It was back around the time the light bulb was invented. My Grandfather Horse was a lanky spooky colt, I was still biting my lip instead of breathing, and my mentor put a western saddle on her stallion and attached her tackle box and pole to go fishing, (but the same thing might happen if they were going out to check cattle.) As they headed down the dirt road, her stallion would quietly lift to a canter and then begin to skip. I didn’t know horses could skip but the woman was always doing something I didn’t understand, while I was trying to master the finer points of walking without jigging. Clearly, I was a rider with room to learn and a goal too nebulous to name. My horse agreed that, yes, I was a bit of a hot mess, all dreams and no skill. How does that come together? The bouncing red and white float buoy on her pole seemed to mock me. Oh heck, my horse did, too.
Let’s say you want train something special. It might be a dream of tempi changes: flying changes at the canter done every few strides until eventually the changes come every stride and your horse appears to be skipping. Maybe you are a novice rider who dreams of galloping in the surf at the beach and you live in Montana. Or a western rider who’s curious about jumping and eventually doing a three-day event in a bikini of a saddle.
Or most special, a timid rider who has come off her horse, or fears it could happen, but still wants to find a way to trust. Perhaps an experienced rider with an anxious rescue or a green youngster just started under-saddle who isn’t responding to the way you’ve always trained, leaving you feeling a bit high-centered on their tense back. Sometimes the goal is so sacred there isn’t a word that doesn’t sound trite so the dream sits at the back of your mouth and gags you when you see a horse in a pasture. Egads.
Out of desire and desperation, you listen to sales pitches from trainers offering an obedient horse in 30 days of training, or you scour tack stores for a gadget to make your horse stop tossing his head. Soon, you’ve tried a few trainers, you’ve become skeptical of pretty words, and you have a tack trunk full of bits, tie-downs, harsh halters and sticks called different things that all end up being whips. You’ve spent hours on YouTube and the techniques don’t work on your horse. By now you think your horse is very unique, but for all the wrong reasons. Maybe you can’t even remember what is supposed to be fun about horses.
It’s because the thing you want isn’t available to buy. The thing your horse wants isn’t even quantifiable. This is the very best place to be because you have gotten beyond the flashing lights and slimy salesmen hawking false promises for hard cash. You are beyond the first trial by fire and now you have a chance to help your horse.
Want to know the secret to training horses all of the advanced, simple, or nearly mystical party tricks? It isn’t magic at all; there are habits that are kind of simple and dull. And deceptively effective.
- Stop fighting.
- Reward every try.
You know this. It isn’t new information; it’s the same old list. It takes no athletic prowess or specially imported tack and it works on all ages and breeds. Why don’t we do it? Not a rhetorical question, why are we blind to our horse’s efforts? Why don’t we recognize their small anxieties and give them time? Why are we impatient with good horses on hard days, punishing their inconsistencies when we are barely aware of our own?
Because simple is not the same thing as easy. Because knowing a thing isn’t the same as doing it.
So often, we ask for a small task and perhaps the horse shifts his weight, or maybe you look at his face and it’s obvious that the horse is thinking. It’s like a child in the back of a classroom too shy to answer. We have all been that kid. And we have all been that horse struggling to find the confidence to take that step.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the entire future of your relationship with your horse hangs in the balance during this moment of hesitation as the horse tries to balance his confusion with his desire to please. Many calming signals happen at this precious intersection of emotions. This is the instant we train patience or fear. Can we finally understand that the big dreams take seed in small moments?
That foundation of training is built brick by brick and if the beginning tasks aren’t solid, what comes later will not sustain either of you. All future work is begun in foundational work. The beginning work is the same for an upper-level competitor or a rescue horse, a high-dollar imported horse or the one in your barn. No horses come by trust and confidence easier than others. We must prove we are worthy of trust.
Communication with horses should never to be taken for granted; they are always wild in their hearts, fearful of predators, and yet they try for us. How do we allow ourselves to become complacent about their desire to work with us when we still burst into tears when we see a beautiful horse galloping?
Training is as simple as we let it be. Successive approximation is the ability to cut a large task into small doable parts, asking for each segment with patience and then rewarding every try. We don’t get everything at first, but it isn’t fair to ask for finished perfection if we haven’t cheered bumbling attempts. Successive approximation works with people and horses, it is that simple, but only if we are able to inspire a spark of curiosity, and then let the effort be perfect. Start with yourself. Cheer your own bumble.
The horse’s response is subtle at first. We don’t always notice because we are dreaming of tempi changes or 1.6-meter jumps or trust without practice. How can we stay in the present, be gobsmacked with wonder, and alive to our horse’s experience rather than lost in doubt and perceived limitations? It takes energy and focus and years of time. Where is that inner horse-crazy girl when we need her?
We aren’t doing tricks. We’re creating serious habits of communication, tendencies to try, and the ability to see huge success in small actions in both partners. Over time, horses become confident. Confident horses can do anything.
We don’t train good horses, we grow them from scratch. Champions all.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.