Es­tab­lish bound­aries

EQUUS - - Conversati­ons -

and avoid giv­ing him an aid for some­thing he can’t do at that mo­ment.

Sec­ond, rec­og­nize his men­tal lim­i­ta­tions. Just as a horse may have trou­ble with your re­quest phys­i­cally, his men­tal abil­ity to per­form a task de­pends on his age, train­ing level and past ex­pe­ri­ences. Don’t ever trap your horse into a prob­lem that he doesn’t have the abil­ity to solve.

Your horse will not calmly do what you ask sim­ply be­cause he likes you. Horses aren’t wired for that kind of loy­alty. He will do what you ask of him if you lay down some ground rules and clearly and con­sis­tently com­mu­ni­cate what it is you ex­pect of him.

When I was a young rider, I was taught a great ex­pres­sion: “The horse has to be in­side of a box and have com­plete free­dom within that box.” This means that there are es­tab­lished rules and a clear pur­pose for the horse within a spe­cific space. It’s im­por­tant that he have com­plete free­dom to think and ex­press him­self within the box, but he has to op­er­ate in­side of the frame­work you cre­ate for him. The horse isn’t al­lowed to do cer­tain things in­side of that box. And as the leader, you need to com­mu­ni­cate the rules.

This can be ac­com­plished in sim­ple ex­er­cises. I of­ten use a drill based on this con­cept to get an anx­ious jumper to stop run­ning out on a fence. I put cones or rails on the ground set fairly wide apart to mark the path the horse must fol­low lead­ing to the jump, and I es­tab­lish the rule that there is no run­ning away from the fence. I put the horse in a box by clearly mark­ing the space that he can oc­cupy with the cones on the ground.

The horse is al­lowed to stop and look at the fence if he doesn’t un­der­stand. But he is not al­lowed to run past it or to avoid it by run­ning away. He can knock the fence down, but he has to fol­low the rules and go be­tween the cones. He is free to ex­press him­self, to make mis­takes---but the rule is that he must fol­low the path that I’ve out­lined.

Use pre­cise aids

We all com­mu­ni­cate with our horses the same way. With the leg, the bit, the crop and with body lan­guage on the ground, we ap­ply and re­lease pres­sure to tell them what we want them to do.

The con­sis­tent ap­pli­ca­tion of th­ese aids is a never-end­ing chal­lenge for any horseper­son, and when you’re work­ing with an anx­ious horse, it be­comes an even more im­por­tant goal.

Most peo­ple fo­cus on the ap­pli­ca­tion of the aids but not the re­lease of the aids. The re­lease of the aids, at the right time, is ac­tu­ally the most pow­er­ful tool you have. When it comes to the re­lease, the age-old adage ap­plies: Ex­pect a lit­tle and re­ward a lot.

Ev­ery time you ap­ply pres­sure, you are ask­ing the horse for a lit­tle some­thing. The ex­act mo­ment he re­sponds, you re­lease pres­sure---you re­ward him by soft­en­ing the aid. The goal is to get to the point that, af­ter you begin ap­ply­ing pres­sure, you no­tice the pre­cise mo­ment the horse starts to com­ply and you re­ward him with im­me­di­ate re­lease. In other words, you in­stantly re­ward even his small­est at­tempt to get it right.

Be his com­fort

To help an anx­ious horse make progress, you must be­come a re­li­able pres­ence in his life. But keep in mind, you can’t pity him. Re­gard­less of what caused him to be­come anx­ious, he won’t ben­e­fit from your feel­ing sorry for him. In fact, he’ll quickly learn that he

Just as a horse may have trou­ble with your re­quest phys­i­cally, his men­tal abil­ity to per­form a task de­pends on his age, train­ing level and past ex­pe­ri­ences.

can push you around. This could make you ner­vous, and your anx­i­ety com­pounded with the horse’s anx­i­ety will only worsen the sit­u­a­tion.

In­stead, bring him com­fort through the con­sis­tency of your ef­forts and by us­ing the pres­sure-re­lease tech­nique to en­cour­age him to re­lax. Again, this re­ward is in the re­lease or soft­en­ing of the pres­sure---and as soon as you no­tice him re­lax­ing into his job, it’s a big mo­ment to praise.

For an anx­ious horse, it’s all about the one-on-one time. The more clar­ity he has in his part­ner­ship with a sin­gle per­son, the bet­ter. A ner­vous horse prob­a­bly won’t do his best in an en­vi­ron­ment where he works with some­one dif­fer­ent ev­ery time he steps into the ring. This could be a goal for him down the line, but first work on over­com­ing his anx­i­ety by com­mit­ting to build a part­ner­ship be­tween the two of you.

To avoid frus­tra­tion for both you and your horse, fo­cus on im­prov­ing your part­ner­ship by lit­tle in­cre­ments at a time. It isn’t re­al­is­tic to ex­pect big leaps for­ward or for the horse’s anx­i­ety to sud­denly dis­si­pate. With lots of pa­tience, you’ll al­most al­ways see re­sults.

Some cases of anx­i­ety in horses are es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult to deal with. For ex­am­ple, ner­vous­ness may orig­i­nate from a bad ex­pe­ri­ence: Whether by an ac­ci­dent or a rider’s mis­take, the horse got hurt and some­thing scared him. This kind of fear can be very hard to over­come. In th­ese cases, you’ll need to seek the as­sis­tance of a pro­fes­sional trainer and fig­ure out what’s pos­si­ble.

How­ever, the vast ma­jor­ity of anx­ious horses can im­prove with sen­si­ble and con­sis­tent han­dling. Eas­ing your horse’s anx­i­ety, much like any as­pect of rid­ing that you’re work­ing to im­prove, is a never-end­ing process. We are all con­stantly work­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with our horses bet­ter, to make our aids clearer and time them bet­ter.

You’ll know you’re get­ting some­where when the horse’s re­ac­tion to your aids is sim­ple, easy and re­laxed. His ease sig­nals to you that he’s not just do­ing the job you ask, he un­der

stands it.

For an anx­ious horse, it’s all about the oneon-one time. The more

clar­ity he has in his part­ner­ship with a sin­gle

per­son, the bet­ter.

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