My favorite thing about working with horses is the unique relationships we develop. In its rawest form, training a horse is an ever-growing relationship where two individuals build a unified language. With this language, horse and rider can understand each other, educate each other, and make or break the relationship itself.
Because people typically drive the direction of this relationship, it is our job to ask fair questions to the horse, provide encouragement when the horse responds, and maintain an attitude that wills the horse to continue participating. With that, I hold these three horsemanship principles above all else.
In order to add up to ten, we should always start with 1 + 1. Introducing new training concepts to horses can be fun, but it can also be anxiety inducing if we ask too much too quickly. I like to think of our aids as a conversation we have with our horse. In order to keep the conversation short and sweet, we need to simplify the question.
When I introduce a new concept, whether it be loading on a trailer, walking over a tarp, or jumping a fence, my first expectation is simply for the horse to think in the direction of the question.
For example, if I am taking an baby thoroughbred over a tarp, chances are that he will be hesitant to engage in the game. However, if I take the pressure off when he points an ear towards the tarp, stretches his nose to it, or even just stops retreating from it, we have established 1 + 1. Now we can build on this language base, even if it is as simple as: ‘Not away from it”.
Release, Reward, Relax
When our horses are able load in the trailer, jump the fence, or get the lead change, what then? It is so important that we encourage our horses when they give the right answer so that they keep coming back to that answer. In the language that we build with them, this encouragement teaches horses to learn how to learn.
When a horse takes a step on the tarp for the first time, we need to RELEASE. We have to relay to him that he has done the right thing, in order to do that, we stop asking. If I ask a child- “what’s 1 + 1?” and his answer is 4, I will ask again. However, if I ask and his answer is 2, continuing to ask will only keep him searching for different answers. Ergo, when the horse answers the question right- let him be!
I find this approach to work well with stressful stimuli. For example, if a horse does not like the atmosphere in a trailer, change his outlook when he has entered it. Cookies, praises, and buddies will take the horse’s negative/fearful outlook out of the situation and replace it with a desire to have the right answer.
When we ride through challenging maneuvers or a new way of carriage, our horses have to search to find balance and comfort. We don’t want to quit every time we gain momentum towards better gaits, so instead, we can allow the horse a relaxed conversation. If he is finally round through his back and cantering in an uphill balance, I need to soften my body and relax in the gait. This settlement in our discussion allows a horse encouragement while we continue in work.
Attitude is Everything
It may be a sin to take a step back after halting in our dressage test, or to land the miss a lead change on course in the hunter ring, but the horse doesn’t know this.
A horse’s willingness to participate in our game is not based on how correct or stylish we are, but on how comfortable, confident, and safe we keep the horse.
With this, if we bring a horse up the levels with an unsatisfied attitude, always wishing we are better than we are, the horses feel it! It isn’t when the horse spooks at the judge that we lose his engagement, it is when we tighten up and become too assertive with our aids for the rest of the test. Instead, we should be pleased when we get the 1 + 1 answers, and we should be confident, relaxed, and decisive when things go awry in the ring. It is the confident, forgiving, appreciative horseman that horses want to converse with.