One of the common issues I come across on my travels is what I refer to as the phenomena of showing your horse ‘too many shades of grey’. Let me explain. I believe our horses are looking for a clear direction, a way they can succeed, that keeps the human happy and then allows the horse to get back to the pasture with their mates. I try to encourage my students to show their horses the clearest way possible to win, show them where the victory is, in whatever workout we are doing, then reward and let them go and eat and be a horse again. I believe it is our duty as horse owners to show our horses clear cues and reward through being black and white (with no shades of grey) in all aspects of horse training. If you have attended one of my clinics you may have heard me talk about this. Some of you may have tried this particular style of training and hopefully you have experienced some success. I meet a lot of people who understand the concept but can not seem to deliver it in a palatable format to their four legged friend. What I generally find is that the missing link for the people applying this technique is they offer too many ‘grey areas’ (the old shades of grey phenomena) to their horse. Let me explain what I mean through an exercise.
An exercise we work on regularly with my students is having them travel around a square or circle (20m+ wide) on the loose rein (on the buckle) at the trot, this is an exercise to work on showing your horse how to stay on a certain shape or path and maintain a consistent speed without slowing down, running off or dropping their shoulders. We are working on shoulder control and speed control. I have my students start out riding the shape (square or circle) and let their horse travel into a trot (posting or rising to the trot), once they get a good rhythm up I ask them to leave their horse alone and see what happens. The horse generally does one of the following things, it slows down to a walk or stop, speeds up to an out of control trot or flat gallop (it’s ok, this is very common), drops its shoulder and barges into the inside of the shape nearly knocking me over in the process, or keeps travelling at a consistent trot beautifully around the shape holding its shoulder up and effortlessly carrying the rider (rare I know, but believe me it can happen!). As you can see the results of this exercise can vary greatly. What we are ultimately testing here is whether your horse has the knowledge and understanding of what it is that we are trying to achieve in this exercise. Can I trust my mount enough to let them travel around a shape at a consistent speed without being pushed with my body, legs or overly directed with my hands.
So, how does the ‘shades of grey phenomena’ come into this? What I see when I first get people attempting this exercise is that when the horse first dives off course (shoulder control) or speeds up (speed control), the contrast of energy that the rider provides to the horse is mostly negligible, where as we need the contrast to be significant. What we are trying to do is paint the picture to our horses that they are either ‘doing the right thing or the wrong thing’. What I ultimately want my horses to know is that when they are trying for me and keeping to the task I will reward them (with physical touch and relaxation) and I will also leave them alone (stop pestering them with my legs/body/energy), instilling some confidence in them at the same time (I want them to love their job!). The important thing here is the that the contrast of energy you provide to your horse is the key. There can be no grey areas of limited response from the rider or for that matter any contradictions from the rider, we need to be very clear. An example of how to complete this exercise incorrectly, when a horse dives its shoulders to the inside of the circle and the rider casually picks up the reins and asks the horse to move back onto the shape and then kindly asks the horse with the softest voice possible, TTRRROOOT, please boy, ‘TROT ON’ to keep this crazy clinician happy. This is the ‘shades of grey’ territory! And we have to get out of it fast! How I best remedy this situation is by getting the rider to provide some increased energy contrast (through their body), when the horse is trotting nicely around the shape, be independent in the saddle, light and just trot, leave him alone. Then once he drops his shoulder and falls to the inside of the circle we need to liven up, provide the contrast through your energy. When your horse drops its shoulder, make it hard work. I get my students to take their horses into a tighter circle on the inside once they have dropped in and hustle their feet, let the horse figure out through a bit of hard work that ‘this is not fun’. Once you have done 2-3 tight, harder riding circles, (your energy is elevated), you are really overriding, then direct your horse back to the original sized shape around the cones or defined area and then apply a softness in your body, change your energy back to just an easy trot.
Hopefully, you can see what I am getting at here. We need to show our horses ‘black and white’ contrast that proves it was hard work when they dropped their shoulder and fell into the circle, but life became much easier when they were allowed back out onto that lovely shape around those awesome cones. I have seen the sense of calm and relaxation a horse displays when shown exercises like this with a clear and definitive outcome, with a lot of reward and release of energy. Your horse is probably thinking “Gee, I wish my human would be that clear throughout every exercise we do and I could enjoy my day and not live in some confusing ‘shades of grey’ territory.”
The more I can get people to think about being clear and showing their horse right from wrong, the better the horse and human experience becomes.
I hope this helps in some way!
All the best.