“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” – Harry S. Truman
We’ve all ridden that horse who continually gravitates toward the barn like a kid to an ice cream truck. The second he spots the barn, your nice circle morphs into an awkward egg shape as he bulges through the turn.
Much like the world of dating, catching a horse’s (or guy’s) attention can be difficult, but if we use our noggin and don’t give in to desperate tactics, we will end up with an engaged and responsive horse (and when applied to men, a date to Chipotle! #winning). Horses are creatures of habit and to counter this mindset, we need to get creative with our riding routine.
As a general rule of thumb (or hoof), it takes three times for a horse to make a habit of something. For instance, your gelding dives to the left at the scary red flower jump. If he does this once, then twice, chances are he is going to leave you hanging a third time.
Alternate Where You Dismount
Do you enter and exit the ring at the same gate each time you ride? Do you mount and dismount in the same place? Do you have a “go-to” warm-up routine, such as walk, 10 minute trot and then canter work? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you can bet your horse has caught on to this pattern as well.
Do you typically dismount next to the barn? Try dismounting in the ring. Do you dismount in the center of the ring? Try halting your horse near the rail and dismount. When you are done riding, do you pop your feet out of the stirrups, swing your leg over, and off you go? Try counting to 30 before you start to dismount.
A Different Kind Of In And Out
If your ring has multiple gates, keep your horse guessing where you will exit. If your ring only has one gate, try this method. Keep the gate open when you go into the ring. Throughout your ride, randomly go back to the walk and proceed out the gate and then make a nice collected turn back toward the gate and into the ring. Most likely, this will be your horse’s internal monologue:
“Hey hey! We are done early….wait…you want me to turn back? Ummmm…no, we are done. I have exited the arena and we are done. The ring will be perfectly fine without us in it.”
Generally speaking, your horse is programmed to think exiting the ring means finito with all work. Continue this exercise until he cooperatively keeps an even pace when you exit, circle, and reenter the ring.
As with all horse training and exercising, keep other riders in mind. Be sure the other riders are comfortable with leaving the gate open.
Know the horse you are riding; don’t push him to his breaking point. Introducing new methods should be challenging but solvable, not a quantum physics question. Get creative with your routine, and with patience and consistency, your communication and trust will improve.