Many riders, as they age, notice the onset of some degree of nervousness when riding, or sometimes even when handling their horses. Although you may have been a brave and wild rider in your youth, it’s not unusual to feel some butterflies taking flight now that you’re a little older.
There are many reasons for this; possibly you weren’t around horses much as a youngster and this is a new experience. Perhaps you had an injury or a frightening mishap. Maybe you witnessed something unpleasant happen to a fellow equestrian. Or it could be that there is no solid, tangible known cause for your apprehension. Responsibilities, realization of mortality and any number of troublesome ‘what if’ thoughts have been known to make a conscious human a bit cautious about climbing on the back of a 1,000 pound prey animal with swift reflexes and an active mind of its own. Some may simply call that sanity. As we get older we are more prone to injury; we take longer to heal. This is why the pairing with a compatible horse becomes exponentially even more important. Make sure that your horse is as reliable and safe as reasonably possible; your life may depend on it.
Fear does not have to define your relationship with your horse. Tension need not play any part in your interactions.
There’s no “quick fix” or immediate, instant solution to eliminating rider fear. There is, however; a proven method that will (in time) improve anyone’s relationship with their equine partner and ultimately lead to increased enjoyment for both you and your horse.
We’ll look at the beginning steps and thoughts required to lay out a solid, successful foundation for your journey. First of all, it’s vital to understand that horses are prey animals. And humans are predators. The Parellis, Clinton Anderson and many other respected clinicians and successful trainers preach this knowledge continually. We are very different species. We can learn to coexist in wonderful harmony, but respect for those innate differences must exist before we can set out to do so. Do all you can to learn about the horse’s nature. Whenever possible, unobtrusively observe horses in their herd environment. Horses are not people. Horses are not like dogs (another predatory species). Horses are horses. They’re very good at being horses; respect this, understand this, and you’ll be able to get along just fine.
When you feel you’re fully aware of the horse’s nature, you’ll understand that in the horse’s natural herd dynamic there is always a leader, and that the equine language is predominantly physical. The leader is aware, consistent , calm and confident. The only time the leader is tense or hurried is when danger is present.
Learn how to consistently establish yourself as the leader. Leaders are not unnecessarily harsh, but they are reliably firm. Leaders don’t communicate in vague terms; their directives are simple and easy to understand. A leader’s commands mean the same thing today that they meant yesterday and they’ll mean the same thing tomorrow. Always be aware of what you’re saying physically to your horse. If you don’t know what you’re saying, there’s no way for the horse to understand. And a leader that cannot consistently be understood is no leader at all.
Once you’ve developed into a respectful, benevolent and trustworthy leader, it’s important to understand that your interactions with your equine partner are like a dance. You are leading the dance, but your partner must be allowed to feel and flow with the rhythm. They must be encouraged to hear the music. Remember that they don’t speak your verbal language. You must be adept at teaching them each step and supporting their willingness to move forward in rhythmic comfort via physical communication. Control is vital to safety, and consistent communication (in a manner the horse can easily understand) is essential to avoid confusion and encourage your horse to be responsive rather than reactive.
Imagine if you will that you step onto the dance floor with a human partner. They are your same species; they speak the same language. And you smack them across the face with a strap of leather and shout, “You will respect me! You will dance as I tell you!” It’s doubtful that you will get a free and joyful performance out of them. Or picture yourself stepping toward your dance partner. You tell them, “I really want to dance with you, I love you!” But your words seem unbelievable because you’re trembling with fear and your body is rigid, practically immobile from tension. Here too, the prospect of an enjoyable interaction seems rather unlikely. It is easy to see how very important that reliable physical communication is for your horse; we must learn to speak their language.
So, to begin to build (or rebuild) a healthy and productive partnership with your horse, we’ll concentrate on a few initial processes;
1) Understand and respect the horse’s nature; learn to speak his language.
2) Begin learning how to be a consistent, calm, reliable leader.
3) Relax and encourage your partner.
How long will this take? It depends on the amount of time you’re willing to consistently invest. It depends on how much of a priority this partnership is for you, as evidenced by the calm and consistent efforts you actively make to build a quality relationship. The nature of your horse will also determine the time required; some are more apprehensive or slower to learn. You must be patient and work with the learning style of your horse. The environment in which you work with the horse will also be a factor. Loud distractions or a hectic environment will most likely slow your progress. Ultimately, it takes as long as it takes.
In the next article we’ll address how physical fitness and mobility will help your horse and aid in making you a better partner both in the saddle and on the ground.