Friday, April 10, 2009

Rider Checklist - This is GREAT!

This was posted on the Maine Riders' board. I love it, so I'm reposting it here. Right now I'm not sure where it originally came from but if I find out I will give credit.

Rider Checklists
Keith Hosman

I'm going to give you three "Rider Checklists" today. Together they'll keep you safer and accelerate your training to boot.

They'll keep you rational; they'll keep you from "losing it" – which has the effect of setting your training back. The fact is, when we don't have an objective means of approaching our training, when we simply "ride," reacting emotionally to what's happening, we're asking for a wreck – or at the very least, a bad day. The horse gets confused and we get frustrated or lose our temper. Not an environment conducive to a proper education, would you say?

Each of the following lists will cover small things you can simply check off in your brain. Basically, has something happened or not? If the answer is "not," I'll tell you what to do. Your answers to those questions will, flowchart-like, tell you how to act in the moment or how best to form your day's game plan.

The lists were created to "be done in order."

Checklist One: How To Keep From Totally Losing It
Before you ever get on your horse:
Back when you're approaching the barn, ask yourself one easy question: "Am I training today or am I joyriding?" If you answer "training," skip to Checklist Two. If you answered "Uh, I'd like a day off from training, please. I got a horse to have FUN, Mr. Wet Blanket Trainer Man" – that's great, too. It's great as long as you can honestly say that not once in the last few days or months have you turned to a friend and said something akin to "Flicka nearly bucked my teeth out back there" or "This (expletive deleted) horse keeps trying to eat grass. What's the number for the tiger sanctuary?" If there are known issues, then it doesn't matter where you ride (trail or arena), the fact is, you need to be training as opposed to joyriding.

At clinic after clinic, here in the states or in Europe, I get a version of the same question: "I'm out on the trail. On a cliff. With a ten thousand foot drop to my right and cactus on the left. My horse hates plastic bags – but one blows by and he freaks. What do I do?" To which I answer something akin to "Say your prayers." See, training is not a widget that you carry in your back pocket and pull out like a parachute when the plane goes down. It's about practice and preparation. Ignoring warning signs and riding into potential disaster is like eating a cake every night and suddenly freaking when the scale reads "300."

If riding your horse has become an aggravation or something that – even at times – frightens you, then you gotta answer "training" until riding is fun again. Following this simple thought process will have a bigger impact than if I told you to specifically do a, b, or c – because there are trillions of horse/rider combinations and situations that might be described. So, with a nod to the ol' John Lyons axiom "Ride Where You Can, Not Where You Can't," we'll consciously pick a reasonably safe place to do our training and get at it. Example One: Is your horse "jiggy"? Then you need to capture his attention by improving his performance. How do you do that? By being a proactive rider. Keep giving the horse something to do. Make him spin enough plates and he'll hand you control. Example Two: Does your horse keep munching grass? Then develop a zero-tolerance policy toward any resistance on the part of your horse. Be on the lookout for resistance in the form of a stiff neck or a horse that won't move forward when asked. Don't wait till his head's on the ground. Test constantly and the instant you feel reticence, correct the situation. If you feel an ounce of stiffness in the neck, apply pressure and get the horse moving till he relaxes, then you relax. Teach the horse that the way to get you out of his mouth is to stay soft and obliging.

The answer is the same if he drops to a speed you didn't ask for. Be ready with a good kick and swift reward. If you just thought to yourself: "That's what I do and it doesn't work" then what's happening is that you're keeping pressure on the horse's mouth all the time (example one) or kicking all the time (example two). The horse has learned "I get punished no matter what I do so I might as do what I wanna do." Learn to be more aware of when you're applying pressure. It doesn't matter what you think you're doing, your horse's actions tell a different story.

Checklist Two: The Best Advice I Will Ever Give You Emotion is a wonderful thing when the sensation you're experiencing is "elation" – but it's a total bummer when you're feeling "anger" or "frustration." In that respect riding can be truly feast or famine. I'll explain:

As rider/trainers, we've got great days and we've got "blech" days. A blech day happens when we allow our emotions to creep into it our training. The horse doesn't get it or just doesn't give a darn and we get angry. That's bad mojo there – because what happens is that anger causes us to let go of the reins not when the horse simply gives to pressure – but after we've "really made our point." Or to give them an extra kick after they've sped up to "really teach them not to slow down." Things go from bad to worse and we walk back to the barn dejected. We spend the rest of the day depressed or wondering what we're doing with a horse in the first place.

