Riding from the Horse’s Point of View

I often see riders become angry because their horses aren’t doing what they want them to do. So, for a moment, I’d like you to consider riding from the horse’s point of view.

Although we know that we’re planning to ride in the arena and jump a few fences, the horse doesn’t understand this at all. Everything that is said between coach and student is unintelligible to the horse, making the only line of communication the rider’s touch.

Horses want a secure touch that carefully guides them every step of the way. This is not just through the hands keeping light and steady contact on the reins; but also through the legs, which become a horse’s “security blanket.” The animal can feel secure if the rider is always guiding it; but the horse is lost if the rider drops these lines of communication. All of a sudden, it is aimlessly moving around the arena, becoming apprehensive because it doesn’t know what the rider wants it to do next.

You may have a plan, but it won’t work out unless you successfully convey it to the horse. For example, I sometimes see riders galloping at an angle toward a fence, but not making it clear to the horse whether they want to gallop past the fence or jump it at an angle. When this confusion arises as a horse approaches a fence intended to be jumped at an angle, the horse will usually run out. You have to remember that horses gallop past fences frequently when performing a circle before the course, so the fact that you’re now wanting to jump the fence at an angle is not always clear.

To jump a fence at an angle, the rider’s hands and legs should be holding the horse’s body straight on the approach, and the rider’s eyes should look at a focal point beyond the fence to further indicate the desired direction of travel. In contrast, to gallop past a fence on the opening circle, the rider’s aids should keep the horse uniformly bent from head to tail, so that the animal is not looking straight ahead to the nearby fence, but is bent to the inside of the curve. (For more information on bending, see “How to Bend a Horse” in the “Horse Articles” section.) The rider’s eyes should also be looking along the curve–about a quarter of a circle ahead–with the jump that is being passed visible in the rider’s peripheral vision so that he won’t accidentally guide the horse’s shoulder too close to the standard. These directions–given to the horse through the touch of the rider’s hands and legs, which place the body position of the horse–differentiate what the rider is asking.

If you were blindfolded and about to go through a difficult maze with the help of another person steering you with their hands on your shoulders, then the way they touched you would be very important. The steadier the touch, the easier it would be for you to go through the maze and feel secure; but if the person occasionally removed one hand or both hands, you’d become anxious and confused.

Although the horse can see, it can’t understand the verbal instructions your coach is giving you, such as “Jump fences 1, 2, 3; halt, back up four steps; trot fence 4; then canter fences 5, 6, 7, and 8.” Only the rider’s touch is going to convey these instructions. So give your horse confidence through a steady touch and be sympathetic to the fact that you know the plan ahead of time, but the horse doesn’t. 

Let Your Excitable Horse Realize It Is Tired

If a horse is excitable when it comes out to work, riders tend to work the animal for long periods of time in an effort to wear it out to achieve compliance. The initial excitability of the animal causes an adrenaline rush, just as though the horse were fearing for its life and needed adrenaline to enable it to run fast for a long period of time to escape a predator. If the rider (or even someone longeing a horse) doesn’t give the animal frequent breaks, the horse’s emotional state remains frenzied, which keeps the adrenaline flowing.

If a horse is very nervous at the start of work, it’s fine to give it short spurts of canter with the rider’s seat off the saddle in two-point position—no more than three times around the arena—followed by a break of about five minutes so that the horse’s level of both adrenaline and oxygen can decline in intensity. As you know, adrenaline and oxygen can cause humans to accomplish what seem to be super-human feats of physicality, and the same is true of an animal; so it is important to get the horse back to a more normal physical and emotional state before you start to work again, or else you’ll find yourself fighting a battle you cannot possibly win.

The oxygen and adrenaline levels are very important, but the horse’s mental state and its ability to realize it is tired are equally important. A walk on a long rein (or at least as long as you can have and still control the nervous horse) provides the animal an opportunity to relax; and once it has relaxed a little, it will realize it is tired. Just as you come to a point in a hard day that you think, “I’m worn out,” and start finding ways to take it a little easier, the horse will do the same. Instead of looking for things to spook at, it will just mind its business and cooperate.

This principle is true in all training of the horse. You don’t want to exhaust the animal, for this can be dangerous if your horse doesn’t have what it needs physically and mentally to do what you’re asking of it—for example, jumping a course of fences. What you’re really looking for is a relaxed horse that is willingly submissive. You’ll get this when you offer frequent breaks in your work routine.

