Don’t let your horse or yourself just go through the motions — there’s a difference between doing things, and doing things well.
Maybe the biggest problem that I saw in my horses was that I realized that I needed to turn around and back up a lot more than I was currently doing, but I was just going through the motions and not getting out of the maneuver what I needed to. We use the back up and turn around to get their backs and shoulders up, and my horses were moving but they stayed shaped flat to the ground. If I were to attribute any of my recent success to one simple thing, it would be because of that; while I was doing lots of stuff, I wasn’t analyzing my horse in three dimensions.
Whenever you’re riding your horse, you’ve got to think of what’s going on underneath of you in three different dimensions: left/right, forward/back, and up/down. That last dimension was maybe the toughest for me to start thinking in, I would turn my horses around and while they would physically move across the arena, they weren’t moving up out of the dirt and as such never really got in athletic positions and never got really crisp through all of the maneuvers. It is not simply just moving around the arena that I’m looking for in a finished product.
To take that process and create an analogy, I try to relate this to courses in school, which would look a little bit like this:
1st – 3rd grade: First Dimension
Learn to move around the arena in the 1st dimension: left/right. Get them to be able to sidepass, give their hips up, and turn their shoulders. Or to relate it to schoolwork, this would be basic math: What numbers are, addition and subtraction.
4th-8th grade: Second Dimension
Build on that and add a second dimension to it: forward/back. When I go to my feet and ask for a body part to move, let the horse realize that it doesn’t need to go forward in order to move their body, so start shaping underneath me instead of ahead of me. Teach your horse about multiplication and division, or that multiplication is really just repeated addition and division is just repeated subtraction.
9th-12th grade: Third Dimension
When my horse no longer goes forward when I ask for shape, we can tighten everything up and teach them to come up when I squeeze my spurs into them. This is really what takes a long time, as building muscle over their back is a time-consuming process. Your horse begins to learn about powers and square roots: powers are repeated multiplication, and square roots are repeated division.
It’s so important that we realize how long that process took when we were kids in school, and start giving our horses the time they need to figure it out as well. I would venture to guess that some of us still struggle to understand exactly what’s going on when we talk about powers and square roots, so it’s easy to see how confused a horse would get about that 3rd dimension of shape.
In closing, you have to understand that as a horse trainer, you’ve got to be rooting for your horse to succeed. You’re their coach and teacher, and when you change your mindset to be one of “You can do this, I believe in you, try again”, rather than forcing them to do it, your horse will start trying harder. Take every mistake as an opportunity to show them again what it is you’re looking for and be very black and white about what you’re trying to get out of them, and they’ll give you every ounce of their heart and work hard for you. I often go to clinics on location and help people ride their own horses, and see a common theme: people getting frustrated at their horses for messing up and not getting it right, and I remind people all the time: if your horse knew how to do this, you wouldn’t be asking me for help.
It’s a good thing that the horse doesn’t get it right all the time, you need those mistakes to grow. If your horse is not a little bit uncomfortable, if you’re not a little bit uncomfortable through this process, you aren’t growing. Get used to being uncomfortable and rejoice in the process, and teach your horse to love being a little bit uncomfortable as well. The amazing thing to me about horses is that they are a mirror of our own personalities, and when you start thinking about their behavior as that, you’ll maybe recognize some of your own shortcomings and get better yourself. You can only coach a horse up to your own ability level — the fact that you’re here in the first place is a great first step, the next is to go out there and DO IT!