Riding a horse is fraught with danger. To be safe riding, there are a few things you should expect of your horse, responses that make you feel safe when riding. If you have these things at your disposal, you will feel more in control and comfortable about being able to work through almost any situation. As a rider, you should constantly work, study, and practice to refine and exact the following things from your horse.
You want your horse to be responsive when you ask him to do something. When you pick up the reins, you want him to come to attention and do whatever you ask him to do. When you press your legs against his sides, you want him to move forward. If you don't expect your horse to be responsive, you teach him that you don't really mean business when you ask him to do something.
Of course, it is up to you to acquire the skills to communicate effectively with your horse and make him understand what you want. If the two of you aren't communicating well, then you need to go back and work with a riding coach until you can establish better communication. Sometimes when you ask for something, it is a matter of safety that your horse be responsive — such as stopping to avoid a kick from the horse up ahead or stepping one foot to the left to avoid falling off the edge of an embankment. Obedience is also a must for safety's sake. For example, when you are mounting, don't allow your horse to anticipate and move out before you give the signal. You must always be the one to say when.
When you pick up the reins, you want your horse to melt into your hands. Picking up those reins is a signal to your horse that you are about to get to work at something. Softness doesn't mean riding with a loose rein. It means that when you pick up the reins, the horse doesn't resist you, throwing his head up in the air to avoid contact. If an emergency should arise, you want softness, not resistance, to be your horse's first response to you; it is through this good contact that your horse receives your messages.
Much of the work you do with an instructor involves learning how to establish softness, which is so vital to good communication. Good contact comes not from pulling back on the reins but from driving the horse's hindquarters forward into your hands, where you simply hold him in a frame and direct him where you want him to go.
Say, for example, you are riding with others on the trail and something spooks the group, such as a grouse flying out of the bushes. More than likely, your horse will spook with the rest — it's only natural for him to follow the herd and react the way the other horses do. Ideally, what you want is for your horse to turn to you, his trusted master and leader, for a message about the situation. If you tense up, haul back on the reins, and yank his mouth, you'll convince him that he has something to fear. However, if you calmly reassure him that you're in control and your horse softens, the situation will go from potentially explosive to controlled. If the horse's first reaction is to resist your hands and throw his head up in the air, the situation is going to get more frightening.
You can avoid many problems simply by keeping your horse going forward correctly. Going forward isn't just going faster. It means using your legs and seat to drive the back end of the horse forward into your hands, where you regulate where he's going and how fast. If you keep the rear in gear this way, you have control over the whole horse, not just the front half. It's surprising how many people ride only the front half of the horse, steering with their hands but not really doing much with their legs or seat besides keeping themselves in the saddle.
When you consistently ride your horse from back to front, engaging the hindquarters and keeping both halves of the horse connected, he will feel more secure with you in charge. This is because you actually create a channel with your aids for him to move through, so he knows exactly where you want him to go. Your legs and seat tell his back end where to go, and your hands tell his front end where to go.
Let's say you're trotting around a schooling arena and a dog slips under the fence ahead and startles your horse. The horse's first instinct is to turn and flee from any perceived danger. What should you do to prevent this?
A rider controlling only the front half of the horse would pull back on the reins to try to prevent the horse from turning and bolting. Pulling back too hard on the reins might actually cause the horse to rear up. Rearing is one of the most dangerous things a horse can do because if he gets off balance, he may fall over backward on top of the rider. A rider controlling both halves of the horse would step on the accelerator, driving the horse forward with her legs and seat through that channel of aids so the horse has no chance to wheel around and run.