I learned a really important lesson the last time I was working with a horse.
She is a new mare. I had only worked her once before, and this was the second time I had ridden her. She is a petite Quarab with a very willing personality. Her only really issue (and it’s a big one) is that she really has no idea what ground manners are. She is nice enough. But no one has ever explained to her that it is impolite to keep on walking when her handler stops right in front of her.
Noella is only 5. She has had maybe two years under saddle, and a bit of preparation before that (though not as much as I would have liked her to have). She is level headed and calm, but zippy and still has a good deal of ‘try,’ though some of it has been lost through the sometimes harsh corrections she has received for not respecting her handler’s space when she had never been taught how to.
Based on that, what she needed help with was recognizing a command and carrying it out. She has no problem carrying out what she is told to do; recognizing when something is a request or an order is more difficult for her. So to practice, I was doing simple transitions. Halt to walk. Walk to halt, back up. Halt to trot. Trot to walk to halt smoothly, back up.
We were doing all right.
She didn’t want to stop, and started bracing her nose into the pressure on the bit, and when we finally did get stopped she had great difficulty backing up, though I knew she could do it with decent skill when I was not riding her.
I couldn’t just keep on pulling on her nose, telling her to stop. I had first made sure that I was following the correct protocol for asking for a halt: lowing my energy, sitting down, heels down, head up, and then and only then using my hands.
Still no response.
Then I tried something my riding instructor had suggested. Instead of pulling straight back, after I had asked correctly I pulled her nose around and had her circle until she stopped.
That helped a little, but it didn’t work so well.
I modified it a little, so that I had her circle once and then I would ask her to stop again. Progress was made—she would stop after three circles, then two, then one. But after stopping for one second, she would forge ahead again, faster than before. And she would start going faster and faster within the gait, too, which she had not done before. She was getting frustrated.
I took her into the middle of the arena and stopped. I had not yet figured out why, but I knew I needed to start again with small movements, go back to square one and actively help her out. I had essentially forgotten that this was a young horse that needed help with manners and understanding commands and had instead been focusing on the transitions.
The problem was that I had been eternally correcting her. No, you aren’t allowed to speed up. No, you didn’t stop. No, I didn’t ask you to canter, I asked you to move over into the corner. No, no no!
Noella had started to believe she couldn’t do anything right. All I had said to her since I got on was no. What she needed was yes! She has been told no so many times in her life before I started working with her, often when she didn’t even understand why. She didn’t need me to tell her the same things over and over again. She needed me to help her see why.
So in the middle there together, I managed to get her to stop. That was the last time I said no with my hands. I began by asking her to side pass, because on the rail I couldn’t get her to move over without speeding up. She tried to go forward, but I tried not to hold the reins tight. Instead I shifted my weight more dramatically and kept asking. She took one step. I dropped all aids and praised her.
Turn on the forehand. An easy one for her—one step, praise. Another step. What a good girl! At this point she stopped trying to go forwards.
Turn on the haunches. This was a little harder, and she had to move around to figure it out. But one step and a lot of praise, rubs, and encouraging words, and she had it.
As she got each thing by itself, I combined it into a manoeuvre, asking her to complete a box of four turns on the haunches and four straight lines. I had her make a nice balanced circle and make it smaller or bigger with a leg yield. I could feel her changing beneath me.
About twenty minutes later, I took her back out to the rail. I asked for a trot and I got one. Good girl. I asked for a halt. On a dime. Good girl. Back up? Yes ma’am! Sidepass into the ring, and back out. Well done! She didn’t even try to speed up.
Enough was enough on the rail. She had been trying her hardest to do what I wanted, and all I told her was that she was doing it wrong. When I shifted my focus to making her look good, not making me and what I could make her do look good, she started floating through what I asked.
I had a different horse.
I wonder now how many times I have missed the more subtle messages of a more experience horse saying, ‘I don’t get it.’ It took this young mare screaming at me for me to understand that she didn’t and to get creative about how to meet her needs.
Your horse has needs, too. What is he telling you?