Recently I`ve seen a couple of horse and rider combinations get a little bit stuck with life. You get into a vicious cycle, unsure of what the problem is and how to get out of this mess.
One client I met last week felt that her horse “hadn`t been quite right” for a few days and was now backing off jumps and not giving her a very nice ride. As I hadn’t met them before I asked the usual questions – back, teeth, saddle, general history. Then I observed them warming up. The horse seemed fine on the flat, and moved forwards in the canter quite happily. Over the poles he just seemed a bit stuffy, and didn`t find it very easy to adjust to accommodate the grid poles on the floor. But his rider told me he always prefers to chip in rather than take a long stride.
When we moved onto jumping the grid, I found the horse backed off the cross pole, and cat leapt over the fences, seeming to lack confidence. His rider then started to get a bit worried by the wonky jumping, so I suggested her friend, who seemed very confident and quite capable, sat on the horse. This rider put her leg on more effectively on the approach to the jumps, and whilst the horse still backed off the first one, he soon took the second fence in his stride. Once they`d jumped three jumps in the grid a couple of times and the horse had his ears forwards towards the fence.
By now I’d explained to the original rider how I thought her horse had felt a bit off, or had one mishap and where she was concerned there might be a problem, she wasn’t riding as positively as normal and so her horse was feeding off this and then losing confidence in his work. She agreed, especially as she could see how changing the rider had broken the cycle of negativity. For the rest of the lesson, she worked over a single fence adjacent to the grid that everyone else was using, and just focused on riding positively towards the fence, supporting her horse if he backed off, and encouraging him to jump from a bigger canter stride. She finished over an upright, far happier with herself and how her horse had felt, and he seemed much happier over the fence and was taking her into the fence as he normally does.
In this situation, worry about there potentially being a problem with her horse caused more of a problem because the horse lost confidence in his rider, and actually needed a different rider to boost his confidence again, and to prove to his original rider that he was okay, for them to overcome this obstacle, and I look forward to seeing them in the future, working well together.
Another situation I came across recently was a friend who was struggling with schooling her mare because the mare was rushing, over reacting to the aids, and generally being difficult. This rider had a go on another friend’s steady cob and really enjoyed the experience. She felt she could relax and enjoy the ride. This gave her a bit of a confidence boost about her own riding capabilities, again breaking the vicious cycle she was in.
The next time this friend rode her mare, I suggested she just pretended to be on the cob and see what happened. They had a much more successful schooling session because the rider was more relaxed and confident in what she was doing, which fed through to the mare, and the rider stopped overthinking everything, which caused her aids to be less forced and minutely calculated.
So again, breaking the cycle helped this combination get out of their rut, because the rider had stopped over analysing their problems and taken the pressure off.
You can break these cycles in other ways too, not just by breaking up the team. Perhaps school in a field instead of an arena; box somewhere else for a lesson; change the lesson format (e.g. have a private lesson if the other horse causes yours to nap) or by adjusting the horse’s exercise regime to help improve specific areas in his work.
I always think that it’s worth exploring other avenues when you find you and your horse getting stuck in a rut, so that providing there’s nothing physically wrong (lameness, tack) you can overcome the psychological barriers easily.