Many trainers may share with you some of their secrets to success. These could include aspects such as nutrition, show ring presentation & how they go about mentally preparing for an event. But I want to go deeper than that. Here are some of my thoughts on how to be successful in your training.
First & perhaps most importantly; what is your motivation for training a horse? Is it to win ribbons, prize money or buckles? If that is what motivates you, then you are possibly already on the back foot as far as training goes! Whilst wanting to win is not in itself a bad thing, if this is the motivating factor in your training, it could tempt some to take shortcuts.
So you really need to explore the true reasons behind what motivates you to train. For me, it is building a partnership with my horse, to learn to become a better rider so that I can do better by my horse. The training should benefit the horse, both mentally & physically, for a long, happy & healthy life. That is why I take the time to learn not just particular exercises, but the reason behind the exercise! Part of my motto is
“If we are to enjoy our lives with horses, then surely the relationship must be a symbiotic one, and one through which the life of the horse is also improved”.
That said, an aspect I want to encourage people to consider is; how do horses learn (in other words, how do they think)? What motivates the horse? When you start to really investigate these issues & properly understand them, it can do wonders for your training. So often, when I have given lessons to young riders, they have made a comment such as “He’s just being ignorant” or “He did it the other way, he knows how to do it this way” & other such similar excuses for not getting the result they expect. I have a little chuckle, then take the time to explain what I believe to be some of the most important & yet at times the least appreciated aspects to training:
- Horses do not think like us! The minute we fully appreciate this, it actually makes our job much easier. If we expect the horse to think in the same way we do, then we are going to expect much more from him, which is simply not fair on the horse. As soon as we understand how the horse learns & what motivates him, & put this into practice, you are able to more easily breakdown what you are trying to achieve & work towards your goals.
- Horses are a creature of habit that learn through repetition. We must teach them habits (preferably good ones), which is why our training needs to be consistent & repetitive in order to achieve the desired result reliably. If we are not consistent with our training aides, then how can we expect the horse to understand what we are asking…. again, they do not think like us!
- Doing an exercise one way, does not automatically mean the horse knows the exercise the other way? The horse simply does not reason like we do. He will not reason that an exercise one way is the same as the other way. It is a different movement for the horse & must be trained as such. It is the same concept when your horse spooks at something in the arena one way, then gets used to it & is ok, but then spooks again when you change direction!
- Horses are motivated by freedom. A horse will attempt a variety of things to relieve itself of the pressure we apply. For the horse, it is basically trial & error. It is up to us to reward the response we are trying to achieve with freedom from the pressure we are applying when the horse makes the correct attempt. Whats more, that reward needs to be almost immediate, otherwise the horse will not associate the reward with the response. It is up to us to consistently reward the desired response in order to establish the habit & maintain the pressure throughout the attempts that are not desired. Of course, treats work as well, however it can be a little tricky providing a treat when attempting to reward a flying change! Punishment will merely create tension & an unhappy horse. Remember, it is up to us. If the horse continually provides the incorrect response, then perhaps we are not asking in the right way, or possibly not rewarding at the right time (or at all!), so the horse does not understand.
- The horses training is our responsibility. It is entirely up to us to train the horse correctly. Yes, some horses are trickier than others & can even be a little mischievous! These are typically the ones that need plenty of diversity in their training with lots of mental stimulation, & they should be welcome as they keep us thinking & striving to do better in our training. Often I have observed riders who just trot or canter around in circles for hours on end, simply to “wear the horse out”. Training is not just about the physical, just as much if not more so, you need to be looking after the mental health of the horse as well. Think about the exercises you are doing with your horse & properly consider what they are achieving.
- Horses are individuals & should be treated as such. Whilst many people with horses recognize the individual characters, how often do they change their training method to adapt to the horse? At times, you may be trying to train a horse where what you have done time & again with other horses, simply doesn’t work with this one. I actually welcome these times, as it is then that you must take a step back, think about what you are asking & how you are going about it, & then try to think of a different way. This then develops your skills as a trainer; the ability to step back & think of alternatives in a way the horse will better understand. As the saying goes:
“I may not know it yet, but there is always a better way”
So, with an approach to training where the motivation is to form a partnership, with an understanding that the horse does not think like us, but is motivated by freedom with habits that form through repetition (good & bad!) & accepting that the responsibility for developing a well trained horse is entirely ours, we may start on a path to being good trainers & success, however you define it, is sure to follow.
Cheers & Happy Riding!