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.