Set Your Horse Up for Success: The Foundation and Basics
Foundation vs. Basics
As riders, we hear the word, “basics” constantly. How many riders really know what that means and how to apply it? Before the basics comes the foundation and it seems even fewer people understand that. As I define it, a horse’s foundation is their ability to live and interact happily in a human world. A horse just wants to be a horse first. This means that they use their well-developed senses to react quickly to save themselves, find food, water and stay with their herd. Horses are quite good at being horses! Then humans enter the picture and we need them to tone down some of those instincts and live in our world full of every possible distraction and perceived hazard to the horse. The horse must learn to have relationships with people (hopefully they are good ones), release into pressure and relax when they realize the plastic bag/tractor/puddle/rock/etc. isn’t going to eat them. If all goes well, they have experiences where the perceived threat does not eat them and they become more efficient at relaxing even though their instinct is “RUN AND SAVE YOURSELF”!
The horse’s foundation is like preschool where they learn how to go to school, how to learn, and how to have relationships. Then the horse moves on to kindergarten where they start to learn some ABCs and 123s. These are the basics like, go, stop, turn. Everything we do while riding is a combination of go, stop, and turn upon the foundation of their ability to be happy in our world. Then a horse can move into discipline specific “higher education”.
When there is a crack in the foundation or the basics, this is where the problems show up. This could be why a horse suddenly gets spooky in the show ring or away from home. His mind isn’t ready to deal with the stresses that our human world provides in the way that is productive for the human. For the horse, his response is perfectly natural, and suits his purpose of staying alive.
Assessment When you go out to ride your horse next time make an honest assessment of your horse’s foundation. How well does he get along in the human world? He is just getting by, usually a little nervous? Or perhaps he can be explosive at times. Ideally, your horse is relaxed and responsive. Maybe it’s that bit of tension that he might internalize that is keeping you from better performance. You owe it to your horse to provide him with the best foundation possible.
Affirm your Foundation
It’s never too late to go “back to basics”. In fact, I check on the foundation first, then basics every single ride. I first let the horse wander without direction on a loose rein. What are his ears saying? Is he with me? Where does he gravitate to? The gate, or his friend in the arena? If he wanders and explores the whole arena without getting stuck and I can have an ear flick back when I ask for something, then I can move on to basics. Does my horse go when I put my leg on? Does he stop when I ask? Does he follow his nose and turn when I ask? If you don’t have reliable basics, at some point they will haunt you! Some riders are pretty good at being able to ride through some of the basic issues, until they can’t anymore. This is often when a dressage rider might get stuck at a certain level. Sometimes other riders get on these horses and they have a hard time riding them. Some of it comes down to patience, checking on the foundation and basics, every ride. However, when riders do this every ride, they begin to get through it quickly! This allows the rider to move on to the athletic performance part of the ride.
The Gift of a Good Foundation
You have him for your enjoyment to go to shows, or trail rides, give him the gift of confidence in the human world. It’s never too late to help your horse be more relaxed! Think of your horse's stress level on a scale of 1 to 10. If he exists at a 3, when you add another stressor, (which could be anything, learning something new, a deer jumping out of the bushes, or change of environment for example), he may go up to a 5. If your horse exists at an 8, it won't take much to push him to 10 and beyond. Many riders think, “oh that is just how he is” when it comes to spooking, or other behaviors. Riders also like to fix their horse with a supplement. I am not going to get into a supplement discussion, but for goodness sake, a supplement won’t train your horse! Nor will any special piece of tack. Tack is a tool that is only as good as the hands that use it. If your tack room is full of different bits, and gadgets, maybe make a good assessment of your training. Find someone who is an expert in building a horse’s foundation and learn all that you can. To perform his best, the horse needs to feel safe. It is the rider’s responsibility to show him how.