The quickest way to turn a willing horse into a sour horse is by asking him to do something he can’t one time too many. The result is a pissy resistant horse. Horse trainers have the same human failings you do, falling into the trap of thinking we’re always right. Whether routinely or rarely, every trainer is guilty of confusing inability with unwillingness.
Horses are an amazing gift from God. They treat us precisely as we deserve unless they show us grace. Horses lift you higher than you can go on your own. They tattle on you when you lose concentration or react to changes you don’t know you make.
That’s when something beautiful happens or your relationship goes sideways. You adjust or you insist on riding the wrong path.
Horse Trainers “Know not what they do”
Horses are always right, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what is asked. Unfortunately, many people don’t know what they ask. They think they ask for one thing, get something different, and figure the horse said ‘no.’ In the worst cases, they punish the horse.
Horses that appear to say “no” either can’t do what you want or don’t want to. Sounds a lot like people, doesn’t it? Especially spouses and teenagers.
If a horse can’t, the only worthy response is making it able. Perhaps better communication. Break a request into smaller steps. Help the horse get more fit. The change is ours to make. In us. In what we do.
You can’t punish a horse into ability or educate a horse into willingness.
If a horse doesn’t want to do what you ask the only remedy is motivation. You can’t punish a horse into ability or educate a horse into willingness. A bigger whip won’t get a miniature horse over a six-foot oxer. Explaining to your horse why it’s important to learn flying lead changes won’t make him more willing if he thinks it’s not worth the effort.
Horses don’t want to do what’s hard. Are you any different? I hate threading needles because it’s too hard to see the little eye and my aging fingers fumble ridiculously thin thread. I can, but I’d rather not, thank you. Horses are very intelligent rational creatures, preferring what’s easy over what isn’t. If I had to thread needles often I’d get a stationary magnifying lens and thin sticky gloves.
What can you do to make difficult tasks easier for your horse?
Don’t Confuse Inability with Unwillingness
The skill most horse people lack is knowing which is which; inability or unwillingness. Even National Champions and professionals get it wrong. I’ve had them in my clinics. People assume they don’t get what they want because the horse doesn’t want to. They believe the horse is unwilling. Most are wrong.
Does your horse screw up when you ask him to lope a 60-foot circle? Mess up his frame? Fall out of lead? Slow down or speed up?
If he knows his leads, what size circle can he lope correctly? 200-foot? 100-foot?
Most horses (and many riders) can’t ride a 60-foot circle properly. It’s too small. Degree of difficulty matters. You might be able to walk a foot-wide plank without falling off, but what if the plank is only three inches wide?
Make things as easy for your horse as possible. When you have to push through, and you will, be patient, encouraging, and kind.
Every Horse Trainer is Guilty of Confusing Inability with Unwillingness
You’re human. I’m human. Horse trainers are fallible. Sometimes we blow it.
None of us is perfect. I usually know if a horse can’t do something or won’t do something. But mix in a little frustration and we can all fall into error, including me. It’s human nature to think your horse is blocking you when he’s really saying, “Hey, this is really hard! Can you help me out a little?”
Whenever I feel an emotion other than contentment or joy with my horses, I step back and look in the mirror. That’s usually where the problem is — me.
It’s easy to look at someone else having a problem with her horse and know what she’s doing wrong. It’s really hard to know when you’re doing something wrong. Harder still to figure out what it is.
Why My Mounted Shooting Horse Went Left When I Asked for Right
In our second year of mounted shooting, Bo started ducking left on the final rundown. Most patterns have the second set of five balloons set in a straight line. The goal is to ride as fast to the finish line as you’re able to shoot accurately. Bo started ditching left at the last one.
Which is not what I had in mind. I worked at home on leads. Bo wanted to scoot left. I schooled on going right. Properly.
It didn’t work as I expected. Over the course of six months the problem escalated. I couldn’t figure it out. Our last match started with a small arrangement of balloons off to our right. I sent Bo toward them at a cadenced canter.
Bo unexpectedly changed leads and headed left. I holstered my gun, picked him up, and trotted a circle or two and left the arena.
What happened? Bo was calm. Without resistance. He said “no” but it felt like “yes.”
Another trainer I respected watched our go from horseback outside the arena.
“Did you see what happened?”
“What was it?”
“Bo did exactly what you asked. You asked for left and he went.“
After years compensating for bad knees I didn’t realize I shifted my balance. I taught Bo to do what my body does. He did. Perfectly. I just didn’t know what my body was doing!
I’d have figured it out eventually, like I have other issues. But I could have saved months of effort if I’d ridden with another trainer and asked her to watch me ride a few simple patterns.
Training in a Vacuum is a Slow-Road to Mediocrity
Riding alone is a slow downward spiral. Which is why I love riding with others. Top trainers in every discipline ride with other trainers. Because we can’t watch ourselves. We can’t see if we’re dipping a shoulder, unconsciously shifting our seat, getting too heavy on a rein, or letting the horse’s hip leak because our focus is on it’s shoulders.
No matter our training credentials, when it comes to horses, we’re always the student. That’s why I keep working. To learn more and know deeper.
I learn from everyone. Sometimes what to do, sometimes what not to do.
The Horse Trainer’s Greatest Teacher
Who are my greatest teachers and the experts on horses I always defer to?
Horses and the One who made them.