There comes a time in every rider's career when they realize that they're being duped. Their beloved horse convinces them that they are simply asking too much, even if that request is just to trot once around the arena without needing a squeeze of the leg every stride. It's easy to fall into the habit of coaxing our horses through the smallest of actions without even knowing it. Sometimes a clinic or a lesson can be the turning point that reaffirms everything we already know (that trotting around the arena un-aided is not out of the question) and everything we should expect (a squeeze of the leg should prompt activity). It's that shake-of-the-shoulders we need to recognize that in this human-horse partnership we are all too often - suckers.
So how can we know that our expectations under saddle are realistic, while still inspiring progress? According to dressage trainer Lauren Sprieser, the struggle is real.
"I want to start by telling you that if everybody asked the right amount from their horse every day I would have to be in a different line of work. I would not have enough business because that is most of what my job is as a trainer, and what most trainers' jobs is to inspire our students to ask more, whether if it's more of their horses or more of themselves. It's very difficult (and I put myself in this category) to inspire one self's out of their own comfort zone."
However, while abandoning one's comfort zone can sound intimidating, Sprieser explains the basis for training growth is actually quite simple. It all comes down to effort.
"As far as finding the line with any given horse or rider, I want to be able to ask less. That means I need a response anytime I ask at all. If I put my leg on and the horse doesn't immediately move, that's insufficient. If I take on my reins and the horse doesn't immediately come back to me, that's an insufficient reaction. I believe that the horse needs to react in the general direction of what I'm asking, every time I say something. They can make mistakes all they want. For example, if I'm on a young horse and I'm at the walk and I put my leg on asking for a trot, and it canters - that's a perfectly wonderful wrong answer. That's a wrong answer in the right direction! So when I'm working a horse that's where I set my expectations - call and respond. They have to make an effort. "
Even from the moment we swing our foot into the stirrup, Sprieser believes riders are setting a precedent for their level of expectations. While collection and challenging work shouldn't be attempted on cold muscles, a simple "yes" attitude shouldn't require a warm-up.
"Far too often we think 'oh the horse isn't strong enough' or 'oh, the horse needs more time' but unless you're having a terribly cold weather day or you're on a horse who is old and arthritic, a horse can trot on the bit in the first five minutes. A horse can respond to the leg in first thirty seconds."
This does not mean however, that one should lose empathy for their equine partner in an attempt to raise their standards.
"It's beautiful and wonderful to love your horse. We all should! I would much rather tell a rider, 'come on, do more', than 'easy, Tiger'. Erring on the side of caution is never a bad idea. But every now and then we have the situation where things aren’t going well because there’s an actual physical problem that needs addressing, or a veterinary or saddle fit or equipment problem that’s holding back the horse. Once you've eliminated the reasons why a horse might not be performing it's time to raise the bar and say 'hey, come on, let's go."
Clearly, it's easy to get stuck in the cycle of gently persuading our horses up the training ladder, but there's a fair balance between asking too little and presenting your horse with challenges that build their confidence, not crush it. How do you discern though, if you're pushing through a teenage fuss or pushing a horse past their limit?
While Sprieser admits, "there's the million dollar question, certainly." She assures us the cues for impending disaster are hard to miss.
"The average person is not going to be unreasonable in their corrections. Nor is that average person going to ask too much. There is a line, but it's a big line, with neon signs, strobe lights, and big block letters."
However, becoming more comfortable with the balance of expectations is an exercise that like riding itself, takes time.
" In my own experience I've been lucky to have amassed a lot of hours on a lot of different horses. I've done this on my own as well in front of excellent coaches so I've got a database of what any given horse can do at any given time."
Sprieser explains that the best method for setting accurate standards is a second set of eyes.
"I tell everyone that they need to find a trainer, and you need to work with that trainer as often as you possibly can, and your trainer needs to be somebody who has gone to and beyond what you are addressing in your riding but has also taught other people who have been in the same place. You can't expect a trainer who has never taken a horse above third level, to help you get to third level. That's an unreasonable expectation. And remember that, in the process of learning anything new, there’s going to be ups and downs. If I’m asking my six-year-old horse to work on the beginnings of collection and he’s struggling, I’m not surprised. There’s a time in the life of everything that works where it doesn’t work. That’s when you need that experienced coach that you trust, to help you see the bigger picture.”
Perhaps even more critical than where riders set their expectations is how they react to their horses mistakes, as these "mistakes" are the schooling moments that shape our horse's attitude towards learning.
"Just to know how you deal with the horse when it makes mistakes, how you correct it, that's really important too. When I'm introducing collection to a horse, like the canter-walk transition for example they are going to take trot steps, which is to be expected. So if when it takes trot steps I'm horrible to it and shank it in the mouth that's a fifty buck punishment for a five dollar crime. If I'm patient and say "here, let's try it again", that's not asking too much, that's coaching the horse. You're teaching the horse and inspiring them to do the right thing for the rider."
As Sprieser explains it, the expectation is set just one step ahead of what is comfortable for the horse. Our standard begins at what we know they can do, and rises to embolden our horse to make "mistakes" in an attempt to do that which they believe is beyond their ability. Wrong answers from willing horses are always welcome.
Sprieser sums it up quite simply stating, "I'm going to demand that he at least try."