They say a horse can feel a fly anywhere on his body. This time of year, watching horses twitch, swish their tails, and stomp their feet, this does appear to be true. But can a horse feel a thought?
I’m not saying that horses are psychic but clearly my horse, Micah, feels every waiver of my attention. Let’s say we’re doing a leg yield and someone walks by the arena with a wheelbarrow. My eyes flicker to take that in and there’s an instant wobble in the leg yield. Micah felt my attention stray and his mind went off course with mine. The wobble was minor but real.
You could say Micah was paying such close attention to me and that he responded accordingly. Or you could say Micah took advantage of a moment. Regardless, he felt my focus fade and responded accordingly. No matter how you describe or interpret the behavior, it’s rare to find a horse who will go on auto-pilot for long, unless you’re asking for an amble.
I’ve begun to see just how important focus and the human/equine mind meld is in training. The other day we were practicing halt/trot transitions — an excellent exercise. I was trying to get Micah to move briskly off my leg into the trot. In my first attempts, Micah was sluggish. I realized that I was hoping he’d spring into the trot but not really following through with my body language. As a result, Micah would lumber into the trot, with me just a bit behind the movement. We’d pull it together within a matter of seconds, but it really wasn’t good enough.
Improvement only came when I made a full commitment to the transition. Instead of hoping Micah would trot off briskly, I rode him forward into the trot, expecting a crisp response.
In the first instance I was tentative, saying “I hope you’ll go.” In the other, I committed and moved with Micah into the transition. This time I said, “Let’s go!” and Micah heard me. The difference was impressive.
If you hesitate mentally or physically, you horse is likely to respond with a hesitation of his own. He’ll give you what you ask for: a half-hearted transition.
As riders, our attention has to be riveted on the task at hand. Our bodies need to commit, as well — going with the horse’s movement, anticipating a prompt response, and giving at exactly the right moment.
Try this exercise yourself and see what kind of a response you get. Once you fine-tune it, you should get more prompt trot transitions throughout your ride. You can work on all of your transitions this way. Let me know how it goes!