Five Things I Learned in Obstacle Clinic
Submitted by Kathy C.
Yesterday the Medina OHC sponsored an Obstacle ride in the beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Forest. I volunteered to judge one of the obstacles, the giant red, white and blue horse eating ball. It struck me how hard our horses try in the face of perceived danger. After all, how many giant inflatable balls does one see in the forest? The horse's instinct is to run from danger and we ask them to trust us and to reconsider what is dangerous. Today I had the good fortune to take a clinic from Jim McRitchie, Vice President for Mounted Police Training Systems, and I'd like to share some of what I learned.
Build Self Confidence
As Jim pointed out, 99% of problems with horses are the result of the rider. That being said, I have to add that horse and rider relationships are like any relationship, sometimes the match isn't going to work no matter what. The temperament of the horse, and the personality and experience of the rider need to be compatible. Building self confidence is done as with any skill, practice, practice, practice. The more miles I ride my horse and the more experiences we have together the more we trust each other. I've learned to pay attention to any anxiety I may have and sometimes hum, or talk to her which is a great distraction for both of us.
Be the Head of the Herd
Horses (and people if you actually think about it) are always looking to figure out their position in the herd. In the wild, stallions protect the herd, but mares lead the herd. That may be why some people shy away from owning a mare, because mares are born leaders and you'd better be prepared to establish yourself as the leader. Horses and people can become more anxious when leadership is not clear, so the horse will decide that the safest thing to be IS the leader. All of this is significant to riding but in particular to addressing objects that are unfamiliar to your horse.
The Comfort Zone
My horse will usually stand and study something that is unfamiliar. When on trail she may stop to listen or to look at hikers or other horses that I have no clue are coming. Her senses are much more keen than my own, so I've learned that she's not trying to be difficult, but that she is observing and calculating safety. In the obstable class, we learned to take the horse to that point at which she is comfortable, walk away and retry the task. Each try got the horse desensitized to the object and closer to the goal.
Know What Doesn't Work
I'll be the first to admit that there have been times when I've lost patience with my horse. As I observed riders kicking and becoming more agressive with their horses who were not approaching the ball, I realized what a waste of energy this was. Allowing the horse to walk around the ball, move away from and back to the "comfort zone" is more effective. The tricky part is that in the obstacle contest there is only 3 minutes to complete the task so riders feel pressured and this can be inadvertantly communicatd to the horse. Take a deep breath, relax in the saddle. When we get tense, many riders lean forward maybe because it is natural to engage our core strength when a task is difficult. Breaking that habit and sitting deep in a relaxed position is much safer and will help the horse to move forward in a relaxed manner.
Keeping attitudes light and approaching the task with a sense of fun and of joy makes fear shrink like your favorite wool sweater in the dryer (you've done that too?) It's not about you and your ego, it's about teaching your horse to trust your judgement that you won't let her get hurt. It's about you and your horse as a team, not what you fear others may think. It's about the process of learning and growing everytime you ride.
Want to learn more about yourself and your horse? Take an obstacle clinic. Don't be intimidated by the horses and the riders who sail through the course. They've just had the opportunity to practice more than you have. Every horse and ride is capable. See you on the practice field and Happy Trails.