If you’re longeing the horse, change directions about every five minutes, and take plenty of time while you’re switching the equipment to the other side, so the horse has a little time to settle. Also, don’t longe more than 20 minutes. After this time, when you get on the horse, walk it for at least five minutes on a long rein and let it relax. If you have time, you can even take the horse back to the barn, cool it out, then tack it up later for your ride. You’ll be amazed at how much more successful your work session will be if you’ll give your horse time to calm down, relax, and feel that it is a little tired.

If you’ve taken the route of short periods of canter in two-point, go three times around the ring, take a five-minute break, then change direction and do the same thing one more time. If this doesn’t sufficiently calm the horse, you can do the same routine twice more; but again, concentrate as much on a lengthy break time as you do on the cantering, so that the horse can become more calm, relaxed, and aware of the fact that its body is tired.

The people who constantly resort to lengthy gallops or an hour of longeing end up with a horse so fit that the initial problem of the horse being at a physical advantage is greatly increased. Also, overwork can cause lameness and other physical problems, so it’s not a wise thing to do. The next time your horse is keyed up, use short periods of work, interspersed with frequent breaks, to make the horse’s mind and body more manageable, rather than taking the lengthy and less-successful route of working your horse nearly to death or attempting to muscle it into submission.

Teaching a Horse to Land on a Particular Lead

It is wise to teach your horse to land on a certain lead after each fence that is last in a line of fences and over any other fence that immediately precedes a turn. By landing on the correct lead, the rider avoids the flying change of lead altogether, which makes the round smoother, gives the rider more time to think about the upcoming fence, and avoids any penalties that might be incurred by a poor lead change.

It is best to teach the horse to land on a desired lead by working over a single fence placed in the middle of an imagined figure-eight pattern. The fence should be in an open area so that the horse can jump the fence and circle to either the left or right without running into anything.

First, you can work only one side of the pattern–for example, jump the fence on a circle to the right several times, giving the horse the aids to land on the right lead:

  • right indirect rein
  • left leg in behind-the-girth position

These are the same aids as those used for the right lead canter depart. There are two additional aids that you can also use to help the horse understand what lead you want:

  • the rider’s eyes looking slightly toward the direction of the desired lead
  • both of the rider’s hands shifted slightly toward the direction of the desired lead, so that the outside hand acts as a mild neck rein and the inside hand acts as a mild leading rein.

Once the horse responds correctly to the aids by landing on the right lead a few times, give the animal a break as a reward and let what it has learned “sink in.” Then, try jumping the same fence and asking the horse to land on the left lead.

  • left indirect rein
  • right leg in behind-the-girth position

Also, remember to:

  • look slightly toward the left
  • shift both of your hands slightly toward the left

When the horse has got the hang of it, you can work a figure-eight pattern over the fence, first landing on the right lead, then landing on the left lead, etc. Be sure to apply your aids subtly, for you’ll be penalized if the judge sees you slinging your upper body around in the air or yanking on your horse’s mouth to get the lead. The aids should be subtle, with most of the work being done by your lower leg, rather than your upper body or hands.

Benevolent Riding

The two most important factors in a relationship with any horse are trust and consistency.   Especially when a rider is approaching an obstacle to be jumped, the horse needs to feel that the rider is trustworthy—that is, the rider is presenting the horse at a reasonable take-off spot from which it can safely clear the fence.  If the horse knows from experience that the rider can be trusted, it will usually make every effort to obey, without being hindered by fear and anxiety.  If, however, the horse has found the rider’s judgement to be unreliable in the past, it will nervously try to figure out the situation and protect itself, sometimes chipping in or even stopping at the fence.

Trust is developed when the rider is consistent in his approach to the horse.  If you think about your relationships with other people, who do you trust?  Would it be the person who was supposed to pick you at the airport, but forgot?  Would it be the person who owed you money, but never paid?  Of course not! The people we trust are the ones who consistently come through for us, time and time again.  People are not perfect and can make honest mistakes; but you have to realize that for every mistake, even an honest one, you’ll have to work very hard to regain the trust of the person—or horse—affected by it.

To be a “benevolent rider,” your full attention has to be on your horse every minute you’re on its back. Your legs and hands should be giving the animal guidance and support so that it can relax into a relationship with you.  Without clear guidance, the horse is left guessing about what is coming next, and this causes a certain level of anxiety that is increasingly heightened as speed and obstacles come into play.  If you want compliance from your horse, prove to the animal you are trustworthy.  You build this trust by being reasonable in your demands, accurate with your aids, and constantly thinking ahead so that you can guide the horse calmly and securely through even the most difficult courses.