While watching the recent World Cup Final, it occurred to me how much the sport has moved on, with happier horses and riders, and relaxation and harmony being key ingredients.
Ten years ago, horses could win championships without halting at the start or end of the test, but now we see more natural power rather than riders using nervous energy as the turbo. The scores are higher now too, reflecting the improvement in the way of going.
My last column on nosebands resulted in a plethora of uncomplimentary communications on my Facebook page, including a lady who admonished me for using a noseband at all.
The truth is that riding isn’t natural; it’s a gift from the horse to us and we create pressure every time we ride simply by sitting on a horse’s back, guiding him with the reins or weight, and our responsibility is to keep it minimal.
The best riders use feel and understanding to ride and train with the least possible stress and refine it over years — for example, direct transitions from gait to gait on young horses become those tiny half-halts on the grand prix horses.
Looking for leadership
To create that perfect partnership, matching your personality to that of your horse is vital. Watching our many young horses who live in herds is endlessly fascinating — there is a bit of rough and tumble as they establish their pecking order, but the psychological advantages are immense.
We know who they are before we start training them and if, when stabled, one is bolshy, we often put it back in the group and manners improve no end — with no human intervention needed. As riding becomes part of their life and they learn to trust that they are safe away from their friends, they develop a very cute “pick me” attitude, bundling to the front to be the chosen one.
This herd instinct means horses look for leadership to feel secure. Most castrated horses do not have a leader mentality and mares often negotiate. Young horses will sometimes challenge the rider or handler to test the pecking order — if a clear message doesn’t come back, often they will test the rider again.
This often leads to the rider thinking their horse doesn’t like them, or is being naughty. It’s important to judge accurately if a young horse is seeking comfort or leadership as, when the two are confused, it results in a breakdown of communication when the horse is simply trying to establish the pecking order for his own security and mental comfort.
Kind and consistent
If your horse has a higher natural herd position, is a stallion or the dominant mare, then you may need to take a firmer line than if he is a “mid fielder”.
A horse lower in the pecking order will challenge you less, but the naturally timid ones are scared themselves and can be more unpredictable to back and need more encouragement in new environments. The “pushy” youngsters in the beginning are often the bravest in the arena.
The kindest thing you can be to your horse is consistent. Chirping at him in tones only dolphins can hear is as unproductive as shouting with voice or aids. Being calm, kind and consistent is the way to get the message across — a bit like on social media.
Ref Horse & Hound; 18 April 2019