps in addition to being your trainer, he’s also a good pointer, pointing out everything that could possibly be scary on your ride. “Look at that!” he seems to say as he freezes at some imagined or at least invisible distraction in the bushes ahead. Our natural response is to focus on the bushes, to try to figure out if the threat is real, and if it’s something our horse is likely

to have an even bigger reaction to when he finally sees it.

There are plenty of other ways in which we can slip into being a reactive rider, and we’ll explore them in the next few pages. But here’s the bottom line: Even though being a reactive rider isn’t safe or fun, it’s normal. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Becoming a better rider is all about replacing our natural behavior with improved responses. And once you realize where you are in the reactivity scale, you can make changes and it will seem as if your horse’s training improved overnight.

Active Is in Control
Any time you have two people, one takes the lead and the other responds. In many situations, the lead goes back and forth, with each one being dominant in his or her area of expertise, like a debate in which both sides are about even. But most often, people slip into the pattern of one person taking charge and the other reacting or responding to the first one’s direction.

Think of a driver and passenger in a vehicle. The driver should be making the decisions, since she’s the one at the wheel. When the passenger is reading the map and just reminding the driver of the exit they’re to take or letting her know how many miles they have to go, the driver is still the active partner, making the real-time decisions.

Put the Fun Back into Riding

  • Tell your horse what to do, not what not to do.
  • Mentally look ahead, so you can get your horse involved in responding to you rather than the environment.
  • Use simple cues, and tell the horse one thing at a time.
  • Ride more accurately, and notice small improvements.
  • Quit blaming or using excuses. Relax and enjoy the day.

But when the passenger is “back-seat driving,” we mean that she’s calling the shots regarding the real-time decisions: “Watch out for that truck,” “Hurry up and pass that car,” “Don’t drive so slowly.” If that pattern goes on for very long, the driver’s reflexes lose their edge because, instead of taking responsibility for the decisions, the driver becomes more passive, reacting to everything on the road.

Often the active partner doesn’t take control by what he says, but by his behavior. The dog who relentlessly tugs at his leash, dragging his owner around, isn’t barking orders. He’s just doing his thing, and the owner reacts to it. Even though the owner may think he’s walking the dog, in reality, he’s let the dog set the agenda. The dog determines where he wants to sniff, and the owner follows.

Occasionally, the dog will get too energetic, and the owner will react, usually by jerking the leash or yelling at the dog. When you think about it, that doesn’t look much like leadership – and it isn’t.

But it is an attempt to regain control. The problem is, you can’t lead by pitching a fit, venting your frustration, or punishing the dog. Those methods only create upset, even though there may be a “cease-fire” momentarily. It’s sort of like throwing a bigger tantrum than a child’s might get him to stop screaming long enough to see what you’re doing.

But let’s look at a different situation. If the owner ignored what the dog was doing, changed direction, and started walking briskly, the dog would follow. Initially, there might be resistance, but if the owner continued to ignore the dog and changed direction each time there was much tension on the lead, it would only take a few minutes for the dog to be trotting alongside his new leader. That’s not to say the next time they go for a walk the dog wouldn’t fall into his old habit, but if the owner maintained a resolve to be the active partner, the dog would learn to be happy as the reactive partner.

When we carry that picture into the world of horsemanship, we realize that unless we set the agenda for our horse, he’s going to set it himself. Unless we tell him where to go, he’s going to have to make the decisions. The more decisions we leave to him, the less we are in control. We don’t have to direct his every step. But if you’re in a pattern of reacting to what your horse does, you have to be intentional about swapping roles, just as the dog walker would have to be intentional about when he let the dog sniff around and when they were to change direction.

None of us likes to think that we’re the reactive partner, and reactivity isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. Depending on how well we know our horse and how well he’s trained, we allow him certain freedoms.

Imagine the owner who’s able to take his dog for a walk in the woods off leash. The owner allows the dog the freedom to dart back and forth, snooping here, dashing off there, and generally covering twice the mileage that the owner does. But when the owner whistles, the dog comes crashing through the bushes to get to the owner’s side.

That’s the relationship we want with our trail horse. We want to put him in gear and let him make the immediate decisions, such as where he puts his feet. But when we pick up the reins, we want his full attention and obedience.

The first step in achieving that is to realize it’s a goal, not a starting place. The owner whose dog ignores him can’t let the dog off the leash and still have control, any more than the reactive rider can give his horse the reins and expect to have control when he needs it.

Symptoms of Reactivity
You don’t have to read a magazine article to know that if you lose your temper with your horse, you’re reacting. But it may surprise you to learn that control is lost in small increments, and that if we can recognize a pattern, we can change it before we’re in an out-of-control situation.

