Lesson 3: Offer The Horse A Sweet Spot

In my experience the most effective way for a horse to learn to do something, is for them to figure it out for themselves. Most of the time, the same is true of us, which is why the best teachers are often the ones who guide us towards finding answers.

When I was young I remember playing endless games of “hunt the thimble” with my granny, where a thimble ( or other small item ) was hidden and I searched for it with granny guiding me by telling me whether I was getting warmer as I approached the hiding place and colder as I  moved away from it. I loved this game, but thinking back, it was probably unbelievably boring for my granny. She was a very patient lady.

Horses in a field under a stormcloud sky

If you spend enough time making sure your horses are comfortable around you, pretty soon you’ll find it impossible to get anything useful done in the field.

This type of approach is something I use a lot when I am working a horse- instead of saying “warmer and colder” I just find something that is mildly annoying and allow them to figure out how to make me stop. A good example might be working a horse who is strongly attracted to the arena gate. This is one of the many things that you can correct a hundred times and still have a horse who will drop to the gate every time. Instead of endlessly trying to steer away from the gate I will choose a place that I would like us to go instead and very gently ask the horse to take me there. When they drop towards the gate I will just do something irritating – I typically just rhythmically slap my thigh, something I learned from Ross Jacobs, but the exact thing doesn’t matter; some people will work the horse briskly in that area instead – so that when the horse gets where they want to go, it’s not as good as they thought it would be. Usually they will start fidgeting and looking for a way to make me quiet down and as soon as they face where I want to go, the slapping stops. When they turn away it starts again. After a couple of tries they will probably figure out where they need to face, so then I am looking for them to take a step in that direction. I just keep working patiently at this until the horse decides to go to where I asked in. This can take quite a while and to a lot of people it would look like a long cut, but if you want a lesson to stick, nothing compares with your horse figuring things out for herself.

I use the same approach when leading – I want a horse to generally lead up beside me, putting me roughly where the saddle would be. I do this because that way I can see where their attention is, because it is really useful for groundwork which I treat as very similar to riding from the ground and because it gets the horse used to being a little ahead of me. Consequently when I am teaching a horse to lead I try to set things up so that sweet spot is right beside me wherever I go. I am at the centre  of an imaginary letter ‘X’ – as long as the horse is beside me on the left or right, things are really calm.  If they drag behind, things get more energetic, if the try to get ahead or push into me, things get more energetic, if they just walk alongside me life is very comfortable, the work isn’t too hard ( certainly easier than having to put up with all that energy and movement around them if they drag ) and pretty soon we’ll take a break and they will get lots of scratches.

As we develop more refinement in our riding, I try to create that sweet spot around my horse as we work too- making it really comfortable for them to stay with me so that they learn to choose to be where I am mentally as well as physically.

There is a difference in philosophy here- I am not thinking in terms of asking the horse to move away from something that is uncomfortable for them as much as offering them a place that is comfortable and doing what I can to help them to find it. Once your horse figures out that you can offer them comfort, they’re going to really search for it, and that will make everything you do together smoother and easier

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One Response to Lesson 3: Offer The Horse A Sweet Spot

  1. Pingback: Ten Essential Lessons In Horsemanship | Pragmatic Horsemanship

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