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How to Stop Your Horse From Anticipating

Horse anticipating dressage test

If your horse begins to anticipate what you want him to do, that can lose you lots of marks in dressage tests.

But what makes your horse try to preempt your aids, and what can you do to stop him from doing that?

Read this article for the answers to those questions.

Why do horses anticipate?

Many times judges see a horse anticipating a movement or transition. 

The horse might begin to get tense in the walk if he knows that a direct transition to canter is coming up next in the test.

Sometimes, a horse that’s learning flying changes will change leads when you ride in counter-canter or a change of rein in the canter.

Then there’s the horse that knows he’s going to halt on the centerline at the end of every dressage test. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know whether the halt is meant to be at X or G, so he might try to halt too early.

So, why does your horse try to anticipate what you want him to do?

Practice makes imperfect!

Although it’s very tempting to keep on practicing a dressage test in the days before the competition, that can be a big mistake, especially if you have an obliging, intelligent horse. 

Horses generally try to anticipate what you want in an effort to please you. Think about it. How do you teach your horse new exercises and aids? Well, that’s usually through repetition and practice until you get the response you want to your request. Your horse knows that and begins to try to do the right thing before you even ask him to.

So, if you keep on riding through the same dressage test over and over again, your smarty-pants pony will very soon learn what’s coming next and begin to anticipate. 

A word of caution here. Be very wary of over-practicing the rein-back. If you overdo your practicing, a horse that learns to rein-back will anticipate doing so every time you ride a halt, which will cost you dearly in dressage tests. It’s an automatic mark of 4 if your horse steps back out of a halt!

Why is anticipating a problem?

In a dressage test, anticipation can cost you a lot of marks. Although the judge wants your horse to be obedient and responsive, she doesn’t want to see the horse second-guessing his rider. 

In dressage, the horse that anticipates his rider’s aids demonstrates a lack of harmony and makes the rider appear to be ineffective. So, you will not only lose marks for the movement where the anticipation occurred but in the collective marks for the Submission and the Rider, too.

Also, many dressage tests are quite similar. 

For example, in one novice test, you’re required to ride down the centerline in working trot, make a transition to medium walk before X, ride medium walk for one horse’s length, and then proceed in working trot. In another novice test, you ride down the centerline in working trot, make a transition to medium walk at D, and continue down the centerline in walk, halting at G.

Now, if you’ve practiced that trot-walk-trot transition over and over again at home, your horse will most likely anticipate that in the dressage test, springing forward into working trot again after a few steps of medium walk on the centerline. That’s great, unless you’re riding the test where you continue in walk, halting at G and vice versa!

What’s good about anticipation?

Although you don’t want your horse to react before you give your aids, you can use a degree of anticipation as a very effective training tool.

For example, if you have a horse that tends to be slow to go, you can improve that by riding lots of direct upward transitions and transitions within the paces. That teaches the horse to react more sharply to your go-aids so that he begins to anticipate the upward transition.

Similarly, you can use lots of downward transitions to slow down a horse that rushes. 

How to stop your horse from anticipating

Here are a few ways of preventing your horse from anticipating.

Test riding

Undoubtedly, practicing an unfamiliar dressage test before the big day can be very helpful.

Riding through the test helps you to know where the trappy movements are and understand how best to prepare your horse for them.

However, as mentioned above, you don’t want to ride through the test over and over again or the horse will quickly begin to preempt you. So, here’s what to do instead.

Solution 1 – Video the test

Ride through the whole test one time and have someone video it for you. 

Watch the video back, making notes of any potential banana skins as you do so.

Pick out the movements that cause you problems and practice them under saddle. Ride the exercises on both reins and insert them randomly into your schooling sessions so that your horse doesn’t start to anticipate.

A couple of days before the competition, ride through the whole test again but only once. Again, have your ride videoed. Watch the video back so that the test is fixed firmly in your mind. 

Now, you should have ironed out any problem areas in the test, or at least highlighted them, without the risk of your horse learning the test.

Solution 2 – Swap horses

Ride through the test on a different horse! 

You can rehearse the test as many times as you need to on a horse that’s not competing in the same class. This is handy if you multiple horses or if you have a friend with who you can swap with.

A couple of days before your competition, ride through the on your own horse.

Practicing new movements

If you’re teaching your horse something new, such as flying changes, anticipation can be a blessing but a curse, too.

Be very wary of working on something new in the run-up to a competition, or your helpful equine will probably pop in an unrequired change or rein-back just when you don’t want it.

Try to teach your horse any new work in the weeks or months when you’re not out and about competing. That way, you can consolidate new exercises and movements without risking ruining your tests if your horse anticipates.

When you’re practicing any exercise, don’t keep on repeating it over and over again. That could bore your horse and be counterproductive. Instead, ride the movement randomly during your schooling sessions. If the horse starts to get tense or anticipates, leave the exercise for another day and take a step or two back to something that the horse is already confident in doing.

In conclusion

Although anticipation can be very helpful when teaching your horse something new or improving certain aspects of his work, preempting your aids can be a problem, too.

In dressage tests, anticipation will lose you many marks.

Be careful not to over-practice dressage tests so that your horse doesn’t learn the whole test, and always sprinkle new exercises throughout your schooling sessions to prevent your horse from anticipating. 

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