Ok riders, when you are out there doing your riding thing, no matter what discipline or activity, where is your connection with your horse? Is it in your reins, between your legs, under your seat? Maybe you think it is a combination of all three. Are you depending on any one or all of those to keep you safe, to have a pleasurable ride or a successful progression of skills.
What you really need is a deeper connection between yourself and the horse. If you don’t know what that is or laugh it off as another one of those “natural” horsemanship concepts that you just don’t buy into - please just take a few minutes to reconsider what connection under saddle really means to you. Here are some common examples of what “good enough” looks like.
You have connection when: the horse reacts properly in its body, the horse goes out on trail rides in company of others without upset, the horse jumps clean, the maneuver feels correct, the rider doesn’t have to “wrestle” the horse to stay safe or do an activity.
Beyond those admirable achievements, to be truly safe and progressive is to have a mental and emotional connection. The horse responds appropriately to your communication and over-rides its own natural instincts to freeze or take flight.
I want my horses to be calm (a state of mind), relaxed (state of body suppleness) and responsive (a state of appropriate reactions to my aids). To have all three of these is the connection that I truly enjoy and when riding. Yes, that is the ideal.
To progress your horsemanship, you can and should get there every ride. How you establish that state depends a lot on your knowledge and ability both on the line and at liberty, in the daily activities of feeding, turnout and in, leading, saddling and bridling, mounting and warming up.
During all interactions with your horse in these daily activities, you can benefit by taking note of the degree of tension and reactivity. Ask yourself, how long it takes your horse to become connected, and what specific activity you will use to regain that connection, depending on what you’ve practiced and what works best for your horse. You can become aware and respectful of your horses state of mind and emotion by taking note of their postures, facial expressions, breathing and muscle tension. Then, when there is a change of your horse’s state, be proactive and help them.
A lot of people want obedience and respect but that’s not the process that’s the goal! I prefer to call it, co-operative willingness, defined as, “deferring to leadership while remaining relaxed and trusting”. Re-read these words and use them as you talk about riding and apply them to what you are doing.
Here’s a practical application: You start with lungeing and your horse gives you the gaits, transitions and number of laps you think it needs to be ride ready. Ask yourself, what are the parameters that you measure the lunge session with? Mine are these: the horse shows me all the gaits in a tempo that I’m willing to ride. The body of the horse is on the line of the circle it is travelling - not bent to the outside. The topline is stretching forward and down while the legs are moving freely forward. The line is not taught. The horse maintains gait and direction until I give it another cue. Transitions are attentive and clean, followed by maintaining the new gait. I mentally score them “out of 10” as a way to measure connectivity and develop improvements.
I don’t ride until I have and eight plus on each item. Does this seem like too much to bother with? Your horse will tune into this process very quickly if you stop at the right time and move along to saddling and mounting, and finally the planned ride. The same principles apply to these steps also. A pre-ride check can take five minutes or less.
Last thing to remember is that every time you change the horse’s environment - going from the arena to the outside ring or to the trail can change its mental and emotional state. Take note of what you do that gets your horse to the cooperative willingness state. Move into that activity the instance you notice the horse losing its confidence. Stay in that activity until calm, relaxed responsiveness is regained, before proceeding. I guarantee that this process will work for you and give you the ability to move beyond the arena, the round pen or the level of skill that you have now.
Remember that cooperative willingness that signals connection is what you really need and are going to reward. Don’t be fooled by an obedient movement, wait for the calm, relaxed state to manifest and reward that with a break. Your horse will want to be in that relaxed state. Lead it there, offer it and reward it. The amazing result will be that you see your horse trying to stay there and this will be your greatest reward.