We riders are constantly walking a line. On one side is not asking enough, not taking on an issue a horse may be facing, mitigating and kicking the can down the road such that a small issue today becomes a massive, great white whale of an issue later on.
On the other side is asking too much, raising the bar too high and being unfair. Sometimes that line is a country mile wide, and sometimes it’s razor thin, but it’s hard for any rider, especially those who are just making their way up the levels for the first time, to know when it’s time to call it a day, and when it’s time to persevere.
Sometimes you can do a greater disservice to a horse by NOT taking an issue on in a timely fashion, causing the horse to become spoiled, or to learn an undesirable mechanism.
When a horse I’m riding isn’t doing what I’m asking, here are a few questions I ask myself.
1. Is the horse ready to do what I’m asking?
This is a no-brainer; if I’m asking for piaffe-passage transitions on a 4-year-old, or approaching the 60-minute mark on a 90-degree day, I’m well outside the realm of reasonable expectations. But I’m well within my rights to ask a horse to do work of which he’s physically capable of, and I’m also within my rights to ask him to take one step outside his comfort zone.
2. Is the horse making a reasonable effort to answer the question?
If a horse just makes a mistake, then he just makes a mistake. But horses are people too, and more than once I’ve had a young or developing horse just not give me his best effort, because he’s a teenager, and he’d rather be eating grass with his friends than indulging my desire to leg yield or canter or whatever he’s unimpressed with.
But I have to be wise in knowing the difference.
Right now there are a few horses in my life who are new to our program, and who are doing third-ish level work, but can’t canter straight. When I ask them, they make all kinds of dumb mistakes—flying changes, breaking to trot, lurching about. But they’re not giving me grief to be contrary, they’re giving me grief because they’ve just never had to really canter straight and upright like I’m asking them.
They’re making an effort, they’re just not being successful. So I respond in kind: by coolly and calmly regrouping, then asking again.
3. Does the “punishment” fit the “crime?”
Of course I don’t mean punishment; the play on words just appeals to my Liberal Arts education. What I really mean is “correction”—is the way I correct the wrong answer on the same level as the transgression?
If, for example, I ask a second level horse to move forward from walk to canter, and he makes the transition from walk to trot instead, I’m allowed to give the horse a little tap with my stick, or a nudge with my heel, because he needs to stand at attention and give me a better effort.
But if I ask that same horse for a transition from walk to trot and he canters instead, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to make the correction with my leg or stick. The horse made a good-faith effort at answering the question and just simply wasn’t successful, so I’ll coolly return to walk, take a breath, and ask again.
4. Am I being clear about what I want?
Are my aids precise? Is my timing excellent? And when I make a correction, am I addressing the right body part?
Sometimes a horse feels behind the leg when he’s really just on the forehand, or sometimes a horse feels strong in the bridle when he’s really not engaged enough behind, or the like. Am I addressing the lowest common denominator of a problem, and am I breaking it down into bite-sized nuggets, or am I trying to take on too many things at once?
5. Am I bringing a spirit of “play” to the difficult work, and inspiring confidence in my horse?
One of the pinnacles of the Grand Prix work is the piaffe, an extremely difficult movement that requires a horse bring tremendous energy, but not actually go anywhere with it. That can induce a lot of claustrophobia in a horse, and done badly, it creates an unstable, explosive nervousness.
I make sure that, when I’m teaching something big and scary like piaffe, I break it down into little nuggets, and I keep the work lighthearted. Most of the time, the first thing I do is tickle the horse with the stick from collected walk, keeping a slightly sloppy contact, for lack of a better term—enough contact to help keep the horse in a round package from back to front, but always allowing the horse to feel like there’s a place for the energy to go.
The horse will make all sorts of mistakes: trotting off, kicking at the stick, getting frustrated and reining back. And I don’t care about any of it.
I stay cool and level, and will turn the horse in a turn on the haunches or a bit of a leg yield if he gets a little frazzled. The second he volunteers one or two steps that even vaguely resemble half steps, I stop asking and praise like crazy. The pressure and the expectations stay low, and the reward stays high.
If it’s a game, if it’s play, you’d be amazed at how quickly even the most frazzled character settles in. If I make it a Big Freaking Deal, the horse will too, and until I want to add drama and power to a horse well established in the work, I want everything to be a very very Small Deal.
6. Is there an end in sight?
Do I know where to declare victory and call it a day? If the horse has done five really good transitions, what’s the value of the sixth? If the horse has been making a really concerted effort and is starting to fatigue, should I give him a break and then try again, or just pack it in? The answer comes in knowing my horse and making the best judgement call I can.
Of course, all of these are secondary to having done my homework to make sure there’s no external forces in play: my tack fits, the horse is healthy and sound, and I’m skilled enough to take on the task ahead. If I have any doubts, I stop and get the help I need, from my vet, my farrier, my coach, or my saddle fitter.
And at the end of the day, I believe that it’s always better to end a ride too early than too late. While I don’t want to push issues down the road such that they fester, one lighter day never killed anyone. And it’s often amazing to behold the curative powers of a refreshing hack, or a day off. Sometimes problems just disappear in the fresh light of a new day!