If you are new to horses and riding, the idea of actually training a horse could seem rather intimidating. Horses are large, have minds of their own, and can occasionally seem very unpredictable. However, if you’re willing to spend some opportunity to find out about how horses think and behave, you can train your horse through many issues in a way that is safe for you and the horse. The one warning that I will give here is that there are a number of behavioral issues that take experience and ability to work through, but the only way to get that experience is to start slow, begin working through things and always know about your horse and what he’s telling you.
Start By Watching
If you are new to horse training, step one is to start watching horses in the field and as others are working together. Learning to recognize and interpret the horse’s body language is your number one part of being successful at training and, more importantly, keeping yourself safe. You will need to know when the horse is not paying attention and requires a wake-up, or when the horse has been pushed to hard and is beginning to become defensive by preparing to bite or kick. I can’t say it enough? Studying the horse is the trick to training and the secret to not getting hurt in the process of instruction. You cannot learn to read a horse by looking at pictures or reading books, you have to go out and watch real horses and be aware of what they are doing and feeling. You have to get in the mind of the horse. This is a skill that requires a lifetime to master, but start now and you may be amazed how quickly you will begin picking things up.
Basics of Training
There are two ways to train, and this applies not only to horses, but to ourselves as well. Or you could train with negative reinforcement, so that the horse is working to avoid something. Most good horse training involves a combination of both. Food may be used for positive reinforcement, but for horses, rest, comfort, and safety can be positive reinforcers as well. That is where having a connection and a connection with the horse you are training will make the training easier and more successful. A connection may mean simply that the horse trusts you because you behave consistently and the horse can see you as a companion, not someone to be feared.
Horses learn to respond to cues, just like dogs and even people. For instance, most riders, when they want the horse to move forward, squeeze with their lower legs. This is a cue, the trained horse will react by moving forward. The cue itself really doesn’t matter, as long as it is consistent. So you apply the cue, the horse begins to move to get the ideal answer to eliminate the pressure. When he finds the right answer, we release the pressure and give him a reward, which is patting and praise or a food reward if appropriate. For instance, we point the lead rope and the horses towards the trailer and tap him on the hindquarters with a rod, these are just two cues asking him to move forward. He might fidget side to side, or move backwards, but will eventually take a step forward. You also need to give the horse a rest period, even if its short, after he has a difficult training concept, to further establish the behaviour.
The kind of training that you wish to recognize and stay away from is where the horse is solely motivated to behave a certain way to avoid pain. This might be that he goes forward quickly because he knows he’ll get spurs in his side along with a whip if he doesn’t. While difficult to discern, horses which have been trained solely through pain may behave well but they are mentally shut down and display little character, curiosity, or affection. You want your horse to enjoy training, as the family dog jumps to his feet when the leash is pulled out.
Behaviors won’t happen perfectly the first time. Training a horse to act a certain way or to perform a specific movement takes the actions has to be shaped until it’s performed just as you want it. By way of example, when training a horse to perform a flying lead change, the rider commonly starts with asking the horse to carry out a simple lead change with maybe 10 steps of trotting. This is at first rewarded, and over time the coach becomes more specific, asking for fewer and fewer trot measures until finally the horse just performs a flying change without the further steps. Obviously there are a couple of different skills that the horse has mastered to execute this flying change, but the basic principle is the same, the coach shapes the motion to his liking. Another example could be correcting a horse that is pushy on the floor. The first step is to start asking the horse to move his shoulders away. When the horse moves his shoulders away from the coach, he’s rewarded. After several repetitions, the trainer will ask the horse to move from only pressure with the lead rope. Finally, the trainer will ask the horse to move by simply applying the strain through body language and the horse moves. If the horse is asked to move away with body language only the first time, he’s unlikely to reply, but following the constant increases in stress, he learns what behavior is expected, learns how to do it more accurately and so learns economically without undue stress.
Is your Horse in the Perfect State of Mind for Coaching?
For training to work, the horse has to be in a good frame of mind. If he is frightened or distressed, the training won’t go very far. The ideal training takes place when the horse is calm, content, and curious. After the horse comes from this state, the trainer should find a way to redirect and refocus his attention. If the horse becomes fearful due to a training object, like a whip or stick, then back off and spend some time desensitizing before the horse is more relaxed . If the diversion is something else (maybe another horse is running in a field close by) then search for a way to get the horses attention back on you. You could keep your horse going, or ask for simple exercises that you are confident that your horse can perform. If something that you did scared the horse, or when he’s getting frustrated with all the training, then stop and spend some time rubbing him or walking until he relaxes and you can go back to the training, starting with another basic exercises using loads of rewards to make the session fun again. Don’t waste your time working with a horse that’s extremely excited or stressed. The horse will not be able to focus on your training, and you’re sure to get frustrated.
This same concept applies to you as well – if you are frustrated after a day at work, or just feel yourself losing patience with your horse – stop! It is better to pick up the training again on another day then to push past your own mental limits and possibly do something that you will later regret and that will set back your training.