I dare say after twenty years teaching in the horse industry the biggest mistake riders make when confronted with a challenge is prioritizing confidence training over alignment training.
Let me explain...
If I asked you which was more important, your horse yielding to your leg and hand during a scary situation or your horse being confident during a scary situation? How would you answer?
Ninety-nine percent of riders would say being confident is the most important element. They would say that if your horse is confident then he will respond when you ask for something. Ironically the answer is the exact opposite. If your horse responds to your leadership in spite of his initial feelings, then his confidence will quickly grow.
To illustrate my point I'll tell you a short story about a horse named Sammy, the biggest chicken the horse industry ever knew.
Sammy was terrified of cows. One day his owner put a lone cow in the field with him in hopes that he'd slowly gain the confidence to be in the same space. While all the other horses didn't mind the cow, Sammy charged around the paddock until his feet were sore. Eventually, Sammy became calm enough to eat near the cow but it took many weeks. And ironically, it made no difference when Sammy went out to places with new cows. It's like cows stirred something in Sammy that caused him to forget about everything else, even years worth of confidence training.
Then one day, Sammy met a trainer who could see the real problem. Sure Sammy was not confident, anybody could see that, but what had been missed is that when you rode Sammy down a two-lane road, he would take the path he felt most comfortable to take whether you asked him to or not. Sometimes he would shift lanes because it felt more comfortable to be on the other side of the trail. While this seems innocuous, the trainer knew this was the exact problem that led to his lack of control in the cow filled fields. (that's hard to say... cow filled fields. Say that ten times fast :)
The problem was that Sammy would choose his line of travel rather than respond to the riders line of travel. Most riders would allow Sammy to drift across the road because his general direction was still pointed toward the riders desired destination, but master trainers know that the destination is only part of the equation. How you get to the destination is just as important, especially for unconfident horses.
So what this trainer did was simple, yet more effective than years worth of confidence training. The trainer rode Sammy in straight lines, not allowing drifting for minor blips in confidence. At first, Sammy balked at the idea. Sammy fought for his right to choose his own line of travel, but soon, with the help of the trainer's touch, Sammy yielded and felt rewarded for yielding, because the trainer was so kind after being so firm and clear.
In no time at all, Sammy and his rider reached a cow filled field. Sammy's energy began to rise but the rider kept focused on where Sammy put his feet and how well Sammy responded to suggestions. He kept saying to the horse, "Sammy, don't forget about me, don't forget about where I want you to be. Stay with me Sammy, don't get distracted by the fear."
The rider took things slowly but never allowed Sammy to choose his own line of travel. If Sammy forced his way to a new line, the trainer quickly and firmly guided Sammy back to the original line, then rewarded him with kind words and kind hands. Within a few short minutes Sammy realized that no matter how he felt, he still had to listen to his leader and not let his emotions take over his feet. Sammy gave his leader so many "yes" answers to so many questions that the rider felt confident to get closer and closer until finally, Sammy walked delicately through the mix of cows in the wide-open field.
I'll repeat the word "delicately." Notice I didn't say "confidently." Sammy followed the leader down a line of travel chosen by the leader. Even though Sammy felt unconfident, he began to trust his riders leadership and within one short hour of riding back and forth through the cows, Sammy finally let go and felt a surge of his own confidence. Days later, Sammy and his rider returned to the cow filled field. Sammy did not hesitate, not even once.
I'll come back to you now with one question. When you ride or even lead your horse from the ground, do you allow your horse to choose the line of travel, or do you stick to your own and confidently guide your horse to be with you instead of you being with him or her? Who's line do you take?
Your answer will determine how far you will go and how high you will climb as a leader in the eyes of your horse.
Side note: Is it okay to take the horse's line sometimes? Answer: Yes, but don't make a habit of it, because if you do, you will not be the leader in your horse's eyes and you will never be able to do what the great riders and trainers can do. You'll always be stuck or limited to simple tasks on sunny days.
I want you to find your leadership! I'm here to help you, take a look at www.masteryhorsemanship.com, signup to follow my blog posts and check out the Horse Mastery Group.
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