Is Your Gut Right? The Importance of Honing Instinct

Katie McIntyre on her green OTTB, Indian Fighter, winning Intro Dressage. Photo by Steven King.

Katie McIntyre on her green OTTB, Indian Fighter, winning Intro Dressage. Photo by Steven King.

You have a great new green horse. You just got him last week and have spent a few long days working with him, grooming, riding, maybe a lesson or two, or a trip to the tack shop for a shopping spree (whoohooo! who doesn’t love that?) But…

How fast are you moving with this horse? How’s he handling all the new stuff you’re throwing at him? Does he like what you are doing? How do you know?

Answer: The Gut Feeling. When you have a couple of years in the saddle and have ridden a few horses, however badly, you do get a feel for when it doesn’t seem quite right. Whether it’s lameness, or reluctance, or bad balance — as a rider you can feel when it’s not quite the same as it was yesterday or changes from the way it started.

I think your instructor or trainer would like you to hone that feeling. They know that gut will tell you what you need to know and when you need to know it. They love your Gut Feeling and try really hard to get you to love it, too, because it’s what makes you safe and successful. (And that makes them successful, too.)

As amateurs our problem is not listening to The Gut Feeling when it jumps up and says, “Hey, you are about to find out way more than you want to know about the local emergency wing of the closest hospital.” As much as we would like to have an instruction manual about The Gut Feeling, we don’t get one with a new young horse.

How do you get one? Where does it come from? Well …. professionals gain experience by practice. They have a lot of time on green horses and know what makes them tick. How would a top professional treat a green horse? Would they go slow, reinforce the basics, take time, and carefully monitor the horse’s learning ability and character? Yes, yes, and yes. Would the professional keep the stimulus to a minimum and allow the horse time to fit into the new work schedule, new barn, new feed, new neighbors, new sights and sounds in the barn? Yes. Would the professional keep the workload low and the handling safe, quiet, slow, deliberate? Yes.

So, if you simply follow your trainer’s blueprint, or if you don’t have a specific person you work with all the time, stalk a great eventing professional and see how they do it. Or take to the research like re-reading books by Phillip Dutton (I consider his book a real eventing bible for young horse riders), or other good reads from authors like Pippa Funnell, Mark Phillips, Jimmy Wofford, etc. This is the time of year you can take your time, and get it right.

Is a cross-country school, jumping lesson, dressage show on your schedule? See how your horse feels the week before, the day before, the morning of. Trust your gut. Sometimes, horses step up and prove us all wrong, but other times, a single trip to another farm with a lot of new sights and sounds scares them backwards in your training several months.

One of the most useful phrases I use in riding all the time is something I heard from a natural horsemanship trainer at an expo, working with a horse in a very small pen in front of hundreds of noisy spectators, and that is: “Recognize the try.” He wasn’t getting very far with the horse, the environment had him very wired, yet he carefully gave the horse the benefit of the doubt and offered praise every chance he could. To the amateur eye, it didn’t look very progressive, but if you watched the horse’s demeanor, he relaxed more and more as the session went on — and there was a positive change at the end (where he promptly rewarded the horse and stopped).

How do we know when it’s time to praise, and when it’s time to ask for more? Well, if you can answer that question you are going to go far in the horse business. For the rest of us, we have some work to do.

So many of us as amateur riders do not “recognize the try,” or at least, do it less times than we should. Our young horses try to relax, try to soften their outline, try to stretch over their backs — but hit a holding, firm hand instead. They try to drop their head and view the ditch — but hit a brick wall when the rider won’t let them see it. They try to jump but the rider misses timing their form to match the effort and hits their back with their seat, or worse, their mouth with their hands. All things that make a young horse go, “yuck.” It’s easy to see this — it’s on the social media every day. People make mistakes. It’s not easy to do a young horse the right way. We’ve all been there.

Here’s a few tips for care and feeding of your Gut Feeling.

Vet the Show: One way to keep it happy is to pick your new places and new things carefully with your green horse. Before hauling over and expecting a great schooling, go check out the new cross-country course on foot first. What’s scary about the water jump? How is that ditch going to ride? Is there too much to see in the parking lot, or is there a crazy neighbor with a bouncy castle? Be prepared. Know where you are going. Pick a good place.

Buddy Up: Work with your horse’s instinct rather than against it. Take a trusted other horse friend for him and for you. Having a second person see what you are feeling is a good way to practice listening to your Gut Feeling. Horses always are better together, they’re herd animals. Ride together at home first before going out.

Get Dressed: Set yourself up for success by being properly tacked and properly attired — vest, boots, crop, martingale, tight girth, properly fitted saddle, all safely adjusted and in good solid condition to handle the stress of a bad shy, or quick stop. Don’t let a broken piece of equipment cause a problem that you’ll have to go back home and fix with many weeks of work. It’s a waste of time and totally preventable.

Call in the Experts: Consider the wise counsel of a professional before setting out on a young horse adventure. Get an assessment of your horse’s ability and yours before trying the show or schooling. Listen to the pro’s advice and contrast it with your feelings about the ride. Check your progress against the “pro” standard.

Check Off Skill List: I also check my young horses against something really simple like a Training Level dressage test. I read through the test and just think to myself, can I do that movement, can I do this movement, how would it be if I did it out in the field without a fence? If I don’t get very many “yes” answers to that question I know I have more work to do at home to get the horse on my aids a little bit more.

As amateur riders we are eager to get going, to follow through on dreams and goals, so much so that we have to try to remember it’s a partnership. Before your partner gets to the point of mutiny, make sure as the captain of the ship that you are using your Gut Feeling for the enjoyment of both your horse and yourself!