Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Horseback Riding Lessons with Horse Trainer Jen Pratt, Springfield, MO

***Due to an unrelated physical injury, I'm not training or giving lessons at this time***

Riding lessons with Jen are centered around developing a secure seat and building confidence in the saddle and on the ground.  No matter how long you've been riding horses, you can never have too much confidence (or humility!) when working with horses.  A confident rider will:
  • have a secure and balanced seat
  • have independent movement of the rider's body, limbs, head, etc.
  • be able to cause independent movement of different parts of the horse
  • have developed muscle memory for cuing the horse
  • have a knowledge of which actions to take for each action of the horse


Fix the rider, fix the horse

Riding horses is an art form - there are so many intricate details that go into fluid, balanced riding.  Riding technique can have tremendous effects or consequences on our horses, both physically and mentally.
  • If you are unbalanced, your horse will be unbalanced - this can lead to a one-sided horse, and can even cause pain or lameness.  The horse may begin to resist activities that are painful.  Pain is the one of the most common causes of resistance; even after the pain is gone the resistance may remain for a time.  Keep in mind that horses are Fight Or Flight creatures.  Being unbalanced will scare them because their main defense, flight, is compromised when they are unable to keep their feet under them.  Experienced horses are better able to deal with the mental aspect of an unbalance rider than green horses, but both can be affected by the physical consequences.
  • If you are unsure of where you are going, your horse will either wonder aimlessly or choose his own direction.  This can lead to resistance when you finally do give a direction.  It can also lead to a loss of confidence, especially if you over-correct for not following directions immediately when given.  This doesn't mean you have to cue every tiny action, just make sure that when you need to change direction or speed your horse will listen.  It's important the horse not make these decisions for you.
  • Be careful not to give conflicting cues.  These will cause your horse to become confused and resistant.  This can cause many problems, and you may not even realize you are doing it. For example, kicking to speed up but pulling back on the reins out of fear or balance issues (and essentially telling him to slow down), will confuse and agitate the horse.  He may become hard mouthed, or develop head shaking or other problems.
So many problems are blamed on our horses, when the real cause is improper riding technique. Some problems, such as a rider's balance and lack of muscle to cue properly or hold proper position, can be corrected out of the saddle.  Adhering to an exercise regime not only helps us as riders, but also helps our horses.  Exercise regimes don't need to be arduous, especially for older riders or riders with health issues.  Yoga and other gentle exercises not only create flexibility but also help balance issues.

Once the rider has gained full control of their own body along with an awareness of their effect on their horse, most horses become compliant and begin looking to their rider for direction.  If your riding technique is good but you still have problems with our horse, look for an issue causing pain.  Schedule a vet visit, but keep in mind not all pain is obvious.  Some hindgut or ulcer issues are easy to miss or mistake for hind end lameness.  Sometimes you have to get creative to find the problem.  Once you've learned there's no physical problem, start investigating training issues or hire a trainer to either help you or train your horse.


Every rider is a trainer

We train our horses every time we interact with them, for better or for worse.  If you're feeling off, or know you cannot contribute good to your horse - stick to light groundwork, or just spend some time grooming and feeding him.  If the horse must work each time he sees you, he may begin to resist being around you.  The more time you are able to spend with your horse while he's comfortable, the better.  After trail or work is finished, it's good to give your horse a break to eat grass - or anything to comfort and calm them while you are around.

Jen Pratt's Horse Training Philosphy

A horse should not be forced to be compliant

A soft, willing partner is not created by harsh hands and an unkind heart.  Horses are intelligent, emotional, curious, and amazing, yet it is so easy to destroy those qualities and then call the horse "broke".  A big problem with these "broke" horses is that force becomes the norm, and young and beginner riders will eventually be over-faced by these horses, especially after the horse realizes he is bigger, and more daring than these riders.  These horses can be started over by bringing them back to easier work with gentle handling.  Horses that are spoiled or allowed to run over their handler repeatedly will have to be handled a bit more harsh at first, because they will not pay attention to gentle cues.  Once they understand the new way of working, most horses appreciate it to the point they will listen and willingly comply, rather than continue to work from force.

