Training a horse is as much art as science. The great masters combine timing and feel, knowledge and intuition. While the ingredients are the same, a combination of seat, leg, and rein aids, the recipe varies from horse to horse and from day to day.
The young horse first learns vocal commands. A cluck, a kiss means go forward. These are later combined with the rider's seat and leg aids with consistency until the association between the seat and leg aids and the forward response are firmly established. Learning happens through the decision making process.
Action → Reaction/Response → Reward
As training progresses, the questions become less true/false and more multiple choice. I want you to go not just forward, but forward and sideways, forward and straight. And, the conversation becomes not just about forward, but varying degrees of forward. From the simple working trot develops the lengthen stride in trot, the collected trot, the medium trot, and the extended trot. It is inevitable that at some point, your horse will stop in puzzlement and frustration and ask, you want me to do what now?
It is in these moments that impartiality and patience serve us best.
Your job is to educate your horse so that you have a better than average chance of getting the desired response to any given question. That means breaking each question down into smaller component parts and teaching each part in isolation, and then recombining the parts to form a whole. For example, we might want to ride a shoulder-in. We start by teaching the horse to go freely forward with connection, we teach him about bend by riding in proper alignment on various size circles, we teach him how to move forward and sideways in a leg-yield. We then ride transitions within the trot, asking our horse to engage his hindquarters and carry more weight behind. After months, sometimes years, of preparation, we combine the forward and sideways with bend and a degree of engagement into the shoulder-in exercise. If we've done our homework, the horse understands what is being asked of him and complies with willingness. If at any point the rhythm of the gait is compromised, we go back and revisit the very first lesson and send the horse freely forward again.
Too often we are focused so much on where we want to go, that we forget about all of the little lessons that get us there. The more we program the correct responses to the simple questions, the easier the more complicated movements become. Do not rush the process! Practice patience without complacence. We want to challenge our horse, but we do not want to stray too far out of his comfort zone. If we never ask difficult questions, we never expand our boundaries. But we want to do it in such a way that relaxation is always a stride away.
Your horse says no. How do you respond?
First, make sure your horse is physically capable of what is being asked of him. Then, make sure that your position is correct and your aids are clear. Look to yourself first before you assume the problem is the horse.
Do a mental check-in. Quickly relieve any tension in your own body and mind that may be building, and let go of any stress. Remain relaxed and focused. Stay centered and mindful in your riding. Recognize and manage your emotions.
Break the request down into smaller component parts. Reward the attempt; don't lose the chance to channel the behavior in the proper direction.
Use play to deal with challenges. Endless 20 m circles might be fun for you but mind-numbingly boring to your equine partner. Take him outside the arena, use obstacles, cavelletti, engage him mentally as well as physically in the learning process. Be inventive, rather than combative. Turn evasions into opportunities and realize that many different roads lead to the same final destination.
Above all, make the relationship your priority! What do I need to do right now, today, to better communicate my expectations to my horse? How can I be more effective? Be willing to focus completely on the present moment, knowing that you always have tomorrow. It does not all have to be accomplished today.
Conflict is a normal part of relationship building. You and your horse will not agree on everything all of the time. But, if handled in a positive and respectful way, conflict can result in learning and a stronger partnership.