When I boarded my horses at other barns, I would constantly encounter people whose horses basically lived on the rail. There was a huge rut at the rail that always caused me problems as i was using the other 10 or 20k square feet of the arena but occasionally would have to hand gallop into the rut, worrying that my horse would pull a tendon going over the dip of it.
To some extent I didn’t mind that most of the other riders were on the rail, as I liked having the entire center of the arena to myself (unless the jumpers had filled it with a jump course). I used that entire arena every day and asked my horses to go wherever I asked whenever I asked, and I asked often. When the jump course was up I had my horses ride around it as if it were an obstacle course, and did circles and eights around or between the jumps, forward and backward.
I eventually decided that the folks who rode in the rut were not confident of their ability to ask more of their horses or to change things if they did not get the result they expected. I always felt a little sad about the untapped potential of both rider and horse. Now, when I give lessons, I work to make sure students are comfortable asking what they want, when they want it, and insisting if it doesn’t happen.
After all, why waste a horse’s life on dullness when they can do so much more and are so much happier when they learn how?
Today I was doing a quiet turn on the forehand with Gunsmoke and remembering how hard that had been for him. He was a ranch horse, after all, and the closest he came to this was opening a gate. We would work on this and his lips would wriggle, his tail would switch and it was clear he was generally worried about what response he should offer.
But if I hadn’t ever asked him, he would never have gotten good at it… and that would be sad, because now he seems to enjoy doing it well and having it be part of his work. And for me, I enjoy it, because it makes a demand on me that I would otherwise miss.
Don’t get me wrong, we have days when we’re just riding circles or working on rate and we even sometimes ride the rail for a few laps. But we don’t live there.