June 21, 2018
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Communicating between horse and rider can be a challenge

Cassie Astle | Courtesy of Jesse Schwarcz
Cassie Astle | Courtesy of Jesse Schwarcz
Finding ways to communicate with horses -- Like Cassie Astle is trying to do here, with Raffles -- is a constant challenge for trainers and riders.
By Cassie Astle, Special to the BDN

Imagine being in a room with a child who can’t speak, use hand gestures, or understand spoken language. The child is required to complete a task which she is not aware of. The child may be frightened, confused, combative or meek, and possible a combination of all four. Your job is to find a way to communicate with the child and help her perform the task in a way that leaves her feeling calm and confident.

This, anthropomorphically, is what training horses is like.

Sometimes I get a horse to work with consistently for a month or two, sometimes just for an hour and sometimes only for a few minutes. Once in awhile, during a student’s lesson, the horse and rider will become stuck. Being stuck means that the rider is asking for one thing and the horse is responding with another and one partner has tuned out the other. If I think the problem can be worked through, we work through it. If I think everybody needs a time­out to relax for a minute, then we take a break. If I think the rider is overwhelmed and in danger of getting hurt or inadvertently worsening the problem, then I take the reins, literally.

It’s always best if a student can, with guidance, sort through something difficult and find a way to communicate with the horse because the learning sinks in better. But there are some situations when the horse is so frazzled that it has become unmanageable for the rider or the technique needed to make a correction exceeds the rider’s skill. At those times, I feel that I can find the solution more safely so that the only injury to the student would be that of a possibly bruised ego.

Sometimes a problem is a case of my own inability to diagnose the trouble from the ground. In training, it is important to see what is happening as well as feel. That is why so many riding arenas have huge mirrors on the walls, or why we want our rides recorded on camera. A good rider or trainer has to be able to transpose what is seen to what is felt and vice versa.

Sometimes my eye is not educated enough to see where the tension or lack of engagement is coming from, but if I can connect physically with the horse for a moment, I can feel it.

Sometimes, when I get on a horse, I don’t know what I am going to do. I may not have a clue as to how I am going to sort things out and get a positive result. In those cases I start at the bottom.

Will the horse turn, stop and go? One of the basics is always missing. Sometimes two. Hopefully, not all three.

Once it’s determined what is missing, then it comes down to calm, forward and straight. Calm means that everyone involved is thinking and trying. If either rider or horse is amped up emotionally then the ride is a roller coaster. Forward and straight are relative.

Forward means that the horse is giving the rider energy that can be directed, so forward can happen while go going sideways or backward. Straight is contingent on the line being ridden. Whether it is over a jump, around a circle, across a stream or down a hill, the horse’s body parts all stay on the intended line.

I have met a number of horses who are really good at turning their heads in one direction and letting their bodies swing like runaway tractor-trailers.

I always feel tremendous relief when I can figure out which basic is missing and bring it back into play. Sometimes it takes a more than one ride. Sometimes I puzzle over things at night, when I should be sleeping. Sometimes the answer comes to me when I’m in the shower or driving somewhere. Sometime, I get on and fix the problem in a few minutes, which is fantastic, barring the issue of getting paid by the hour.

Sometimes, horse training is a little bit “CSI,” except that the investigator (trainer) is looking for CFS (calm, forward, straight) and TSG (turn, stop, go) instead of DNA (you all should know this one).


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