These past few weeks I’ve noticed myself referring to the “default response” quite often in my teaching of guests, staff and interns. I’ve especially explored it within myself.

Most of our habits, good or bad happen by default, thru a sort of autopilot. There are so many things going on in our worlds and in our lives that in order to keep up with all of it, some of it almost has to become “thoughtless” and automatic. I’m thinking things like the way you brush your teeth, load your dishwasher, your stride when walking your dog, the way you answer your phone…

There are many things we can get away with on autopilot without any ill effect. But there are many that are the cause of so many avoidable problems. For example, if someone offends you, your default response may be to tense up and become angry. When someone is being praised and you aren’t the recipient you may automatically become jealous and come up with reasons in your head why you are better or he/she did not deserve the compliment. If you are stressed you may clench your jaw, bite your nails or grind your teeth. Over time this behavior results in a lack of peace, being considered a hothead, or may affect your sleep, cause headaches, etc.

As humans, we are quite talented at these default responses. We like to inject them into everything that we do. Including working with and riding horses.

From my own personal experiences and from the experience of working with hundreds of others, I can confidently say that one of the most important ways to improve as a horseman is to upgrade these default responses.

How do you do that? By a conscious effort and discipline which over time over time, results in muscle memory.

I’ll give you a personal example. This past summer I developed a bad habit riding with my lower leg rather than offering my seat for life with my horses. We had been doing some cutting training and that’s how it’s done and I started to incorporate it into my other riding. I did this consciously at first, because I was getting good results. Over time, it became my default response.

As time went on, I realized this really wasn’t the best thing to do for my horses. After all, Buck teaches that the lower down the leg the cue, the less refined the rider is. I had to re-train myself from my default response.

In addition to this, I have always had trouble getting in the right position on a horse in which my legs were freed up and my hips were freed up. Some people naturally come to this—not me! I have a strong core and am just naturally stiffer. I’ve worked at it non-stop over the years and have still been able to get my horses to operate from the highest level of body movement, but it was not without a constant effort on my part.

(On a side note, in a clinic in Spanaway two years ago, Buck walked up to me, turned off his mic and whispered “You need to figure out how to loosen up this hip bone.” I looked at him, exasperated by the fact that I had been trying to do this for the past 8 years and asked, “How?” He just whispered back, “I don’t know…”. Trying to figure this out continued to haunt me…)

So, this winter I was riding a guest horse who is typically thought of as the dullest on the ranch. I was getting him to move out and do everything I asked, but I still had too much lower leg action and the hard truth is that even though I could ride him, what I had to do to get the job done was not repeatable by anyone else—thus the reputation of this little horse. I wasn’t even trying to use my lower leg, but because of my seat position being a little off, and my default response to break at the ankle, it was happening even though I was consciously trying not to make it happen.

Based upon the fact that I needed to come up with a fix for this, I learned that if I used one hand with my fingers under the lip of the horn, to pull me up into the proper position in the saddle—and if I stayed there (this is key)—then my legs would free up and all movement came from the top of my inner thigh and the horse would come alive in a way he had not done before. Because I have spent a lot of time working on having good posture already, everything else fell into place. It wasn’t necessarily that I hadn’t found this seat position before—but I used it as a constant adjustment. Now, I forced myself to “live” in this position, as uncomfortable as it was initially.

It was as if I had found the golden ticket! I found out how to incorporate this position into other basic movements such as rolling the hind and reaching a front foot. It just freed up everything else. I was relentless about it. For weeks I forced myself to remain in this position, not allowing myself to fall back even an inch—because with just an inch of difference, the entire body position could change. It may not even have looked any different to the naked eye—but I could definitely feel the difference in my ability to offer the horse my very best if I fell back that far. It’s been about a month now. Sometimes I still check myself, but my muscle memory has now taken over and I do not struggle the way I did before. I am back to offering the slightest aid and my lower leg is now a last resort. And it has now become my new default.

As an aside…there is a particular way that I do this and have taught it (with exceptional success). It is not simply pulling up on the horn…lots of my wranglers initially tried this but their lower legs remained active. In the perfect position, the hips are freed up and the legs are quiet but not stiff. Perhaps one of these days I can take photos or a video for this blog so it makes more sense.

That’s a pretty detailed default response that I’ve updated. There are always more to work on. For many riders, their default may be to snatch the reins or pull on a rein rather than reach for the horse. They may kick the horse without thought for whether they were in position, or without thought for where his feet are (which could put the horse out of balance). They may “bump the horse” on the rein rather than draw the rein. They may have their toes down, or lean forward or sit way back.

The way to begin to change the default is to pause before doing a movement that you want to fix. Maybe if you are going to ask your horse to walk off, you pause, make sure you are sitting in proper position, offer a light leg and see what happens. If your inclination is to just kick—make sure you are being fair by preparing yourself and him beforehand.

This pause requires a conscious awareness, and the discipline to remain aware throughout the time you are working with the horse. And it requires persistence. Most habits cannot be changed in hours or days. Think weeks, if needed, months. The reward for all of your hard work is muscle memory and a new default response. Now that good stuff becomes automatic for you!

For me, horses are my life. If there is something I can do to set up myself and my horses for success, I will absolutely do it to the very best of my ability. If I can change my default response, and in doing so, get a greater response from my horse, why wouldn’t I?

Even if horses are not your life but more of a hobby, updating your default response can be a means to have a much easier, freer partnership with your equine partner.

*The Default Response, “Horse Version” is coming up next!