As a former bookseller (Totally unrelated to horses, I know, but I promise I am going somewhere with this.) I used to have customers come into the store all the time looking for a book. When asked about for the title, many would look confused. Author? Nope. A common response was “I think it was blue.” (Red/ Green/ Violet/Had a Vampire on the Cover, you get the picture.) A bookseller worth their salt had some idea of the books on display, and could usually figure out what the customer wanted after making some (a few thousand) suggestions. This is sort of what our horses do for us as riders. We speak English and the horse speaks horse. This might be considered a language barrier, and turns the horses into detectives. Our job as humans is to give the horse the tools and clues to understand what we are asking them to do for us. Just because something is crystal clear in your head does not make the translation from head to pony perfect. There are myriad examples of things getting muddled in translation between humans, let alone between species.
Several years ago I was teaching my recently weaned youngster to lead. Having been haltered and led with Mama from a couple of days old I thought this going to be a piece of cake. The first day, I haltered her and led her out of her stall. She walked down the aisle without a problem. The second day, it went the same and continued thus for a week or more. I was feeling pretty smug and happy with how clever my girl was and felt I was ready to move on to the next step. Sure I was. Until the day I haltered her before she had finished her morning hay (Travesty, I know!) and she refused to come with me. Had she learned to lead? Well, she sort of knew that having a halter put on her meant I wanted her to do something, and being fairly affable she was willing when she had nothing better to do. When she wanted to eat her hay and I wanted to go somewhere, she didn’t know how to lead. A horse only really knows how to lead when they will come with you even when they might have other ideas. *I thought we were having the same conversation. We were not. More consistent work (and a helper who could bring up the rear to remind her that forward was the way to go) helped her understand what I wanted. Fast forward 6 years (!!) and now when she sees me coming with the halter she will walk up and put her head in, ready to go. (Although she has been known to glance longingly at her hay, sigh dramatically, and then come with me.) Magic? I wish. Just consistent a + b =c. All horse training is like this. Asking for a canter depart by touching her left ear one day and by spurring her left side another makes no sense. (Please note, before you sharpen the pitchforks I am not advocating either method for teaching the canter depart, just making a point.)
Remember to take baby steps and train slowly. If you are having a huge problem with your horse, take a step back and survey the situation: Is this a new behavior? Have I done all the steps leading up to asking this question? Am I being fair?** Also keep in mind, as with many things in life, training tends to be two steps forward and three steps back. Something you take for granted may not be there while you are introducing a new concept. That wonderful, through, rhythmic trot you had? You’ll most likely lose it while teaching trot extensions. Don’t panic, it will come back once your horse understands that you are asking for two separate things.
So should we throw in the towel because our horse doesn’t do what we ask right away? Well, no. This just means that as riders we must do our best to be consistent. It is our responsibility to make sure that the horse understands what we are asking of him, and that we ask in the same way every time. Considering we are dealing with two living, breathing, partners (I hope.) that are essentially tourists in foreign countries we can expect some miscommunication. So how can we help our horses? Although I have purchased the English to Horse Rosetta Stone for my horse, it doesn’t appear to be working, so it must be up to me.
*If you are thinking that pushing the issue may not be a big deal in a case like this, I assure you that if you need your horse to come with you RIGHT NOW in an emergency your horse needs to understand that not leading is not an option.
** And don’t forget to ask for help if you are well and truly stuck. A professional is there to help you, be it trainer, vet, farrier, chiropractor, etc.
The horse knows how to be a horse if we will leave him alone… but the riders don’t know how to ride. What we should be doing is creating riders and that takes care of the horse immediately. ~ Charles de Kunffy