Trouble in Paradise

A horse and rider team is like a marriage. Some days, it's pure bliss. Other times, you might want to lace up the gloves and duke it out. But, before you and your horse head to the boxing ring, or file for divorce, check out what California trainer Jet Thompson says about the how's and why's of horse-rider conflicts.

After all, there's no reason to throw in the towel if the "marriage" can be saved.

When one of Thompson's horse and rider teams exhibits signs of conflict, he analyzes the problems, and looks into anything that might cause them. He's not quick to give up on the pair, and he doesn't want the pair to hastily give up on each other.

As an encouraging example, he tells of one rider in his barn who worked through such a conflict. The result? Success at the highest levels, including the American Quarter Horse Association Youth World Show. "This kid and horse loved each other dearly, but they could sure fight sometimes - just like brother and sister," Thompson recalls. "Those are the times when a trainer can step in and mediate an argument, teaching both horse and rider how to work it out. We were able to do that, and they had a great year."

Thompson says that 2003 was this rider's last year of youth eligibility, so the success was especially sweet. And that success, he says, came from making an effort to work through the problems they had.

Who's At Fault

Most of the time, a rider blames everything on the horse. But, Thompson stresses, "Riders need to accept part of the responsibility for any conflicts. As a rider, you're the brains of the outfit. I like to think that all of us, as riders, can be smarter than our horses. When a conflict starts, you should use your head. Look for different ways to approach a situation. Think, 'How can I get out of this?'"

Many times, Thompson says, people don't ask themselves that important question. Instead, they just continue to fight with the horse. Frustration builds, and the situation snowballs.

When a conflict starts, it's pretty evident to anyone who's watching, such as a trainer. "Typically, you'll see a rider start to pick on a horse entirely too much, be it with the hands, spurs or legs. The rider won't give the horse any peace," Thompson says, adding that if it's a short-lived conflict, the horse is liable to tolerate it. But, he stresses, "If it's a constant, full-blown personality conflict, the horse's patience and tolerance level will probably not be very high."

Then the horse loses focus and attention on his job. "He'll retreat into an area where he's trying to protect himself," Thompson says. This is often the case when a rider asks more of a horse than it's capable of doing, or when a horse simply doesn't understand. And, it could be that the rider doesn't understand how to get a horse to a certain point. "That's where you get into friction between horse and rider."

A trainer can act as an intermediary, or buffer, in a situation like this. "It's always nice for a rider to have some eyes on the ground to help," Thompson says. "Every individual sees these things a little differently." In some cases, riders experiencing conflicts simply need a different avenue to get the job done. It could be alternative methods to get more cadence at the jog, or to get the horse to lope better. Maybe the rider isn't getting through to the horse in the teaching of a turnaround or the sidepass, and a different method needs to be tried. What unfortunately happens, Thompson says, is that some riders see another person schooling a horse at a show. Then, they say, "Well, so-and-so did it this way, so that's how I'm going to teach my horse."

But your horse doesn't understand that method, and a conflict starts, out of frustration from both the horse and rider. The solution? Try something different. As a trainer, Thompson says he strives to turn a negative situation into a positive one.

This also is his course of action when a rider's frustrated by lack of knowledge, such as not realizing how a specific maneuver or gait should feel on his horse. Thompson often puts the rider on another horse - generally one that knows the move and can help "explain it" to the rider. The rider understands better when he can feel and see the move, and can return to his own horse with a better understanding of what the team should be striving toward.

As soon as a horse and rider grasp the concept, Thompson is quick to reinforce it with high praise. "Whether it be a pat on the rider's back, or a pat on the horse, it needs to be acknowledged when things are correct.

On days when things don't go so well, a horse and rider can still find a positive way to end schooling sessions. "Never quit on a bad note," Thompson says. Spend a little time on tasks you've already mastered, things that don't cause conflict. Solving the conflict could be as easy as going back to something basic that relates to what you're trying to teach.

Thompson says that if you quit when the horse is winning a fight, things could get worse. The next time the horse could be thinking, "If I misbehave, or don't want to do this, I get to go right back to the barn." Hang in there; be patient and diligent.

Other Causes

Many misunderstandings between horse and rider can be worked out. But, Thompson says, there are other instances that cause conflicts.

Lack of Respect or No Bond: Let's face it, the horse and rider must like each other before they can get along. Ideally, it develops into a deeper relationship. "That's the biggest thing I like to establish - that bond between the horse and rider," Thompson says. "There needs to be some attachment there. You want that horse to like you enough that he'll want to perform for you. But yet, that horse also needs to respect you. And you must have respect for him. These are really key areas."

Thompson encourages riders to spend time just "hanging out" with their horses, including talking to their horses, giving them a bath and spending time grooming them to help develop this relationship.

Edgy Nerves: Thompson occasionally sees horses and riders - even ones who normally get along at home ¬- in conflict at shows. At competitions, "That's when it really comes to a head," Thompson says. "Horses and riders are under the gun. The pressure is on. And, it's usually a rider issue."

Problems often start when a horse isn't allowed to settle into his show surroundings. There are new sights and sounds at the show grounds that cause a horse's adrenaline to skyrocket. This sets up a possible conflict situation. Riders need to realize this and take action to calm the horse. Thompson recommends longing as well as riding in the show's practice pen.

But remember what the practice pen is there for, Thompson urges. The ultimate goal is to have the horse perform as well as he can when he gets in the show arena. Before that, time in the practice pen should be used to help the horse prepare mentally and physically for showing. One method is to warm up the horse with some extended trotting, loping or cantering - without a lot of emphasis on collection or staying in a frame.

Possible Soreness: "The horse might be hurting somewhere," Thompson says. "When you try to teach new maneuvers, the horse uses different muscle groups and areas that he might not have used before. This can create some soreness that you'll have to work him through."

Often times, soreness issues are easier spotted by a trainer or helper on the ground.

Age Factor: In past years, everyone thought the perfect horse for most green to intermediate level riders was a "push button" older horse with show experience. But Thompson says, "A lot of times if you're not doing things right with those older horses, they'll cheat and tell on you. They're the first ones to throw up their head or tail and tell on you in the show pen."