So this week I had the pleasure of riding a new horse, Boo. After weeks of rain, sweet green grass growing in abundance, and cooling weather.
And he was fresh.
Immediately I became a nervous Nelly – tense in the saddle, fighting the urge to curl into the fetal position. Again.
Fear not, he was in no way nasty. He did not shy or rear, he wasn’t snorting and he certainly didn’t race off into the night with me desperately clinging to his back with the control of a sack of potatoes. But last night, Boo, a normally lazy (or so I’m told) Percheron x , was fresh. He was eager, alert, and his back was tense.
So why is it that, after years of riding, a new horse can set of a stream of emotions that result in butterflies and heart palpitations?
It comes down to the conversation.
See, while Boo was eager, attentive, head high and searching for any slight movement, there was no conversation. And it appears I have progressed to a level where I expect to have a two-way conversation with a horse whenever I sit in the saddle. Oh, for the days of naivety!
When the conversation isn’t flowing back and forth, there is a risk that a dangerous event may occur that can hurt either the rider or the horse. And the conversation is a subtle experience – some people aren’t even aware of the fact that the horse they ride lacks the ability or confidence to speak to them! I certainly didn’t when I first began training with Katie.
The conversation first starts with listening. We as riders listen to our horse through multiple cues – the posture, the movement and the ‘feel’ of their emotions. Horses listen to us as riders via our posture, our tone and our aid.
In my case with Boo, I could feel that he wasn’t listening to me. His posture, his movement and even his emotions were attentively focused on everything else bar me. As far as Boo was concerned, I didn’t exist. This was a potentially dangerous situation, it was no wonder I was nervous!
Our warm up then consisted of firstly capturing Boo’s attention and helping him listen. This exercise is great any time you ride a horse you don’t know, don’t trust or even when your own horse is a little overexcited.
This is a really simple exercise to undertake (in a safe environment of course) to reengage your horse’s mental composure and help them listen to aids. And it takes it back to the very basics – one of the first lessons we ever learn ourselves or teach our horses when they are first taught to be ridden.
Begin in a walk. Sit tall and confident in your seat, breathing deep. Position your hands at the standard riding position – slightly above the saddle, about the width of the neck apart.
Without applying any other aids, lift and bring your right reign out, and encourage your horse to turn to the right. If your horse ignores the reign (doesn’t turn), make the aid bigger (bring the reign out wider and towards your hip).
When your horse turns right, immediately release the aid by bringing your reign back to the starting position, and at the same time, lift and bring your left reign out, to turn left.
What we are trying to achieve here is how your horse is listening to your via your reign aids. Don't worry about where you are walking in the arena (unless you are about to walk him into a wall), and disregard perfect serpentine's - this isn't the goal. Just focus on your horse responding to the reign. If he can listen to one reign alone, we can then apply both reigns together in a halt movement.
And there, we have a listening horse. Breathe, relax, praise and ride on.
In the case where your horse isn’t responding to those reign aids, it’s time to hop down and commit to some ground work first – this isn’t letting nerves take over, just smart training.
Boo and I went on to have a lovely ride and I learnt a lot of new things from him - that is until a sudden storm came through and shortened our ride. Them's the breaks!