There are two simple goals most of us horse people share – we want to grow our skills as riders, and we want to improve our ability to communicate with our horses (whether we’re in the saddle or on the ground).
Here are a few simple habits that can help improve the skills and effectiveness of any equestrian, in and out of the saddle.
1. Leave Your Emotions at the Barn Door
Horses are experts at reading mood and body language. If you’re distracted, irritated or upset you can bet your horse will pick up on it.
Our horses look to us as leaders, and as leaders we need to set the mood. A nervous, frustrated or angry state of mind will cause you to broadcast negative energy in ways your horse can easily observe. If you’re not projecting calm, your horse won’t work in a calm state of mind.
Bottom line, if you and your horse are not calm and relaxed, you’re not going to have a successful ride or training session.
Pay attention to the emotional energy you’re broadcasting and make a conscious effort to let go of the negative before you get to the barn. If you have trouble reeling it in it can be helpful to have a regular routine to help ease you into ‘barn time’ mode. Spend a few extra minutes on the ground grooming, or go for a little hand walk or grazing session before riding to relieve tension and help you get into a more relaxed frame of mind.
2. Practice Empathy
Put yourself in your horses shoes when trying to solve a training or behaviour issue. Does your horse understand what’s being asked of him? Are you communicating as clearly as you think you are through your aids? Are you unintentionally confusing your horse or giving him crossed signals?
Often a perceived defiance or resistance problem is really a problem with communication or lack of understanding. Revisiting some training basics and reviewing your own effectiveness as a rider is a more empathetic approach than simply reaching for a stronger bit or bigger set of spurs.
Another possible root cause for resistance? Pain. Subtle lameness or ill fitting tack can quickly sap a good horse’s willingness to work.
Recommended Reading: Disobedient Horse? Why Pain Could be to Blame
Whenever we hit a stumbling block we have to stop and try to see the problem through the horse’s eyes. Usually there’s a reason for their resistance, and it’s rarely simple defiance. Whether they need clearer aids or a visit from the vet, empathizing with your horse is key to bringing out the best in him.
3. Commit to Education
You’re reading a blog article on how to be a better horse person so you’re probably already crushing this one! One of the most important things to understand about horsemanship is that you are never done learning. If you think you have it all figured out that just means you don’t know enough to know that you can’t know it all!
What makes great horse people great is that they are always looking for more knowledge, to sharpen and hone their skills. No two riders or trainers are exactly the same in their approach. Over time, you take the bits and pieces of different methodologies and assemble your own framework for how you train and handle your own horses.
In order to build your horse training ‘tool kit’, you need to expose yourself to different experts.
Taking riding lessons is an important part of any riders education strategy, but regular sessions with a coach aren’t the only way to pursue self improvement.
Magazines, Books, Educational Videos and Podcasts
There’s no shortage of quality informational horse content out there. A couple of my favorites for education and inspiration include…
- Daily Strides Podcast
- Relaxed and Forward Blog
- Savvy Horsewoman
- Horse Junkies United
- Equine Wellness Magazine
- The Horse
Certification or Diploma Courses (Online or In-Person)
From facility design and stable management to equine massage therapy and everything in between… whether you want to improve your skills for personal development or have dreams of becoming an equine industry professional there’s a course out there that can help you reach your goals.
The University of Guelph offers a comprehensive online Diploma in Equine Studies. But you don’t have to pursue the full diploma to take advantage of the learning opportunities offered through Guelph. Some of the classes coming up this Fall are Equine Nutrition, Equine Functional Anatomy, Equine Health and Disease Management, and Stewardship of the Equine Environment… all of which would be valuable to the average horse owner.
Participate In or Audit a Clinic
Clinics are a great way to get in depth information and practical application tips from horse professionals, as well as get exposure to new disciplines or riding activities. Participating in one requires hauling in your horse and is usually quite a bit more expensive than auditing. While you’ll probably learn more participating, auditing is still a worthwhile experience.
4. Make Time For Down Time
Most of us equestrians don’t get as much time in the saddle as we would like. It’s natural to want to make the most of that time schooling and developing our horses. Even when we don’t have ambitions to compete, we’re usually still working through training exercises trying to improve our horse’s balance, suppleness, responsiveness etc. etc.
It’s all too easy to get sucked into a routine of endless bending circles and serpentines, logging trail miles for the sake of logging miles and trying for just one more leg yield or canter depart to get it just right.
Sometimes we need to make a conscious effort to step back and unplug. Don’t always make time with your horse about training and progression, save some time for down time!
