When to say no?
I recently read a really good article about training young horses. The author was discussing the Importance of not 'kicking the can down the road' when you run into difficulties with your horse. The main theme of the article was that avoidance tactics such as changing the subject-or trying to circumnavigate issues or difficulties that will otherwise cause an inflammatory response from the horse-are not always recommended best practice, long term.
In an ideal world, every horse would find every thing achievable, and every rider would train effectively and correctly. However, we don't live in an ideal world. Without a doubt, a person training a horse with a view to that horse being a rideable, saleable and competitive prospect, must be able to place demands upon that horse. A rider should not shy away from tackling issues as they arise. However, there is a marked difference between taking the bull by the horns, and treading carefully as you go, to try and avoid any stand-up confrontation where possible.
Horses are as individual as we are. Some are smart, others are not. Some thrive on hard work, others resent it. Some lack talent but have a solid work ethic and a big heart. Others are extraordinary talents, with no desire to apply themselves at all. Some appreciate a direct approach, whilst others require kid gloves. Some are weak, others are strong. The real fascination with young horses is learning how to bring out the best in each one. They tell you all, as long as you are listening and watching.
Horses are unique animals, in that most of them have an inbuilt cellular desire to please. They are the most generous of creatures, and in the majority of cases where the horse becomes difficult or uncooperative, there is an underlying reason. Trying to find that reason is a whole other headache..... it could perhaps be physical weakness, pain from an acute or chronic underlying condition, a lack of understanding, a case of being a little bit 'mentally overloaded', or any one of many other possible difficulties.
So how do you know when to go toe to toe with the horse that is saying no, and request that he comply in full? The author of the original article stated the importance of being prepared to 'see it through' when you run into behavioural difficulties, and to accept that it may take minutes-or months-to work through a problem. In theory, this is not an unfair statement-horses can't be allowed to run riot or become dangerous. But how can you be absolutely certain that there is no underlying cause for the horse's behaviour? Making unfair demands on a horse who is trying to deliver a strong message to you can be the undoing of everything.
Ultimately I don't think that there is a quick solution. The best we can hope for is to train our horses with an open mind and a kind approach. Assessing a horse's conformation and overall physical condition on an ongoing basis will help you to identify where he is weak in himself, and provide a window into the things that he may struggle with. Having a skilled equine vet, farrier and physical therapist to help you with your horse is also of immeasurable benefit when it comes to managing the day to day, and troubleshooting issues as they arise.
Observing how your horse best learns on the ground and under saddle will help you to tailor your training methods to suit that individual. If you lack experience yourself, then ask for help! The majority of professional riders are more than happy to assist you at any stage. If we aim to train our horses in a gentle, considered yet effective way, making sure that they are physically and mentally capable of what is being asked for them-and always reward the positives-we might find that we never need to go head to head with them at all.