Author Archives: maxinekemp
The Right Trainer
Just lately I’ve been chatting to riders and asking them to evaluate their lessons, how they feel it’s all going and if they have any particular queries in their mind about the whole process. Perhaps any questions or niggles that might me hindering their progress. I’m sometimes amazed at the torrent of stuff that’s obviously been held in there but I ALWAYS welcome it.
(Note: If you are struggling with a concept or something your trainer has asked you to do. ASK!)
It seems that traditionally, a lot of riding instruction comes in a fairly standard format. The instructor stands in the arena giving instruction and the rider does their best to show the instructor what they want to see. It seems that it can often be felt by riders, that questioning the instructor is not the “done thing”, OR that they should in some way already understand all the concepts and terminologies used and that asking questions makes them feel silly, inadequate or rude.
I always encourage students to seek the idea that a rider, trainer relationship is just that. A ‘relationship’ where information is shared, questions are asked and answered and the input and feedback of the rider is valued by the trainer as much as the other way around. I once heard Charles de Kunffy say that he often feels as if he had learned as much from the student and their horse as they had from him.
The world is full of wonderful trainers, and some not so wonderful, but all with their different strengths and weaknesses and it can be a confusing task and sometimes a process of trial and error to work out who is right for you and your horse. “Experts” are around every corner and if as a rider you feel your knowledge is limited then it can be difficult to know who to put your trust in. And trust in your trainer you must…
Owning and training my own horse again recently reminded me of how important it is to have the right trainer. One that you trust and one who can help you understand the true nature of your horse in training. Someone to help you remain focused on the right things and ensure that you remain objective when challenges arise. They don’t have to be super-human and they can’t do it for you. But progress must be made, not just words and money exchanged.
It’s terribly easy to become emotionally focused when training your own horse. I know this only too well. It’s all very well for your trainer to come along and tell you ‘Oh he’s just reacting with his natural flight instinct’ or ‘It’s OK, its not personal’ As you’ve just watched your horse gallop off into the distance or found yourself spooked across the arena for the hundredth time. For some reason, when it’s someone else’s horse it’s a training issue, when it’s your own it’s personal. What IS that all about? Another post perhaps… lol
The fact is that when things occur in our training that feel unwanted, it is almost ALWAYS either a training/symmetry issue, a trained resistance or a pain issue and so often it is just the former. And I say ‘just’ because the great thing is that when it’s a training issue, which is often associated with asymmetry, we can objectify and realize it, meaning there is always something we can do that will reliably work for the horse. Seeking answers from this perspective can often help to prevent us getting upset and working from our emotional state; sometimes rushing off to do stuff that isn’t really useful, like buying the latest gadget or supplement or spending a needless fortune with the vet or even subjecting your horse to the local ‘horse fixer’ or perhaps taking up Parrelli. (Did I say that out loud :-\ lol)
When you are struggling with your horse and he doesn’t appear to be ‘doing what it says on the tin’ You may feel that you have exhausted all the reasons you can imagine for the unwanted behaviour or underperformance. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons that you hadn’t thought of or you just don’t understand at this point in your training, and this is what a good trainer is for. Not just someone who can tell you which arm and leg to put where, but someone who understands the nature and biomechanics of the horse. It’s so very much easier to depersonalise it and therefore become 100% more effective when you understand…
So when choosing a trainer here are a few things to look out for… Pass by on anyone who tells you your horse is naughty, plotting against you, dominant, or needs to be dominated in any way, either physically or mentally. The same for anyone who wants you to use any kind of gadget (tight nosebands included) that restricts or shapes the head, neck or indeed any part of the horse’s body. Also anyone who spends most of your lesson on their cell phone or attending to issues outside of your lesson. These are not bad people they are just lacking in the knowledge and respect you need and deserve.
Instead look for a trainer who feels as if they seek to ‘enable’ both you and your horse. They should feel as if they have a sound knowledge base which they are ready to share, and that what they say makes sense to you and is always in the interest of the horse. As a lesson progresses your horse should feel easier, lighter and more willing, not stronger, heavier and exhausted, even if the lesson has been a tough one. Look elsewhere if by the end of a lesson your legs are dropping off, you have a face the colour of a tomato and biceps like Popeye.
Employ someone who understands how to, and is prepared to work tirelessly with you on improving your equitation at every step of the way. And last but not least, a person you feel has a genuine love and respect of all horses for their horse-ness not just their athletic ability…
It should NEVER feel forced, coercive or abusive in any way, no matter what anyone tries to convince you. If this is happening then that trainer has come to the end of their knowledge and subsequently, their ability to help you. Question it ALWAYS! On the flip side, wafting about still doing the same thing after months and months, still not being allowed to pick up the rein contact means that appropriate progress probably isn’t being made, which is no kinder to your horse really.
