Do you ever feel like you’re wasting time when it comes to training your horse? That maybe your horse isn’t able to learn what you need him to? Or even worse, that you’ve chosen the wrong horse for your goals? Teaching new skills or even perfecting existing ones can be difficult and sometimes discouraging. But it doesn’t have to be once you better understand how horses learn and what they need in the form of instruction.
In my experience, the first step to success is understanding that our horses learn much differently than we do, so our approach to teaching, asking and correcting must be unique.
In order to create, well… a more perfect union between you and your horse and to ensure success, consider these four concepts. Being a trainer on any level means you must constantly evolve your processes and add to your own Trainer’s Mental Toolbox. As an owner or rider you’re duty bound to search out better paths to success at every turn, for both of you!
1. Two Times the Training
Ever spent time training your horse to do something only to find they’ve completely forgotten what you taught them when you ask them to do it on the other side? Let me share a little secret: everyone owns two horses! The right horse and the left horse. While they may be part of the same body, they don’t usually act that way, so you’ll have to train both sides. For example, if he can shut a gate working off your left leg, teach him to do it off your right. Each side will require slightly different approaches because most horses are a little stiff (resistant to bending) to the left and hollow (bend excessively) to the right. Ultimately, you’ll spend about the same amount of time working your horse to each side, striving to make his stiff side more flexible, and his hollow side more evenly bent.
2. Develop Great Timing
Horses learn from the release of pressure, not the application of it. When you release, your horse will associate that reward with whatever he was doing immediately before the release. If you’re a split second late releasing, you may confuse your horse or inadvertently reward something else entirely. If you’re asking for a step backward, the instant he even begins to think back, you should lighten the reins for a reward, then resume asking. But if you miss that moment, and instead lighten as he’s raising his head or opening his mouth, you’re rewarding him for what you don’t want. Timing is everything and will take practice on your part but, more importantly, it takes the ability to focus on what’s happening with the communication between you two at any given moment.
3. Solving vs. Creating
Imagine you’re working in the arena and your horse is getting a racy instead of staying in the steady lope you’ve asked for. You feel he should be getting it by now, but instead of losing your cool, you simply take all slack out of the reins, draw him to a trot, then a walk, then a stop, then a back-up—all in about six strides. Then you sit for a while to let him regroup and finally ask him to begin again with an evenly paced lope. However, what if your response had been different? What if you were angry and snatched at his mouth, scaring him? Imagine the problems resulting in the hasty version. You’ve just created the foundation for a new set of problems. When you handle his error in the correct way, he thinks, “Oops, I’m racing along here, she’s picking up the reins to break me down. I guess I’ll give her my face and come to her, because I know she’ll insist on that, but then at least I get to stop and rest.” His response to an aggressive reaction on your part may be: “She’s picking up the reins and she’s going to rip me a new set of lips! Better brace my jaw and get my head up to protect myself.” See how that works?
4. Ride the horse your riding
You’ve heard people say Rules are meant to be Broken, but did you know that most Plans are meant to be Changed? Even the best and most realistic schedule for training must be open to modification! It’s up to the instructor (YOU!) to assess how your horse feels and responds on any given day. Be open to what your horse needs to work on, as opposed to what you’d planned to do. You may have wanted to work on stopping today, but once you get started, your horse won’t move off your leg. Instead of getting frustrated, be flexible and work on side-passing or other lateral exercises until your horse becomes responsive to your leg, then resume your original plan. Concentrate on the unique individual that is your horse and ride accordingly.
Training isn’t just about teaching your horse new things or how to improve skills they already know, it’s also about becoming a better instructor. If something isn’t working or you haven’t been able to achieve a goal together, try asking in a different way. Our horses are so eager to please, so it’s our responsibility to set them up to do just that!