Growing up I heard this mantra a lot when I was taking lessons, “squeeze. Squeeze. Kick.” I really thought that hearing it didn’t really mean much until a few years ago though. I realized that my instincts were always to squeeze first and kick second. However I never really stopped to think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Something I think a lot of people don’t get. Talking to a family member recently I was talking about riding and asking a horse to do something, my family member interrupted with “you mean tell,” to which I discovered the opening to explain why in the world I would rather ask a horse to do something than to tell them to do something. Sure I could tell Bella, Skipper, or any other horse to do something, I could make my feeble demands and hope they were in a good mood.
Let’s face it, horses are massive animals with minds of their own. They have their own opinions and quite frankly if they don’t want to do something, they are not obligated by any stretch of the imagination to do it (and sometimes they don’t). How then, do you get on and trust that a horse is going to behave themselves and not just say no because they don’t feel like it? You develop a bond with them and you work on becoming a team.
There are absolutely horses that you can get on and just make your demands and the horse will be reasonable and perform to the best of their abilities. However, I would like to see anyone get on Bella and just make demands without ever considering her thought process. Squeeze too hard? She’s taking off like a rocket. Harsh hands? You’re done for. Unsteady seat? Good luck staying on. With Skipper right now, the entire game is knowing when I can put on pressure and when the pressure is too much. I cannot simply demand that Skipper go into a gorgeous frame and track up properly and be soft and supple, he simply doesn’t have that in him right now. So instead I’m asking him to try for me. I’m asking him to try to move more forwards than he currently wants to, I’m asking him to consider lowering his head so that he’s not going around like a giraffe (okay, he’s not that bad but seriously his headset is not great) and I’m asking him to trust me not to put him in a position where he actually has to fear for his safety. This is all really hard for him, and I get that. By asking him and not making unreasonable demands, we’re slowly building a level of trust that will continue to benefit the both of us later on.
I made the comment to someone at the barn that my goal is to just sort of irritate horses until they do what I want. By irritate I mean ask, repeatedly, until they give me an inch in the right direction. It’s a slow process for sure, and not everyone can handle things taking so long to get through, but it’s a solid method that I’ve seen work time and time again. By using the pressure and release system I can constantly ask for what I want and when the desired result is achieved, or even attempted, I’m able to release that pressure. The horse learns that when they do what I ask them to do, they end up being done much quicker.
Yes this is a process and yes it takes time. I cannot tell you how many insanely short rides I’ve put in on certain horses to slowly work that through their mind. Most recently with Skipper. Guy moves forward when I ask consistently for 25 to 30 minutes? Call it a day. Guy picks up his leads correctly? Less canter work and I’m dismounting quicker. Skipper gives me even the slightest inch of lowering his head and trying to get on the bit for me? All you will hear is me exclaiming what a good boy he is! This is how he’s learning.
This doesn’t just benefit me while I’m in the tack either. Skipper used to run away from me in the pasture and I would be stuck trying to chase him down or approach him without him thinking I was coming to catch him. Now I can walk straight up to him with a halter in hand and he doesn’t move. He doesn’t even try to turn away when I toss the lead-rope over his neck. This has taken four months to achieve. I didn’t use treats. I have been riding him sporadically but often enough that he knows there’s a good chance of it happening. Still, he’s standing and letting me catch him easier. He’s no longer shying away when I go to give him kisses, he’s showing me more of his personality (which involves a pretty curious nature that I hadn’t seen until recently). All of these things make me so happy to see in him.
There’s a reason that we ask, ask, and then tell in riding. There’s a reason, though it took me years to full understand, and it makes me so happy to see it paying off. Particularly when there are so many videos going around from the show ring involving any hint of poor horsemanship, sportsmanship, or flat out abuse. I won’t name names or link the videos but there’s a good chance you can picture some anyways. I’ve definitely been there and been that frustrated, but as an owner & rider my only goal has been to grow and develop into the type of person I would want to ride my horse and while it’s a constant thing to grow and develop, I am really happy with where I am. Judging by my horses, I think they’re pretty happy with where I am right now too.