Try It Both Ways

(“. . . a time to de-program.”)

By and large, preparation is a good thing. Putting your horse in the right physical balance and level of attentiveness to each of your aids increases the likelihood that you’ll get what you want from him when you want it. Especially with a hot horse, aids which sneak up on him or surprise him are apt to produce an overreaction and a nervousness which carry over well beyond the moment.

Having said that, occasionally I must remind riders that preparation does not involve writing your horse a thesis. Indeed, if you have him correctly on the aids, you should not have to do too much to initiate a movement. In some cases the very act of over-preparing causes more harm than good. One example would be a transition from walk to canter. Yes, he should be alert and thoughtful, but if you fiddle too much, your horse will anticipate and show tension which ruins the walk rhythm. He may even jig.

Be sure you don’t lead your horse to believe he should make a “big deal” over what’s coming next. If you have been doing your homework all along and riding him stride by stride, sometimes you just need to trust your horse and give him the aids. Even if the result isn’t perfect, a calm and confident response is well worth fostering.

This mindset can apply equally to teaching flying changes. If your horse is a bit slow or dull, you may have to jack him up before a change. But many horses once they have started changes get worried every time they cross the diagonal or approach a corner on the counter lead. The more you collect them or “package” them, the tighter they get. This may be a time to de-program. Let his outline be a little longer. Don’t set him up so much. When he’s not so concerned, ask him almost casually. At first the changes may not always be clean or may be a stride or two late to the leg. Don’t scold him. Your priority here should be quelling his anxiety and regaining access to his brain. Then you can go back to more technical schooling.

I once had a horse who wore his heart on his sleeve whenever I even thought of a flying change. I would make endless preparations—transitions on the diagonal, many small circles, simple changes, counter canters—all leading up to one explosive change after which I would pat him and put him away. Swedish Olympian Louise Nathhorst watched him and suggested the opposite. “Do so many changes that he gets bored. Make them as common place as the way you roll out of bed in the morning. Instead of doing one each direction, do 50 in a ride, and don’t worry in the beginning if they are not perfect.”

It’s easy to get wound up about one particular attempt at anything, but it’s not productive. Dr. King said “The arc of history is long, and it bends towards (justice).” Take that sentiment and apply at something as mundane as your riding. It’s good to be focused and want to try hard hard hard, but have faith in that arc. Sometimes both you and your horse will do better if you chill.