Big picture thinking for a happier dressage horse
This post relates to a recent article of mine ‘Who’s riding your horse, you or your ego‘. So many riders push themselves and their horses so hard for something they ‘want’, be it results at a show, praise from their trainer, adherence to an unrealistic time schedule or acceptance from their barn friends. This is the ego at play, which seldom works in the best interest of you or your horse.
Unless you have a seriously “challenging” horse (read Barteau’s book ‘Ride the Right Horse‘ for information on challenging horses) there should be no excuse for your horse to ever be in a high state of agitation. If you should encounter this, it means your horse’s anxiety level is too high and instead of ‘dealing’ with extreme spooking or extreme herd boundedness it is better to not add so much pressure, it is unsafe for you and unhealthy for your horse. What to do next? If I am an expert in anything horse related this is where I have a lot of knowledge and experience.
In my younger days, I always just thought “that was horses”, the spooking, bolting, rearing, neighing etc – I just dealt with it and got on with it. Over the years, I began to develop a deeper understanding of a horses state of mind and a compassion for their experience. I always try to rate a horse’s anxiety level when I meet them. In my opinion, for a horse to truly be in the mind state to learn something, they should have no more than an anxiety rating of 3 out of 10 at all times. What this means is if a horse isn’t always on edge, when a difficult and unpredictable situation arises (such as someone abruptly coming into the arena without knocking) the horse may startle but they won’t have a major spook or bolt because their adrenaline levels are not high(as they are in the case with a horse rating higher on the anxiety scale).
If you find your horse unmanageable when leading, riding, grooming, clipping, in the wash rack etc? The first thing to determine is if your horse is anxious or if they are behaving in a challenging way. If they are simply trying to dominate you and are not fearful than you need to go back to the basics of leadership before addressing major challenges – Monty Roberts’ methods are genius in this area. With challenging horses, people often put themselves in a situation where their horse has leverage and then they try to battle the horse when they don’t have the upper hand – stick to simple scenarios like basic leading, walking in front of your horse through gates, keeping your horse at arms length and not allowing them in your personal space etc. If you are not capable of standing up to a challenging horse under saddle don’t put off for one minute getting a rider on that horse who can calmly and peacefully reinstate dominance. To take it a step further, don’t hesitate to sell your horse if they are too challenging for you – I don’t often say that – but when it comes to challenging horses, you need a particular type of rider.
Back to our anxious horse. These horses need to be taught life is not a dangerous place. You can liken anxious horses to an adult who was abused as a child. These horses don’t look to their rider/handler for security, they have very little trust and have a rogue sort of “lonewolf” approach – if it’s them or you, they definitely choose themselves. What to do? The first thing that needs to be said is that to lower a horse’s anxiety rating when they are at rest is a time consuming process – don’t expect quick fixes. You need to set up pre-orchestrated scenarios on the ground and under saddle. Start introducing items that might raise a horse’s anxiety level slightly encourage them to approach an object through their own curiosity (Michael Peace has some good techniques around this approach). Let the rope go long, if they give a slight start remain serene and let them figure it out – always reassuring them. Sometimes it is helpful to lead them away from the object and back to it again. If you find your horses reaction is quite strong you’ve just chosen the wrong “prop” for your work, find something less dangerous-looking to your horse.
In regards to riding, if going outside is a rodeo – for now – don’t go outside, work with your horse on targeted, confidence building exercises inside. After you’ve done your ground work training (usually horses begin to build trust first on the ground), you can lead the horse outside after you’ve ridden inside, a bridge to your eventual trail riding under saddle. The important things are as follows: 1. make a confidence building plan under saddle and stick to it 2. don’t settle for getting stuck doing one kind of exercise and for example never taking the next step of riding outside 3. if you horse begins to get quite anxious, take the pressure off and make a mental note of your horse’s current boundaries – whatever you did was too much – remember horses can’t learn and can’t think when highly anxious. If you push them to far you actually take two steps backwards in your training, be consistent, persistent and compassionate.
If you have a fundamental problem with your horse as described in one of the scenarios above, drop your time schedule, let your training flow organically without pressure. Believe, me you will reach your dressage goals quicker by healing past wounds step by step (yours and his). If that means, canceling this years show season – swallow that pill – you will get a closer connection to your horse and you will become a happy more confident rider yourself. Take your ego out of it and give your horse what they need even if you didn’t create the problem in the first place.