I've just finished a week working at a club in China where on arrival I noticed the ponies were considerably more spooky than most. The coaches needed to move quietly around them and it didn’t take much for the ponies to get a fright and jump away which in a riding school environment is not ideal.
I began by watching the coaches interacting with the horses both on the ground and while being ridden, and other than being a bit more cautious I didn’t see anything to tell me the ponies were being roughly handled or spooked in any way.
I did notice though, the coaches hardly used any games equipment, cones and didn’t even own any jump rails. It might mention this is a beautiful facility, with immaculately turned out ponies and all the newest gear but the arena was stark and spotless.
The answer became obvious when a coach mentioned he was having trouble with one of his students who had fallen previously due to the pony spooking. She was very frightened and refused to trot. In conjunction with some mindset strategies, I suggested some games to bring the fun back into riding and gave an example of having the rider pick up and place a plastic cup from one pole to another.
Oh, we can’t do that was the reply. The pony will spook. And there lies the problem…
Let me explain it to you a little more.
Imagine a pony who has had a normal start in life. He can handle some spooky objects but hasn’t been exposed to much.
One day a rider picks up piece of paper from mum and it spooks the pony and he jumps to the side.
Now we are going to look at this two ways: Rider A and Rider B
Rider A thinks that was scary. My horse can’t be ridden with paper. He is too scared. He never picks up a piece of paper on the pony again.
Rider B thinks, my pony didn’t like that much. I had better help him get used to and less scared of the paper and goes to work exposing the pony slowly to the paper until he can accept it confidently.
Next both Rider A and Rider B are both offered a drink on their pony. When they reach over to take the cup the pony snorts and steps sideways showing he is worried and about to jump away.
Rider A thinks my pony got a fright with the paper last time, so will probably get a fright with the cup so I can’t pick this cup up from him so I had better get off or not take the water.
Rider B thinks, my pony is worried about the cup. I had better help him to become confident while I reach out - before picking the cup up and make sure my reins are short and I am ready to help him if he gets a fright when I do. The rider then takes a few minutes to help the pony relax while holding the cup and makes a point of picking up and placing the cup back down several times to ensure the pony is fully confident.
Lastly both riders are asked to join in on a game where they need to pick up a an object from a drum.
Rider A chooses not to join in as he says, my pony doesn’t like things being carried on him.
Rider B chooses to practice picking up the object first while the pony is relaxed then when he is happy joins in on the game and has a great time.
If I had to put a young rider on one of the two ponies I know what one I’d choose. Just think if the rider got hung up in a stirrup or took their jacket off while riding one could be very dangerous as he would be spooky and reactive and the second would more likely wait and be accepting and calm.
Same pony in the beginning, but in a short space of time - two very different ponies at the end.
The same goes for us humans. I was reading an interesting article yesterday and it was talking about how the situation is created where some have major anxieties about leaving the house.
It doesn’t take much to get from an initial mild panic attack in the supermarket to full blown can’t leave the house terror and this is very real for many.
It starts by a young person not being taught by their parents how to handle small setbacks and problems with emotional intelligence and resiliance. The child’s problems are often solved by the parent stepping in and trying to rescue the child. The problem with that is the child never learns how to rescue themselves so when there is no longer someone there to rescue them they do not know how to themselves and can’t cope.
Often a young person in this situation will then be involved in a dependant relationship with a partner who follows on from the parent and continues to save them, but if that too fails and the partner is no longer around it can cause huge anxieties leading to high anxiety levels.
Only one mild stress or panic attack in the supermarket, may lead to more larger panic attacks as they start to worry about having another panic attack in public. This leads to another panic attack, and another to where they become so worried about having the panic attack that they have one just thinking about leaving the house.
This is a big generalisation but you seem my point
This of course can be solved, but it takes some time to learn how to manage their emotions and start to work through, process and move past those feelings.
It all starts the same way as the pony in the beginning.
When we are challenged we’ll either -
Step away from it and avoid any further challenges that look even mildly similar. As we lose confidence in what we can handle we take on less and less until we quit altogether
We continue on and do what we need to do to get to where we can handle it. We become confident at it. The next time a similar or larger challenge come up, we take that on too and learn what we need to in order to succeed.
In a short space of time one will be complaining that it is all too hard and their life is difficult, and the other will be handling success and abundance.
Both started with the same challenge in the beginning…
What will you do when the next challenge comes up?
It is not uncommon when coaching to find yourself in a position where a student is unable to complete a task or exercise that is being asked of them. I use this checklist to make sure we are finding the true cause enabling the learning to continue, and the horse and rider to build on their confidence, connection and performance.
I think of it in three stages. First the coach, then the rider, then last the horse, in that order as rarely is it the horses fault.
Here are the steps I use when a rider is having trouble completing a task.
