Want to know the smallest thing you could change in training for the biggest improvement? I usually say doing a logical, effective warm-up, but it’s more specific because that smallest thing happens before the warm-up, thru the warm-up, and until the halter comes off at the end.
Have you ever noticed that the first of anything you ask from your horse is never the best? The first steps of leading and the first bit of groundwork are usually a bit sticky. The first transitions are never the most fluid. We all know the first canter depart is the worst. And not just for your horse. Things are hardly ever perfect the first time for either of you.
Let’s say you’re in a hurry, so you rush a halter on your horse and pull him in to tack up. Clean his hooves quickly, throw the saddle on, and drag him to the arena. You want as much time in the saddle as possible. You swing that rope to hurry him along the whole way and when you get to the mounting block, he stops one step too far. You pull the reins to back him up. It hurts his mouth, so he backs up three steps. You pull him forward, metal on bone, he hesitates, so you ask louder. He gets nervous and swings his butt wide. Now you’re frustrated, so you walk him in a circle of dread and he overshoots again, just too much anxiety to stand still now. But you need to end on a good note, so you repeat it a few more times, each with a circle of dread but none quite good enough.
Stop. You’ve just corrected your horse a dozen times before even mounting. Not to mention, he has a good start on a fussy habit at the mounting block and he will never understand how you tell time.
But this is the real question: What is gained by both of you getting cranky? Are we dominating just to be right? Most of all, what kind of ride are the two of you set up for?
Here’s a radical idea: ignore the first tries. Just don’t care. See the thing you are asking for not as an action to be judged and corrected, but rather a throw-away question, just a conversation starter. Get past the first try because the good stuff happens after that. But if we start with a fight, we will never know that.
Think for a moment about how you converse with your horse. Haltering is the time that the conversation begins, when calming signals can inform us, and if we are too single-minded about clocks, we don’t listen well.
Say you hold the halter under his muzzle and he looks away. It’s a calming signal, he needs a moment and in a few seconds, his head comes back and he drops his nose in. He gets a scratch and he is certainly smart enough to know you have come to get him. You inhale, maybe give a verbal cue or a cluck. He hesitates, maybe shifts a bit of weight, but doesn’t walk on. He might be braced wondering if he will get wacked by the lead rope, but instead you say good boy, just to remind him who he is, and as you take a step he comes with you, side by side. Horses respect us just about as much as we respect them.
Then you groom the way he likes; you’re careful with his hooves, use a curry but no brush, and leave his face alone. Slow with the girth and off to the arena, practicing walk/halt transitions on the way. The conversation is responsive now. At the mounting block, he halts and stops square, just about six inches from where you need him. Good boy, and you move the mounting block and get in the saddle without correction because it’s good enough. Over time, he’ll stop in the just-right spot by habit.
When you begin the warm-up, walk on a long rein. No corrections, just walk. That means you aren’t ruled by the rail, you just say yes, happy with his first few sticky strides. Give him time to adjust to your weight on his back. Distract yourself by noticing how your shirt wrinkles at your waist, if your sit bones are soft, your legs long, and can your ankles dangle a bit. Take a breath and realign your spine, feel your shoulders level and your ribs equally spaced. Give a big exhale and release your jaw. Did your horse lengthen his neck, are his strides longer, did he give a little blow? Let it feel good. What is it about a walk that always feels like being held and rocked?
Your horse is feeling safe, accepted, warming to the flow of his body with you on him. He’s finding balance and each stride gets more blurred as the line between horse and rider fades. At this point, training is as easy as an idea and a breath. Literally. Use successive approximation, reward behaviors that are close to what you asked for; he’s getting warmer. Take all the time because you’re right where you want to be.
This is what you miss if you nitpick every stray imperfection. But isn’t that what we were taught to do? Not just to demand perfection from our horses but also from ourselves. Taught to call out every shortcoming with a relentlessly critical eye and then hold a grudge toward the horse and ourselves. Snap out of it. Nothing good comes of all that name-calling.
Being with horses is about creating tendencies of behavior over time. Training should be a quiet and kind give-and-take conversation. Problems die when starved of attention. Ignore what you don’t want, ask a better question next time, be consistent and affirmative. The tendency grows into a reliable habit. Young horses become partners instead of prey and grow in confidence, offering more than asked. Old campaigners worm their way deep in our hearts because they carried us to a place of peace. It might have taken years, but we gave up fighting.
When we get our next horse, they’ll be confused and disoriented when they arrive. Things don’t start well because we forget how it was in the beginning with the last horse. Trust that time is on your side, trust that one moment prepares for the next. Then let the conversation begin. It will all work out, just not today.
The smallest change for the biggest result is to not be baited by that first answer. To not get so envious of perfection that we miss the quirkiness and individuality of our good horses. Training horses is about humans valuing communication and acknowledgment more than criticism.
You are not looking for perfection. Horses don’t understand that concept. Horses live in an imperfect environment, always on guard for something dangerous. Disappoint them. Be their safe place.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.