Riding in Groups
Confidence & Strategy
-by Linda Parelli
This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Savvy Times magazine. Recent back-issues of Savvy Times are available for Parelli members in the Resources section of Parelli Connect.
Some horses are great when riding in groups, but others can get quite emotional – defensive, aggressive, impulsive, kicking, charging… not much fun for either of you! Here are some ideas to help you prepare yourself and your horse for a more safe and enjoyable experience, naturally.
We have to be able to think ahead and rehearse in our minds what to do in every kind of situation because we can’t always simulate everything with our horses.
I once heard Ray Hunt define confidence as "being prepared for the unthinkable." I love that! Now the challenge is to think about what the unthinkable would be and prepare for it.
I remember many years ago, riding into a nest of bees out on the trails in Colorado. Pat yelled at me: "Gallop!" It is the exact opposite of what I would have done. I was already stopping and trying to swat at the bees landing on my horse. As a result of learning that, it became a regular part of teaching preparation for trail riding in all my courses. We have to be able to think ahead and rehearse in our minds what to do in every kind of situation because we can’t always simulate everything with our horses.
Some people and some horses are naturally more confident. They tend to be the left-brain types, but that is not a guarantee. People can lose their nerve for whatever reason, be confident in one situation and not another… same with horses. So it’s important not to make any assumptions – always check things out. Success is all about preparation.
When it comes to riding in groups, you have to check both your horse’s confidence and your own. It’s great if your horse is calm and experienced, but even the most quiet horse can start to have trouble if the rider gets tense or panicky. The same goes in the opposite situation, because a confident rider tends to neglect their horse’s needs because they are able to ‘wrestle’ the horse through problems rather than actually solve them. Sure, it can be done, but it’s not a good experience for the horse or for
future success. And it can be very dangerous.
Let’s do the savvy thing and be prepared.
Keep it simple. You actually don’t have to go into a public area to practice because, with a bit of forethought and arrangements with friends, you can do it all where you usually ride your horse. Here are the main elements to address in your preparation:
1. Equine Psychology
Always try to think about things from your horse’s point of view, because it’s different from a human’s. Horses are herd animals, so when in a group, herd dynamics prevail: who is most dominant, what is the pecking order, where am ‘I’ in the pecking order, if one runs we all run… etc.
Now, having mentioned a couple of strategies, the real secret lies in getting the relationship with you so strong that they don’t even care about the other horses. All they should focus on is you and as long as you are calm and on task, so are they. This means you have to be calm and focused, which may mean not chatting with your friends for a while! The goal is to get your horse calm, connected and responsive. Now, if you don’t have this when by yourself, it will be impossible in the company of others so make sure you are aiming for this every time you play with your horse on the ground or when riding.
2. Approach and Retreat
The best way to build confidence in horses (and humans) is with approach and retreat. You approach the thing that is difficult and, before it becomes unbearable or frightening, you back off to where it feels safe again, then reapproach. Repeat this until, one by one, each threshold disappears and the horse can move forwards without hesitation or tension. The worst you can do is feel the fear and do it anyway, pushing through regardless. That just does not work when it comes to prey animals… and it’s dangerous.
How this relates to riding in groups with a horse that is afraid to be with others is rather simple… you start with just one other horse! Then you add one, and another and another, etc. This may not be all on the same day, but that is also quite possible so long as you don’t add another horse until your horse is completely relaxed each time you added one.
When it comes to riding in groups, you have to check both your horse’s confidence and your own.
Repetition and Testing
When it comes to preparation, repetition is a very important key. You need to do your simulations as a positive pattern, which means for seven sessions. In hearing that, you’ll probably realize just how under-prepared so many riders and horses are for their activities! What does Pat say? "Prior and proper preparation prevents poor performance."Now, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have to do it every time for every new situation, but when you are training in the beginning, you will need to take it seriously and establish the foundation for the future. Over-prepare rather than under-prepare. After that your leadership and your horse’s trust in you should already be established and now it just needs to keep strengthening with just a little ‘top up’ here and there. But any time you’re going into a very new and different and potentially quite challenging experience for your horse, think ahead. Be savvy, stay safe, be really prepared.
What if things go wrong at the event or activity? Bend to a stop and get off as soon as it starts to feel bad and you have that "Uh-oh" thought. The idea is to feel when things are just starting to go wrong, like your horse getting tense and distracted, and you feel a little tight. Act right then. Of course you will always make sure you are well warmed up on the ground so your horse is calm, connected and responsive before you mount up.
What else do you have to prepare for? It’s important to know what kind of situation you are preparing for. In this way you can tailor the exercises to more accurately simulate and prepare for them:
In some of these situations, there will be additional elements such as horses coming too close, cars, wagons, hounds, displays, music, crowds, floats, stressed people, shouting, hurrying, etc. And while not all of us can gather a couple of thousand people or a live band at a moment’s notice, take heart because this is about being able to keep your horse’s attention and connection more than anything else. In simulations, you can just have one person make a commotion and challenge yourself to keep your own focus and calmly, but insistently, keep your horse on a task – getting him to put his feet on a pedestal is a good one to start with. After that, think of the gait you’ll be using when in that situation and over-prepare. If it’s going to be the walk, get to where you can do it at the trot, and so on… and first on the ground.
How to make a commotion? Having someone shaking a flag (Carrot Stick with plastic bag on the end), or shaking and dragging a tarp, banging on a barrel, fence, roof, jumping up and down, etc. will all work really well. Start softly and build from there, softening the commotion before the horse gets upset and then escalating again (approach and retreat). Have your helper stay in one place at first, allowing you to change the proximity when ready. Later on, you can deal with more movement and unpredictability.
As you know, we so often say "It’s not about the _____(fill in the blank)." It really is all about the relationship of trust and connection. When a horse really trusts you, he will learn to not worry unless you do… and of course you won’t worry because you are emotionally fit! Be or become the leader your horse needs – calm, confident, prepared.
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