It happened again: You hand off your horse to your trainer after being frustrated by his lack of responsiveness. Your trainer steps on and the horse morphs into Mr. Perfect. What gives?
I see this happen a lot. To me it’s like the student athlete who has a “yes, sir” attitude to his coach, but sulks and talks back to his mom. What it boils down to is respect. In this article, I’ll explain why your trainer has it, and how you can earn it.
WHY YOUR TRAINER GETS RESPECT
Let’s go back to the coach-athlete analogy, because it highlights why your horse says “yes sir” to your trainer. The coach, like your trainer, is a professional teacher. He works with students day in and day out—it’s his (or her) business. He approaches any interaction with focus and discipline.
He demands respect at all times. He has to—he deals with lots of kids, and it would be impossible to create a safe and effective learning environment without it. He may (and likely does) make emotional connections, but his bottom line is to get each athlete to perform his or her very best.
Your trainer is the same way. He works with a barn full of horses every day, and demands respect every time he’s near one, whether it’s to feed, blanket, saddle up, or ride. It’s the only way he can stay safe and be effective. He (or she) may form emotional connections, but his bottom line is to teach each horse to perform at his very best. It’s his business.
WHY YOU DON’T
You’re like the athlete’s doting mother. You love your horse. You have an intensely emotional connection with him. Plus, he’s your escape from the “real world”; he’s your hobby, fun, and friend. You show up with treats and pats and hugs.
You don’t demand his respect whenever he’s around you, and may inadvertently reward bad behavior (like getting pushed around for treats) with, well, more treats. When your horse sees you, he thinks “day off!” (and “cookies!”).
And you know what? That’s OK. Horses are my business, but I know they’re your pleasure. What we need is a happy medium, a way for you to get your horse’s respect and have fun. After all, you savor the feel of a great, responsive ride (and a win). I know I do. It sure beats bickering constantly with a horse. That’s not fun.
HOW TO EARN IT
Make a commitment. Give a solid hour of focus to your horse, every time you ride. (Stick with me—you can ease up when you’re done.) From the moment you step into the barn, say to yourself, “I’m going to pay attention to every move I make with my horse for the next hour, be it in the stall or in the saddle.”
Too often I see amateurs pay more
attention to their buddies while hand-ling their horses. Then they mount up and stroll around, ignoring their mounts as they chat. That doesn’t earn respect (remember “day off?”). It’s no surprise the horse “talks back” when you finally ask him to do something.
We trainers constantly remind our horses to respect our space on the ground. (If you’re unsure how to do so, ask your trainer for help.) Then we step on and immediately ask for it under saddle. There are a million ways to do it.
When I get on a horse, I immediately pick up my hand to feel his mouth, then apply leg to compress his body into my hand. If the horse yields softly to the bit while rounding his back and lowering his weight over his hocks, coiling his body like a Slinky toy, I know I have his respect.
If he leans into my hand and hollows his back, I know I don’t. I’ll firmly increase my hand and leg cues to say, “Listen up,” immediately releasing that pressure when he softens and yields. I’ll then repeat the “test” until he responds instantly. It takes all of five minutes, and sends the message that I’m in charge. That earns his respect. If I were to simply throw my reins at him and allow him to mosey off the first few strides, he’d slouch along like a lounge lizard. And he’d think he was in charge. No respect.
You can devise your own “respect test,” depending on your event. (Your trainer can help you.) Or use mine. Once you’ve gotten your horse’s respect, keep it by riding every stride. That requires riding with a plan, such as, “Today, I’m going to practice large, fast circles, or walk-to-lope transitions.”
The more focused you are on him, the more focused he’ll be on you. Once you’ve finished your session, you can relax and stroll around as you chat with friends. That’ll be his—and your—reward.
“BUT…,” YOU SAY
So you do stay focused and your horse still seems to cheat you? That can happen, too, especially with the smart ones. Just like some smart kids are always looking for a way out of schoolwork, smart horses can tell when the “substitute teacher” is on board.
I have young students who weigh 60 pounds and have a 22-inch inseam. Some horses feel the difference between that and my 190 pounds and 36-inch inseam and instantly perform a “respect test” of their own. (You want me to do what? No thanks!)
Can you or your trainer muscle the horse into respecting everyone who rides him? No. But can you outsmart him? Yes. For my non-pro clients, I’ll ride their horses in their saddles, without lengthening the stirrups, so the horse learns he must respond regardless of length of leg.
[READ: Tips for Horse Shopping]
For my kid (or lightweight non-pro) horses, I’ll find a small-framed rider to “imitate” that feel, but who has the skills to follow my direction, so he or she can teach the horse that weight and leg length don’t dictate his responsiveness. Your trainer can do the same things for you. But you still have to do your part.
The bottom line is, you may never ride as well as your trainer does (if you did, you wouldn’t need him or her). But you can earn your horse’s respect. That alone will improve not only your performance, but also your relationship with him. Just like it does with kids.