How to Talk, Listen to Your Horse

FEI dressage trainer Betsy Steiner tells you how to get a meaningful conversation going with your horse by learning to listen as well as talk. From the editors of Practical Horseman magazine.

One of the biggest mistakes riders make warming up is asking without taking time to listen to the horse for the answer–so the horse ends up getting mixed signals.

Betsy Steiner | ? Mandy Lorraine

Believe me, I know how easy this is to do. I wrote a letter on my computer, but the printer didn’t start right up when I hit “print.” So I hit “print” again. And again and again and again. Eventually I called the “help” phone number and asked, “WHY WON’T THIS THING PRINT?” The expert talked me through the process, I hit the buttons he told me to hit–and when I hit “print,” he said, “Now wait.” After a moment the printer came on and printed the letter. It hadn’t printed those first 54 times because I’d been too impatient to wait for a response!

When you keep kicking time after time, you’re doing the same thing: not giving your horse time to respond. Squeeze, then wait; give him a chance to go forward. If he doesn’t go forward, give him a little kick. When he does go forward, you won’t have confused, irritated, or deadened him by repeatedly hitting his “forward” button. You’ve waited, he’s responded, so now tell him, “Good! that was what I wanted,” by relaxing and softening your rein or patting him on the neck. That’s a conversation, and that’s good training.

Through your body language, you can go on to ask, “How are you feeling today?” He may answer with his body language, “A little tight on the left.” Now your thought process and body language can work together, saying, for example, “OK, let’s make you a little looser there with some circles. How are you on the right?” You feel, “On the right, I’m fine.” You ask, “How’s your motor?” You feel, “ehhhh–I’m a bit sluggish.” You say, “Let’s energize things.” He says (by going more forward), “OK, I can do that.”

This process is educational, inspiring, and fun for you both. You’re creating input, processing the feedback, and reacting accordingly, not carrying on an endless, one-sided pushing (and getting a one-sided, ears-pinned, resisting response).

Betsy Steiner, who represented the U.S. in dressage at the 1990 World Equestrian Games (WEG), qualified for the 2002 WEG selection trials riding Jane Clark’s Rainier. She describes the highs and lows of getting to know Rainier (who competed in the 2000 Olympics with Robert Dover) in the August 2002 issue of Practical Horseman. Betsy operates her New Jersey-based business, Betsy Steiner Dressage, in partnership with her daughter, Jessie.

Updated from Practical Horseman, December 1995.

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