Sometimes the hardest part of horse training is training the human.
This problem shows up in many ways—we humans often reward at the wrong moment, apply different cues at once, fail to recognize exactly what we’re asking the horse to do, take big steps instead of baby steps. Or simply assume that we know best.
My green Warmblood True and I worked together most every summer day for the first couple of months after he came to me. Then came the day when our session began just as a storm front was moving in. Nothing terrible, but the wind was blowing a bit and a few clouds dotted the blue sky. The early fall storm was forecast to arrive about 24 hours later.
True was already in his pasture shelter—this boy does not like a single drop of rain to touch his shiny fur ever! By resisting my lead just slightly, he let me know that we should hunker down and stay in the shelter.
But Mama knows best, right? I encouraged him forward to proceed with our usual session, and he obeyed immediately. In my Great Human Wisdom, I had already made provisions for the weather by planning a dog walk instead of a ride. (Our “dog” walks are described in “Settling In.”)
Off we went, me leading and True just off my right shoulder. The air was fresh, we were both energized, it felt great! The wind picked up a bit as we walked near the trees, making True dance at the shaking leaves. We went right on, at a healthy clip.
We arrived at the point about farthest from home when I noticed that the temperature was dropping and the clouds were gathering. The sky was darker even in mid-afternoon, True’s head was coming up, and his pace increased a bit. The look on his face said, “I told you so.” We turned back to climb the long hill we had just descended so easily. The wind began to whip my face.
Well, you know how this ends. By the time we got halfway home (less than 30 minutes after leaving the pasture shelter), it was cold and raining sideways with 25 mph winds. True was scared. I had heard no thunder, but we were making a beeline for the pasture when out of nowhere a huge bolt of lightning struck the ranch, temporarily deafening horse and handler.
Now, I have been known to offer unwelcome remarks about fair-weather riding in the past, like “Let the weather hold you back, and you will accomplish nothing!” So I usually (or used to) insist on riding in rain, snow, mild wind, heat, cold, even very distant rumbles of thunder… but lightning within a thousand yards? NO!
I got True back to his shelter as quickly as possible, apologizing all the way. We were fine in the end, but the experience reminded me of that important lesson: LISTEN TO YOUR HORSE, Janet! He knows stuff. He’ll do as you ask if he’s well trained, but he’ll also resist just a bit if something is wrong. Pay attention to these slight degrees of resistance—horses communicate in subtle ways and often have good reason for their behavior.
Janet Jones will present “Brain to Brain: Cross-Species Communication between Horses and Riders” at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, on March 14, 2024. Come to the talk and enjoy the international Winter Spectacular Hunter/Jumper Horse Show too. Learn more and reserve your tickets at https://janet-jones.com/product/janet-jones-ticket-sales.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.