Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Do Unto Your Horse | 9/5/2012

To change your horse, change yourself first

By Ray Wheeler


The biggest part of my life has been spent around horses. When I first started, I came up in the way fairly typical of the time. My riding was relegated to breaking in babies. I considered this to be a poor use of my talent. Despite this I toiled on, waiting for someone to come along and buy me a string of quality horses with the appropriate budget, facility and a work force to take me to the top.

Then a funny thing happened. I found myself liking what I was doing. As time went on, I realized how much all of those horses had taught me, and how valuable those experiences were.

Nowadays I give lessons, do ground work and pass on what I have learned.

Some of the simplest things have great impact. I think people overlook or dismiss them, thinking ‘how can something that would fit inside a fortune cookie really be so powerful?’ But of you give these things a chance, you may find it easier than you ever thought to create significant and positive change in your riding. So here are some simple things you can try.


First: Reward sooner. Most people are late with their rewards and timing is important. When things get tough, we get worse. The horse gives a little try, too often there is no acknowledgement because we’re upset or don’t think the try is sufficient. It’s so important that at the moment the horse tries, the rider should soften enough to say ‘Yes. You’re on the right track.’ Don’t become adversarial with your horse. Remember, reward improvement, not perfection.

Second: Establish a reasonable emotional range in yourself. We all want our horse to be calm, focused and relaxed. Our horses want and deserve the same from us

Third: Give your horse a chance to be light by being light yourself. It drives me a little crazy to see people who jam their heel or spur into their horses’ sides as they walk, trot or canter off. It’s the epitome of lazy and thoughtless. Try using your calf and teach your horse to respond to it. A good aide should be issued in a clear, thoughtful manner. The horse should respond promptly and with the appropriate amount of energy. This is not that hard to do. All it really takes is consistency and the desire to create positive change.

Fourth: Visualize positive images. Most people only visualize when they get nervous and see impending disaster. And look how often it comes true. Before you ride or before a competition, take a few moments to go through things in your head. Focus on detail: feel it, hear it, see it. Remember to visualize a positive outcome. If you do this, I see good things in your future. See how easy it is?

Fifth: Know there’s a difference between rigid and strong. Strong allows you to maintain your position and stay with the movement. Strong means you resist with only the appropriate muscles. Rigid means tense. It means you can’t stay with the movement, and it means your horse’s chiropractor, acupuncturist, and vet will all be sending you Christmas cards expressing thanks for all the business you’ve sent them.

Sixth: If you find yourself in a real jam, stop. Everything can be broken down into simpler parts. Find out what part is broken, fix it and then put it all back together. Let’s say you’re having trouble with your leg yield. Maybe your horse bulges his shoulder. If you can’t fix it by leg yielding, stop leg yielding and do some exercises that enhance your horse’s response when you ask him to move his shoulder. Maybe counter bend on a circle, or ride some square patterns. Once you make some progress there, go back to the leg yield and try again. As the old saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Seventh: Love your horse for being a horse. He’s not a dog, a person or a motorcycle. You may think there’s nothing to practice here, but there is. If you don’t see your horse for who and what he is, your perspective of how he thinks, learns, sees life and what is important to him and what’s not, will all be skewed.

Eighth: Teach and allow your horse to try. He will never reach his potential at anything until he tries. That means you can’t be harsh with a horse for giving you the wrong answer. It’s how he learns. You must be careful not to inhibit this. For example, if you ask your horse to trot more forward, and he canters, don’t pull him up abruptly. Bring him back to trot, and ask him again.


As I look over this list, I realize that many of these things are simple statements, but not necessarily simple things to carry out. That’s riding isn’t it? But you can learn just the way your horse can, by giving a little try. If you are rewarded by finding a better response from your horse, you will know you are on the right path.


Ray Wheeler is a graduate of Lamar College in Colorado where he majored in horse training & management and has been training horses and riders for more than 30 years. His wife, Beth, is an eventer. Together they operate Wheeler Equestrian out of Hopeland Farm in Aiken.


This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.