Skip a ride and treat your horse to an extra long grooming and massage session instead. Just hang out with him while he relaxes in his stall and munches on some hay.
Learn to pay attention to the little things and get to know the norms, habits and preferences that make your horse who he is. Devote some quality time to simply being in his presence. You may be surprised at some of the things you can learn about your horse through simple observation of him at rest.
Recommended Reading: 4 Ways to Enjoy Your Horse Without Getting in the Saddle
5. Treat Your Horse Like a Horse
Design your horses surroundings and management based on his needs, not what’s most convenient for human handlers. While it’s easier to have your horse waiting in his stall when you show up to ride, he’s much happier if he gets to spend the day enjoying the fresh air and socializing with his horse friends outside in the paddock.
You may want to be swaddled in twelve thermal layers through the cold winter months but that doesn’t mean your horse does too. Overdo the blankets and he’ll get sweaty and overheated under his clothes, then chilled and miserable.
We do just fine eating three square meals a day, but your horse’s digestive tract is designed to work best with small amounts of food running through it nearly constantly. Little and often is best. Feed your horse as you feed yourself and he’ll be uncomfortable short term and prone to stomach ulcers over the long term.
Good horsemanship involves understanding and catering to your horse’s physical and emotional needs and well being. Allowing him to express natural behaviours, socialize, exercise and graze the way his body is designed for is just good horse keeping.
6. Invest Time in Groundwork Training for Better Communication and Partnership
Many riders skip groundwork exercises and prefer to spend most of their training time in the saddle. If that’s you, you are missing a great opportunity to improve your relationship with your horse AND his under saddle work.
What you might not realize is that much of what we’re working on in groundwork training translates directly to your riding sessions. Moving off of pressure, developing control of individual parts of your horse, improving responsiveness to subtle cues – all necessary under saddle skills that can be worked on from the ground while saving wear and tear on both horse and rider.
Recommended Reading: For some ideas to get you started check out this post from Straightness Training
7. Switch it Up
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, so make a conscious effort to try something new or out of the norm every once in a while. Horses get bored too, so to keep them happy in work we need to shake up the routine from time to time and do something different.
As recommended earlier, participating in a clinic is an effective way to get out of your comfort zone and try something new in a safe and guided environment. Bonus points if the clinic topic is outside your usual discipline… think Extreme Cowboy Race clinic for a dressage horse and rider team, barrel racing for a jumping pair or polo for the reining duo.
A few ideas you can do at home…
Gather up some poles, barrels and jump standards to create an obstacle course. Try backing your horse in a figure eight pattern around a couple of barrels, trotting over some cavaletti and then weaving or pole bending through a line of jump standards. Use your imagination and get creative (but keep it safe and sensible).
If you usually work in an arena, hit the trails for an afternoon and explore some new sights with another like minded rider or two.
You could also try your hand at clicker training! Positive reinforcement training with a clicker is a highly effective (and fun) way to teach your horse specific behaviours and tricks. For more on getting start with clicker training read this post from Equus Magazine.
Recommended Reading: Clicker Training For Horses
Doing something different with your horse leads to new skills and increased confidence as the two of you take on new challenges together.
8. Remember Self Care
Maybe I’m wrong, but from my experience, there aren’t many equestrians who take as good care of themselves as they do their equine companions. Do yourself a favour and make sure that some of the attention you give to your horses fitness and nutrition is saved for yourself.
Making time to eat well and log enough hours of sleep each night will have you feeling more energized, refreshed and ready to tackle the world (and all your riding goals).
Paying attention to your fitness as an equestrian pay dividends both in and out of the saddle. While we generally get a lot of physical exercise around the barn hauling water, stacking hay, mucking stall etc., this is mostly strength training, and we rarely work ourselves evenly on both sides of our body when performing chores.
Imbalance or uneven development in your body can make riding and clearly communicating your aids a challenge. Cross training with activities like yoga, Pilates and working with weights will help you develop awareness of your body position, improve your strength and balance and help with flexibility and mobility of your joints – all things that will translate to better riding.
I recently came across Lorna Leeson’s blog Strides for Success and signed up for her 30 Day Rider Fitness Challenge. I absolutely love it and highly recommend the free email challenge to anyone! The program is well designed, organized, easy to follow and highly customizable to your level of fitness, needs and preferences. Check it out here.
I hope this post gave you some new ideas for ways to improve and develop your horsemanship.
Until next time!
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