"Be There For Him!"
|Grant says, "You people are not so scary as long as there are pretzels involved!"|
Equestrian is one of the weirdest sports there is, to be honest.
You've got a human being riding on the back of a horse, communicating through a language of subtle body movements to tell the horse to go, stop, turn, and jump over things.
Don't try to tell me that isn't totally bizarre when you get down to it.
Because we humans had the idea in the first place, it's our responsibility as riders to make sure we communicate with our horses in a way that they understand.
One of the most basic equine behavior principles we learned from Dr. Jenny at the clinic was that horses constantly seek two things: Safety and Comfort, with Safety being foremost of the two. If a horse is disobedient, it's likely because he doesn't feel safe or comfortable in some way. This simple concept was one that was a little difficult to wrap my brain around at first. I grew up in a horse culture that was based largely on the rider acting as the "enforcer". If the horse did not comply, it was my job to MAKE him comply, without much thought to how he felt about the situation. As a rider, I was responsible for winning every battle, instead of considering how to make my horse's job easier and more comfortable.
A favorite phrase from the weekend was, "Don't date-rape your horse." How many times do we just march into our horse's stall, grab them, toss them on the crossties, and get ready to ride without evaluating their mood first? It's basically like forcing your horse to go on a date with you. Dr. Jenny encouraged us to take our time when getting our horses ready to work and take into consideration what kind of day they're having, and adjust our plans accordingly.
Another saying that was uttered over and over again during the clinic was, "Be there for him!" Even the youngest riders in the group were encouraged to "be there" for their horses instead of acting like a passenger or using force to get their ponies to comply. Whether riders were asking their horses to do a physically difficult task or learn a new skill, "being there" for the horses meant that we all had to communicate our expectations clearly to allow our horses to give us the right answer. We were all encouraged to act as partners and leaders for our horses, and take things a step down for them if they didn't understand what we were asking. If our horses felt successful and knew when they did the right thing, they learned new skills MUCH faster, and were much more willing to comply with us!
One pony at the clinic had several refusals at the hay bale jump. Instead of instructing the pony's rider to whack him with her crop to make him jump, Dr. Jenny had her allow the pony to walk up and touch the jump with his nose to help him gain a better understanding. After that, he hopped over without issue. By realizing that the pony didn't feel safe and allowing him to gain safety by inspecting the fence, the rider used his curiosity to help him become confident about the task at hand. What a far cry from just beating the pony over the fence to prove a point!
For Dino and I, being there for my pony means taking time at the mounting block to make sure he's tuned in and in a good mental state before I even get on. It also means giving him the opportunity to respond to my light forward aids instead of going right to a kick, spur, or smack with the whip. I've ridden him twice so far since we got home, and while it took one session to remind him that the new rules still apply, we're doing well. I can see that going back to the basics and cultivating sensitivity is going to lead to great things for us. I have also been absolutely amazed at the extreme discipline and will-power that is required on my part to not be aggressive! My first instinct is to kick or dig hard with my heel to move Dino forward, and I have to use some serious self-control to use a light aid first and give him the opportunity to be sensitive. Dino is already much happier with this arrangement; he hasn't given me so much as a single tail-swish, and hasn't offered to break at the canter because I'm not digging into him with my spur to "keep him going".