But you can have a great day every day! A great day is any day that we make an improvement, however small, and keep our negative emotions in check. Doing so will keep you and your horse on the same page and build a positive relationship. Get busy with your training and react objectively to any roadblock your horse (or nature) might erect and you'll find yourself enjoying the heck out of riding that day.

So Checklist Two only has one question on it: Are you keeping things objective – or letting negative emotion creep into your reactions? Notice the word "reactions" in that last sentence. Becoming emotional puts you in a position of reacting rather than being proactive. That's a downhill slide. The horse misunderstands something and you react by jerking the reins. The horse reacts to that by bracing and stiffening up. Break this cycle: Every so often as you ride, take stock of the situation. Are you staying calm and methodical? Are you trying your level-best to break things down into their simplest form? Or are you beginning to blame the horse? Blaming the horse is a pretty good sign we're not being rational. Get off and walk around, cool out. Ask yourself if you couldn't break down your lesson even more. Then give it another shot.

The single best advice I can ever give you in the world of horse training comes into play right here: No matter what your horse (or the day) throws at you, learn to find joy in it. Short of getting kicked in the head, you've got to react to your horse's reaction by smiling and telling yourself two things. One, your horse has given you a gift; he's told you exactly what you need to work on. No more wondering "What do I do today"? He's told you. Two, well, there is no "two." Go back and re-read number one. It all boils down to this: Approaching your riding with "We're going to do what I want to do" is asking for trouble. Riding with the attitude of "Horse, what would you like to work on?" will keep you forever in a positive frame of mind. You will enjoy your horse's company; he will enjoy yours.

Checklist Three: When Can I Get Medieval On Ol' Dobber?
Whether you're leading, feeding, roundpenning, riding or just hanging out with your horse, there should always be "two versions of you" out there with the horse. One of you is Dr. Jekyll the other, Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll is the nice guy, the one who everybody loves, the life of the party. He's patient, easy-going, fun and kind. Still, nobody messes with him. Why? Because of his close relationship with Mr. Hyde. Mess with Jekyll and Hyde comes out of nowhere, delivering his punishment, vanishing in an instant.

Now, let's not take this analogy to an extreme: Nobody's suggesting that you get all medieval on your horse. But what I like is the idea of staying cool the bulk of the time and meting out punishment quickly, a reprimand served cold, sans emotion.

But is punishment even called for most times? More often than not, no. Can we simply stipulate here then, that smacking your horse unnecessarily is just asking for trouble? We must because it's more than that. Being "rude or disrespectful" isn't winning you any points either. There are two ways to quickly lose your horse's respect: 1) smacking them randomly, for no good reason and 2) not dealing instantly with their disrespect. Be consistent on those two matters and you'll be fine. Slack off and you'll have a brat that you can't take to a restaurant and who mouths-off at family get-togethers.

If you find yourself going around in circles, so' to speak, and your horse just "ain't getting it," begin by asking yourself "Have I kept things business like and kept emotion out of this?" "Can I break the lesson down to make it even simpler," as outlined in CL2? If you can honestly say "yes and yes" then next ask this: Do I have a horse that is trying at this moment or not?

If you're asking and your horse is trying, then no punishment is called for. Not ever. I'll type that again, because it's just that important: If the answer is "He is trying" then you cannot punish whether he's doing what you expect or not. I define "punish" as any sort punitive action such as yanking the reins, spurring, screaming obscenities, etc. If he's trying, you keep asking until he finally stumbles upon the answer or you find another way to ask. Patience is the rule here. Smile: Your horse is teaching you to be a better trainer. Have fun: He can only go 6 directions (up, down, left, right, etc.) so we know he'll get it sooner or later if we stay consistent. And keep Dr. J locked up.

If our questions and answers have led us to "He ain't trying and a reprimand is called for" then try making the "wrong thing uncomfortable and the right thing comfortable" as Clinton Anderson likes to say. Apply more motivation in the form of speeding the horse up, changing the angle of your rein or asking for a different movement entirely. A classic example would be the horse who won't back up or the horse that won't move his shoulders: Rather than getting into an argument, we ask for something entirely different like asking him to disengage his hips. Above all keep this in mind: Your horse is going to make great sport out of throwing roadblocks out in front of you. You can win the day by finding pleasure in successfully dodging them.


  1. Great article! I loved it! My next ride is going to be even better! Thank you!

    Lee Ann in PA

  2. thanx.. i needed that... well and easily articulated

    happy trails
    cid and gazi