A horse that is started gently, that is taught to think his way through problems, can be rode by almost anyone.  There are always exceptions, certain horses are just naturally more sensitive and will always need a more experienced rider in certain situations.  But, these "sensitive" horses can be the best horses in the pasture for the right person (read more in Riding Lessons).

A horse that has been taught to trust, to think, allowed and encouraged to be curious and at all times to be himself, these horses will go through any obstacle, just to please his rider.  This horse will continually do his best on his worst days and will work through pain and discomfort (which is why riders should ALWAYS be watching for issues, because their horse may not tell them there is a problem!).  THIS HORSE IS A WILLING PARTNER, and something all riders should strive for.

Tips and Tricks for Creating a Willing Partner 

** Tips for those who want to train their own horses, and for any rider who wants to treat their horses in a fair manner.  These suggestions work well for recreation type riders and horses.  They also work well for competition type horses, although the "old school" train of thought sometimes rejects these ideas for not having a "competitive edge" - feel free to judge for yourself.
  • Help a horse to think his way through a problem, not just react.
    • Ex: If you try desensitizing your horse to scary objects and pet or reward him while he is panicking, you are teaching him that a reactive nature is desirable.  While you may be stopping your actions and petting him to sooth him, he will believe that he has done the right thing.  A reactive horse cannot be a willing partner, he will always follow his first instincts rather than thinking through a problem and listening to his rider.
  • Always start light with your cues.
  • If you're nervous, your horse will be nervous.
  • Do not get upset when a horse doesn't answer your questions with the correct answer. Continue to ask, but in different ways. Make the correct answer as clear to the horse as possible. If you still can't get the correct answer, stop after a solid try from the horse and go on to something else.
    • Maybe the horse just can't understand what you want, because of his own issues (pain, etc) or yours (conflicting cues from a distracted rider, etc). Take the time to study different methods, either online or in books, preferably in person if you have someone you can ask. Approach the horse again during a different training session to see if you get better results.
  • If the horse is doing something he's not supposed to, don't say "No". Instead, redirect his energies into something positive. This will create a "Yes" environment for the horse, keeping him more relaxed and less resistant. A horse that is constantly told "No", especially a sensitive horse, can lose his motivation.
    • Ex: a horse that stops, planted with a rigid neck, is a horse that's about to give an exceptional spook.  By redirecting his feet and getting him moving you can get his mind somewhere else.  Just a light nudge with your leg won't move him, and to prevent a bolt you need him to turn his head.  By reaching down on one rein, pulling his head to the side and turning in a tight circle you can get his feet moving. Keep that one rein short in case he tries to take off, he can't go far in that tiny circle.  Once he shows some signs of relaxing a bit you can nudge him forward into the action that you want.  At no point have we told the horse "No, you are doing this wrong." Instead we are telling him "Yes, move your feet," but in a manner that we are capable of controlling.
  • If your horse has a problem with the arena today, taking him on a short ride outside of his usual space (if you don't feel confident enough to ride, walk your horse). Sometimes monotony can cause a horse to misbehave, or even act or feel like he has a lameness issue when really he is just being lazy and unmotivated. A change of scenery can fix this.
Almost all problems pertaining to the horse can be summed up as "resistance", whether it be from pain, being "spoiled", lack of knowledge or confidence in the horse.  Resistance can be fixed by going back a few steps.  Do things that your horse likes and finds easy.  Teach things that will come naturally to the horse.  Do things that will build your horse's confidence and praise him for a job done well.

About the Artist:

horse artist, equine artist, PSSM horse
Since starting my art business in 2004, I have been on a roller coaster ride that's taken me from art, to house flipping, to legal assistant, to horse trainer, and a full 180* back to my artworks.

I'm thankful to get back to my art, and also for the life experiences I've gained.

Things in life that matter the most!  Jen, husband Jared, and Jax

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