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Horse Riding and Training

What’s Really Causing Bad Rides?

Dressage trainer and clinician Cody Harrison encourages riders not to blame the horse, but instead to improve the horse’s comfort and understanding. Photo by Carrie Harrison

You’ve heard horse owners evaluate rides and their horse’s behavior as they hop off, maybe something like: “He was such a goof today.”

This judgment may be a saccharine version of what was actually said when a horse is blamed for a “bad” ride. But horses don’t hold grudges or plan to ruin the day. They live in the moment and only act out what they feel.

Here, we talk to dressage trainer Cody Harrison to find out how you can move from blaming your horse for acting out to becoming a behavior investigator. Harrison is based in Brighton, Colo., and teaches riders to work as partners with their horses at his clinics and lessons.

He says horses may act out and have poor behavior if they aren’t comfortable in the current environment, if they don’t understand what’s being asked, or if they aren’t physically capable.

Good Vibes Only

“Ask yourself what your horse needs from you and what he is trying to teach you,” Harrison says. “Try to see it all as a learning experience rather than good and bad rides. Every time you interact with your horse, you are either training him or un-training him.”

It’s impossible to blame the horse and wonder why something happened at the same time. After acknowledging that horses aren’t out for revenge, your perspective shifts from blame to curiosity. Harrison encourages riders to be responsible for emotions or negativity they may bring to rides and to arrive at the barn with a relaxed mindset.

“You have to understand why your horse is doing things and how he thinks,” Harrison says. “The horse does not do things to intentionally irritate you. Everything a horse does is in response to a stimulus or a response to his own thoughts, but it’s not to spite you. If the horse isn’t comfortable in his environment, doesn’t understand, or isn’t physically capable of the move he’s being asked [to perform], he can’t be successful.”

Environmental Concerns Affect Horses’ Behavior

Harrison says many riders are quick to blame their horses for having poor behavior in new environments. With many new things bombarding their senses, horses are on guard.

“If a horse is scared of a new sound at an expo or large show, remember that it’s overstimulating,” Harrison says. “He can learn to act differently. One of the biggest ways to get his trust in those situations is to not get after him. Think, ‘Let me walk you through this and help you through this.’”

Your horse will feel your intent to guide rather than correct. As you’re working in new environments, Harrison advises looking for places where your horse is comfortable and staying there until it feels safe to move on.

“If you’re in a new arena, find where the horse is most comfortable—probably near the gate—and work there instead of going down to the other side right away. Work where the horse feels safe for a while, then push the boundaries until you can ride in more and more of the arena while your horse stays calm and relaxed. By not pushing the horse, you build his comfort and trust in you. If you push the boundaries, it can create a lack of trust. Forcing a horse into a situation—even if you get something accomplished—will mean you’ll have an argument each time.”

In a new environment, such as the warm-up arena at a show, find out where your horse is comfortable and start out by working him in that area. Photo by Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Does this softer approach work all the time? Harrison says he has a 95 percent rule: Looking for where your horse will be calm and talking him through will work 95 percent of the time.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, we want to be very light and encourage the horse,” he says. “But if you need to protect yourself, or say a small child runs in front of your horse, you may have to use more pressure. Still, be aware of how much pressure the horse can take in any situation. There are certain horses that will never take extreme pressure, just like there are certain people that can’t take that.”

Beyond Understanding

If the horse doesn’t understand what he’s being asked to do, the rider will often think he is being naughty. Harrison says horses will be resistant when they don’t understand.

“The horse starts guessing but gets in trouble because he isn’t getting the right answer,” he says. “So you end up applying more pressure instead of simplifying the exercise. It’s very important to make sure that any exercise you do is a spin-off of an exercise your horse already knows well. When exercises connect to each other, that helps the horse. If your horse knows leg-yields well, then move on to shoulder-in. Those moves are related. But even before leg-yields, make sure your horse can bend through his whole body and step underneath himself. All skills should build to help the horse understand.”

It’s Not Horse Behavior, It’s a Physical Block

Make sure not to ask the horse for more than he can physically do. If you do, he’ll resist. It’s not the horse’s fault if he physically can’t do what is asked.

“When people come into a clinic and I see that the horse is really lean or is a hard keeper, that’s a good clue that the horse may not be physically capable,” says Harrison. “If someone says they want to work on collection but the horse doesn’t have a developed topline, they’re not going to get there without lots of work first.”

Harrison recommends riders work at the trot to improve conditioning issues. The even movement gets horses moving well.

Consider the strength and fitness of older horses. Harrison says he often sees horses who once could do complex moves get asked to repeat what they aren’t in shape to do. If horses know the cues but can’t physically perform, they’ll get sore, and some riders end up blaming the horse.

Rider Responsibility

Harrison says you must consider what emotions and attitude you bring to each ride.

“It’s very important that you understand what your energy level and your day was like before you get on,” he says. “If you had a bad day at work, you’re still at work and not present with your horse. If you’re irritated, then nothing is going to be good enough. Anytime you don’t have control of your emotions, it’s going to affect your horse. As you’re driving to the barn, breathe and meditate a little. Bring yourself back to neutral.”

How can you train yourself to figure out what’s going on with a horse instead of blaming?

“I was taught in ways to make the horse do something,” says Harrison. “It never felt good after I accomplished it. It felt like domination instead of refined. It made me want to do things differently and to look for different ways.”

Harrison says he makes sure to build comfort into his lessons.

“There are moments we stop and figure out what’s going on,” he says. “All my students know that when I tell you to do a circle at E, it doesn’t have to be exactly at E, but somewhere near E. I want riders to do the circle when their horse is balanced and ready. The horse keeps trusting you. When trust develops, then you can be more specific about getting the circle precisely at E in the correct gait.”

If you are trying to do a transition at the letter E, practice doing it when your horse is ready. Gradually you can increase the accuracy as trust is built. Photo by Skumer/Shutterstock

Changing how you word your thoughts and frame your training sessions can change the presence you have with your horse—and your relationship with him. Notice if he is comfortable in his environment, if you’re giving clear cues, and if he’s physically able to do what you ask. If those three elements align, you won’t have to blame your horse.

Dealing with Failure

Failure is often inevitable, but what matters is how we deal with failure. In this video from Ridely, expert Mind Coach Annette Paterakis explains how you can deal with failure by redefining it to help you get better.

Annette explains that, where we put our focus is where we are going to go, so focusing on failure by redefining it as a learning opportunity will help us improve in the long run.

Register for Ridely PRO to access 450+ other useful training videos.

This article about factors that affect horse behavior and bad rides appeared in the September 2022 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Heidi Melocco

Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; AQHA gelding, Golden H Mister T; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."

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