In order to be a good teacher for a horse, to be someone that horses want to work with on their own account we should
- make sure we ourselves are ready and provided with some particular characteristics and
- know the fundamental aspects of a training that is fair and appropriate for a horse
These are the particular characteristics we need to provide ourselves with
- a love of horses
- elementary ground knowledge about horses, not only about their behaviour but also about their anatomy, psychology and bio-mechanics
- patience and tolerance
- the skill critically to review our own behaviour
- the skill to recognise and correct ones own mistakes
- a readiness to accept advice and help
- a readiness to learn and develop further
- the skill to keep negative feelings like aggression, rage and disappointment under control
- the ability to be really pleased with progress
- and the skill to rein in our ambitions.
These characteristics belong to a fair and appropriate training for the horse
- The training should build good communications.
- It should take the age of your horse into account and recognise and challenge the natural tendencies and talent of the horse.
- It should be built up in a way that makes sense and is logical for the horse and it should offer bridges for the horse between the elements already learnt and the new ones being introduced.
- It should be challenging for the horse on a mental as well as a physical level.
- It should have enough change and variety.
Build up good communications
An untrained horse is not in a position to understand speech.
It will, however, react to body language and mood.
It is therefore important to know the ground rules of body language.
For example, if I am in front of the horse I slow it down, if I am behind it, I speed it up. When my horse has, for example, learnt to halt in response to my body language, then I can give the voice command “Whoa” at the moment that it stops and follow it up immediately with friendly praise. The horse, after a few repeats, will associate the voice command with the action and has thus learnt its first word in human language.
Take into account the horse’s age, talent and particular characteristics
Horses are just like us: we like doing the things we are good at doing.
I owned an old Shetland pony called Tessa, who was supposed to earn her keep giving children riding lessons. Tessa showed me clearly that she did not enjoy this. When snow came in winter, we had the idea of just trying out harnessing her to a sledge. The little pony was transformed! Tessa, who never took a single step willingly with a rider up, was difficult to stop. Her eyes sparkled and she would have headed off to the end of the world if we had let her.
When things are fun, then we are motivated and ready to perform.
And so we should ask ourselves: what does the horse seem to have to offer, what will it enjoy?
Recognise the particular inclinations and talents of your horse
Taking a close look at the horse will probably reveal some of its natural inclinations.
If my horse is, for example, very curious and playful, if it wants to inspect everything and is always doing something daft it is perhaps an ideal candidate for circus lessons like learning to bow or do the Spanish walk.
It can use its natural talent and learn quickly and with interest.
On working with young horses
Many uncertainties surround the question of when we should best start to work with a young horse. I think that starting really early giving new four footed arrivals on Earth postive contact (and I am deliberately not saying “training” here) is good and the right thing to do.
Of course in our ideal imagination a foal should grow up in a large herd in wide open spaces wild and free from man’s influence. But in reality there are annoying but necessary procedures like hoof trimming, veterinary inspections, worming, foal check-ups including branding etc. It is worth creating the best conditions possible so that every such meeting with mankind does not become an unpleasant and stressful experience for the foal.
Every foal should be touched and stroked gently and with a lot of love and patience. I practice (with its Mama close at hand) picking up feet, putting on a halter…whatever is necessary.
Foals are so wonderfully playful and curious and this characteristic can be turned to advantage to show the little one really early on that things to be found in the world of people are fine and there is no need to be frightened. For example I might put some food on a rattle sack and when the foal eats the food and makes the tins rattle I praise him for it and show him how pleased I am with him and his behaviour.
This means the little one learns: noises are fun and taste good! The chance of this foal having no fear of rattling noises are surely better than if it had not had this experience as a very young foal.
So, to put it briefly: I cannot replace my foal’s playmates, nor the social education it gets from its herd, or its freedom in a meadow and I should offer these things as much as I possibly can. But what I can provide is getting it basically used to people and the everyday situations it will meet, so as to create a good basis for trust and a good relationship between us.
The ground rule is that the performance we ask for should match the mental and physical development of the horse.
And don’t forget: old horses still enjoy playing and learning and discovering new things too!
Put the training plan together in a way that makes sense and remember to build bridges
It is important to build up the bricks of the horse’s training in a way that makes sense, to create a solid foundation and build bridges out from this foundation.
A horse at the stage of being warmed up lets the rider sit on it. The rider wants the horse to move forward in response to leg pressure.
He applies the pressure but the horse does not understand the aid and remains standing.
What now? Should we increase the leg pressure?
I have often seen this result in a young horse being well thumped with the lower leg until it moves. Thus ensuring that a response to gentle leg aids is trained out of it right from the start.
An alternative method
Working with the horse from the ground. Practising the voice command “Walk on” and giving a tap with the whip just behind the girth to mean “please walk on”.
When the horse has understood these commands, a rider can mount, a helper leads the horse giving the known aids and the rider adds the leg pressure to it. After a few repeats the helper on the ground minimises its commands little by little while the rider tries to take over giving the aids. This explains leg pressure to the horse without needing to use it excessively. The basic idea is to give the horse all the lessons from the ground first, without the rider. When the horse has learnt to respond to lightly given aids from the ground then it is ready to produce what it has learnt with a rider up.
A horse that is in a position to understand what people what and that experiences positive consequences when it does what one wants of it is as a rule happy and willing to work with us.
Do take the time and trouble to make the training varied.
The training should be varied and be fun for both people and animals.
It should be made up of
- ground work,
- riding out
- and more
Make it challenging enough for your horse on both a physical and a mental level
There is a lot of writing and discussion about exercising horses, their muscles and condition and suppleness. Most riders are familiar with a scale of training and are very engaged in training their horse’s body condition.
As a result, mental exercise quite often falls by the wayside.
I often find in my ground work courses, particularly in those in which I give circus lessons, how surprised many horse owners are by how quick the horses are to pick it up and how “intelligent” they are.
Good “brain exercise” for horses includes:
- Provision of suitable living conditions
- Cross country training
- Lessons with circus-type training
- Practice trail riding (for e.g. obstacles made of cones or going over a see-saw)
- Body stretching and massage, for e.g. TTouches, (massage done according to Linda Tellington-Jones)
- Dressage lessons in hand and ridden
- Pole and cavaletti training
- Free dressage
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