This is a common complaint from riders. When their horse does not do what they are asking, they assume he is being willfully disobedient, or that he is ignoring them. This is hardly ever the case. I try to interpret the horse's unasked for response, or total lack of a response, as useful information. When a horse does not do what I am asking, I have a choice: I can take it personally and become discouraged. I can insist on obedience and pick a fight. Or, I can take the feedback he gives me and respond in a constructive way.
Did he not do what I was asking because I asked him in a way that made no sense to him? The first thing I do is check my own position and timing. If I’m sitting crooked, my aids for lateral work will not be clear. If I’m asking for a transition at the wrong moment, it won’t be prompt or smooth.
Did he not do what I was asking because he did not understand? If so, I will spend more time on the basics. I will break my ask down into smaller pieces. I will go back to the building blocks of what I was asking. This is what I love most about the training scale of dressage: it’s essentially a flow chart for troubleshooting.
Did he not do what I was asking because he was not in the right frame of mind? Was he distracted, tense, bored, or tired? If so, what can I do to help him relax and/or focus? Sometimes, a quick correction is the right answer. Other times, quitting for the day or going on a trail loop on a loose rein are more appropriate options.
Did he not do what I was asking because he is not yet physically strong or balanced enough to do it? If so, it’s my job to build the strength, balance, and straightness he needs, through appropriate exercises.
Did he not do what I was asking because he lacks confidence or trust in me? If so, I need to build or re-build his confidence through being patient, consistent, and calm - not just right now, but always, in every interaction with my horse, or any horse.
Horses never disobey because they want to annoy or upset us. It’s not in their nature. It’s in our nature to interpret their behavior that way, but this won’t get us anywhere. It’s easy to get stuck in mindless repetition of an exercise the horse just won’t get right. It’s easy to get stuck in the purgatory frustration or self-blame. It’s easy to backslide instead of making progress with your horse. The only forward way out is a deep breath or two, some reflection, and, often, a change of plans or expectations. This is easier said than done, but our horses will teach us if we let them. They will present us with the same problem, over and over, until we are ready to deal with it in a calm, constructive manner. Then, and only then, will we get unstuck.
(All photos by Jazmin Badai)