Since horses tend to mirror their owners, we can notice some characteristics in horses that tell us something about whether they’ve been handled by reactive or active riders. Reactive riders are always late, always catching up to their horse’s actions. The horse is always one step ahead of them. Reactive riders tend to tell their horses “don’t” frequently. Instead of telling their horses what to do, reactive riders often try to prevent the horse from doing something – “Don’t go out the gate.” They often scold or punish the horse. Reactive riders are always late, always trying to correct an action instead of directing it.

Reactive riders also tend to blame the horse, the surroundings or other people when a ride didn’t go well. They often comment about a horse’s attitude, use derogatory terms in talking about their horse, make excuses, and take their horse’s actions personally. If someone asked them how their ride was, they may reply that their horse was an airhead, the jerk down the street had his dog loose, or their horse tried to embarrass them in front of their friends.

Active riders talk in real terms about what their horse does. They may say he spooked at the dog, he was stiff to the left, he was afraid of the new mailbox, or he didn’t want to leave his buddy.

Reactive riders aren’t clear or consistent in their use of cues or signals, and they see communicating with the horse as complicated or mystical. They often seem to be fighting with the horse, jerking the reins, and drilling an exercise until they and the horse are exhausted.

Active riders tend to have fewer, simpler cues. Their corrections are smoother, and you can observe slack in their reins more often. Active riders notice small improvements, and they pet their horse often.

Reactive riders don’t seem to make progress with a training program, whereas active riders assume the role of a teacher and recognize their responsibility to help their student – the horse.

Reactive riders make up a plan as they go along, but active riders usually have a detailed lesson plan and know what they’re going to teach next. They put lots of steps in the training process, and the horse becomes increasingly consistent.

The horses of reactive riders appear to notice every little thing, becoming increasingly worried about their surroundings. The horses of active riders seem more confident, taking new things more in stride.

The horses of reactive riders tend to become more adamant about getting their own way, whereas the horses of active riders become more compliant.

And on it goes. When you think about riders you’ve known, you can probably add to the characteristics – frazzled versus relaxed, jumpy versus smooth, angry or scared versus confident.

Becoming Active
If you’ve identified yourself in the reactive role, you can become the active partner with some dedicated effort. Realize that you have to settle down and handle things one at a time. You can’t fix everything at once.

Start by petting your horse and noticing the good things about him. When you groom him, tell him where to stand, rather than scolding him when he moves. If he moves to the left, reposition him, don’t scold him out of the place you don’t want him.

Before you mount, think through what you’re going to ask of him during the ride. When you first sit in the saddle, instead of letting him walk off on his own, ask him to wait until you tell him to go.

At first that may be hard for the horse, since he’s used to making his own decision. Don’t become a taskmaster, but pretend that you’re a kindergarten teacher. Ask him to stand for a moment, and then give him the cue to walk.

Initially, try to ride in situations where you’re likely to have few distractions or reasons for upset. Your horse may become frustrated easily because he’s not used to you taking the leadership role.

Pick one exercise and work at it, using simple cues. First do the action, then improve it. If you’re asking your horse to trot, get him moving, then steer him to the rail. Most reactive riders would instinctively try to tell the horse to do two things at once.

Set realistic expectations, and allow enough time for what you want to do. Most reactive riders are in a hurry, wanting the horse to get trained in too short a time. Rather than training, they’re trying to impress someone or are afraid they’ll miss something if they don’t go on this trail ride or to that show.

Raise the bar, and work from an in-control position. That means if you don’t have good control at the lope, don’t lope until you have extraordinary control at the trot. But rather than just putting in more time at the trot, vary your speed, so you develop better control of both speeding up and slowing down.

Learn to ride more accurately, planning in advance where you want the horse to go. Plan to change speeds when your horse’s shoulder is across from a certain fencepost. Turn at a different fencepost. Ride in and out of the bushes, making your own pattern. All those things help teach your horse that you are a trustworthy leader.

When you see a distraction ahead, get your horse involved in doing something. Don’t wait for him to react to the distraction. If you see other horses up ahead, immediately ask your horse to drop his head, move his shoulder, pause for a moment, then turn – or whatever exercises will keep him focused on obeying you. Direct one or a few steps at a time.

When you blow it, ‘fess up and find something positive to do. You’re not going to go from reactive to active without a few lapses, and your horse is accustomed to being in crisis mode, so it will take him a while to adjust, too. But the effort will be well worth it.

Want to know the best aspects of giving up a life of reactivity and becoming an active rider? You’ll have a much improved relationship with your horse, and suddenly, you find the fun coming back into riding. Reactive riders don’t have fun. They’re too worried about what’s going to happen next or what they’ll look like to their friends. But the active rider doesn’t have to worry. His horse trusts him, and they have fun doing stuff together. And that’s what riding is all about, anyway.

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