Last week we looked at gaining your horse’s respect on the ground and decreasing your fear of him before you get in the saddle.
Now let’s foster your horse’s respect while you mount and when you ride.
Set yourself up for success every step of the way when overcoming your riding fears.
Before you get on your horse, I suggest using some ‘safety nets’ to get relaxed. Your horse won’t know that you’ve ‘cheated’ by setting up emotional and physical props: but he will react positively to the calmer person you’ve now become.
What Safety Nets?
After Cruz reared on me at a big show, I was terrified to get back on him for a long time. Eventually I was willing to try again - but only after I had some safety nets in place.
These will make you feel safer, too.
1. Ride in an enclosed arena with the gate closed.
2. Have a competent riding friend on the ground to watch out for you.
It’s generally a good idea not to ride alone: even professional riders who aren’t afraid of their horses understand this. So if you can, have a friend ride with you on a quiet horse. This is calming for both you and your horse.
3. Not essential, but if you have one, wear a body protector. It may never be needed, but it will make you feel more secure.
Taking these precautions will relax you before you mount.
And for the Ultra Nervous…
If you’re really scared, I would suggest asking a trusted and competent horse person to ride your horse for a few minutes before you get on him. She will prove to you that there’s nothing to be worried about.
(And if there is something to be worried about, maybe this is not the horse for you. I’ll be addressing this in a later post.)
Preparing to Mount
Lead your horse into the middle of the arena. This gives you lots of space to maneuver when pulling down the stirrups and tightening the girth. Keep your arm looped through the reins at all times, but let your horse stand quietly without you pulling on his mouth.
If your horse doesn’t stand still, he’s showing a lack of respect for you. Once again, you need to be a strong leader: increase your authority over him and decrease your fear of him. Do this now, while you’re in the middle of the arena. You’ll be teaching him to stand still for you at the mounting block.
Quietly but insistently ask your horse to back up, then halt. Lead him forwards again, and ask him to halt when you halt. Then back him up again. If he responds immediately, give him a pat and continue tightening the girth, etc.
If he doesn’t stand still for you, repeat the process as long as necessary until he does. Your horse must respect you at all times. Do this in the spirit of training, rather than as a bullying tactic, and always reward his good behavior.
Fairness When Mounting
Now you’re ready to lead him to the mounting block where he must stand still for you to get on him.
Here, too, remember to be fair on your horse.
Your horse needs to know you’re in charge as soon as you get in the saddle. This doesn’t mean pushing him around. It simply involves leading him firmly in the right direction the whole time you’re riding.
You may have heard the term “ride every stride.” If you remember those words, you’ll never leave it up to your horse to make decisions about where to go or what gait to adopt.
Take up enough contact with the reins for the horse to know that you are leading him. In the beginning this will not be a strong contact (unless the horse’s attitude warrants it) but just enough for your rein aids to be definite. At the same time, make it clear to your horse through your seat and leg aids that he is to walk - not trot or canter - until you ask him for upward transitions.
Fairness while riding means preparing your horse for a change in direction or gait.
When your horse worries that he’s about to run into the boundary fence or wall of the arena because you haven’t told him to turn in plenty of time, he’s going to decide for you. He no longer trusts you as his leader. He’s lost respect for you and has to take over: it’s a matter of self-preservation.
Reassure your horse that you are in charge by preparing him well ahead of time for changes in direction or gait. Let him know that you’re a competent leader.
We so often fail to lead our horses properly, then become afraid of them because they “don’t listen to us.”
If we look at the situation from the horse’s perspective we’ll understand better why this happens.
Often we only assert ourselves when we feel like it, and abandon the horse to his own devices the rest of the time. Examples are doodling in the arena chatting to our friends, or walking the horse off after working him.
Remember to ‘ride every stride’ even when you’re both relaxing.
Too frequently we hope our horse is “going to look after us.” We put him in tricky situations then abandon him when he most needs strong guidance and leadership from us. This is when he’s most likely to react negatively and scare us.
My own example is riding my First Level horse in a crowded warm-up arena with Grand Prix horses performing canter half-pass ‘at him.’ I was scared, too, and hoped he could cope without my intervention. He reared vertically because he was being hemmed in by big ‘threatening’ horses and I’d deserted him just when he needed reassuring leadership from me.
I should have taken a firm hold of him between my legs, seat and hands and ridden him purposefully between the scary horses, thus increasing his trust in me as a good leader. (If I’d been an even better leader, I wouldn’t have put him in that situation in the first place!)
So it’s not always his fault that your horse “behaves badly.” Use clear, consistent aids to tell your horse what you want him to do at all times, and don’t put him in situations that he (and you) are not ready for.
If you do this your horse will learn to respect and follow you because he trusts you to be fair and consistent in your leadership. Instead of coping with paralyzing fear every time you get on your horse, you’ll be able to progress with your riding skills and enjoy being a horse owner again.
If you have any comments about this post I’d love to hear from you!
Horses are my big obsession, and I'm constantly striving to get better, smarter and more in harmony with my equine buddy, Cruz Bay.
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