Creating a partnership is one of the most rewarding aspects of riding and training a horse. It’s built up over time as you navigate all the little, everyday training challenges with your horse – standing at the mounting block, working in the arena on his own and with others, hacking, jumping, cross-country schooling and, eventually, competing. It’s all about earning each other’s trust with consistent, compassionate training that allows your horse to understand his job, learn and become confident under your leadership.
Whatever you do with your horse, but in particular if you want to event, partnership, confidence and the desire to ‘boldly go’ is essential. Horses have to leave the start box on their own and gallop off into the unknown to face challenging questions on the cross-country course – this is only possible (and fun) when your horse has built trust through progressive training with his rider.
When it comes to cross-country it’s important to remember that, as riders, we get to walk the course, whereas our horses don’t. The first time they see the question in front of them, they have to trust our judgment and jump it. They have to have absolute faith that their rider isn’t going to ask them to do something they can’t. This faith is built with positive daily interactions. It can be as simple as asking your horse to walk past the bins sensibly when hacking – if he takes a look, quietly ask him to go into shoulder-in and look slightly away from the scary object.
It’s how you handle these moments that establishes your partnership and means you can be successful when the big moments come along.
Building confidence vs overfacing your horse
Some horses are naturally brave and others need to be taught how to be brave. With all training, you have to progress incrementally and only move ahead when your horse feels confident. Overfacing him or doing too much too soon will set you back and create cracks in your partnership that will show up at inconvenient times in the future.
If your horse is just starting out in his career, focus on building your partnership with subtle challenges out hacking in a natural environment, with the aim of boosting his confidence. If he’s forward-thinking and likes to put his all into his work, it can be tempting to speed ahead with his training. However, with your horse’s long-term future in mind, use hacking scenarios to add texture to his training, encouraging him to slow his thinking and take the time to build a partnership with you. With a solid partnership and thoughtfully prepared confidence, your horse will be well on the road to success.
Look away, it’s okay
A few months ago, we had new sponsor signs installed at the far end of our arena. It created a wonderful training opportunity because all my horses were initially terrified of them! I’m a big believer in using everyday situations to work on your partnership with your horse and how you respond to a spooky situation is a good example.
Instead of marching your horse straight towards what he’s frightened of, I prefer to work around it. I want my horse to trust and believe me when I say ‘it’s okay’, whether that’s out hacking, in the arena or on the cross-country course. I’ll bend him away from the scary place, using my inside leg to move his ribcage and body towards the spook.
In new environments out hacking and in competition, it’s entirely possible that your horse is going to spook. Practising a calm, measured response in training will help you both feel secure in your partnership and enable you to face challenges together as a team.
Avoid a problem
If you ride headlong into a problem, you’ll have to spend time fixing it. March straight up to a water tray your horse is scared of and he’ll spook, kick sand onto it, give himself a fright at the noise and wheel away. Instead, walk him beside the tray a few times, letting him get used to being near it without confronting it head on until he’s comfortable. If you’re clever enough to avoid a problem, your horse won’t know there was an issue in the first place.
Ride safely side-by-side
Most horses grow in confidence working alongside another horse and keeping in step is a challenging mental exercise for you, too. When you add in schooling movements, such as medium paces and lateral work, you’ll both need to concentrate and communicate carefully.
Practise riding together with your boots level in shoulder-in with your horses’ bottoms pointing away from each other until everyone becomes accustomed to working in harmony.
The September issue of Horse&Rider has plenty more tips from Lucinda on how you can help your horse be braver out hacking. It’s on sale 27 July 2017.