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