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Asking For More


By Betsy Kelleher

    Some of us don’t ask enough of our horses. We accept the way they are and we don’t know how to change that or don’t believe we can. We may struggle for a long time with a specific issue, or we trade horses, or we get help from others. Instead of simply asking for what we want with patient authority.

     I remember my problem with Little War Dude, an Appaloosa gelding I had raised from birth, my beloved Fanny’s only offspring. While Fanny had endless energy, I constantly had to push Dude. I was much younger then and didn’t appreciate his quiet spirit. When cantering him for a riding instructor, I was always told to sit quiet and let him do the work. But my body worked harder at it than he did, trying to make him go. As a result, of course, I hindered his balance instead of creating impulsion.

     One day a trainer came to my barn and gave me a lesson on Dude. She saw my problem and asked to ride Dude herself. I watched as she rode him for a good twenty minutes and he did things for her that I couldn’t get him to do!

     “He can do much more than you realize,” she told me. “You’ve just got to ask him.” And she popped him once with a riding crop. But I have asked him, I thought to myself, and he doesn’t listen to me. Dude was responding to her cues, reinforced with just one tap of a crop as needed. He was tucking his head beautifully and giving to the bit, his body was collected and supple and he looked absolutely gorgeous as she rode. I was envious to the point of actual tears!

     Connie Owens later gave me a few lessons on Dude and helped me win his respect. She didn’t allow me the privilege of a riding crop, however, but made me use my legs until they ached. Connie is definitely one who asks more of her riding students. Dude and I both heaved sighs of relief at the end of each lesson! But we learned to work together. I learned how to ask more of him, and he learned to respect my requests.

     In case anyone missed the key here, I will mention that the rider must have the respect of the horse. If we feel intimidated for any reason, the horse will sense we are lacking the authority to take charge. But with experience and help, we should gain the knowledge and the inner confidence to ask the horse for a proper response. This applies to handling a horse, riding or training.

     Before asking more of our horses, perhaps we need to ask more of ourselves. Some of us have fears that keep us from asking more. “What will he do if I use a riding crop? Will he buck?” A rider should know his horse well enough before getting in the saddle to know how that horse will respond. It’s best to try things during ground work before trying it in the saddle. Another piece of wise advice is to take baby steps. Working with horses is a step by step process. You go from wherever you are to where you want to be by moving slowly and carefully in small steps. Start with a simple thing you know you can do safely, decide to take just one step further to gain your horse’s respect, and ask a little more. The size of your steps depends on what you can handle safely. Asking too much too soon may result in disaster.

     Pat Parelli talks about differences in the amount of pressure we use when we ask. Some horses need only a light touch or a very small request, which usually comes with good training or a sensitive natured horse. Other horses may need a stronger touch, or a pop with a riding crop, spurs or a stronger voice, especially during early training or if the horse is strong willed. Sometimes it helps to merely carry a riding crop. The best advice is to use the lightest amount of pressure needed to get the correct response. Too much unnecessary pressure can cause upsetting reactions or result in a horse becoming even more unresponsive.

     When I talk about asking more of your horse, I am not talking about stronger force. Our goal is to train the horse to respond with light pressure. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being more specific and more consistent. As horse owners, we need to ask with patience and with a confident, positive attitude. When we learn to expect it and to trust ourselves, our horse will know and respond.

     I know my Lady pretty well, but she can move suddenly with very little warning and she still surprises me at times. Just recently, I led her from her stall to an outside paddock, and I didn’t use a lead rope (I know it is never safe, but I guess I am lazy at times and stupid and it was only about 50 feet!). It so happened that there was a large pile of hay bales just outside the door, to our left, covered with a big tarp. I was on her right side, because my left arm is stronger. I saw it, didn’t worry, Lady doesn’t spook at stuff like that. She saw it, walked a few steps with me, and then suddenly jumped sideways in my direction and ran. Her hoof hit the side of my foot hard enough to put a crack in my almost new shoes! I kept hold of her halter with my left hand and ran with her, and she took me almost all the way to the paddock gate before I got her stopped. My first thought was if I had lost hold of the halter, I would have ended up underneath her feet. I took her back to the pile of hay, and we looked at it again, and she was fine with it. It was just a sudden spook, probably the tarp edges lifted in a breeze. But it could have caused me great pain.

