Picture if you will this scenario: you have a performance horse you are trying to teach lead changes by starting in the counter-canter. The horse knows perfectly well how to counter-canter as well as how to pick up the correct lead. The horse refuses to hold the counter-canter through the turns but insists on breaking to the trot and picking up the correct lead. No amount of insistence will change the horse’s mind. After 30 minutes of fruitless effort, both you and the horse are exhausted by this exercise and you have made zero progress. You finally give. You canter the horse on the correct lead, cross the diagonal, and then ask for the lead change. The horse smoothly changes leads and you are amazed. You ask for the lead change in the other direction and the horse again changes smoothly. The horse, who has never changed leads consistently before, now changes leads any time you ask. Does this scenario and this horse personality-type sound familiar?
If so, then you may have some experience with the Shao Yang (Fire/Wood) horse personality type (learn more about horse personalities in the Horse Harmony book). The scenario above describes a training session I recently had with my Shao Yang mare, Samantha. Samantha and I had just started doing lead changes this past summer and she had not been doing them consistently. She then pulled a groin muscle. We are just now getting back into regular training and I had not asked for a lead change since she got hurt. While she was recovering, I went to several reining clinics where I learned to teach the lead change via the counter-canter.
I had never tried this counter-canter approach with Samantha and it was clear from the first moment that she thought the idea was ridiculous. She already knew I wanted a lead change and she thought, in typical impatient Shao Yang fashion, “Well, if it’s a lead change you want why don’t we go ahead and do lead changes?” It never occurred to me that she might have perfected the lead change on her own without me. It did occur to me, somewhat belatedly, that getting a Shao Yang horse personality to do something against her will was impossible. She’d rather die of exhaustion than do something she didn’t want to do. Shao Yang horses can be absolutely immutable in the way they view reality. The phrase “my way or the highway” sums up their point of view nicely. When I finally gave in to Samantha’s view of reality, not only did we get the lead changes accomplished but we were both happy.
If you ever find yourself on the losing side of a battle with a Shao Yang horse personality, your best bet may be the back down and go a different way. By doing so you won’t actually be losing the battle or losing face, you’ll just be finding a way to work in harmony with this particular horse personality. As the scars on Samantha’s tongue demonstrate, a Shao Yang will do anything to be right, even at the cost of their own health. In her past she obviously battled with people who didn’t believe in “giving up” and while she may have won the battle she also scarred her tongue. I hate to think what happened to her rider!