At the end of the day, trust in your instincts. You don’t have to be an advanced rider to now when things feel right in your soul. So go with your gut instinct and listen to your horse because he is relying on you.
Your Horse’s Natural Behaviour in Training
I frequently come across riders who are looking for answers relating to issues with their horse’s behaviour whilst ridden. One of the most common issues I find from early on, (Often from the words they use to describe their horse) is related to the their understanding of how the horse’s natural behaviours affect not only how we interact with him around the stable and paddock, but also how we train him in the arena.
The horse doesn’t cease to be a horse because you got on him in the school. He still possesses all the same instincts and responses, meaning that it’s important to understand how they affect him during training under saddle.
I always encourage riders to view some of these natural behaviours a little differently than previously, and in doing so, discover how they might sometimes be able to take advantage of them in training, rather than fearing them or feeling as if they must be conquered in some way.
Although challenging at times, It’s important to do your best to remain objective when training. Each time you find yourself using emotive words for your horse like ‘naughty’, or ‘Trying it on’ or you resort to any kind of name calling etc. You immediately take away your power to change anything. Those words might express how you feel but they do nothing to diagnose the actual problem and so in turn, help you to fix it.
Horses will always be horses!
Being both flight and prey animals, horses come with an extremely efficient set of hard-wired, reactive responses to their surroundings, all of which are designed for the sole purpose of staying alive. Nothing is more important to a horse or indeed any of us, than staying alive and so it’s little wonder that neither one of us are eager to give those protective responses up. But what do we do when these reactions in the horse seem to prevent us from achieving our goals? How do we deal with them? What do these responses have to do with schooling the horse in the arena?
Well the good news is that the first two concepts to grasp are simple, and they are that the horse’s fear is always legitimate to him, and we must respect that. The second is that fear causes tension and where tension is present, no positive training of the horse’s body or mind can occur.
You can’t help your horse with his fear if you refuse to acknowledge that it is important to him. ‘Oh stupid horse, what are you afraid of?’ At the same time, once the fear has been acknowledged for what it is, we leave it at that. We don’t spend time “joining in”. Instead we set about helping the horse to feel more secure through training better balance and symmetry, the two things that make the biggest difference to the horse’s sense of security whilst carrying a rider.
In our attempts to train the horse we often come across behaviours that seem to block our path to success. For this reason we tend to label them as undesirable. I often hear phrases like “He’s not listening to me”.
At which point the horse is usually showing a range of behaviours, from head-high with an external focus and a body in a degree of tension, to a horse who is point blank refusing to go into one corner or spooking and napping. It is at this critical moment that a shift in thinking is needed by the rider, because ‘what’ and’ how’ we are thinking will always determine our next action.
The horse is always hearing you, his response however, depends on what he is hearing. If this is negative and restrictive then you have just become another part of his problem. (The horse’s natural desire to stay alive will always trump your feeble attempts to wish it didn’t. lol) So now the horse is afraid of the external environment and the rider, who is now appearing to the horse as a possible hindrance to escape should that become necessary. So at this point, no, he probably isn’t ‘listening’ to you, but he can always ‘hear’ you up there.
The rider will often find at this point, that neither soothing or coercion does much to improve the immediate situation and even less for next time. (In fact, when you think about it, patting and soothing could even be interpreted by the horse as praise for his external focus) So what to do? Well firstly we change a statement to a question and ask ourselves. “why is my horse feeling the need to scan the external area for possible dangers?” And “what can I do to change that?” At this point when you examine the facts you will almost always see a relationship between the horse’s levels of imbalance, contraction and asymmetry and his level of undesirable behaviours. Sometimes this may take a more trained eye than your own, but it almost always exists, which is good news because this means it’s fixable.
Horses are not “Naughty” They are however, 100% reactive to their surroundings and always giving us valuable information about how they are feeling in any given moment.
So if we are truly looking for answers, then we must first ask questions, and then be prepared to listen and learn from the answers we receive. We must begin our training of the horse from a place where we understand and respect his natural behaviours. From here we can not only begin to view these responses in a new way, but also use them for our gain during training. Rather than immediately rejecting behaviours by riding in a defensive or restrictive manner, we can learn to blend with and reshape them. The psychologist Carl Jung once said that “What you resist persists” So if in training we find ourselves constantly battling the horse, or feeling that our focus is on ‘preventing’ things, then perhaps some of the resistance we are encountering is also coming from within ourselves, our thinking towards the horse and his motives. To be good trainers we must first be prepared to enter the training relationship with a total acceptance and respect of the horse’s innate behaviours. They may not always suit us, but only from this place of acceptance and understanding can we begin to learn about, and truly help the horse.