Riding a horse is the simplest thing in the world. Just point ’em and kick. What’s so hard about that? And as long as you don’t care where you go or how you get there, no worries.

But we’re humans prone to having expectations and goals. And horses are sentient with thoughts and emotions of their own. Perhaps the first thing that horses and humans have in common is a dislike of random chaos.

So then the horse or  rider might decide some sort of leadership is needed and that’s when training starts. You ask for something simple: Go away from the barn. Walk on the rail. Canter. But they don’t.

About this time, it occurs to us there might be more to riding than we previously thought. Seeing others ride happy horses with finesse and relaxation, you might even start to think there’s an art to riding. Perfect.

Because a horse has in-the-moment awareness, if you’re in the saddle, you’re the trainer. In other words, you’re the artist. Creativity is your fuel.

Ever tried painting? Paint-by-number exists because a paint brush is hard to control. Tried sculpting? Eye/hand coordination isn’t as easy as you’d think. The worst part is that judgment, seeing what’s wrong in a picture, is always the easy part. Now lay down the paint brush and add a live horse to the mix. All the muscle strength in the world can’t make a masterpiece, but your creativity can.

Being an artist in the saddle means answering a question with creativity. Is this the kind of nebulous idea that makes your head want to explode?

Start here: Any work of art starts with a foundation of technique. In this case, find balance in your seat, be aware of your body is doing, especially your hands. Most importantly, relax. Creativity doesn’t respond well to tension or force, any more than a horse does.

Step one: Let go of expectations and judgment. They only make your mind run like a rat on a wheel. Checking your mental list for mistakes doesn’t help, but even worse, the deafening clatter of self-doubt makes it hard to hear your horse. Breathe; go silent and listen.

Step two: Have an idea about what you are asking for; it might be lateral work or trotting a box or making a water crossing. Then let it go; repeat step one.

Step three: Know they will get it wrong, but since you aren’t judging, you don’t care. Lower your expectations for perfection. Training something new is like you and your horse feeling around for each other in a dark room. He doesn’t know what you want, and you don’t know what he’d respond to, so lighten up. Not because you are a patient saint, but because the most important thing is that your horse gets encouragement to try. Be positive because if he feels like everything he does is wrong, he’ll stop trying. Sound familiar at all?

All animal training systems begin with rewarding a good basic response. The word dog trainers use is “shaping,” meaning the progressive building of a response, step by step. In behavioral science they call it “successive approximation” or implying an approximate answer, not the correct one. It’s a technique you learned early. Remember playing Hide ‘N Seek as a kid and calling out “warmer, warmer, HOT” to help the seeker?

In the saddle it means that you think of a logical cue and ask for something. Then when he gives you the wrong answer, believe him because making him wrong ends the conversation. Reward him, not to affirm the wrong answer but because he responded and a responsive horse is the foundation goal.

Here’s where the creative part comes in: Because asking the wrong way louder never works, ask the same question using a slightly different cue. Let his first answer inform the next cue. If he gave you an answer that was more sideways than forward, for instance, take him at his word and ask again politely, but with a bit more forward. It’s a short ask and a quick reward.

A horse learns what he did was right after you reward him for it.

Teaching an impatient horse to stand still can a challenge. Ask for the halt and if you get anything kind of like slowing down, reward him. Walk on and ask again. If the halt is just a bit closer, reward that and walk off. Collect good tries and ignore the ones that don’t happen. If you lose sight of the goal and start correcting him for moving, before he knows what halt means, then it’s not fair. It’s scribbling on the Mona Lisa with a sharpie pen. Take a breath and don’t kill his try with correction. Get open-minded and find a cue that he can succeed with. Most likely a smaller cue.

A couple of years ago, I was training a mini-mule to drive. Focus was erratic and we had a time finding our rhythm. Our halts were a nasty combination of distraction and anxiety. The usual exhale/butt-scratch did nothing, and even as she spun around in the long lines, I had to stay behind her in the driver’s position. Her anxiety was getting louder…

Is the leadership being questioned? By either you or your horse? Wonderful. Take a breath. Do you want to inspire your horse to confidence and partnership? Now is a good time to remember training is an art. And you are an artist. Exhale again.

… So rather than increase the mule’s stress, I found another place to scratch. It’s that hairless place on the underside of the top of their tail. Do you know the spot? Horses love it too. Sure, passing cars wonder what you’re up to; another reason to be glad that you gave up judgment of both you and your partner. Meanwhile, the mule got quiet and still, loving that gentle touch on the downside of her tail. She cocked her hip and we let time pass in this positive place, even if my hand wasn’t thrilled at the location. Beyond that, we waited long enough that she had some time to assimilate the whole interchange into the big picture. It involved her seeing me differently. Soon an exhale and hand on her hind was a reward enough, and from there, just my exhale brought the relaxation of a reward.

(Just in case you think what works with a mule is different that what works with a horse, you are totally correct. If it works with a mule, it works at least twice as well with a horse.)

One training technique will not work on every horse; they’re individuals who respond individually. Looking at training this way, isn’t creativity a greater asset than a huge, expensive box of harsh aids? Now it boils down to the confidence you feel in your own creativity.

The bad news: you can’t buy creativity. The good news: we are born with infinite creativity. So it follows that we can all be Nuno or Klimke or Hunt or Dorrance…at least in our own minds, but that’s exactly where it matters to a horse.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

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