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  • Writer's pictureFiona Tothill

Understanding Behaviour

Wouldn’t it be lovely if horses played ‘ball’ and always did what we wanted, when we wanted?

Unfortunately this is not how they operate, horses ( and ponies!) will always find the route of least resistance unfortunately sometimes that is you ( or even your coach, especially if they are worried about you). You know you are getting there with your riding when your horse is listening and at least trying to do what you ask.

Training in ‘what we want’ ( and / or eliminating undesirable behaviour) is part of learning to ride.

This is really difficult to juggle when you are also learning how to hold the reins or simply to stay on board when the horse moves.

In the early days you will rely heavily on your coach to help by “riding the horse from the ground” as this will help keep the horse moving forward in a steady rhythm.

Sounds simple but getting a horse moving forward is vital to learning to ride ( coaches have to get the right level of ‘forward’; too much is scary and too little doesn’t give you enough to work with). This is why your coach may elect to use a long line, it can give the coach more influence whilst the rider develops control!

Sometimes it just doesn’t happen! As you will appreciate horses all respond differently and naturally some coaches get on with some horses better than others, just like people! You may have noticed that sometimes the coaches are having a challenge with some cheeky ponies; the coaches will know what’s needed but it’s a fine balancing act as they cannot push the pony too hard especially if the rider is nervous, young or unbalanced.

At times the horse simply gets confused especially if the rider (or coach) is giving off mixed messages such as “ trot on but not too fast!” This is most common with our younger ponies, like Saskia, she is good but is more easily confused than a pony like Roxy,

As you develop your riding you will be more confident in both creating the energy (that you need) and directing it ( to better help you and the horse). A certain lack of congruency is often seen in young, nervous or beginner riders.

If I get the chance I will join the coaches when a pony is being a bit recalcitrant, the coach can do their job and keep the rider safe whilst I remind the ponies about what they need to do! Anyone who has seen this will have observed that, with relatively little input from me, the pony will suddenly change their mind ( ie they realise the route of least resistance is to travel!)

Horses also struggle when rider aids (including the legs, hands and seat) are a bit clunky or inconsistent, which we often see in beginners. Horses love subtle and consistent!

Any parents watching may see this in action- the little rider may “kick” the pony ( I could write another full blog on the term kick) but at the same time they rock in the saddle and stabilise themselves with the reins ( which are attached to the horses mouth). The ponies just refuse - the child tries harder and the problems get worse.

Suddenly everyone accepts this isn’t working and relaxes, tries less hard and the ponies say “argh - so this is what you meant!” I have seen Buttons do this so often!

Sometimes the horses have a genuine reason for saying no - it’s our job to listen. Obviously we always investigate undesirable behaviour; we have to rule out pain or illness. For example - you may have witnessed Otter or Axl stop as soon as they he get in the school. This is learnt behaviour however we had to rule out anything physical (such as a bladder infection).

Once we have a physical all clear we know it’s behavioural so would handle differently ie ignoring and pushing through (again making going forward the easy option), if however we get drawn into the “problem” and permit the behaviour it will escalate so eventually the horse stands and stales all lesson.

Changing behaviour is never easy. Teaching riding is as much about managing rider’s behaviour as it is about the horses. It is also extremely important that we don’t inadvertently train in the very behaviours we don’t want (by rewarding the undesirable).

Here at Kingsmead we teach equine behaviour ( unbelievably it is not a key component of a coaches journey- although it is something we will develop in our coaches).

Work closely with your coaches they are here to help you work out what your horse needs ( horses generally do better with more understanding and less human sympathy).

All coaches will have three key roles; 1. Safety ( of riders, horses, themselves & others) 2. Horse welfare 3. Teaching riding As you can imagine this is quite a juggling act especially when you consider the horse has one goal which is keeping themselves safe (and that instinctively means conserving energy) and riders have a myriad of goals which can extend from petting the pony to riding in the Olympics!

Remember that as your riding develops it is important to retry a horse, you may find they are much better a second time around!

Sometimes it is wiser to let your coach chose your horse rather than always requesting your favourite horse, who may be having a bad day or the coach will know they might struggle with what is planned.

What we do know is all coaches are different, some get a better tune out of some horses and everyone has their favourite. We would highly recommend watching or having lessons with different coaches as they bring different skills. We would also encourage you to come and watch when we are training ponies ( feel free to ask me what I am doing especially when it looks like nothing!)

Understanding Horses Behaviour

If this aspect of horses and riding is of interest why not join our saddle club. This is currently for adults however I would offer to juniors riders if there was sufficient interest.

About the author:

Fiona Tothill, BA Educational Studies, UKCC level 2 coach (equestrian). Equine Assisted Facilitator.

Fiona is an experienced speaker and trainer who is able to engage her audience and empower them to explore challenging issues.

Fiona is the co-owner vision behind Kingsmead Equestrian Centre in Surrey.

Fiona is available for public speaking engagements, workshops and events.

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