If you’re new to horses and riding, the idea of actually training a horse could seem rather intimidating. Horses are big, have minds of their own, and can occasionally seem very unpredictable. However, if you’re inclined to take the time to learn about how horses think and behave, you can train your horse through many issues in a way that’s safe for you and the horse. The one warning that I will give here is that there are some behavioral issues that take experience and skill to work through, but the only way to get that experience is to start slow, begin working through things and constantly know about your horse and what he’s telling you.
Begin by Watching
If you are new to horse training, the first step is to start watching horses in the field and as others are working with them. Learning to recognize and translate the horse’s body language is the number one part of being successful at training and, more importantly, keeping yourself safe. You need to know when the horse isn’t paying attention and needs a wake-up, or when the horse has been pushed to hard and is starting to become defensive by preparing to bite or kick. Is the horse defiant and aggressive, or is he just scared? I can’t say it enough? Reading the horse is the trick to training and the secret to not getting hurt in the process of training. You cannot learn to read a horse by looking at pictures or reading books, you must go out and observe real horses and be aware of what they’re doing and feeling. You have to get in the head of the horse. This is a skill that requires a lifetime to master, but start now and you may be surprised how quickly you will begin picking things up.
Basics of Training
You can train with positive reinforcement, so the horse is working towards a reward. Or you could train with negative reinforcement, so the horse is working to avoid something. That is where having a relationship and a connection with the horse you’re training will make the training easier and more successful. A relationship can mean simply that the horse trusts you because you act consistently and the horse could see you as a companion, not someone to be feared.
Horses learn to react to cues, just like dogs and even people. By way of example, most riders, when they want the horse to move forward, squeeze with their lower legs. The cue itself really doesn’t matter, so long as it’s consistent. Most horsemen use some type of pressure, whether physical or non-physical. So you apply the cue, the horse starts to move to find the ideal answer to get rid of the pressure. When he finds the right answer, we release the pressure and give him a reward, which can be patting and praise or a food reward if appropriate. For example, we stage the lead rope and the horses towards the trailer and tap him on the hindquarters with a rod, these are two cues requesting him to move forward. He might fidget side to side, or move backwards, but will eventually take a step forward. This is the answer we wanted so we immediately drop the pressure and praise him. You should also give the horse a break period, even if its short, after he gets a tricky training concept, to further establish the behavior.
The sort of training that you wish to recognize and stay away from is where the horse is solely motivated to behave a certain way to prevent pain. This might be that he goes ahead quickly because he knows he’ll get spurs in his side or a whip if he does not. While difficult to discern, horses which have been trained solely through pain may behave nicely but they are mentally shut down and exhibit little character, fascination, or affection. You want your horse to enjoy training, as the family dog jumps to his feet once the leash is pulled out.
Behaviors will not happen perfectly the first time. Training a horse to behave a certain way or to perform a particular movement takes the actions must be shaped until it is performed just as you need it. By way of example, when training a horse to execute a flying lead change, the rider commonly starts with asking the horse to perform a simple lead change with maybe 10 steps of trotting. This is at first rewarded, and over time the trainer gets more specific, asking for fewer and fewer trot steps until eventually the horse just performs a flying change without the further steps. Obviously there are a few 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 might be correcting a horse that is pushy on the floor. The first step is to begin asking the horse to move his shoulders away. When the horse moves his shoulders away from the coach, he is rewarded. After several repetitions, the trainer will ask the horse to move from only pressure with the lead rope. If the horse is asked to move away with body language only the first time, he is not likely to respond, but after the constant increases in stress, he learns what behavior is expected, learns the way to do it more correctly and so learns economically without undue stress.
Is your Horse in the Right State of Mind for Coaching?
For training to work, the horse has to be in a good state of mind. If he’s scared or distressed, the training will not go very far. The best training takes place when the horse is calm, content, and curious. When 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, such as a whip or stick, then back off and spend some time desensitizing before the horse is more relaxed . If the diversion is something else (perhaps another horse is running in a field close by) then look 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 your horse can perform. If something that you did scared the horse, or when he’s becoming frustrated with the training, then stop and spend some time rubbing him or walking leisurely until he relaxes and you can go back to the training, beginning with another simple exercises using plenty of rewards to produce the session enjoyable again. Do not waste your time working with a horse that is extremely stressed or excited. The horse will not be able to concentrate on your training, and you are sure to get frustrated.
The same concept applies to you as well – if you’re frustrated after a day at work, or simply feel yourself losing patience with your horse – stop! It’s better to pick up the training again on a different day then to push beyond your own mental limits and possibly do something you will later regret and that will set back your training.