If you are new to horses and riding, the concept of actually training a horse can seem rather intimidating. Horses are large, have minds of their own, and can at times seem very unpredictable. However, if you’re willing to take some time to learn about how horses think and act, you can train your horse through many issues in a manner that is safe for you and the horse. The one warning that I will give here is that there are some behavioral issues that take experience and ability to work through, but the only way to get that experience is to start slow, begin working through things and always be aware of your horse and what he’s telling you.
Begin by Watching
If you are new to horse training, step one is to start watching horses in the area and as others are working with them. Get used to reading the language of the horse, what does it mean when the horse swishes his tail, or when he raises his head and tightens his ears? Learning to recognize and translate the horse’s body language is the number one part of being successful at training and, more importantly, keeping yourself safe. You will need to know when the horse isn’t paying attention and requires a wake-up, or when the horse is being pushed to hard and is starting to become defensive by preparing to kick or bite. I can’t say it enough? Reading the horse is the trick to training and the secret to not getting hurt in the process of instruction. You can’t learn to read a horse by looking at pictures or reading books, you have to go out and watch real horses and take note of what they are doing and feeling. You have to get in the mind of the horse. This is a skill that requires a lifetime to master, but start now and you may be surprised how quickly you will start picking things up.
Fundamentals of Training
There are two ways to train, and this applies not only to horses, but to ourselves as well. Or you can train with negative reinforcement, so that the horse is working to prevent something. Food can be used for positive reinforcement, but for horses, rest, comfort, and safety can be positive reinforcers as well. That is where having a connection and a connection with the horse you’re training will make the training easier and more successful. A relationship can mean simply that the horse trusts you because you behave consistently and the horse can see you as a companion, not someone to be feared.
Horses learn to respond to cues, just like dogs and even people. A cue can be anything, the physical pressure from our hand or heel, a spoken word, or a non-physical pressure applied with our eyes and body language. The cue itself really doesn’t matter, as long as it’s consistent. So you apply the cue, the horse starts to move to get the right answer to get rid of the pressure. When he finds the right answer, we release the pressure and give him a reward, which can be compliments and patting or a food reward if appropriate. For example, we stage the guide rope and the horses nose towards the trailer and tap him on the hindquarters with a stick, these are two cues requesting him to move forward. He may fidget side to side, or move backwards, but will eventually have a step forward. The praise is positive reinforcement, which we discussed in the previous paragraph. You should also give the horse a rest period, even if its short, after he gets a tricky training concept, to further establish the behavior.
The sort of training that you want to recognize and stay away from is where the horse is solely motivated to act a certain way to prevent pain. This might be that he goes forward quickly because he knows he’ll get spurs in his side or a whip if he doesn’t. While hard to discern, horses that have been trained solely through pain may behave well but they are emotionally shut down and exhibit little personality, curiosity, or affection. You want your horse to enjoy training, just as the family dog jumps to his feet once the leash is pulled out.
Behaviors will not occur perfectly the first time. Training a horse to act a certain way or to perform a specific movement takes the actions has to be shaped until it is performed just as you want it. By way of example, when training a horse to execute a flying lead change, the rider commonly starts with asking the horse to carry out a simple lead change with maybe 10 steps of trotting. This is at first rewarded, and over time the trainer gets more specific, asking for fewer and fewer trot steps until finally the horse just performs a flying change without the further actions. Obviously there are a couple of different skills which the horse has mastered to execute this flying change, but the basic principle is the same, the coach shapes the movement to his liking. Another example could be correcting a horse that is pushy on the ground. The first step is to start asking the horse to move his shoulders away. When the horse moves his shoulders away from the trainer, he is rewarded. After several repetitions, the trainer will ask the horse to move from only pressure with the lead rope. Finally, the trainer will ask the horse to move just by applying the strain through body language and the horse moves. If the horse is asked to move away with body language only the first time, he is unlikely to reply, but following the consistent increases in stress, he learns what behaviour is expected, learns how to do it more accurately and so learns efficiently without undue stress.
Is your Horse in the Perfect State of Mind for Coaching?
For training to work, the horse has to be in a great state of mind. If he is frightened or distressed, the training will not go very far. The ideal training takes place when the horse is calm, content, and curious. After the horse comes from the state, the trainer should find a way to redirect and refocus his attention. If the horse becomes fearful because of a training object, like a whip or stick, then back off and spend some time desensitizing until the horse is more relaxed again. If the diversion is something else (perhaps another horse is running in a field near by) then search for a way to get the horses focus back on you. You could keep your horse moving, or request simple exercises that you are confident that your horse can perform. If something that you did scared the horse, or when he’s becoming frustrated with all the training, then stop and spend some time rubbing him or walking leisurely until he relaxes and you can go back to the training, beginning with another basic exercises using plenty of rewards to make the session enjoyable again. Don’t waste your time working with a horse that’s extremely stressed or excited. The horse won’t be able to concentrate on your training, and you’re certain to get frustrated.
The same concept applies to you as well – if you’re frustrated after a day at work, or just feel yourself losing patience with your horse – stop! It is much better to pick up the training again on another day then to push past your own mental limits and possibly do something that you will later regret and that will set your training back.