In my years of teaching and being taught, I cannot begin to count the number of times I have heard a rider exclaim how late she is for her lessons, and that if she doesn’t get to lunge or ride her horse for a good half hour before the coach comes she’ll be sitting airs above the ground rather than working on transitions. Learning how to read your horse and teach him a few simple attention-getting exercises can make all the difference on those days where you have only a few minutes to prepare for lessons.
Take care of yourself first
Even if you’re rushed, you need to take a moment to settle yourself down and take some deep breaths before you catch your horse for lessons. If you don’t, he’ll pick up immediately on your attitude and begin to think something is wrong. And as we all eventually learn, the more you try to rush a horse, the worse things get. The old saying “act like you’ve got all day and it will only take a minute” rings very true!
Who is your horse today?
Some of us are lucky to have steady, constant horses, while other equines seem to have multiple personalities that can change due to any number of factors. I start judging how my daily rides are going to go as soon as I step out the door to drive to the barn. What is the weather like? Sudden drops in temperature, high winds and/or an impending storm can mean I’ll need to pay extra attention to the whereabouts of my sensitive horse’s brain that day.
Once at the barn, observe how your horse is behaving in the paddock. Are the horses all feeling particularly fresh? Is your normally herd-bound horse standing off in a corner by himself? Has your mare come into heat? Is your usually easy-to-catch horse being particularly cranky and standoffish?
On your way into the barn, is your horse sluggishly lagging behind you or spooking, prancing and snorting at every object along the way? Is he looking stiff or sore as you lead him in? Once inside the barn, does he stand nicely or begin to do a pretty tap dance in the barn aisle?
All the above will help you evaluate what your horse’s attention span is going to be like before you even enter the arena for lessons. Take note of anything that deviates from the norm. The sooner you notice your horse is particularly distracted or fresh, the sooner you can begin to deal with it. If I go out to catch one of my horses and I see that they are already high headed, full of themselves and not paying attention to me, I will do some quick short exercises out in the paddock to get their attention before I even begin to walk back to the barn with them. You don’t have to wait until you get into the arena to begin focusing your horse! The sooner you assume a leadership position, the sooner your horse will begin to focus – and this begins the moment you catch him.
Take the time to notice
Even if you are running short on time before lessons, try to go over your whole horse during the grooming session. This will help give you insight on how he is feeling. Check for heat, swelling, unusual flinching and sore spots. Notice if your horse shies away from the saddle, appears girthy or is difficult to bridle. If he is inattentive or reactive due to pain, the issue obviously needs to be resolved.
Four groundwork exercises for success
Before I ride, there are several short groundwork exercises that I run through on a daily basis, either in their entirety or in some variation:
• Lowering the head
• Backing up
• A few circles of “lunging”
Each has the benefit of not only gaining your horse’s attention but also improving your work under saddle. Although the exercises are relatively simple, to ensure success it’s a good idea to have a professional teach them to you and your horse. They can be done in the arena, or can begin the moment you catch up your horse.
1. When I go to catch and halter my horse, I will ask him to lower his head. I will take into account how soft or stiff his response is to my request and either continue to work on it out in the field, or take note of it so I can work on it later in the cross tie area or arena. The act of lowering your horse’s head can have a calming effect; a horse that is staring hard at something with his head high in the air is both pumping adrenaline and not listening to me. Lowering the head snaps him out of that train of thought (if only momentarily).
2. The backup is an easy exercise to do before I even set foot in the arena. I can back my horse through the gate, into the cross tie area or into his stall, again taking note of how soft and responsive he is.
3. There are many different yields but the three main ones are yielding the shoulders (turn on the haunches on the ground), yielding the hindquarters (turn on the forehand on the ground) and sideways (sidepassing on the ground). These can be done either on my way into the barn or in the arena. As above, I will watch how responsive my horse is to my cues.
4. There are different variations and names for the last exercise. I use the term “lunging” as that’s what most people are familiar with, but it’s really barely that. It just consists of a few circles in each direction with several transitions, a yield of the hindquarters/ shoulders, and a backup. I do not lunge my horses to wear them out in endless circles; I lunge them to evaluate their soundness, temperament and gain their attention. With this exercise, we start off in one direction and do several upwards and downwards transitions. I take note of my horse’s movement and whether or not he seems a bit stiff or sore. I also note whether the transitions are prompt and relaxed or sluggish or explosive, and whether my horse is moving rhythmically or seems rushed. I then ask him to stop and turn and face me, yielding his hindquarters in the process, back him up a few steps, and send him off in the opposite direction by yielding his shoulders away from me. This last combination of exercises is particularly telling in how attentive my horse is.
The exercises do not take long to do and are extremely useful when preparing for lessons. It will take a bit of time to teach a horse how to do them properly, but after that their benefits and uses are great. As long as they are done a few times a week, a horse should not forget them. Since they can be done at any time and anywhere, there’s really no excuse for not having the time to do them.
Don’t let it become routine
Be careful not to get into a redundant routine with these exercises. I had one particular student who did the same exercises in the same order every time she worked her horse, for months on end. By that time, her intelligent horse had the routine down pat and it became more about going through the motions and getting it over with. It had become virtually useless for getting his head in the game – until we mixed up the routine to make him think instead of anticipate.
As your horse gets better at the exercises and realizes what they mean, and you learn to read him better and know which exercises he may benefit from on which days, you can begin to pick just two or three to do. If your horse is very spooky and high headed, chances are he will be a bit resistant about lowering his head and that will need some work. If he keeps trying to jump into your lap, he will benefit greatly from not only lowering his head and backing up but also the yielding exercises. If he is really convinced that he needs to be in your space, to be safe you may need to move him out onto a lunge circle and get his attention while he is a good 15 feet away from you, using plenty of transitions and distanced yielding work.
The use of these exercises will help you during lessons, at shows and clinics, on the trail, and more. Also, as he gets better at each of the exercises, you will have a horse that is easier to handle. The exercises will carry over to your riding by improving his response to pressure when being asked to halt, back up, leg yield and do other maneuvers. Overall, your increased ability to control and maneuver your horse, both on the ground and under saddle, will lead to greater attentiveness. It will also build your horse’s confidence in you so that he does not have to look elsewhere for support, and become distracted.
If worse comes to worse, simply ask your coach if you can have a bit of extra time to prepare before or during lessons. Most coaches shouldn’t mind, providing you are not holding up any other students, and that you understand you’ll be taking time out of your lessons. Your coach may even be able to give you some extra suggestions on how to help prepare your horse!