Not so Scary Trails: Being the Leader Your Horse Needs
We often come across obstacles in our pathways when we are riding our horses. Whether out on the trail or working with something in the arena, it is very important that you can “take the reins” and lead your horse where you need them to go.
I believe there are only six directions a horse can go:
As my horse’s leader, it’s my job to have 5 of those “doors” closed and one door swinging wide open saying ‘Hey, step through that door!’
I make it a little uncomfortable for the horse to do anything else by applying pressure with my legs and using my reins to keep her nose pointed where I’m asking her to go. Any time she tries to go forward, I take the pressure off of her. I don’t want to punish her – I won’t pull on the reins when she attempts to go the direction I am asking. It is also crucial to avoid any complete circles – this may give the horse the idea that they are escaping, so by closing off the side “doors” using my legs and keeping her nose straight using my reins, circles are avoided.
The key to increasing your horse’s try is to make it uncomfortable for the horse when they give you the wrong answer, and then use release to make the horse comfortable and reward the try. Let them sit and think for a few seconds once they have tried to make a move in the desired direction.
If my horse doesn’t feel my leadership, they will refuse to do what I am asking them to do. Someone in our partnership has to be brave, and it won’t likely be the horse – therefore, it has to be me. Once your horse has accomplished what you’ve asked for, give them some time and let them feel like a winner. It has nothing to do with ‘Hey, I’m the winner and my horse is the loser! I made her do what I wanted!’ Instead, I want her to win and feel like she accomplished something and realize there was an answer that worked out well for her.
Your horse hasn’t conquered all of their fears at this point, and continuing to go back over the obstacle/area two or three more times may be helpful to really help encourage your horse that they are responding correctly and reinforcing that they are safe. Sometimes, having a buddy horse along on your ride that can go first and is more brave is beneficial.
You’re going to be in situations like this at some point, and you will need to figure out the big question: Are you the leader that your horse needs you to be?
Written by professional horseman Richard Winters, of Richard Winters Horsemanship