Almost every time I have seen problems – of whatever magnitude – arising with a horse it has been traceable back to something very basic indeed. A the foundation of everything is the question of physical wellbeing – if a horse is in pain then you need to resolve that before thinking about training unless the situation is such that you need to work on training to be able to help them physically. Beyond that, the absolute essentials of being a riding horse might be thought of as being able to be mounted, to go, to steer and to stop. It is surprising how many horses have a problem with at least one of those components. It may not seem like it at first- it could seem as though the horse is leaving too fast, running through the rider’s hands, leaving too slow or behaving in any number of other scary ways, but very often you can boil it down to a problem with one of those things.
This is actually very good news- if you have a problem in the canter that can be traced back to something that happens in walk ( or even at halt ) it is much easier to fix it while you’re moving slower if simply because you have much more time to sort things out. Very often something will show up in walk, be more noticeable in trot but only become a problem for the rider in canter. If you can resolve it in walk, then it will be better in trot and canter. Smooth it out in trot as well and the problem in canter will very probably be sufficiently reduced as to be much easier to eliminate altogether.
All of these areas are extensive and worthy of in depth consideration, which i plan to give them, but there is room for an overview here.
Problems with mounting are often related to the horse just not feeling well balanced as the rider gets on, or being afraid of the saddle moving. If they are unbalanced it can help to make sure they are standing properly squarely before you try to get on. My little palomino pony has a massive fear of the saddle shifting ( even greater than his fear of different halters, gloves, twigs, people he doesn’t know, people he does know and imaginary ghosts only he can see ) that has proved very hard to surmount. Currently I’m working on rebacking him without a saddle, once we get past that I’ll start looking at reintroducing the saddle, slowly and clumsily, and then finding one that stays really still so we can work around that anxiety.
Some horses aren’t confident in moving off, which can either manifest as them being behind the rider’s leg or rushing off faster than needed. Impulsion is very much a balance that needs to be developed- very few horses start off with the amount that we might hope for as riders, so we are often working to balance out how much “go” our horse offers us one way or another.
When steering is tricky it’s often a question of the horse not understanding the bit. In fact I would say that a horse not understanding the bit is one of the most common problems that I see both in horses and riders. It’s actually quite unusual to see a horse and rider working together where they clearly both understand how the bit works but it makes for a really great picture when they do. If you’re having any kind of problem with how your horse bends or balances under saddle, you would do well start by looking at their relationship with the bit and your relationship with the rein.
Trouble stopping is often a mixture of not understanding the bit and the horse having too much emotion to stop moving. There is no point in trying to make a horse keep their feet still- if they need to move then you need to let them and if you don’t you’re going to make things worse, so you can keep directing them and take control of where they go which will start to give them the idea that they can attend to you. As they move and you keep offering direction without doing anything to put more energy into their movement, they will find themselves able to stop. Be aware that a horse can be leaving mentally even when they are staying in one position. So much of what we need to do as riders is as simple ( but not easy ) as keeping their mind and body in the same place and keeping both of them with us.
Often a horse that is reluctant to stop is indicating a resistance to the bit or the rider’s cue is confusing them- usually they do stop, but it tends to drag out a bit and not be as clear as either would really want. When I talk about “stop” and “go” here I’m really talking about all downward transitions – when we talk at this basic level they are more or less the same thing in different quantities.
When I meet a horse that I am going to work with, these are the first things I look at and it is almost always the case that by getting them better, we can make a big difference to how the horse works and how they feel. In fact if I do see a problem at this level and resolving it doesn’t make a difference to the horse, I am likely to go back to where we started and look for a possible physical component.
The starting point for making an improvement in this is to have a really clear picture of what we want and to make sure we keep our cues absolutely black and white, leaving no space for confusion in the horse’s mind. As long as we are asking for something the horse is capable of giving and rewarding each step along the way, they will start to gain confidence in their work and be able to relax, which is the starting point for all the good stuff we can achieve with them.