How Patterns Can Keep You Out of Trouble

When you work in rhythmic, predictable patterns from the moment you first approach a horse, you invite the horse to be relaxed and calm. You begin to build the feeling in him that being with you is a comfortable and safe place to be. Gradually, any one of the rhythmic movements you use in a sequence of things you do becomes enough to trigger that feeling in the horse.

Working in predictable patterns helps you feel calm and relaxed, too. You can stop thinking about what you are going to do next and focus on your horse and how he seems to be that day. Patterns or habits help you avoid doing anything that might startle the horse or confuse him or create any tension that might carry over into your work that day.

Patterns not only help you avoid trouble in the first place, they can help you get out of trouble if it happens anyway. Over time, patterns become automatic responses. When that happens, they become a place you will instinctively go when a horse bucks or spooks or does something else that breaks the feeling of rhythm and relaxation you are always trying to keep going.

Many little things make up the general pattern that the horse feels at a given time. So you need to pay attention to each little part of any sequence of things you do with your horse. Take establishing a pattern for how you get your horse out of his stall, for example. You talk to him before opening the door so he knows you are there. You do not just rush in and interrupt him. Instead, you stand in the doorway a moment to check out what he is doing. You wait until he gives you some kind of signal that he is aware you are there and that you have permission to come into his space, etc. Each time you go to get him out, you greet him the same way, halter him the same way, and heed him out the same way each time. You want your horse to feel that you are completely predictable so he can be completely comfortable about that fact that you have arrived.

You pay attention to your pace, your position, and your breathing as you heed, groom, and tack up the horse because you know he will mirror your postures and attitudes. You keep your attention on your horse and not on your buddy who wants to talk about what the two of you are going to do that evening. As you groom the horse in a rhythmic pattern, you establish a predictable routine of which side you start on, what parts you brush in what sequence, etc. You establish rhythmic and relaxed patterns in your own behavior that create the feel of a rhythmic and relaxed behavior pattern in the horse.

Break each activity down into the sequence of its components and create a pattern that you follow each time you are with your horse. Take cleaning out a horse’s feet, for example. You always clean the horse’s feet just before saddling him or just before you go into the arena or at whatever point in the sequence of grooming and saddling you intend to establish as your routine. You always start with the same foot. Then you move to the back foot on the same side, running your hand along his body or humming or doing something else so he knows where you are going. You make sure he sees you in his peripheral vision before you pick up the hind foot on that side.

As your sequence of routines become predictable habits, they help keep you calm around the horse because you know what you are going to do next. They help keep the horse calm because he knows what is going to happen next. You carry this attitude over into saddling, heeding the horse to the arena, mounting, your warm up, and anything else you do when you are with the horse.

Developing predictable riding patterns can prevent trouble from getting started. For example, too many horses start walking off the minute they feel the rider’s foot in the stirrup. If your established routine includes sitting still on your horse for a few seconds before you ask him to move, you can create a habit of standing still when you mount. If the horse feels like he is going to step forward before you ask him, you ask him to back a few steps instead. The horse begins to anticipate a pattern of "mount, stand still and wait for the signal to go either forward or backward" instead of a routine of "mount and move forward."

Predictable patterns not only keep you out of trouble, they can get you out of trouble if it happens anyway. The habits we develop over a period of time are the places we go to automatically in an emergency. When you ride your horse in predictable patterns, you start to establish places you can get back to whenever you get into trouble.

The Germans talk about riding every stride. This means that as you are in a stride you are setting up the next stride and so on and so on. You are not nagging the horse or being aggressive. You are simply actively involved in the process of riding. Over time, riding every stride develops into a set of automatic habits that you can depend on in emergencies. When your horse interrupts things by bucking or spooking or trying to run away, you will calmly and automatically go back to riding every stride and rhythmically take back control. Rhythmically using your legs and rein contact will reestablish a pattern of relaxation that both you and your horse recognize and it will enable you to bring the situation under control. Self control is not about telling yourself what to do. It is about developing habits that will always be there when you need them, even in emergency situations.

Every great athlete has routines that set him or her up for success. Successful horsemen have routines they develop as predictable patterns or habits they use to build trust and confidence in their horses and that they can fall back on when things start to fall apart.