A horse’s (and rider’s) education should be build up step by step. We need a clear starting point from which we can add more and more details, so that we know where to begin and don’t just start in the middle. We also need a structure, or a plan. When I teach people and their horses, it is actually very common that the education hasn’t started at the beginning. Often, just by going back a few steps and adding the beginning, there will be a lot more understanding and calmness in the work.
Not having a good basis also leads to problems in the more advanced work, either because we cannot advance or because there are too many mistakes or stress. It is often not clear what exactly should be a response to an aid, for example, or which elements need to be there before we can start a new exercise.
Each education step should be small enough so that it can be reached easily by horse and rider. In that way our training will be very motivating and we will avoid frustration. If you are frustrated because something doesn’t work, take a moment to reflect on what you could do to make it more clear for yourself and for the horse. Maybe it is a technique you have to practice better, like having a giving hand, or your horse is missing an important preparation.
We have to find our “zero”, our starting point. Sometimes this zero is a lot further back than we think. It might be just being together with the horse in the arena because he is too stressed to do anything else, or practicing how to direct the horse with the rein (remember: we indicate direction with the rein on the neck, not with the hand in the mouth!), or practicing how to take up a good position in longing and how to handle the tools. Whenever you encounter a problem, ask yourself how far back you have to go in order to find that zero again, the moment in which things start to work again. If your education is build up step by step, you can go to your beginning and go through the steps one by one to see where the problem lies. If you don’t know your steps, you will not find a beginning and you will not know what to do to fix the problem. Over time, you will not have to go all the way back because you will know better which step isn’t working, so you will just have to go back to that point.
Sometimes we don’t really know which conditions must be there for a next step, and how small the details can be. I give you one example from my recent experience with my horse Minor. I wanted to practice enlarging and reducing the size of the circle with bending. It is an important preparation for shoulder-in and quarter-in. Minor got very tense and pushy when I tried that. I know that his pushiness is an expression of mental tension, of not comprehending something. To correct the pushy behaviour doesn’t help you in this case, it will only lead to more frustration (for example expressed by nipping or becoming fearful). You have to ask yourself: what is the reason? What does the horse not understand? Where am I making a mistake? I know that my body language and the handling of my tools was ok, meaning I showed direction with my body and Minor understands my whip signals and my aids on the cavesson well. I know that because I have practiced it in isolation. Then we need to think: what does he have to do, physically, in order to increase or decrease a circle? He must shift weight between the front legs. If you want to go somewhere, you first have to shift weight there. Try it out for yourself: walk on a circle and observe the weight distribution between your right and left leg. You will find that when increasing the circle, you need to put more weight on your outside foot, and when decreasing on your inside. The horse has to do the same.
So I tested my theory, that Minor didn’t know how to shift weight between his front legs, and asked him to shift weight from one front leg to the other in standing. At first he didn’t know what I wanted, but by showing him clearly with shifts of my own weight, he started to understand. We practiced a while in standing, on both hands, before I returned to movement. This time he could do it easily and the pushiness was gone. We also got a soft bend whereas before, he was not able to keep that.
Thus, being clear about our steps, about where the beginning is, and which elements need to work before we go to a next step, will give immense clarity and calmness to our work. Our horse will be very motivated because he can do what we ask of him and we will leave the arena with a smile, because it was such a good feeling to understand each another.