IN RESPONSE TO REQUESTS FOR TIPS ON TRAINING HORSES TO BE NON-COMPETITIVE IN COMPANY
It’s so much easier to establish non competitive behaviour than to overcome established competitiveness. Understanding the reasons why horses become like this in the first place is a great help in preventing it. As I’ve said before, it is learned behaviour, and it’s up to us to make sure we are not encouraging habits to form which we won’t like once they’re established.
So called competitiveness is often born out of anxiety rather a lust for speed. Horses worry about being at the back and being left behind, especially in canter. Your horse doesn’t necessarily see a fast canter in an open field as a relaxing activity. In his mind there is only one reason why the lead horse has cantered off; there must be danger somewhere, which means it’s a bad idea to take things slowly, and far better to catch up or over take as quickly as possible. Some horses develop a taste for the adrenaline rush they get from speed, but insecurity is the most common root cause.
Because horses are natural followers, they will automatically try to keep up with the herd. They don’t want to be left behind; they feel more vulnerable to attack if the gap between them is too large, and normally strive to catch up. The most dangerous place from the horse’s perspective is to be the one at the back. Horses are immensely sensitive to movement and sounds behind them, and they are hard wired to be on the alert for predators if taken away from their friends in the field, or the group when ridden.
If we are lucky enough to have an unspoilt horse who doesn’t harbour competitive thoughts, what should we be doing? One of the benefits of extensive hacking alone is that the horse learns independent behaviour without being reliant on a friend for security. We start anti competitiveness training by not riding with another horse, and in this way establish independence as well as acceptance/reliance on us as alpha leaders.
We work with our horses to be happy and relaxed in our company before riding with others. We choose our riding partner very carefully as it is unrealistic to expect a horse not to react to wild or erratic behaviour in his riding companion.
Horses instinctively rely on each other, and are inclined to be dependent on them to safely lead the way and set the pace past unknown hazards. From the horse’s perspective, they simply want to ensure their survival by making sure they keep close together. Understanding the motivations behind competitiveness allows us to train our way through herd mentality.
We have all experienced the unpleasant feeling of being a total passenger because our horse seems fully preoccupied with what the others are doing rather than listening to anything we ask for. To rearrange the horse’s response to what others are doing (within reason), we like to begin riding with another along miles of quiet lanes, preferably hilly.
You want your horse to switch off as much as possible, which is more difficult in open fields or enclosed woods. Try to find a truly reliable friend to lead the way, one who isn’t itching to have a blast on the grass while slowly dying of boredom at the seeming monotony of it all. It’s best to ride with just one other, two or more is distracting and potentially too exciting at this stage.
The distance between horses is important, about two to four horse lengths is ideal. Less means building dependency and more can create worry. Then we trot, trot, trot, and more trot. Not too hurried, balance and rhythm are as always, essential. It doesn’t take long for horses to realise that this is hard work, which is what we want them to think, rather than this is exciting stuff. Horses are energy efficient creatures, and like to conserve as much of it as they can. They do this naturally because expending needless energy means there is little left for a genuine emergency. Once they see something as work, they tend to switch off to the excitement factor.
We have a pre-arranged signal for coming back to walk, so the rider who is behind can ask for walk before the one in front. This helps with the idea of slowing down or walking on command with less worry about what the one in front is up to. For some reason, riders who are behind are keen for their horse to match what’s happening with the one in front. The minute the lead horse trots, the horse behind is asked to copy, often with too strong an aid, which encourages horses to anticipate what you want in advance. It only takes a few goes for them to associate the sequence of events, and before you know it your horse is trotting away whether you want to or not.
The key is to create a widening gap, which is done firstly in walk, but not too big to cause worry. A really useful exercise, and a mini challenge, is provided when the lead horse finds a drive to hide in; he suddenly disappears! But before the follower can get too upset, he arrives at the drive and miraculously they are back together again. It’s an equally good discipline for the lead horse to stand quietly while hearing hoof beats without being able to see anything. We do this in trot as well once everyone is comfortable with the routine. A simple thing like this helps separation anxiety as well as competitiveness, helping to prevent it occurring in the first place.
We expand the moments spent apart gradually, always making sure we join up again sequentially, meaning there’s a set pattern of movements, and the horses soon realise they can depend on the rider to bring them back together. In this way we remove the need for the horse to be up the backside of the one in front to feel safe or rushing to the front to avoid being left behind. Changing the mindset of a consistently competitive horse takes a long time, so it’s definitely worth reinforcing those steps to avoid it happening.
Cantering in company requires prudent preparation to avoid a drama. Our first canters in company are carefully choreographed, with the less experienced horse leading in canter initially. The reasons for this have already been explained from the horse’s perspective. Next step is to canter side by side without being too close. Horses that need to rub shoulders with each other in canter are essentially insecure following their own path, and we want to avoid that. The learning horse will take canter while the other remains in trot for the first strides until we are sure there is no excitement or worry going on.
Finally, when we have been through all the combinations in both trot and canter, we introduce cantering behind. This is the big one! It goes without saying that we start in trot, making sure the horses aren’t too fresh and looking for trouble, and keep everything steady. When all the steps are well trodden and fully accepted, we do it all over again in big open fields at a slightly increased pace, but still keeping everything relaxed. We never gallop or get over excited as all our hard work can easily be undone. The road to lack of competitiveness is long, requiring structure, repetition, and a common sense approach, but so much easier to travel than the twisted path of constantly jockeying for position.