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Always the rider?

From: Tanya

Dear Jessica, you probably won't remember me but I had the pleasure of riding in a clinic with you last year and have been mulling over something you said for about eight months now! I find that I really need some clarification, and you did say that you were always available to your riders, so here I am!

My Trakehner mare (chestnut of course) was very difficult during the first half of our lesson, but you wouldn't let me discipline her for pulling on the reins. You explained that she wasn't pulling but pushing, and that she was doing this out of discomfort. You gave me exercises to do that made me pay great attention to Talia and taught me to ask her to stretch just before she was about to pull, sorry, PUSH on the bit. Okay, that made sense, and she was obviously happy, and it certainly worked. I've been doing it ever since, by the way, and it still works, but now I don't have to do it nearly as often, maybe every ten minutes instead of every two minutes! But here's what I am really wondering about! You said "Whatever the horse is doing that you don't like, look to yourself for the answer, it's always the rider." But is it really ALWAYS the rider, Jessica? What if the horse is just being obnoxious, or what if the horse is expecting something because some other rider did it, like Talia was expecting me to jerk the reins, but I don't DO that. Wouldn't that mean that the HORSE is causing the problem, not the rider?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing you, and your methods certainly do work, but I wonder if maybe SOME problems aren't the horse's fault at least some of the time! You said we could ask any questions we wanted to. This is mine. Thanks and I hope you answer it!


Hi Tanya, of course I remember you, how could I possibly forget the combination of "Tanya and Talia"??? That's pretty memorable. ;-)

The answer to your question "Is it really always the rider?" is YES. Which is to say, perhaps not absolutely always, but as near as makes no difference. Let's say that 99.999% of the time, any problem will be the rider's fault, not the horse's so it's a good working assumption. And if you assume that it's the rider when it's actually the horse, you won't hurt anything by improving yourself -- but if you assume it's the horse when it's NOT the horse, you won't improve and neither will the horse.

Yes, it's always the rider, and here's why. Horses are reactive. Horses respond. When a horse gives you the "wrong" answer to an action or a question, you must ask yourself what it was that you just said to the horse. If you're unclear or if you're just plain asking the wrong question, you're going to get an answer that is "right" for the horse, that is to say it's an accurate answer to the question you asked, but it probably won't be the answer you WANTED or EXPECTED to the question you THOUGHT you'd asked.

Imagine that you are coaching a small child in arithmetic. The child consistently answers "FIVE" when you say "What's the sum of TWO and TWO?", and, just before you label the child "mathematically incapable", you tape a session and discover, to your horror, that you've actually been asking "What's the sum of TWO and THREE?" all along -- the answer was right but the question was wrong.

Riders do this to their horses ALL the time. A rider who wants her horse to canter from a trot will lean forward, grab the reins tightly, and kick the horse, and the horse will respond by trotting faster and faster, until the rider finally sits up and pulls hard on the horse's mouth to make it slow down. The rider thinks "That darned horse just won't canter, I guess I have to kick a lot harder next time!" The rider repeats her performance, kicks harder, and the horse trots still faster and is pulled in even harder.

So, what's happening here? The rider is getting angry because the horse "Won't listen" or "Refuses to canter." Meanwhile, the horse is getting steadily more upset and confused, as it's responding correctly to body language that says "Trot faster! Trot faster!" and is then punished, by being hurt in the mouth, for trotting faster.

Only the rider can stop the escalation of violence on the rider's part and fear, pain, and confusion on the horse's part. And it doesn't take very much: just listening to the horse, and being willing to assume that the horse is doing whatever it's doing in response to the rider.

The good rider will ALWAYS ask herself "What did I do?" when she gets a response other than the one she had in mind. If someone describes a horse as "full of evasions" or "full of resistances", ask yourself what it is that the horse is evading or resisting? Horses don't do either of those things in a vaccum. They're both RESPONSES to rider actions.

As for your example about Talia pushing on the bit although you weren't doing anything to provoke it, I have two answers for you: one is that you weren't deliberately causing it, but you also weren't doing anything to PREVENT it -- when you learned to listen to your mare and offer her the chance to stretch and relax BEFORE her muscles went into spasm, she had no reason to push, and she stopped pushing. That's the first answer. The second answer is that of course Talia was also (at least initially) responding, not to what you were or weren't doing, but to what her previous rider had done. Someone had obviously ridden that mare badly, probably in draw reins, to create those muscle knots and all that nervous anticipation and apprehension.... and so, I say again, it's always the rider. It isn't necessarily the PRESENT rider who's the cause of the problem; often, it was an earlier rider. But it's the PRESENT rider's obligation to clean up after all earlier riders, and to make the horse comfortable and confident. Which, by the way, is something that you were doing very nicely by the end of the clinic, and I'm not at all surprised to hear that you're doing even better now. Well done!


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