The intent of this article is to offer you the reader the “Big Picture” view of how to go about becoming a responsible and competent partner to your equine friend. Effective horsemanship is much easier than it is portrayed by some when a little common sense and logic are applied to building a relationship with a horse.
Start by Training Yourself
Horse training tips abound in today’s information society, but the best tip I could ever give to someone who seeks direction is to first educate yourself.
Horses are a fairly simple creature, like most living things they just want to have their basic needs to be met and be comfortable. As soon as we add a human to the equation though things can quickly become complicated, especially if that human lacks the basic understanding of how to communicate effectively with a horse. So what are some key basic concepts that you need to understand to be effective and have a positive outcome each time you interact with your horse?
The importance of Body Language
The proper application of Pressure and Release or Timing
How to develop Body Control of your horse
The importance of Consistency
All of these concepts will be discussed in future articles in great detail, but I will hit the high points here to help drive home the point of how important it is for you as a human companion to your equine friend to learn and eventually master these concepts.
How Do Horses Learn ?
Like many people horses are visual learners. Of course, they have many other senses that provide them with feedback about their environment, the sense of smell, the ability to hear, the sense of touch and so on, but primarily when we are interacting with them they are keyed into our body and the information we are relaying to them through our posture.
This is where the concept of Body Language comes into play. There have been so many instances in my years as a clinician where I have been able to observe a problem between a person and their horse and immediately identify that the problem wasn’t with the horse at all but with the person. It is amazing how unaware that many people are of their body language and the message they may be inadvertently sending their horse. Often times just the excitement or underlying fear of being with a horse by the person can come across to the horse as being either assertive at the wrong time or even as being aggressive and as a result the horse becomes confused or loses trust.
Often times the horse is thought to be behaving badly when in reality the horse is simply responding to the inappropriate body language of the person handling them. So this may sound simple and of little value but before you ever pull your horse out of the stall or paddock take a deep breath or two and RELAX! Put yourself in the proper state of mind before approaching your horse.
When horses are tense they display signs indicating that, their muzzle tightens, they stand erect, ears might be pointed forward or laid all the way back and their eyes may be squinted. Ironically humans can mirror many of these same ques without realizing it and be telling the horse through their body language that they may have a good reason for concern.
Horses also display clear signs that they are relaxed. They may lower their head, cock or relax a hind leg, sigh and lick their lips. We can mimic similar signs that we are relaxed and comfortable as well, let our shoulders relax, cock a leg, become more fluid in our movement, etc. The main point here is become aware of your body language and understand its effect on your horse.
Why is this concept so key to training your horse? Because your body language can either help put your horse into a learning frame of mind or it can prevent it from ever getting there. No beneficial learning can occur if we don’t set up the right environment and this all starts with your body language and approach.
First Things First – Body Control
Despite the fact there is so much information out there about how to train your horse it still amazes me how many people don’t understand the importance of developing body control of the horse on the ground first. I have met and continue to meet horse enthusiasts that can barely lead their horse from point A to point B and yet they saddle up and get on and then get frustrated that they have little to no control of their horse. Unfortunately the horse often times bears the brunt of their frustration.
Frustration is the by-product of a lack of knowledge and patience. When we don’t know how to do something it is very easy to lose our patience and become frustrated, even mad. I would venture to guess that countless horse related injuries that occur each year are the result of a person becoming frustrated with their horse and painting the horse into a corner so to speak and well, we all know who’s gonna win that battle.
So, as a responsible and enlightened horse person educate yourself on how to develop body control in
your horse, first on the ground and then under saddle. Understand that a horse has two sides of its brain and you are essentially training both halves of your horse. What you teach your horse on one side will not automatically transfer to the other side. You must be able to move your horse backwards, forwards, to the right and left on the ground fluidly before you can expect your horse to do so under saddle. You must teach them to yield their head, neck, shoulders, rib cage and hindquarters. True collection isn’t even possible without first developing these yields and lateral flexion and softness on both sides of your horse.
As far as the concept of pressure and release (essentially timing) is concerned; as you begin to learn to control your body language as you train you will find that sweet spot between asking the horse to respond to your direction (assertive body language) and then acknowledging his try (passive body language). If you practice these principles religiously your timing will develop and become acute.
Again, all of these concepts will be covered in detail in future articles.
Consistency is Key!
As with anything in life consistency is key to success, when teaching a new phase or exercise to your horse think in terms of three. If you can put three lessons together your horse can grasp that new concept and advance on to the next step. For example, even if you work five days a week plan to train your horse three times over the weekend. You could do a morning session on Saturday, go back later that afternoon and have a second session covering the same things and then have a third session Sunday morning or afternoon. Sounds like a lot but if you are consistent you can work through a training program in a relatively short period and advance your horse and transform your horse/ human relationship!
Bring It All Together
Spend time thinking about these concepts, practice them and see the change in your horse and in yourself. Body language, developing body control, timing and consistency are fundamental principles in training a horse. It doesn’t matter how old your horse is or that you have been riding him for years, it’s never too late to go back and strengthen that foundation and develop a better more meaningful relationship with your horse.
Joe is a lifetime horseman and student of the horse. He spent years as a trainer and as a horsemanship clinician. He is also a real estate professional and a former contractor specializing in residential construction.