People need variety and horses to do too! Throughout my riding career, I’ve always tended to NOT focus on only one discipline or activity with my horses. I owe this versatility to my wonderful horse, Riley, who I bought from Stacey McCoy 12 years ago. Because I had such a great relationship with Riley, and because he had such awesome breeding and personality, I was able to participate in so many different things with him. I could take him anywhere and to any clinic from dressage, working cattle, or pulling a cart. I think this made me lean towards always trying to be creative and playful with my horses. To only focus on one thing and only ride in one area was just too boring to me and was most importantly uninspiring to my horses.
So let’s mix it up! The biggest influence for mixing up my training recently has come from discovering Karen Rohlf and Dressage Naturally. She really challenges her students to always think about the where, what, how, and why of your training. I hear a lot of folks that I ride with say riding in the arena is boring, dressage is boring, riding at home is boring, or working online with my horse is boring. Honestly I just don’t understand that at all! For me riding in my arena is exciting, dressage is totally fun, and riding in my fields can be breathtaking, and working online or at liberty with my horses is so inspiring!
You might be thinking well how do I do this or how will I have time? Really if you’re training at home it doesn’t take that long. I used to think I had to ride my horse for an hour, well that’s not true. You can get a lot done in 15, 20 or 30 minutes, but of course you must have a plan and already know what you’d like to do before going out to get your horse. I have lots of toys for my arena, barrels, cones, pole raisers, ground poles, jumps, horse ball, tarps, just to name a few. I also have a collection of riding patterns that I’ve saved on my computer and I pull one out each week to practice. Get creative and be provocative ! For example, I might set up 4 barrels in my arena, and I plan to do a transition at one barrel, a halt at the second one, a back up at the third one and a moving hindquarter yield at the last one and then canter all the way around the arena and start over. And guess what? I’m doing dressage at the same time! My halt will be balanced and square, my back up will be done with lateral flexion and with engaged hindquarters, I will prepare for that upward or downward transition , and at the last barrel I will ask my horse to lift his withers and shoulders underneath me and side step his front legs while his hind legs move under himself to the left or the right. And then finally I’ll reward my horse with a rolling canter all the way around the arena and tell him he’s good boy by petting him and sitting with a light seat in the saddle. Will all this be done perfectly? NO! But I’ll try the best I can, and in the meantime I’m smiling and my horse is a happy athlete.
In addition to what you might do with your horse, you also need to think about where you are doing it. My options are my back fields, my arena, my round corral, or on a trail. In my back field, I can gallop around the whole field and its so exhilarating for me and my horse. We can work on conditioning or just a quiet walk around the field enjoying the view. In my round corral, I like to work with my horses at liberty. My last session with Luke, my TB, we achieved a back up that went all the way around the corral without any ropes, just my stick and it just made me swell with pride that he did that for me so beautifully and correct. The key words there are, he did it for me! If I’m by myself on a trail ride, I may decide to trot all the flats and side pass some fallen logs. I might even decide to dismount my horse and lead him down a portion of the trail just to improve my partnership.
Last it’s really a good idea to try to keep some sort of record of what you do with your horses. If you don’t have something to refer back to you tend to get in a rut and do the same things over and over. You could create your own journal or records in a notebook or on your computer. I’ve used different things , but the notebook I’m using right now is one I bought from Dressage Naturally. It’s called The Happy Athlete Progress Journal and you can find it on her website. It’s wonderfully organized and gives you tips and ideas to do with your horse, along with the where, why, how and what of it all. There are also other journals out there, so look around and find something that fits your situation.
I think if we stop being boring as riders and trainers and put some effort and thought into how can I be more interesting, we will see a change in our horses that builds the partnership, the willingness, performance, and overall well being of the horse.
Gail Ford is owner of Mulberry River Farm. She is a local amateur rider and competitor who studies Natural Horsemanship and studies the fundamentals of Dressage.