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Connecting with horses - by giving choices!

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

The more connected we are with our horse - the less equipment and force we need to use when riding or handling. In fact everything becomes easy, with tack or without. I am often told that riding horses is very hard. A complicated task that takes years of practice to master. I can agree that controlling and micromanaging horses is complicated, but who says that`s the way it should be done in the first place?

When learning to ride, it typically happens in a setting where the riding instructor tells us to make the horse do this or do that: “Ride over there and if the horse doesn’t want to, don’t let him win.” Learning to ride this way is all about controlling the horse and making the horse do what we want them to do. It’s not about giving the horse a choice and actually take the time to make our idea the horse’s idea.

I can only wonder, why?

Maybe it’s because if we allowed horses to choose, it would become pretty obvious that what we think is a perfect relationship based on connection and trust, is more like a dictatorship. With us being in control and giving commands, while the horse simply obeys? Or maybe it’s because we don’t know how to give choices, because we’ve never learned how to do it?

Most riders grab the reins from the moment they sit in the saddle, to prevent the horse from walking off and make sure the horse goes where they want to.

How do you think horses feel about this type of handling and riding?

If they’re anything like us—who enjoy freedom of choice and hate being micromanaged—I’m pretty sure they’re a bit fed up. Maybe even offended by our lack of trust in them.

But we don’t see that do we? Because we’ve never really asked our horses what they think about our training regime.

I’m not saying this to judge you, because I’ve been there myself. It was not until I started giving my horses choices that I realized how much they disliked my training. At liberty, they would turn their hind end toward me, run off or just ignore me.

Which in hindsight was great, because the horses who showed their emotions were actually better off than the ones I had trained to obey to such an extent that they didn’t show much of anything. They just did what they were supposed to.

Those are the "bomb-proof" ones, the horse everybody wants to buy. Who stand still while mounted and do what they are told, without asking questions. But if we look closely, we can see it in their eyes; these horses have a tendency to look slightly away.

My best riding horse was like that, and it took a while to get him out of it. Now I’m happy when he walks off or refuses to self-park, because he shows an opinion and tells me how he feels. Which allows me to do something to help him feel better. This doing something, usually involves changing me, not him. In a sense he is training me now, and I am the one listening. This has brought back the sparkle in his eyes, true relaxation in his body and hind leg engagement I only dreamt was possible.

I think the biggest game-changer was giving choices and connecting with him, by catching his eyes. Because if we catch our horse’s eyes, the rest will follow. We can’t really force a horse to look at us and relax, but we can set it up to become a favorable option. And then wait...

Now I train all my horses this way. Because I know that by building a connection and giving choices, I don’t have to use force when riding or handling. This is something my horses appreciate. They tell me that by wanting to be where I am, and by wanting to go where I go and be ridden where I ride. My idea is the horse’s idea.

This is what makes leading without lead rope and riding without bridle easy. It also makes regular riding a whole lot easier and healthy for the horse. Because when their minds are happy and relaxed, their bodies takes a functional shape with natural self-carriage and hind leg engagement, coming from self.

It’s all pretty obvious to me now. We can’t teach horses self-control by controlling them. Just as horses can’t do something by choice without having a choice in the first place.

But there is one thing we need to be aware of: You can’t expect a horse that has never been given choices to perform well when first given a choice.

There is a system I use when connecting with horses through choices, and it starts on the ground. We don’t need treats, ropes, or anything like that to make our idea our horse’s idea. But we have to take the time to catch our horse`s eyes and allow our horse to relax and find peace in our presence. Then we need to allow the horse to choose the desired behavior, not just force things through. Which might seem time consuming to begin with, but once learned everything we want to do with our horse becomes easy!

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