When What You’re Doing Isn’t Working

Kate Chadderton and Buckharo. Photo by Jenni Autry. Kate Chadderton and Buckharo. Photo by Jenni Autry.

You’ve done your lessons, you’ve dutifully stored your skills away in the compartment in your mind specifically reserved for horse training (i.e. the most important part of your brain!), yet you’re still stuck on that left half pass. Every time you ask Blackie for more cross over he starts leg yielding — REALLY fast!

This is AFTER you did what you’ve learned: you started with some shoulder in, then you did some haunches in, then you did haunches in on the diagonal. Now what? Personally I’d consider to turning the day into a jump school instead but that’s a different story…

It’s important to remember through your training that horses, like people, have their own learning pathways and not all of them think/learn the same way. Their thought patterns can change regularly also. I find that there are two main reasons a horse will have trouble with a movement or exercise.

Lack of understanding

One of my old trainers would often repeat the same words of wisdom again and again, “Even if you are (applying the correct aids) right, if the horse doesn’t understand what you’re asking he’s never going to perform the movement. You have to live in the horse’s world of understanding, he cannot live in yours.”

This didn’t make sense to me until I rode my 232 thousandth horse, then it clicked: you have to ask the horse in a way that he can process. If we continue to use the half pass example, it makes sense to teach him shoulder in and haunches in. It also makes sense to the average rider that you can easily turn haunches in into half pass simply performing the movement on the diagonal.

But now we’re back to where Blackie is running sideways. This is where you have to get a bit intellectual and creative. In this instance, my first reaction is to slow the whole process down by doing the movement in walk. This gives him more time to process and understand where his legs are supposed to be, once he gets it move back into trot.

Alternatively if canter is an easy pace for him, school him there until he really gets it, then back to trot. If that’s still not working break it down further: leg yield 4 steps, half pass 4 steps, 10 metre circle, leg yield 4 steps, half pass 4 steps, 10 metre circle.

Like I said, be creative and give him small, easy bits to work on until he figures out exactly where his legs need to be.


But what if Blackie used to score 10s and now he’s getting 6s? First of all, if he can score 10s on the flat and jumps, I’ll buy him sight unseen!

Typically you find a loss of form like this when a horses loses confidence. Confidence is just as important for dressage as it is for jumping. We all know that we shouldn’t over face a horse over fences, however this is just as important to consider on the flat.

I’ll use the half pass example again. Let’s say he had the cross over of Totilas and covered the diagonal in only five magnificent strides and now he’s forgotten what cross over is and it takes him 25 crab like steps to reach the end of the diagonal — I’d say he’s done something to scare himself.

Perhaps he lost balance and struck himself with an opposing foot, that may have been scary. Perhaps he was in such a high gear that he almost overbalanced, that may have been scary. Perhaps he checked himself out in the mirror and saw my shirt didn’t match his bandages, that may have been scary.

When a horse loses his confidence, the trick is to reassure him that you’ve got his back and that mistakes are ok. Then go back thru the steps you used to teach him in the first place. With careful guidance and reassurance you should have him back again in no time.

You’ll notice my example uses only the male pronoun, we all know mares don’t make any mistakes and clearly understand every movement without being taught!