Have you ever wondered why your horse isn’t listening to your aid?
It is a common occurrence, and actually easy to recognise. In fact, there are only 4 reasons a horse is not doing as you ask:
1. It doesn’t understand what you are asking
2. It physically can’t do what you are asking
3. It is trying to do what you are asking but not able to perform at 100%
4. It is actively challenging you
1. The horse doesn’t understand what you are asking
A horse that doesn’t understand what you want will be trying lots of different things in response to your ask. They may stumble across the correct answer occasionally, but they will keep trying different things if they didn’t pick up on that that was the correct answer - for example, if you missed your timing for the release of pressure. Even if they do figure out what the “correct answer” is they will still keep trying different things. This is because they learn differently. They learn by deciding which response they like best from you. This is also how we can accidentally teach the horse the wrong behaviour.
For example if we are trying to teach our horse to walk on from halter pressure, their initial instinct would be to lift their head. Once they realise this doesn’t result in what they want they will try other behaviours. What happens if I paw or strike out? What happens if I rear? What happens if I lower my head? What happens if I step forward? If we release the pressure (what the horse wants) for the rear we are conditioning the horse to rear when pressure is applied to the halter. If we release the pressure only for the horse stepping forward, than the horse will decide if it likes that (the release of pressure) and then it will try the other things again to see if your responses are what it likes until it decides” ok I like the response I get when I step forward”. The horse will then keep choosing to step forward to pressure because that gets it what it wants.
In a nutshell, if your horse is trying lots of different things and occasionally gets it right, it doesn’t understand what you want and you have to think outside the box of how best to communicate it.
2. The horse can’t physically do what we ask
We see this when we start asking more of our horse. It is trying but not succeeding and they often get frustrated with themselves. This could be when we ask them to walk off for the first time under saddle, when we ask them for the first time through poles or jumps and when we introduce increased expectation and exercises of them.
Here we need to reward the horse when they attempt to do as we ask, and allow time for the proper build up of condition and understanding. The rule of three (repeat the exercise 3 times then move onto something they really understand) is essential here.
Also consider if your horse has had a spell and is being brought back into work, we have to adjust our expectations, and if they have been over worked they may need a spell.
3. The horse can do what you want but not to the level of quality you want.
Your horse is trying and understanding what you are asking of it but you have repeated the exercise more than 3 times and it’s not as good as you wanted. We will go more into this in getting 100% from your horse. But if you have got it by the third ask your horse will slowly become more mentally and physically fatigued and go sour on the aid and stop trying. So lower your expectations and working on the conditioning exercises a step below what you are trying to get.
4. Your horse is actively challenging you.
As we spoke about earlier your horse will always instinctively challenge you - no matter how well trained they become and how well established your relationship is. It is in their best interest to always be checking in and assuring themselves that you are still ‘the best man for the job’ when it comes to that leadership role. In fact the more confidence you instil in your horse, the more they will challenge your leadership role because you are developing the exact skills in them that they need to be a good leader.
In a nutshell, if your horse is actively challenging you they are generally choosing to do the opposite of what you ask. You ask them to stop? They go. You ask them to go? They stop. You ask them to go right they go left. They know what you want well enough to know what they opposite is, they can do the opposite of what you are asking to be able to do what you’re asking.
A lot of trainers will say you have to push them through it and make them do it! I find that this is not the best advice because your horse generally challenges you in an exercise that you are finding hard and not doing confidently. My advice is you have to revisit discipline by doing an exercise that you are confident in and finish your training on a win where you are back in that leadership role - even if you have to get off the horse.
Oh my god did I just say you are allowed to get off the horse when it isn’t doing as it’s told?!?
Yes - as an instructor for lots of beginners and green horse and riders it is far better when you lose your horses confidence in your leadership skills to finish on a good note where you can re-establish your boundaries for their behaviour and get yourself back in that leadership role than push your horse in an exercise that you are not comfortable or confident with and have to hold on to the ratty behaviour your horse will give you when challenging you. I always prefer my horses to not even think that bucking, rearing, bolting, biting or kicking is an option than riding through it. I have been that person that has ridden through but for the safety of everyone involved and for the optimal conditioning of our horses behaviour I believe discipline and good behaviour is best established in an exercise the trainer is comfortable and confident with executing.