I made this quote to a new riding friend the other day and the ensuing discussion lasted for hours. It sounds simple, but when you apply it, there is a multitude of applications – self-discipline, cognizance of what your body is signaling to the horse and that slow and deliberate is fast. It also opens the door to timing and feel.
We as humans are the predator – we want and need to control things. And, we want it NOW. The horse is prey- he reacts to the circumstances. The horse doesn’t care when or how it happens, as long as his comfort returns. Yet, the horse has the ability to reason to some degree, if for no other reason than to seek release from pressure. In the training process, we need to allow the horse to seek the right answer. That means we may need to hold a cue a little longer or change the cue ever so slightly and allow the horse to figure it out. This is how you get quicker responses, softer feel. Your horse will be more relaxed and confident. True unity will start to form. This philosophy is the basis of the lessons that Tom Dorrance describes and Ray Hunt taught. It’s taken me years to grasp it, but the picture is getting clearer
Successful training results from the human understanding how to see life from the horse’s point of view. A horse’s motivation in life is to be safe and comfortable. A human motivation may be success, praise, recognition, money, etc. These things have no value to the horse. Horsemanship is a partnership between human and horse. This partnership must be based on communication and trust, not fear and intimidation. We must be able to trust our horse to the degree we want our horse to trust us. I see trust starting with communication. Communicating with the horse is getting them to respond to a cue in a manner that results in the correct response, yet, provides comfort and safety for the horse, at least from the horse’s point of view. To accomplish anything, there must be someone in charge, the leader. It is important for the human to establish himself as the leader. Quality leadership demands emotional, mental and physical stability and consistency in communication from the human. The horse will be more willing to try hard for you, if you have demonstrated this leadership style over time.
If we consider horsemanship as a partnership between human and horse, then both parties have responsibility. If we have established the human as the leader, then what is the horse’s responsibility? The horse’s role is then to follow the leader. The horse also has a vested interest because he is the one that is expending the energy! The horse needs to be part of the training process. They are capable of many things athletically, but you must include them in the mental part of things as well. The horse must be rewarded for any success. This reward is comfort and safety. This principle results in the horse willing to keep trying and ultimately, searching for that particular movement (or lack of movement, in the case of stop) of feet and legs that results in release of pressure (stimuli).
Here is how we include the horse in the training process:
- Listen to him. The horse will tell you what he’s thinking. He can communicate confusion, fear, understanding, excitement, or level of effort through his body language.
- Build a basis for communication. Ray Hunt always said, “Reward the smallest change and the slightest try.”
- Always be consistent in your cues. Start from the ground and then progress to the saddle with lateral and vertical flexion, control of the feet, and control the movement of the body. This will build a supple, willing horse, and give consistency to communication.
- Expect and accept failure. Each cue is not going to be understood and executed. Therefore, failure becomes a “teachable moment” in which we can re-evaluate our communication. It is also an opportunity to back up and make sure the fundamental training steps have been learned.
- Build a foundation for success. Everything we ask a horse to do, he already knows how to do. We are just asking him to do them exactly when we want him to do it. All a horse can do is move forward, backward, sideways, left, right and stop. Everything we ask is a combination of these maneuvers or change in speed. Start slow and build momentum. Allow the horse to buy into our system.
- Wait on the horse. Sometimes the horse knows what we are asking him to do, but he is not confident of himself or natural instincts say there is potential danger. If we wait, let the horse try, and have success, then that builds confidence in the horse. Success will build success and give the horse confidence to try new challenges. He will also learn to trust you more in the process.
- Challenge you and your horse. How do you know your horse is ready for a new challenge? Ask for it, and see what happens. Make sure your insecurities are not hindering your horse’s educational progress. Progress cannot be measured by always executing the past lessons. Add challenges to your routine that causes the horse to think. Horses become bored from monotonous routines
Having clear communication and a horse that wants to work with you can only improve your performances. To gain and maintain top performances you need to regularly review your communication and the quality of your partnership by allowing the horse to think and participate in the process. Mistakes will be made, but this creates an opportunity to evaluate the process.
“The horse will teach you if you‘ll listen.” – Ray Hunt