Who’s agenda are you on — yours, or your horses’?

Watching hundreds of lower level riders today at a local unrecognized horse trial, one the biggest in the country held each autumn, you get a sense of what the basics really are in riding well, and the bare minimum of what horses and ponies MUST be taught in order to be enjoyable rides.

I was talking with a friend who was humbly hiding a blue ribbon after visiting the scoring booth. She had brought a talented but green young horse for the day and it turned out well; but she explained the horse had been through some hands prior to her getting a chance to work with him. As she listed the owner, and what they wanted from the horse, I realized this horse was really not a part of each one of the previous riders’ agendas. They wanted a foxhunter, a jumper, or a trail horse and forced him, without training him, to fit within those agendas. The horse tried but failed at those agendas basically because HIS agenda was neglected. Fortunately for him, my friend can school a horse very well and he was getting the care and attention he needed to become a good horse.

If you find a nice horse to ride, and just want to hack on the trails on the weekends, you still have a responsibility to respect the horse’s agenda. Are you one of those people who have purchased a new horse and owned it for months before even teaching it “whoa”, or to cross tie for grooming, or perhaps its canter leads, or to load on a horse trailer?

Really? Whose agenda are you on?  I think it is  an adult responsibility of horsemanship to make certain your horse understands the basic aids to stop, back, go right, go left, slow down, speed up, stand tied, and stand to be mounted. When you ride in a clinic with Olympic gold and silver medalists David and Karen O’Connor, this is what you’ll hear in the first introductory lecture: “The horse needs to learn to go forward, come back, go left, and go right.” If that is the recipe for an Olympic Gold medal, then in its most basic level, it has the potential to help any rider in any seat, doing any discipline.

Once I was gone all day jump judging at a very large, prestigious event, and on the way home had to stop at a small schooling show to pick up a horse. While I was there, a junior trail class was underway. I watched the most competent display of “go left, go right” I had seen all day from a 7-year-old girl mounted on a 1,300-lb. quarter horse gelding, in a tiny western saddle, where her little heels were only able to contact his sides in a tiny patch on each side of his barrel. Without a whip, spurs, screaming and yelling, fanfare, or extertion, she sidepassed that big horse very carefully all the way down a raised 15-ft. rail, and then sidepassed him back. One step at a time, touching nothing, absolutely straight. It was breathtaking when you contrasted it with the Olympic level riders I had seen just hours earlier see-sawing and kicking to get young horses over obstacles. Obviously, the horse was well trained, you say. Yes, the horse was well trained — because someone respected the horse’s agenda, somewhere back in his life. Then, they took the little rider and instilled the basics of equitation – and there you go. A success.

When you buy a horse, you hope that he will fit your bill. Expecially if you gamble on a young horse, you’re hoping you selected properly enough to obtain a horse that automatically will fit your agenda; become the quiet and capable hunt horse you’ve been desiring, the bold and careful jumper, the reliable yet forward children’s pony. You don’t want to work to ride, you just want to ride.  But the horse can’t learn his job by osmosis. He has to be given the tools to become the horse you need. If you can’t train the horse to his job, then you yourself need training, or to send the horse for the training he needs. This seems like such a simple concept, yet it is ignored or de-emphasized by so many riders, usually adults who really know better. (And I know this because I am the first culprit to point a finger at! I am quite guilty of neglecting the basics on my horses! They are often naughty as a direct result of my own failings.) But here’s the really exciting part of this: it honestly takes so little time. Each day, each ride, a little bit of training goes a long way. Each day builds on the next, and within a week your horse knows “whoa”, and a month, his canter leads, and two-three months, he’s comfortable ridden in the arena alone, perhaps can hack out alone….it just takes a few moments of schooling, a consistent visiting of the basics in every ride — attention to the horse’s training, consideration of HIS agenda. And the reason your horse’s agenda has to be addressed first is because it is a polite way of being responsible for his role as a dumb animal. As a human, you know what is coming, but he does not. You need to make him confident in accepting what comes by having the training, knowing the aids, the basics – stop, back, go left, go right.  Your attention to his training makes him confident. When he is confident, then you’ve done your homework. His agenda then has become your agenda. Once he learns his job, then you get your turn to have an agenda! And THAT is when you really start to understand the art of riding. That’s my take on it!

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