Training ~ The Training Process
We have made so much progress with technology in the last 200 years, computerized coffee makers, space travel, this Internet thing, etc. But, I can say without a doubt that we dont train horses much better than we did 200 years ago. On the contrary, we probably do a poorer job than our ancestors, simply because we dont rely on the horse as a mode of transportation. Xenophon wrote the first known information on horse training over 2000 years ago. His work The Art of Horsemanship stands as sound as it was the day he wrote it in 322 BC.
We dont want to give the impression that Xenophon had everything figured out. His primary focus was to establish sound training principles for the war horse. But, he was on the right track. So many people want to make "pets" out of their horses and be their best friends. Horses can be companions but they arent pets like a cat or dog. They are large animals that are likely to hurt you if youre not careful. One of the biggest mistakes we see people doing is treating their horse like its a dog DONT DO IT! Petting and scratching a horse are a good thing. Letting them use you as a scratching post is not. Know the difference, because this carries over to their relationship with you and how they see you in the herd pecking order.
Ok, on to some useful information
We start working with our horses when they are very young. Young horses dont have much of an attention span, 20-30 minutes of training is about all that they can handle at first. Older horses can handle more time, but they sometimes take longer to teach. Its not that they are set in their ways and cant be taught, they can learn new things. They have been conditioned to respond to stimulus in a certain way, some good/some bad. Depending on how the initial training was established, thats where your work comes in to play. If you know the history of the training on the horse, you can use this information to your advantage. If you ask just about any trainer, theyll tell you the same thing "older horses with a lot of "baggage" (bad training), take a lot of time bring back. Dont put a time limit on your training. This stuff takes as long as it takes, be prepared to commit three hours to work on a shoulder yield. It may only take you 10 minutes, just be ready to put the time in.
The most important thing to remember is that groundwork isnt something you do with just a colt. This is a lifetime deal. Although its most important to build the foundation with proper groundwork, you should be refining these things throughout your relationship with the horse you can always make it just a little more responsive or work on softness. These are the things that we think are important to address as part of a good ground breaking program:
All of these are important in order to have what we would consider a "ground broke" horse. This is a horse that respects you and your space, knows how to move his feet, will adjust to your body language and posture, understands reward, approach & retreat, has your trust, and has been exposed to many different situations. The two most important building blocks in this process are Yielding and Ground Manners.
We like to start by asking a horse to back up (yield) with a feel from the rope. Once we get this going well, we ask for the horse to come off pressure and yield forward towards us. This gets us a couple of things: the horse understands how to move off of a feel and how to move his feet, which are very important concepts.
We then move on to the shoulder yield, eye yield, and hindquarters yield. Of all of these, the eye yield is probably the most difficult. The horse is probably not going to believe that he really needs to move (yield) to you at first. You might have to get real active with your body and posture (get BIG!) in order to reinforce your status as the leader. This is where you need to take your wimp hat off and move your horse with authority. We dont mean that you beat your horse until he moves. Ask for the yield, if the horse will not comply then you need to be prepared to go up a notch on the intensity scale. You want to do as little as possible, but as much as it takes.
One of the most important things to us is getting the horse out of the "adrenaline zone". When the horse carries its head up high and erect hes into the nervous fear and anxiety mode where hes ready to flee, we will ask for the horse to yield at the poll and lower its head. This is a good place for the horse to be, in the pasture this is the posture where they eat and groom. This is a good posture to reinforce, use it to your advantage in training. We cant over emphasize the importance of this simple task. You can teach your horse to carry its posture in a relaxed mode rather than up high, ready to flee. We ask for this yield and reward the horse for staying in this posture. It's great to be able to ask your horse to be calm on command.
We will not tolerate a horse that does not respect our space. We get this working right up front from the first time that we handle the horse. Every time we go to a horse show we see people getting pushed around or stepped on by their horses. This is not acceptable behavior; they either dont realize its happening or dont know what to do about it. Ground manners are so important because they carry over to the horses respect of you as the leader and your personal space. Dont let the horse take advantage of you and your status as the "lead mare", he would never consider pushing around or stepping on her.
When we have the yields working on the ground, we work on bending the horse. Again, this is something that you do for the lifetime of the horse. You cant bend them enough. A soft flexible horse is the ideal that you are working for.
At the same time, we are working on leading the horse and how to react to our posture. Ask the horse to move off of pressure from the lead rope. Release immediately when the horse gives and reward. Ask the horse to stop, you may have to get your body posture real big to emphasize the stop transition.
Rest is important too. We like to give the horse time to think about what happened while we were working. As a rule of thumb, we like to split the time about 50/50 between training and "thinking" during the groundbreaking process. When the horse has done what we ask, we will let him stand in a relaxed posture and think about what we just did while we are rewarding this behavior.
The ability to longe correctly is incredibly essential. Longeing is not about exercising your horse. Longeing is used to teach a horse direction, posture, how to yield, how to move their feet, and move off pressure. This is the basis for ground driving, round penning, and trailer loading if you dont have this down then you arent going to be as successful as if you had worked these things out.
We then move on to ground driving, the round pen, lateral movement, horse games/tools, and trailer loading. We like to mix this stuff up so that the horse doesnt get bored but is exposed to as many different situations as possible. We believe in getting all of these things solid on the ground before we would ever consider getting in the saddle. And, this is just common sense, don't get on a horse that isn't physically able to bear weight.
You dont have to do things in this order. Horse training is an art, not a science. This is what works successfully for us in our situation most of the time. You have to be flexible, find what works for you and experiment. If there were an outline or process that worked every time with every horse, someone would be selling it and you wouldnt be reading this. Dont avoid doing things because youre afraid of making mistakes, both you and the horse can learn from mistakes. Recognize your abilities and dont do things that make you uncomfortable. Safety is the number one issue!
There is some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and dont attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. This information is intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques, you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you dont feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, dont do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional horse trainer. Stay on the "high side of trouble".
Natural Horse Supply Training Information, (c) 1999 Natural Horse Supply. All rights reserved. Duplication of any material prohibited without express written permission. This prohibition is not intended to extend to personal non-commercial use, including sharing with others for safety and learning purposes, provided this copyright notice is attached and you have written permission. E-mail to submit comments or request reproduction permission.
Last updated: July 17, 2003