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Not all the time; that would be sil­ly.

There’s a dog­ma among rid­ers and train­ers that a horse should move at the gait and speed that you choose, all the time, every time, and that any devi­a­tion is dis­obe­di­ence or “dis­re­spect”. Allow­ing the horse to rou­tine­ly choose gait, speed, or path is def­i­nite­ly dan­ger­ous, and a skilled rid­er should be able to clear­ly com­mu­ni­cate expec­ta­tions to the horse. But by being absolute and unyield­ing in your expec­ta­tions of the horse, you are cut­ting off one of the most use­ful ways your horse has of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to you.

At lib­er­ty, hors­es almost always choose their own gait and speed. Even a horse  run­ning with a herd is choos­ing the safe­ty of that herd. About the only excep­tions are a horse being chased by a real or imag­ined preda­tor, and a horse stuck in quick­sand. Stud­ies have shown that hors­es often choose gaits and speeds that are most effi­cient; this is hard­ly sur­pris­ing.

Adding a rid­er to the mix changes every­thing. When a horse deals with the weight and bal­ance of the rid­er, dif­fer­ent gait/​speed com­bi­na­tions become more effi­cient. Com­bi­na­tions that are not effi­cient have to be trained. Clas­si­cal west­ern hors­es have to be trained to the jog, which is slow­er than the trot they might choose them­selves, and to the lope, which is slow­er than their pre­ferred can­ter. Upper-​level com­pet­i­tive dres­sage hors­es are trained not only to slow­er speeds, such as the can­ter pirou­ette, pas­sage, and piaffe, but also extend­ed trots. It’s true that some hors­es and even breeds have con­for­ma­tion that makes these com­bi­na­tions eas­i­er, but that doesn’t mean that they are in any way effort­less.

So what might a horse be com­mu­ni­cat­ing by choos­ing a gait and speed that you didn’t ask for? The stock answer is “I’m the boss of you!” Some rid­ers and even train­ers are so inse­cure in their con­nec­tion with hors­es that they always seize that expla­na­tion. Some­times it’s even cor­rect. But what if the horse had no incli­na­tion to be the boss of you yes­ter­day, and is per­fect­ly coop­er­a­tive tomor­row?

Some oth­er things your horse might be telling you:

  • I hurt. I’m devel­op­ing an abscess, or my arthri­tis is act­ing up.
  • I’m not strong enough to do this for an extend­ed peri­od.
  • I’m scared. If you weren’t on my back, I’d run away, but I’m doing this dis­place­ment activ­i­ty instead.
  • I’m grumpy, my ovaries hurt, and I’m doing every­thing I can not to buck you off, which I’d nev­er do any­way.
  • I feel great! I want to run in the sun, pow­er through the flow­ers, and I real­ly don’t under­stand why you’re not down with that.
  • I feel great! I want to nap in the sun, munch on the flow­ers, and I real­ly don’t under­stand why you’re not down with that.
  • You’re crazy! You’re ask­ing me to risk los­ing my foot­ing and killing us both.
  • You’re throw­ing me off-​balance! I hear there are these things called “lessons”.
  • I’m sick. If you took my tem­per­a­ture, or even looked at my eyes, you’d real­ize that.

If my horse were try­ing to tell me any of these things, I’d want to know about it. Var­i­ous hors­es at var­i­ous times have told me most of these things. If I passed it all off as dis­obe­di­ence, I’d be telling my horse “You don’t mat­ter.” That’s not a good basis for a trust rela­tion­ship.

If I passed it all off as dis­obe­di­ence, I’d be telling my horse “You don’t mat­ter.”

One of the trails Bud­dy and I take away from the sta­ble has a gen­tle incline right as we leave the prop­er­ty. He always wants to trot it. If I ask him to walk, he will, but I don’t, because I can learn enough from the speed of that trot, the way his body moves, and the way his head moves to know whether there are any issues that I should address, or that might mean we shouldn’t go out at all. And the time he vol­un­teered a walk, I could tell he wasn’t well, and we turned around and went back.

And then there’s the stop.

It’s true that hors­es can stop because they are lazy. Or exhaust­ed. Or wor­ried. Or con­fused. It’s hard to imag­ine a response that use­ful­ly address­es all those things (and more) with­out know­ing (or even car­ing about) the rea­son.

When I first rode Bud­dy in what I like to call “con­trived obsta­cle cours­es”, he would some­times stop dead before an obsta­cle. I was green, and there was peer pres­sure, and I even thought about get­ting spurs. But I learned that if I kept him fac­ing the obsta­cle with­out push­ing him to go for­ward, he would even­tu­al­ly fig­ure it out and go for­ward on his own, because he knew that’s what I expect­ed. And once he real­ized that he wouldn’t be kicked at every obsta­cle, he calmed down and took them more eas­i­ly.

So if your horse insists on a dif­fer­ent gait or speed from the one you request­ed, think about let­ting him take it for a few strides until you fig­ure out why. Remem­ber that hors­es live in the present. Your horse doesn’t plot dis­obe­di­ence based on your past weak­ness­es. Give him the chance to tell you what’s on his mind, now.

A num­ber of years ago, I worked for a time with a graph­ic design­er, Gun­nar Swan­son. He also taught graph­ic design stu­dents, and he told me that when a stu­dent was con­cerned that a design ele­ment was too big, he told the stu­dent to make it big­ger. The idea was that some ele­ments just “want” to be big, and they need to be released from “big, but not quite big enough”, and that in oth­er cas­es, mak­ing the ele­ment big­ger would cause the design­er to see the design in a whole new light, and come up with dif­fer­ent solu­tions.

Maybe a decade ago, I applied this idea to bits: If a bit isn’t giv­ing you enough con­trol, switch to a milder bit. For my part, it led to rid­ing in a rope hal­ter (more about that in a lat­er post). The basic idea is that, although bits are for con­trol, they are nev­er for more  con­trol, and that if a bit seems inad­e­quate in that regard, the rid­er should return to the basics of horse­man­ship and for­get about met­al gad­gets.

A sec­ond exam­ple of “make it big­ger” occurred to me recent­ly. If your horse is going too fast, ask him to go faster. “Too fast” gaits are often the result of ner­vous­ness or pain. If you ask the horse to slow down, it may very well increase the ner­vous­ness, even if it relieves the pain, because restraint nev­er made a horse less ner­vous. If you ask the horse to go faster, that can some­times relieve the ner­vous­ness, and then the horse will be able to slow down more calm­ly to the speed you want­ed in the first place.

Restraint nev­er makes a horse less ner­vous

Of course, you should only do this if you’re ordi­nar­i­ly com­fort­able rid­ing the faster speed. Many rid­ers get ner­vous when a horse speeds up, and this feeds the horse’s ner­vous­ness, but when you ask the horse to go faster, you’re not react­ing, you’re doing some­thing, and that should calm you down, as well.