By Leigh Cooper
As instructors, we face challenges teaching communication and partnership between our student and the lesson horse. Some students’ horse time is often limited to a one-hour weekly lesson. They may not be able to spend hours observing horses in the pasture or participating in the daily care of the horses they ride. Despite these constraints, we can still show our students how to develop a partnership with a horse through mutual understanding.
An effective partnership requires an open channel of communication between two parties. So for us to be effective riders, we must first become listening riders. To facilitate this communication, we need to use a partnership-focused language, encourage our students to listen to feedback from the horse, and help them utilize that information.
The first step toward partnership is to encourage a two-way communication mindset.
Simply rephrasing how we speak about the horse can influence the rider’s mindset. We may be quick to dismiss a horse as “lazy, stubborn, or naughty,” but such language puts the focus on the horse being at fault, which disregards important feedback from our equine partner. By eliminating the notion that the horse is actively working against the rider, you foster an environment that is based on teamwork.
In addition, consider the difference in “make” versus “ask.” If we tell our student to “make” the horse do something, the answer is black and white—the horse either does or doesn’t do it. This teaches the student to believe the task must happen in order to accomplish something. In turn, this might cause the student to unconsciously tune out feedback from the horse in an effort to reach the desired result.
In contrast, saying “ask your horse to trot” instructs the student to give the cue, and if the message was not received by the horse, the instructor and student can troubleshoot the cause together: How was the message unclear, and how can we improve on it so the horse understands?
Second, we must encourage the student to be an active listener.
Have the student halt in the middle of the arena and then have him or her ask the horse to move forward on a loose rein. The student should note how the horse responds to the cue to move forward. Did the horse respond to the lightest cue, or did the rider need to escalate aids to initiate a response? Did the horse pin his ears? Is the horse focused on something outside the arena, or is he relaxed and listening? Are the horse’s muscles tense with his head raised? Does the horse step out willingly, or does he slow to a stop?
Once the horse is moving forward, ask the student to let the horse walk freely around the arena. The horse will drift to areas where he feels most comfortable or to where he has received a reward in the past, such as near the gate or in the middle of the arena. Have the student discuss where the horse’s attention is focused and what specific locations he feels most comfortable.
Now that a question has been asked of the horse, you can finally encourage the student to discuss what he or she learned from the horse’s response.
A horse focused on something outside the arena may have ignored the rider’s cues for different reasons than the horse that wanted to just plod along and/or stop. From the moment the student mounted the horse, he or she should be thinking, “What kind of rider do I need to be today to best communicate with my horse?”
The student must be open to change based on the feedback received from the horse. The rider also needs to learn that every horse will require a different approach to achieve two-way communication. This helps the student develop successful horse-human partnerships as he or she opens up to an individualized dialog.
For example, a student that starts out with loud cues, such as digging in with heels to get the horse to walk on, might find that the horse jumped forward, raised his head, and pins his ears. Noting that feedback, the student can try again, knowing from the first time that the horse was not comfortable with that amount of pressure.
Students should also learn that if the horse is struggling to find an answer to our question, it is the rider’s responsibility to acknowledge the misunderstanding and improve the communication.
Our goal is to have our student become a listening rider, one that strive for a working relationship with his or her horse. We don’t necessarily speaking the horse’s language, but we must find common ground to build a dialog that both horse and rider can tap into.
Teaching a student to listen to the horse helps him or her to realize that horses are not robots. Horses think and feel. Therefore, maintaining a line of communication with each horse is integral to effective riding. Each student must develop the habit of constantly checking in with the horse and use any feedback to build solid horse-and-rider partnerships. By learning to listen to the horse, even a rider that is limited to a few lessons a month can learn to build a partnership with any horse.