This is an updated version of a post I wrote after one of our wonderful clinics with Patrice Edwards. We so often see such significant changes in the horses both at clinic and during lessons and it’s always interesting to have a rummage around in the ingredients of that, of which there are often many. 😊 My original post got lost in the depths of Facebook so I decided to resurrect it, add some thoughts and re-post it here.
When we train the horse it is basically our intention to take what nature gave us and make it better. Horses are of course, already perfect just as they are but they weren’t designed to carry people around, so by ‘better’ we simply mean physically enhanced, and better able to carry out that job, stress and pain free…
The horse of course, has absolutely no idea what all the fuss is about or that this training lark is all in his best interests. Why would he? He’s just there… Hanging out, living in the moment attempting to get by the best he can; dealing with each dilemma in his life as it occurs. We humans could learn a lot from that philosophy! lol
One of the wonderful things about the kind of Horse Centred training which focuses on correct biomechanics, is that it provokes positive feelings in the horse because it seeks to improve his sense of balance, well-being and security. If we repeatedly teach the horse, and consistently prove to him, in the moment, that his compliance to our aiding produces something that makes him feel better then we very quickly begin to have a willing partner because horses, although relatively simple, are not stupid. 😊
From the moment we enter the horse’s space everything we do is teaching him something about what happens in that space. It can be easy to assume that training is only occurring when something we are specifically taking notice of or liking in that moment is happening, but of course this is not true at all. How could it be? The horse has no idea whether his behaviour, or what he offered as a training response is what we wanted or not unless we consistently make that very clear for him.
Nothing in nature stays the same; it is always building up or breaking down. This means that we are always either enhancing or diminishing the horse to some degree; he can never really stay the same. For this reason we have a responsibility to keep a close eye on which direction our training is taking us, even if it’s by the minutest degree either way…
Very few large changes occur “over night” I will often hear how a behavioural or training change, or even a lameness has occurred “all of a sudden” but in reality this is rarely the case. Often by the time we are seeing the big change it is a product of lots of small changes that have been going on in the background, relatively unnoticed over a period of time.
So if EVERYTHING is training then we need to be vigilant. We all have an idea of what we would like to receive or feel, and hopefully we readily praise our horses for that when it turns up. No problem there; however, what I often come across is a lack of, or urgency in ensuring that negative training is not inadvertently taking place in the background. We would never knowingly do this right? So how and why might it be happening?
All of the caring and wonderful riders who choose this path for their training are here because they want to understand how to train their horses with kindness knowledge and understanding and most work incredibly hard to make that a reality. I think we are all from the section of riders who seek to increase our skills in order to facilitate better and healthier movement in our horses. So while this is absolutely correct and highly commendable, I see it also lay the door open to potential problems for progression in training. Perhaps it goes back to the old saying about our biggest virtue being our biggest potential vice? Sometimes we ‘kind’ folk may need to get a little more… ‘Urgent?’ shall we say 😀
Horses really do have no idea what ‘the point’ is. They are maximum efficient and will always look for the easiest option. Your horse is never going to wake up one morning and say to himself “You know, I think I’m going to try a bit harder with that right hind leg today” It’s never gonna happen! lol.
Most of what the horse offers us naturally is not really useful to him in terms of how we know he needs to function in order to carry a rider and for this reason it is you who needs to be his constant reminder. Not just when you remember, not just when you noticed, not ‘in a minute’, or when you can be bothered or are in the right mood or have time… But always! Because every step you ride is a step you trained. And it’s just the same in-hand or around the yard. Every time you allow your horse to carry out any behaviour at all around you, you reinforced that behaviour.
So consistency is a huge contributory factor when it comes to ensuring maximum efficiency in training. It’s another one of those annoyingly simple things, but I see it lacking over and over again, slowing or stunting progress. If you teach your horse to do one thing in this moment and then allow the opposite in the next, while you weren’t paying attention, what did you train? At best you trained nothing, (although I’m not sure this is actually possible?) at worst you trained a resistance. It’s true to say that avoiding this pitfall in training certainly takes a great deal of focus on the part of the rider and horse; and this is why work should be broken down into relatively short periods of intense focus interspersed with frequent brain breaks for both horse and rider. Time for both to rest and reflect, allowing the horse his full freedom from the aids and to trust that this is also possible.
Your horse should either be ‘on the aids’ attentive, responsive and ‘ready’, or on a totally free rein at rest. Check how often you might spend time in neither one nor the other but instead a sort of ‘grey area’ in between?
So when we apply an aid to the horse, we are asking for something to change in his body state. (otherwise, what was the point?) In order for this aid to be of any use at all it must be answered by the horse. Something needs to change. Now! If an aid is applied and no change occurs or worse still is met with a resistance to which you then resist or yield, again, what have you trained?
So useful questions to ask yourself are, how many times did I sit up here applying the same aid almost continuously with no actual change occurring? Am I being clear and concise when I aid in that moment? Does my horse clearly understand when he got it right?
To be ‘an aid’ it must be applied and then ceased within that step or stride, not ‘held’
Now here’s the thing… At this stage it may not necessarily matter what change you get, because if it wasn’t the one you expected or hoped for, it just means you have to reinvestigate the aid you gave, perhaps modify it in some way next time or go back a step to discover what your horse understands of that aid. What is not acceptable is ‘no change’ If this is the case then at this point you have trained your horse to resist or ignore your aid.
Riders often tell me that they are afraid to see an aid all the way to it’s conclusion for fear of being wrong or confusing to their horse, especially if they are experiencing a little resistance from their horse due to past training. The truth is that making a “half aid” or an overly long aid that doesn’t create a change, not only leaves the horse in the same negative body state but it also trained him that this is ok. This really isn’t better for the horse than risking the original fear because if nothing else, the former is creating a dialogue between the horse and rider. We all make mistakes and mistakes are better than doing nothing because we learn from our mistakes.
Although we might need to be adamant at times, insisting on change is certainly not about coercion or being a bully because creating successful positive changes in the horse always requires good equitation, good timing of the aids, the ability to cease an aid at the appropriate moment and all of those other pesky skills required that we need to practise. 😃 It is however about ensuring you are not training negatively.
If you resist a resistance or yield to a resistance, you train resistance.
The truth is that horses just hear what they hear. They don’t know that you made a “mistake”, they just react with the answer they have to what they heard. So as you begin to ride with less fear of being wrong, and more courage of your convictions whilst also listening intently to your horse’s response, he then becomes your teacher. 😊 By ensuring that you do get a response to the aid you gave you enable yourself to then decide if it was appropriate related to what you wanted to change, or if you would like to do it differently or better next time. You will also receive a far clearer understanding of what your horse actually understands vs. what you thought or hoped he did. (Definitely another post)
So on the journey from the rider you are today to the one you would like to become, you will make mistakes. Your horse may also tell you from time to time that “This is difficult!” and that’s ok. You just do your best and say, “OK I hear you, buts now lets try… ” Because if you constantly meet a difficulty or stiffness in your horse with a resistance or a passive fear of doing it wrong instead of an urgency for change, you will, over time, train stiffness and resistance.
So be a little bit courageous! 😀 Go out there and see how many changes you can make in your horse in every stride, because the possibility of constant fluid changeability from one state to another is one of the keys to ensuring you are on the correct path heading in the right direction.