By Leigh Cooper
A reliable school horse is essential to any lesson program. Riding instructors tasked with teaching beginners need horses that are well-rounded enough to safely accommodate riders of a wide range of abilities. Horses that are relaxed around novice riders are hard to come by, but they are integral to a rider’s early education as they allow for a safe learning environment. Preparation is key in setting a lesson horse up for success.
All riders work to be as quiet as possible with the aids. More experienced riders who have achieved the ability to use quiet aids can limit the horse’s exposure to a rider that is outside their realm of expertise. Therefore, if a horse that is used to being ridden by a quiet rider is to be used as a lesson horse, it’s important to work with him to prepare him for a less experienced or nervous rider. We will describe exercises that can help do this, but we will split our riders into two categories: the inexperienced rider and the nervous rider.
The Inexperienced Rider
The approach in teaching a horse to be patient with an inexperienced rider is for an experienced rider to imitate these types of riders for a session, test out how the horse reacts, and address any feedback from the horse that reveals whether or not he is ready for these types of riders. This exercise can be utilized with horses that are entering a lesson program or as a test for privately owned horses to be assessed by a trainer to see if they are ready for another rider’s current ability. The goal is not to desensitize the horse to our cues, but instead to help the horse understand he or she does not have to fear or overreact to variations in cues from different riders.
For safety, use a round pen or an enclosed space without obstacles. And always see how the horse reacts at the walk first before moving up in gait. Start by creating what the horse may encounter with an inexperienced rider. These riders often have unrefined cues, bounce at the trot, or occasionally lose a stirrup. Steering may still be a work in progress, the reins may flap, and cues may be abrupt and unforgiving. During this exercise, keep in mind that bigger is better.
Typically, a bigger cue means more from the horse, and that’s fine. What we don’t want is for the horse to think big cues are scary. Look for tension in the horse—quick, jerky movements, shying, or a high head are signs the horse is uncomfortable and nervous about what the rider is doing on his back. Use this as a starting point, and build the horse’s confidence from there. For example, if the horse is afraid of the rider with flapping arms, keep waving your arms and then scratch the horse’s neck in rhythm, having him associate the waving with a reward.
If the horse reads big or loud cues as “go fast,” give those cues and then immediately quiet your body, letting the horse come back down to the stop naturally without using the reins. Reward the horse by letting him stand and rest. Here the recovery is the test. How long did it take the horse to come back down to the stop? Did the loud rider make the horse run out of control with no hope of slowing down? If the horse does not want to slow down off a relaxed seat in the saddle, reinforce this aid by tilting his head into a gradually smaller circle to help him figure it out. Keep in mind that the reins should be the last resort to stopping the horse during this exercise.
For inexperienced riders, rein management can be difficult, especially in an emergency, so the lesson horse needs to be able to regulate his speed on his own and slow down if the rider gets in a bind. Pretty soon, the horse will realize that the rider may be doing all sorts of interesting movements on his back, but his job is to not overreact.
The Nervous Rider
To acclimate a horse to nervous riders, consider how the nervous rider acts and how these messages are perceived by the horse. A horse that is mostly used to experienced riders may be used to an active seat, one that allows for freedom of movement. However, nervous riders are often tense with hunched shoulders, tight legs, and have an unforgiving grip on the reins. These conflicting messages create a considerable amount of pressure on the horse.
Therefore, with this exercise, start small by riding with a tense body. A tense body doesn’t move with the horse, but it does create an energy that the horse often reads as “go forward.” Reassure the horse that when stiffness from the rider is felt, they need to check in and slow down.
Begin by practicing this at the walk. If the horse speeds up, tip their nose into a circle and gradually spiral them in until they stop. When the horse relaxes, reward him with a scratch on the neck. Here the horse’s default should be to slow down and think instead of escalating the situation, because a faster gait from the horse may cause further tension from an already nervous rider. Once the horse has proven that he is able to handle this, continue to layer on the nervous rider mannerisms.
Keep lessons short. We don’t want to deaden the horse to our cues, but it’s important to know how he would react if faced with these types of riders. Also keep in mind, some horses simply do not feel comfortable with the amount of pressure a nervous rider may put on them, no matter how much prep work we give them. In such cases, it’s good to know a horse’s boundaries to avoid putting a rider in danger.
The more you expose the horse to by imitating inexperienced or nervous riders, the safer you are making the horse for any future riders. In the end, you will set the horse up for success as a valued partner in your lesson program and throughout his life.