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Don Jessop

Growing up with horses was magical. But... there are a few things we all learned that just don't apply anymore. I thought it would be nice to sit down and have a fun, short chat about those things with you. Now I certainly know you didn't get the exact same messages I got, but a few probably crossed over and those are the ones I'd like to highlight. And at the same time, I'd like to encourage you to look at your own bag of techniques and tools you've learned over the years and decide if it's time to update it.

Today's List:

"Knee them in the gut so you can cinch up tighter."

"Get on/off from their left side only."

"Ride it out."

"Don't let them break gait"

"Lunge them till their tired."

"Kick to go and pull to stop."

Oh, there's more, many more... You've probably heard your own over the years. Be sure to add them in the comments below.

Let's tackle one at a time here.

"Knee them in the gut so you can cinch up tighter." Of course, not everyone got this lesson. But I did. I was told that when you cinch a horse, they tighten up and hold their breath (this is often true if you go too fast) so you have to make them blow out their breath so you can cinch up tighter. I mean, who wants to get on a horse with a loose cinch? But of course... you don't have to do this. Horses can't hold their breath forever. And why are you in such a hurry to ride anyway? Give him a break, walk him a bit, he'll breathe naturally instead of getting a bolt to the ribs (consequence for nothing) just to blast his air out. Let that one go. Let's all be a bit kinder. I mean, we are asking them to carry us. So... more rewards, less consequences.

"Mount and dismount on the left side only." Well. This is simply not as important as we thought. Everyone got this message and few people know why they got this message. Getting on the left was a military recommendation so you wouldn't hit your horse with your Saber when mounting. It's totally old school. I mean who carries a Saber around anymore? So now you know. Also, hold on to this tidbit, horses are fine with getting on and off both sides, and if they aren't, you can train them to it in as little as one session. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Drop that old idea and make some new ones.

"Ride it out." This one doesn't take a brain surgeon to understand its consequences. Although, historically, many brain surgeons have helped people recover from the consequences of trying to "ride it out." It's far too easy to get hurt with a horse and riding it out amplifies that risk. The fear is, if you get off, the horse feels rewarded for the wrong thing. This fear isn't unrealistic but getting off doesn't mean stopping everything. At least it shouldn't. You can get off and work on the ground to get the horse right. You don't have to stay on and get it done. The horse learns both ways, especially if you put him away in a respectful, happy place. I get on and off many times in one session, especially if the horse is new or green. As they get better, I stay on more. Simple, safe, effective. Just don't get off and take the halter off and go inside to eat dinner, unless you've ended the session with the horse calmly accepting the exercise at hand. That would be ideal anyway. Some safety situations require starting over tomorrow. That's fine too. Just don't want to make a habit of ending on a bad note, that's the realistic part of helping the horses brain get to the right place each day. You want them to both understand the task and be relaxed about it. You can do that from the ground until they get it then get on and try again.

"Don't let them break gait." Why? Why not let them break gait? That's what I always ask someone when they say that. I know why, but most often the answer is, "Because I was told that a horse shouldn't do that." Of course, whenever someone does something just because someone else says so, you instantly realize they haven't thought about it independently, or scientifically. But occasionally, I hear someone who's thought a tiny bit more about it say, "that you don't let them break gait because if you do, they learn the habit of breaking gait and it makes it harder to do jobs like cantering a course in a competition. It's a better response but still not quite the whole picture. The truth is, there are two types of riding. There is riding in preparation for bigger tasks, and then there's the bigger task itself. So cantering a jump course or trotting toward X in a dressage ring demands consistency of gait. But how you get there, to that consistency, is not by abusively telling the horse he shouldn't break gait in every training ride. The preparation part should be a game that helps develop the horse's ability to maintain gait for longer and longer, filled with fantastic rewards and few consequences for breaking. Because honestly, why would a horse ever break gait unless it was an organic experience of mental or physical imbalance or fatigue? Most people are taught it's bad for a horse to break gait and they deliver heavy consequences to the horse for breaking. But the truth is deeper. It's quite natural and even imperative to break gait. It helps the horse re-balance and restart and use the correct muscles. Forcing to hold the gait when the horse is crying for a chance to re-balance is abusive. It will be important to dive even deeper into this topic in a future article. For now, just remember, it's old stuff, this whole "don't break gait" rule. You can update it.

"Lunge them until they're tired." Once again. It's not without its own value. Sometimes a horse just needs to blow off some steam and the only way for a novice rider to help that horse is to lunge them. But more advanced riders learn new tricks. You can too. You can often get a horse to focus mentally with other groundwork such as falling leaf patterns, figure eight patterns, jumps, hills, and even more subtle tricks like backing by the tail or picking up all four feet after saddling. Every exercise, if used correctly can help a horse focus. And focus just so happens to be the primary thing we need when riding. Relaxation is nice, sure, but focus is WAY more important. Lunging gets a horse tired enough to focus but doesn't often yield the results you want. Some horses just get stronger and stronger each day you lunge and instead of taking a few minutes to get them tired it takes half an hour. It's also riskier to their joints to lunge in circles for long, so in the end, this happens to be another technique we need to update.

"Kick to go and pull to stop." This one is so simple to understand its value. And the person, whether they ride every day or just got on a horse for the first time in their life instinctively pulls on the reins to stop and kicks with their legs to go. You often don't even have to tell someone new how to ride and they go right to it. But... it's an old, outdated technique. There are multiple ways to ask a horse to stop and go and turn. We should learn them all. I'm not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater. It would be wise to keep the simple messages simple. But with growth in mind, let's consider the playful ways you could communicate with your horse. You could ask your horse to stop, go and turn with your voice. Or your seat, or your legs and no hands, or your hands and no legs. As part of a warm-up I use in many of my clinics I encourage riders to practice all of the above. It sharpens the horse's awareness in a positive and playful way very quickly. Whenever I see instructors limit their vocabulary to kick to go and pull to stop. I can't help but want to send them all my books. There is soooo much more available. I understand the value of not complicating a lesson for a novice rider. But there is never harm in simply telling, even the most novice of riders, that there is no rule about how this works and in the end, you can communicate your go, stop, and turning signals anyway you like, but for today, let's just do the basics and grow together from there.

In summary, let's take our fantastic horses to the next level, and ourselves, by updating old, limiting ideas about leadership and horses. There are many more old things to throw out, for sure. Maybe you could add some in the comments. I'd love that.

Thanks Don

Don Jessop - Blog Welcome

Hi! I'm Don Jessop

With Mastery Horsemanship

I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.

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Don Jessop


Don opened up a community, full of people on the same journey you are!
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