     Sometimes it takes just such an experience to prove the need to make changes. And no changes can be made without asking more of ourselves and our horses. We sometimes put off doing something, because we are avoiding discomfort or because of self-doubt (my devotional reading this morning actually reminded me of that!). “Loving” our horses too much to discipline them also leads to problems. In my own case, I need to be more consistent and to ask more of the horse I am leading.

     Traveller is usually no problem. He leads quietly, hardly ever spooks, and one can get away with leading him by the halter. He has spoiled me.

     I’ve joked about Lady leading me around at times, but that’s exactly why I had the recent scare with her. I’ve worked with Rocky some, just to help my husband have better control of his horse. But I’ve allowed these horses to lead me way too often. I need to teach my horse to keep his head by my hand, at my shoulder, rather than going ahead of me. It’s time to ask more, and make it stick. It’s not just the issue of leading; it’s the basic issue of respect!

     The remedy is simple, and I actually read one of my many books just to be sure. When leading a horse, always use a lead rope (do as I say, not as I do). With some horses, it may be necessary to use a chain over the nose, or a control halter. Whatever it takes to be safe. The key in my own situation is to not allow the horse to get ahead of me as I have in the past. Whenever a horse starts to walk ahead of me, I will simply stop and turn and ask the horse to back up three steps. Every time. The horse needs to know I mean business, and I need to be consistent (just as parents should be with children). It’s basically as simple as that. I haven’t always done it, for the same reason I grab a horse by the halter without the lead rope. I tend to be in a hurry and just assume everything will be fine. It’s time to ask more of myself in this issue. Asking more requires discipline and consistency, remember?

     If we ask more of our horses, they will do better. We must learn how to ask, what to ask, and when to ask. We must find the courage to face the fears or other attitudes (laziness?) that keep us from asking. And we need the common sense to stay safe and to move slowly and carefully, but with purpose and courage, toward the goal. And to know when we need help.

     I still struggle with a personal lack of confident authority in certain situations, but I do know that such an attitude makes a great difference when working with any horse in any situation. A horse owner must learn to take charge, kindly and firmly, for the sake of safety, and for the purpose of a good relationship. If I do not take charge, my horse usually will!

     How does one develop that quiet, calm, patient, confident authority? Working with horses takes skill, knowledge and experience. There are countless books, videos and trainers to help, but we learn as we do it. When bad things happen, we often lose confidence, so it’s best to go slow. Recently, I’ve been riding with friends who have more confidence than I do, trying to get over my fear of riding Lady on the road by our barn after a previous bad experience (more on that in a later column). I’ve actually seen how a confident, relaxed attitude can help a horse handle a fearful situation! I learned this once before and for some reason, I had become fearful again. Regaining a relaxed courage usually takes time and help! Sometimes we need stronger self-discipline to control the negative thoughts and images that cause our fears.

     In II Timothy 1:7, Paul reminds us, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (fear), but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” I know I am sometimes too focused on my own weakness and my own inadequacies. I need to remind myself that God’s Spirit lives within me. That doesn’t make me invincible, of course, but it gives me courage and it gives me the incentive to FOCUS more on HIM. Believing in a God of power should empower me as well.

     In I John 4:18 we are told, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The problem here, of course, is that very few human beings know perfect love. Therefore, we still struggle with fear. Basically, the fear referred to here is a fear of death and judgment. Of course, our fears around horses have a definite link to the fear of getting hurt or killed, which is not a fear of judgment. But I believe our faith in God can help us through fearful times and fearful experiences.

     Just as we expose our horses to fearful situations at times, to help them learn to trust us and respect our leadership, God also leads us through experiences that are meant to teach us His Sovereign dependability. As He asks more of us, He promises to be with us and to enable us to move another step further toward the goal.

(Originally published in the July 2006 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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