When building trust, sometimes less is more…

Based on previous posts, it is fairly obvious that I strongly believe we can all, as horsemen, learn something from different disciplines. Although I predominantly ride jumpers, I find it refreshing and helpful to draw from hunters, dressage, eventing, hunting, reining, cutting, vaulting (yes! vaulting), etc. I haven’t been exposed to all the disciplines out there, but I do what I can to take advantage of every opportunity to learn something from a discipline I am not familiar with.

My most recent post discussed how horse’s teach us humility. Me and Rudy had a not-so-stellar competition our last time outing which really shook my confidence and trust in him. I believe because his behavior and the outcome of the show was similar to struggles we dealt with in the past is why it impacted me so much. It has been hard for me to just brush it off and leave that ride in the past. I am not sure if it impacted Rudy’s confidence as much as mine, but that will be tested at our next lesson (this coming Tuesday) and our next show (next Sunday).

Anyway, in order to regain my trust in him and his trust in me and himself, I decided to take a different route. My good friend, Allison, is a trainer that uses a lot of Natural Horsemanship influence. Like I said, I like to draw lessons from each discipline and apply them to my own training. I am not going to go out and buy a carrot stick, but will try to be more in harmony with my horse and encourage him to be more free and confident in his movement.

My focus hasn’t really been on ground work as I believe I already use the “philosophy” of Natural Horsemanship even if I am not leading my horse with a rope halter. When I say “philosophy” I mean the whole “herd dynamic”, be the “alpha” horse, move away with pressure, be a confident leader and they will follow, etc. mind set. My horse still is on individual turnout (he kept stealing his buddy’s food), has steal shoes, I ride with a crop and spurs, etc.

The focus has been on riding with the Natural Horsemanship “mindset”. Allison is able to ride her pony in just a piece of bailing twine tied around his neck. She was able to train a difficult and hot jumper mare to go the same way, bareback and bridleless. I have decided to try and teach Rudy to do this.

What I am trying to accomplish by being able to ride Rudy bareback and bridleless is

  • Build my trust in him. Allow him to carry me.
  • Improve his confidence in himself and independence. Rudy has a big heart, but he seems to be almost fearful if I am not there for him 100%. He needs to move more freely and independently without constant help from me. Trust his own athleticism and previous training to take care of us even in no-so-perfect situations.

Today I rode Rudy bareback. He had his halter on with his lead rope clipped to one side and tied to the other (like a pair of reins). I then tied another lead rope around his neck. The halter and lead rope were only there just in case. We already confidently do up to Level 2 flat work bareback in a halter and lead rope (small brag). The ride consisted of me only using the neck rope at the walk and trot. I didn’t feel confident cantering just using the neck rope just yet.

At the walk we practiced steering and halt/walk transitions using just the neck rope. In order to steer I would first rotate my eyes and upper body where I wanted to go. If he didn’t respond to that I would apply leg pressure to “push” him in the direction I wanted him to go. If that still didn’t work I would use a neck rein with the rope and pull him in the direction I wanted to turn. By the end  of the ride I could simply turn my eyes and body at the walk.

The halt transitions were difficult. You think your horse responds really well to seat and leg aids…and then you try riding him using a rope tied around his neck. It took a few tries for me to understand how to ask him. I had to exaggerate and really relax my seat muscles and sink into him. I had to be sure when I brought my upper body back as an indicator for a downward transition, to not accidently drive with my seat. This element was not perfect by the end of today, but definitely improved. A few times I had to go back to using the halter and lead rope so he would understand what I was asking. But with a deep seat, tall upper body, and slight pressure on the neck rope, I was able to get him to halt multiple times. Don’t ask me if I got him to halt straight…Ha!

The trot proved difficult. The first time I asked Rudy to step into the trot from the walk he “took off” cantering (it was more like a very lovely canter depart). That got me thinking…perhaps in my forward transitions under tack I don’t have enough give in my hand and therefore I have to use even more leg. I picked up the lead rope attached to the halter. Halted. Backed. And asked again…more gently this time. Rudy proceeded to trot but would get faster and faster. I believe he was searching for the constant light contact that he goes so well in. To fix this, I did constant circles, turns, changes, of direction, etc. I also realized that I need to think about my seat. I was unknowingly sending Rudy forward with the strong grip and constant leg I was using. I focused on relaxing my seat and lower back and really going with the motion of his trot. We would do this for a few minutes, return to the walk, do some turning and halting, and then go back to trot. I would say we definitely made progress. By the end of the ride I was able to do a larger circle (like half the ring) and we maintained a consistent pace and relaxed trot.

On to cantering. I decided to pick up the “reins” but still try to ride as if I was only using the neck rope. Riding with such little amount of hand and a relaxed seat really allowed Rudy to have a powerful forward canter. I loved the feeling of it. He would turn promptly when I looked with my eyes and turned my body. The only thing that needed improvement was that I still needed a lot of outside “rein” when traveling to the right to control his left shoulder.

Next exciting thing…we jumped! Bareback in a halter and lead rope. We only did a single fence once off each lead, but still. It was a blast! It was a 2’6-2’9 brick wall that was set up as an end jump. Not standards, just the wall. My position felt secure and Rudy didn’t blink an eye! Granted he has jumped this before, but it certainly boosted my confidence and was fun! And I felt like my jumping position was tight as a tick even though we were bareback.  Sounds like a small victory to me.

What I took away from my ride today that can be applied to jumping and competing…

  • I had fun! Not sure Rudy had as much fun as I did but I sure hope so
  • Sometimes less is more. Apply the turning aids I used today when I jump. Use my eyes and body to turn more effectively before using my hand.
  • ALLOW forward movement. This kind of goes with the above point. Instead of constantly adding more leg, I need to first soften my feel. I don’t want to throw away the contact, but be loser with my elbow, shoulders, and hips.
  • Encourage Rudy to be independent. This means softening my hand, stop over-managing every stride, and providing more “support” through my seat and leg rather then my hand. I have been experimenting with different jumping positions, recently going into a lighter seat. I think Rudy is more confident when I am close to him in the tack but soft on the reins as opposed to the lighter seat I have been using.

Sorry there were no pictures! It’s hard when you ride on your own (don’t worry, someone knows I am riding and I keep a cellphone on hand).


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