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The strong connection you have with your horse, no matter what your discipline, is the difference between being good and being great.
Few disciplines other than Trail Riding, Endurance, or real cowboy work require you to stay connected with your horse for long periods. You and your horse have to be mentally, physically and emotionally fit to endure hours on the trail. Talk about being “on”!
When you stay connected with your horse mentally and physically, you are safer. Your horse knows you are aware of everything he is feeling, thinking, or seeing. He knows you are his leader offering direction, comfort, confidence, and reinforcement as you encounter scary things and varying terrain.
CONNECTION BEGINS ON THE GROUND
Be aware that you are starting your connection every time your horse first spots you and comes to you. Don’t chase your horse to halter him to start your sessions. Teach your horse to come to you and bring his head to the halter every time, through patience, consistence, and the approach-retreat methodology. Take the time in the beginning and it takes less time overall.
Practice colle ge level leading every time you lead your horse. Mirror your horse to get into sync; you will be amazed that you become more connected. Make a habit of asking for excellence. Raise your expectations and teach your horse as you work around him even if you are just cleaning his stall. Ask him to move his body parts instead of you moving your feet. Leaders do not get moved around by their horses.
Begin your riding session by doing a few ground exercises. Try a few minutes of leading and moving hips and shoulders to get your horse’s mind in the work mode. You might also practice what you will be working on that day in the saddle: sidepass, obstacles, or shoulders on a “clock” if you plan to spin, or a turn on the forehand.
MAINTAIN CONNECTION WHILE MOUNTED
If you absolutely refuse to do ground work first, take some time to warm up your horse properly and be sure you are connected before you go out on the trail or start a teaching session. This “prep” time allows you to get a feel for your horse’s mood and physical condition at that moment: is he grumpy, lame, distracted, exuberant?
Go through a series of exercises such as allowing your horse to move without guiding his direction or speed in a small, enclosed area to get a feel for your balance. When he stops, rest and pet him. Then ask softly for “go” again. Move on and ride with focus from one point to another to create impulsion. Again, rest at each stop. Try serpentines for flexion and bend. Warm up at all gaits and even try a low jump to make sure you are ready for the trail (simulates your horse taking a big mis-step and making sure you can ride that!)
If you are in the saddle on a long rein on the trail, keep your seat connected. Make sure he stays aware of your presence even while you are relaxing. At minimum, keep your mind connected. If you are standing still, occasionally talk to him and pet him to remind him you are there.
WHEN YOUR HORSE WHISPERS, LISTEN
While trail riding, you may be tempted to just sit back, not guide your horse, and simply be a passenger. This can be a dangerous proposition and can also break your connection. You may not hear your horse tell you that he is worried about something ahead because you don’t notice the hesitation in his step or that his ears perk up and his head goes up. At this point, let him know you are aware of his concern. As his leader, stay focused ahead even if your horse stops. Let him know you understand he has a concern. When are you sure he will move forward again, you ask. Now your horse knows he can rely on you for comfort and security when he loses confidence (even if it’s just for a moment.) If you completely miss this communication from your horse, you are not doing your part as a leader.
MULTI-TASKING ON THE TRAIL
Your trail horse has to do many things at one time -- maintain gait, be aware of predators (a natural instinct,) listen to his leader, pay attention to the terrain and so on. We can talk to our friends and enjoy the scenery while still staying connected to our partner through our seat, voice, reins, and brains. Yes, it may sound exhausting, but it doesn’t get much better than a fabulous trail ride on a trusty steed. A trail horse IS a performance horse (for hours at a time!).
When you have completed your session or ride and return your horse to the field or stall, make a clear break much like you do when you release a dog in dog training with the OK command. OK. Now it’s time to be just a horse.
Angelia Robinette-Dublin and Jenny Lance met in 2001 at a horsemanship program and immediately struck up a great friendship. Both were certified by John Lyons Trainer, Kathy Huggins. Angelia went on to become a Josh Lyons Accredited Trainer. Together, they created Live To Ride, focusing on the Trail and Recreational Rider. www.LiveToRideHorses.com