The focus of my training philosophy is on the development of a relationship with the horse. The benefit is a horse that will try to please, stay relaxed mentally and physically, and will work for you and not against you. Ultimately, you have a safe horse that is a joy to ride. All of the training one puts into a horse is layered on top of the horse’s instinctive nature, which is to explode into flight whenever the biological alarm system activates. Proper training lowers the activation level of the horse’s instinctual behaviors. When a horse is properly trained, the incidence of dangerous instinctive behavior is negligible. A sudden surprise to the horse might prompt a reaction, but it will be moderate and very short-term. The horse and rider share a level of trust that carries them through a multitude of challenging and enjoyable situations.
Each horse has unique problems and phobias. Conventional thinking avoids problem areas. My approach is to address the problem areas. Sometimes you can eliminate problems, but often you just teach the horse to overcome the problem areas. Confront the problems on the ground before riding the horse. In the event of a surprise, the horse and rider have a definitive place to retreat and regroup. Inherent emotionality is a horse’s emotional state. Each horse is different. Some horses will have a calm emotional state and be able to handle pressure, but others will be easily excitable and will not be able to handle as much pressure. Early handling helps the horse develop a calm emotional state. A good trainer quickly recognizes the emotional state of his or her horse and adjusts training regimens accordingly.
Horses have a very good memory. Research has shown that they can retain what they have been taught over time. One study reported an 81 percent retention rate after one month of learning 20 pairs of learned discriminations, a 78 percent retention after three months, and six months later, a 77.5 percent retention. Recent research in this area has shown that horses learn to learn. The learn-to-learn phenomenon is simple: The more tasks a horse learns to perform, the easier it will be for that horse to learn new tasks. These new tasks may be tasks that the horse will never use, but they will aid in learning ability. Therefore, training should follow logical and progressive steps with timely and specific reinforcement. Remember, each horse will be different in how it responds to training and learning, so work schedules should reflect this difference.
Remember that horses do have a very good memory but cannot reason. Therefore we try to keep those memories positive, for both horse and handler. They learn from praise and acceptance – which must be an immediate response. So, for example if a horse does not want to cross a mud puddle, encourage it to go forward, and as soon as it makes any forward progress or attempt to move forward – release your cues – which is a form of praise. If it backs way, send him forward and once he moves forward, reward him immediately. You may not get him to cross the mud puddle on the first attempt, but encouraged in the correct manner, he will hopefully go across quickly. Done in this manner you will hopefully convince that horse to go through it time and time again.
Most experienced horsemen have figured out how to “out think” a horse and realize they will not out muscle them. A vital key to safe horsemanship is to convince the horse to do what you want it to do and not force them. You must be able to analyze the situation and determine if the horse is scared, stubborn, simply being obstinate, or is mad. Each type of behavior requires different handing for everything to end on a positive note.
Body language of a horse can help a person predict much of how a horse is about to react. Observant horsemen understand the differences they see in the eyes, ears, tail, and mouth. The direction of the ears, generally tell you where a horse is looking. Ears forward may be a sign of listening or looking at something. If a horse is staring at something off in the distance and not paying attention to what the rider is doing, it may cause problems. Therefore, bringing the horse’s attention back to the task at hand will be a much safer situation. Ears laid back can either be board or mad. Noticing more body language of the horse such as the tail, mouth and general attitude will help to determine the difference. Nervous and tense horses will hold their mouth tight and tense. Whereas when they relax, they will lick and chew as well as have relaxed ears. Good horsemen are very observant of all the signs a horse shows and realize the horse will tell them a lot, if they simply know how to watch and listen.
If I ask about groundwork the human usually glosses over it by saying, “I have no trouble with him on the ground, it’s when I’m on his back that I have problems.” To the vast majority of horse owners, groundwork consists of leading, tying, grooming and the like. Do not confuse handling with groundwork! Groundwork is being able to direct the horse to do from the ground what you expect to do from its back. Groundwork is actually teaching the horse, from a position of greater control and safety, the ground, to do what you are going to ask the horse to do once you are on the horse. Groundwork will give you and your horse the opportunity to learn together. Horsemen need to work toward developing an understanding of how their horse learns, as well as acquiring the tools to build a solid foundation from feel. This is the beginning of a new relationship together. The foundation in groundwork will help to build a secure, confident, relaxed, and supple horse. Followed by applying the groundwork to the saddle, the rider will now begin to reap the benefits from the new foundation, helping the horse to move away from the slightest amount of feel. Once we have learned how to meet the horse’s needs and to speak to the horses in their language, the horse and rider have a much greater potential of reaching goals for any discipline in harmony.
Building confidence and trust in a horse will have more long term positive results than trying to force them. Safe handling and riding of horses is based on understanding how a horse reacts and their natural behavior. Always be observant of what the horse is telling you, and you will have a much more rewarding relationship with your horse.