Books and Film

The Gripe List: What Are Your Horse’s Pet Peeves?

©Flickr/MichaelStephan

Gripes? Gosh, I’ve got them. Let’s begin with people not picking up after their dogs and end with partners not cleaning out the lint filter on the dryer…and you can only imagine all the things—small and large—that annoy and frustrate me in between.

Have you ever wondered what your horse would list as his pet peeves if he could talk to you? Certainly, many owners and riders learn about the intricacies of an individual horse’s personality and sort out the best way to work with him (i.e., how not to tick him off and end up in the mud), but Grand Prix dressage rider Yvonne Barteau thinks all of us should pay more attention to how we very likely might rub our horses the wrong way from day to day. In her new book, The Dressage Horse Manifesto, Barteau gives us the inside scoop from the horse’s point of view—that is, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Here’s the Gripe List she compiled from her lifetime’s experience training and riding horses—from racehorses to trick horses to Grand Prix dressage competitors—written how she imagines they might want to say it, along with the lessons they might hope we would learn in order to improve our relationships with our equine partners.

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Pet Peeve 1: Riders Who Do Not Know Where They Are Sitting in the Saddle

We don’t like it when the weight of the rider, which should be an important tool and method of influence, is random, ineffective, and is not coordinated with other aids. This causes us to learn to ignore weight changes in the saddle and often causes riders to need to resort to harsher aids from the reins or spurs. Riders need body awareness and control while in the saddle, even if it takes dozens of longe lessons and many hours of instruction to achieve.

Pet Peeve 2: Riders Who Are Unaware of the Importance of a Proper Connection

When the connection is always in question, we will lean, “hide,” and curl, or be above or below the bit, inconsistent in the contact, and unresponsive to either half-halts or a suppling rein. The rider needs to be sure she has an independent seat and good balance, and then step by step learn the cause and effect between what she does with the reins and what her horse does in response. The rider needs to build a working relationship between her hands and the horse’s mouth that will facilitate her riding goals. One of those goals needs to be that the horse willingly accepts the contact and promptly responds to changes of rein pressure based on his understanding of its meaning. Eventually, more and more of the rein aids should be replaced by signals from the rider’s seat and back.

Pet Peeve 3: Riders with Bad Timing

When we are ridden by riders with bad timing, we are often out of proper balance. This issue also makes us unsure of the cause-and-effect pattern of aid sequences because these riders are usually too early or too late in either application or removal of an aid. We are then left with the impossible task of trying to respond to seemingly random movements from a rider. Aids should be associated with a rider’s request and be removed when we respond. A lack of good timing throws this equation out the window.

Pet Peeve 4: Riders Who Do Not Know How to Be in Charge

We horses are herd animals. We want to be bossed around (in a nice way), and we want you to be consistent in being a quiet, fair, and predictable leader in our little herd of two. Horses with riders who do not provide this important “security” often display behavior and obedience problems, from rearing and bucking to outright refusal to acknowledge the aids when they are applied. We need consistent and fair leaders in the saddle, every ride. Note that being in charge is different than being busy. Aimless “chatter” with any number of aids being used at once or overlapping each other just to exert some form of authority over us is not the point at all. We want you to give us direction, properly and fairly, at the exact moment we need it.

Does your horse have a Gripe List? Learn to listen to what he is trying to say and your partnership will benefit. Photo: © Fire and Earth Photography
Does your horse have a Gripe List? Learn to listen to what he is trying to say and your partnership will benefit. Photo: © Fire and Earth Photography

Pet Peeve 5: Riders Who Are Inconsistent with the Aids

When a rider is inconsistent with the aids, it is very unsettling to her horse. The horse is constantly led to believe he does not know what he thinks he knows. Each horse in this situation will react differently, depending on his energy level and disposition—but he will likely either ignore or take advantage of such a rider.

Pet Peeve 6: Riders Who Misdiagnose Horse Behavior and Act on It

This issue leads us to become suspicious of our riders and not trust them. Listen, we usually have a reason for our behaviors, and when a rider reprimands us when what we need is reassurance, or reassures us when what we need is a reprimand, we often become suspicious, worried, belligerent, or just tune out the entire training process. Keep in mind the action/reaction, cause-and-effect rule that works best with any long-or short-term horse training partnership: Predictable, reliable aids, expecting predictable, reliable consistent answers.

Worried that you might be annoying your horse in lots of little ways? Strive to improve in the areas on your horse’s Gripe List. Carrots can’t hurt, either.  © Fire and Earth Photography
Worried that you might be annoying your horse in lots of little ways? Strive to improve in the areas on your horse’s Gripe List. Carrots can’t hurt, either.
© Fire and Earth Photography

Pet Peeve 7: Riders Who Never Allow Their Horses to be at Peace

We horses love peace almost as much as we love food. We need to feel you do nothing quite often—in fact, more often than not in the training process. No horse will continue to interpret a never-ending stream of leg, rein, and shifting seat aids if he cannot make them go away by responding to them.

Pet Peeve 8: Riders Who Get Stuck in the Problem and Can’t See the Solution

When you spend more time thinking about and telling your horse what you don’t want him to do instead of continually directing him to what you do want him to do, it is easy to get stuck in a problem and lose sight of the solution. Visualize what you want from your horse in your mind’s eye even before you ask, and don’t lose the thread of your desired response until you get it (or the best possible version of it your horse can give you at that time).

Remember, we horses have our gripes—the things that bother us—and there may be things your horse is trying to tell you. Some of these communications might be important to your training process and the journey you and your horse are on together, so pay attention. (Of course, some of us will try to tell you things like we do not want to leave our buddies or walk past the doorway that leads to the barn…you probably shouldn’t listen to that sort of stuff).

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This excerpt from The Dressage Horse Manifesto was reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

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