Understanding your horses behaviour is not always black and white, but even the most subtle of expressions is extremely meaningful. We just have to learn the language.
As riders, we feel a compulsion to tell the horse what we want him to do – it could be a turn, stop, or change of pace for example – but we tend to not give enough thought to how we are asking the horse to do the job. All he needs is a little time, clarity, and direction. And that he deserves. Consider your intentions, your body language, before giving an aid to your horse. If you are carrying a degree of tension in your body, for example, it will be met with tension in the horse. If you are impatient or hasty in delivering your cue, it will be met with a impatient or hasty response from your mount.
Not getting the result you hoped for? You asked for a trot and you got a hop to canter, or you maybe asked for a leg yield and you only got an increase in speed. Before you take action to reprimand or ‘correct’ your horses behaviour, have you considered that it is not in the horses nature to intentionally disobey, or otherwise irritate you? One of my favourite quotes from a master in horsemanship, Ray Hunt “The horse does one of two things. He does what he thinks he’s supposed to do, or he does what he thinks he needs to do to survive.” In other words, horses don’t plan to do wrong things. They inherently behave and react appropriately to various stimuli in each situation they are faced with. To truly appreciate this, you need to understand and respect the horses natural instincts. Think for a moment about how a horse sees his environment – it’s a panoramic view, nearly 350 degrees. Think about how sensitively he can hear – ears shaped like cups with the ability to move 180 degrees to catch the slightest crunch of a leaf or potential whisper of a threat on the wind. That is an enormous amount of information to take in at once, especially when you’re finely tuned to flee at the slightest glimpse of potential danger. Think about how sensitive he is to touch – his skin can feel and simultaneously twitch off a practically weightless fly. Now think about all of the sensations he additionally has to process delivered by the rider, intentional or not. The weight placement and balance of the seat, the pressure of the leg, a squeeze of the rein, the cue of the voice, and more specifically the tone of that voice. Without question if you are hasty or impatient, perhaps due to nervousness, your body will deliver a less sensitive or poorly timed cue. And the horse feels it. Consider that his mistake is more likely yours.
Sensitivity combined with the desire for companionship and willingness to please is what allows humans to make requests of the horse, often with very little repetition required before the horse offers the ‘right’ reaction. This same sensitivity combined with the instinct of flight when threatened is what causes the horse to sometimes resist or potentially run away from an uncertain or uncomfortable situation.
If we are fair, consistent in pressure and timing, and immediate with reward (release of the aid once positive effort is made by the horse) then we have the best chance of gaining their trust and unlocking their greatest performance abilities.