Every rider has experienced the situation where they ask their
horse for a particular shape or movement and either nothing happens
or something other than what they wanted happens. You apply the
aids for a left lead canter and the horse just keeps walking along
as though nothing changed at all. Or you apply those aids and the
horse wrings its tail and moves off at a brisk trot instead of the
intended canter. What went wrong?
Without “being there” and observing the interaction, the only thing
we can say for sure is that the communication between you and your
horse failed. Why it failed is a more complicated issue that frustrates
multitudes of riders daily. You are not alone.
Communication can fail because of rider error. It can fail because
the horse is not sufficiently far along in its training to understand
the shape that the rider’s aids suggest. It can fail because the
horse is physically unable to take the shape because of conformation
faults, old injuries, lingering soreness from yesterday’s workout,
or equipment that restricts or interferes with the shape. It can
fail because the horse is mentally burned out. Or the communication
can fail because the horse simply has the kind of personality that
says that day, “I don’t want to,” or “You can’t make me” or “You
didn’t ask the right way so I’m going to ignore that.
You need to examine your particular communication failure from
all of those different perspectives in order to figure out why things
didn’t go according to your plan. The first thing to ask yourself
is whether the horse is capable of understanding your request. Where
is he in his training? Is this something he’s just learned or a
movement he’s been doing for some time?
Next, ask yourself a few questions about the horse’s body condition.
Is this a new horse that might be happier with a different saddle
or bit than the ones you have chosen? Could the horse be a little
sore from strenuous work his last time out? Are you asking for a
movement that might be difficult for this horse given his current
level of physical conditioning or his conformation?
Think about the horse’s mental condition. Having you been drilling
this or similar movements a great deal recently? Have you just returned
from a stressful show or other event? Or has he been confined for
several days without any opportunity to play a little before working?
Be honest about your riding skills. Is the movement you asked for
something that is relatively new in your riding experience? Is this
a movement that other riders can get from this horse easily? Are
you completely relaxed, balanced and following the motion of the
horse as you apply your aids? Are you applying the correct aids
in a coordinated way with the right timing and right degree of pressure?
When you put the answers to all of these questions together, what
you need to do next will be much clearer. For example, if the horse
is green, he may just need more quiet repetitions of exactly the
same aids applied in the same rhythm with exactly the same timing
and degree of pressure until the light bulb goes off in his head
that this particular set of pressures goes away when he takes the
right shape. Until that happens, the rider may be doing everything
correctly but the results of the communication will be uneven.
This scenario assumes, of course, that the rider has an independent
seat and can apply aids in a way that influences the horse. If not,
then there’s the root of the problem. She needs to keep on practicing,
using the horse’s response as feedback that helps her learn when
she’s got it right. Until the rider gets better, there will be many
more times ahead when the communication is less than perfect. That’s
alright. Work with a good instructor who can help you through the
rough spots as you develop the independent seat you need for clear
If the horse is an old campaigner who absolutely knows what piaffe
means or how to do a perfect rollback, then the rider needs to ask
if the horse may be hurting physically or a burned out mentally.
If the horse is sore or sour, then they should do something else
that day until those problems are resolved. If those aren’t issues,
then the rider needs to consider the horse’s personality. Is this
an animal that sometimes has an attitude or that looks for ways
to evade its work? Then you may need to repeat your request, reinforcing
it by using a greater degree of the pressures you know the horse
understands or even enforcing the aids with the spur or crop.
Depending on your own personality, your first reaction to a communication
breakdown may be to blame yourself for being inept or stupid. Or
you blame the horse for being stubborn or grouchy. Or you blame
the instructor for putting you on a second-rate school horse that’s
not much fun to ride. Assigning blame does not fix a problem. Instead,
look at the communications failure as an opportunity. The best way
to improve your riding is to learn from your mistakes. Just keep
About the Author
© 2001-2004 Meredith Manor
International Equestrian Centre. All rights reserved.
As a horse industry professional for 30 years,
Faith Meredith has successfully trained and competed horses through
FEI levels of dressage. She currently coaches riders in dressage,
reining, and eventing at Meredith
Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited equestrian