1. Do they understand the skill. (Coach)
2. Can they physically compete the task? (Rider)
3. Is there a belief that could be preventing them from trying? (Rider)
4. Do they understand the skill? (Horse)
5. Can they physically compete the task? (Horse)
6. Is the horse responding correctly to the aids? (Horse)
1. Do they understand the skill?
This is where I check in on myself and make sure I have explained what I am asking well enough and that they have interpreted what I am asking correctly. I often ask the rider to describe back to me what it is that we are asking for so I can check in that we are both looking for the same thing.
I might clarify some of the language I am using i.e; how “big” is a big circle, what a square corner looks like, where exactly we are wanting to place the horses feet etc
This is a good time to look at other ways of describing the exercise. Perhaps have another rider show them, walk it yourself, hop on the horse and complete the exercise, draw it in the surface of the arena, draw it on your phone, show and example of it on your phone.
2. Can they physically compete the task?
Do they have the balance, co-ordination, skill level and strength to do what I am asking? Do I need to adapt the exercise? Have I explained the aids required well enough and are they using their body in the correct position. For example, a rider is having trouble stopping in a straight line after trotting through a series of trot poles. I will check in first they know what I am asking, and then I will make sure they are using their position to the best of their ability.
3. Is there a belief that could be preventing them from trying?
This one is surprisingly common and gets overlooked more often than not. I will give you a few examples. Imagine a rider who no matter how many times you tell them, won’t shorten their reins. They will often have a belief that having short reins means they are pulling on the horses mouth. They don’t like the idea of having hard hands and pulling on the mouth so they won’t shorten the reins. If you as the coach are then able to show them how by having short reins actually makes your hands softer and lighter they they will then want to shorten their reins as it is moving towards something they believe in.
Another example is if a family member who the child looks up to immensely, has told the rider to always push their feet forward to prevent them getting bucked off. When the coach comes along and adjusts the riders position so the legs are more under the body the rider will not want to hold that position as it goes against what they have been told by someone they respect greatly. To help them I find the best way is to acknowledge that what the family said is very true and correct in some situations, however in this situation a more upright position will give you better results. By acknowledging the family member’s information as still being true (or at least has a purpose), the rider is not being asked to go against what he believes, or disagree with someone they respect but rather adding more information to what they already know.
Then I go back and ask the same questions of the horse
4. Do they understand the skill?
I always ask this if my horse is having trouble. I need to check in with the horses body language, emotions and reactions to see if there is some confusion in what is being asked. If necessary I will break the skill down into small chunks and go through each part and see where the confusion might be. For example, if the horse is having trouble with a leg yield, I might go back and check in with a turn on the forehand, and a turn on the hind quarters and see if there is any confusion there. The idea is that we treat it like a doctor would try and find what is the underlying cause of an illness. They need to rule certain factors out first.
5. Can they physically compete the task?
We have already checked in the previous steps to make sure the rider is sitting correctly, using the correct aids, and made adjustments where necessary so give the horse the best opportunity possible so now we need to look at the horses body.
Much like humans, we need to make sure the horse is physically able to complete the exercise. Do they have the strength, fitness, balance and co-ordination? Is there a pain issue that we are not aware of? Is the saddle fitting correctly? If jumping, are the fences the correct distance? Has the progression been such that the horse is mentally and physically prepared for the exercise. Do we need to lessen or lower the effort required of the horse so they can achieve the outcome.
It is important we nurture the horses confidence and work ethic so make adaptations here to help the horse enjoy his work and find reward in challenges.
6. Is the horse responding correctly to the aids?
This is another often overlooked question but is actually quite common. Examples of this is a horse who pushes into the sideways aids, or resents the forward aid and actually slows down when the leg is closed on the horse. It is imperative we check in to make sure the horse is positively offering appropriate responses to cues. If not, we need to help the horse understand the response we are asking for. If I get to here and find an inappropriate response then I go right back to step 1 and start again with the new question in mind.
Other things to look at here is whether there has been a previous experience that could be worrying the horse or causing him to overreact? What do we know about the horses past that would influence his decisions. Was he asked to jump fences to big to quickly and lost confidence? Had he been ridden by someone who gave mixed signals? Has his diet changed? Is his paddock mate screaming from the stables?
These questions need to be taken onto consideration and responded to accordingly as they could ultimately affect the horses ability to perform the required task. Make any adaptations necessary. Simply understanding these factors and taking them into account allows us to look at the horses behaviour from a different perspective becoming more compassionate and understanding. This requires us to coach from a more creative and intuitive place where we can find solutions that enhance both the performance and connection of the horse and rider combination.
These questions are going through my head all of the time, throughout every lesson. It is not something that takes hours. It is part of the coaching process. I am consistently checking in to ensure optimal learning is taking place. Questions and answers come in and out of my mind. The lesson will adapt and evolve as the horse and riders needs evolve and adapt. Yes, I have an outcome for every lesson, but there are many and varied paths we can take to get there.
I believe the most important thing is if a rider is struggling to perform an exercise we look at ourselves first, then help the rider before moving onto the horse and remember:
We don’t have the right to influence a horse until we are first in rhythm with him.
Happy coaching xxx