This is a very common phrase among horse riders. Quite often, the phrase “my horse loves jumping” is closely followed by “because he gets so excited when he sees a jump”. Experienced horsemen will tell you that in order to be successful with Show Jumping, you need a horse that is careful, brave and willing, but also that the horse needs to be teachable, have power and scope and should have a good canter, with the ability to lengthen and shorten his/her strides easily. This type of flexibility depends on the horse’s ability to remain relaxed regardless of what obstacle is presented to him/her. If classical training principles are followed all the way through a horse’s ridden career, relaxation will become the foundation upon which all other work is built.
What are the signs that a horse is relaxed about a particular exercise?
– They are mentally engaged in the exercise, without displaying signs of stress.
– They look to the rider for guidance, without fear to explore.
– They are willing to try whatever the rider presents to them.
– Their body feels relaxed; tail swinging, back soft, under-neck muscles relaxed, moving in a swinging rhythm (consistent speed), mouthing gently, breathing rhythmically and quietly.
– They are able to come back to a free walk on a long rein or a quiet halt after the exercise has been presented.
In order for our horses to grow and learn, we also cannot fall into the trap of staying within their comfort zone all the time. They need to be stretched mentally and physically in order to expand the range of the comfort zone. This applies to us as horsemen, as well! If we push our horses to stress in training (which also applies to teaching through fear), their comfort zone does not expand, but rather, they internalize their fear and it may present at another stage in their lives, or in a different environment or situation. If we however stretch our horses (emotionally and mentally) during sessions, then allow them to return to their comfort zone, the comfort zone itself gradually starts increasing in size. This happens as our horse learns to trust his/her handler. Every situation is different, as every horse and handler is different, but the concept remains the same – stretch without stress and allow breaks (comfort zone) in order to promote equine-aware training.