The Difference Between Training and Retraining a Horse

Lesson #1. Learning to Lead

Horse Training is the process of collecting good experiences. Let it be that simple. We start with something small and then add to it. It’s a simple, patient process we call successive approximation. Let’s say the horse is young, and we introduce them to new habits in short sessions. We begin slowly haltering and picking up one foot at a time. The hardest thing we do is not let ourselves get too enthusiastic and ask too much. Good trainers teach the horse that curiosity is confidence, and peace equals their safety. We offer each next step lightly, almost letting the horse lead us while we remain quiet and generous with praise. It’s like simple addition, just one step after the other.

Or it’s different. The young horse gets over-worked, over-corrected, and over-intimidated. The horse holds it together for however long they can because horses are not natural aggressors. Some horses are stoic enough to tolerate harsh training for years while others rebel from the start. Just as simple a method, but the answers are not reliable, the youngster has little confidence. Their eyes turn black with dread at the sight of a human.

But regardless of the training methods they were started with, those fundamental lessons, and the emotions the horse felt at that time, will remain deeply embedded in their brain. They remember the first time, just like we do. You could say their first experiences with humans form their worldview. It’s history, but remember, horses have excellent memory. Their first trainer never leaves them.

Hold on, I am getting to the point, but the thing you might notice now is that one voice is missing.

Maybe you have a horse that you purchased after the previous owners raved about his history. Or your horse might be a rescue horse that’s older, and you don’t trust the rescue actually knew his history. Maybe they’re a career change horse, previously a barrel horse or jumping horse and you are certain he’ll like his new life better than the old one. New horse, new life, we want to think. Nothing but good news.

But even if the horse had a fabulous start, understand that moving a horse to a new home is traumatic for the horse. You know change is hard, but now is a good time to truly understand how disorienting this experience can be. Imagine being kidnapped and airdropped into a strange place, like a huge parking complex at night, where you don’t know anyone. But now imagine that the mental tools you have are memory and emotion. Horses don’t have the problem-solving skills we do. Living in the present, they don’t plan a future. They can’t placate themselves by saying tomorrow will be better.

This is the moment where initial training matters the most. A confident, mentally balanced horse will still feel stress, but will be able to cope better. There will be an adjustment period where the two of you get acquainted and form a new language between you. Trust will build over time, and normal training continues.

Or maybe the horse that was perfect before you brought him home seems to change or unravel in small ways. Suddenly he’s not leading all that well, or he’s frantic when you canter. So, you try to patch up the weak spots, but it doesn’t help. Soon it feels like every training technique you’ve ever learned isn’t gonna work on this horse. Everything feels miserable, you have buyer’s remorse, but that is also totally normal. Now you remember this horse had a handful of owners before you and what that means to a horse finally sinks in. Meanwhile, your horse reads the anxiety in your body which you are not even considering hiding.

This is what they don’t tell you: Retraining a horse is a different process for the horse. We don’t have the advantage of newness that we have with youngsters. The horse may not need more training; he may need to recuperate from previous training. That means he needs a process of subtraction before we can begin the addition of new skills. He has to let go of the old training as a part of the process of beginning with you. You are his rebound relationship, and you know how that goes.

Retraining a horse has to go slower because the horse has to process what’s happening now and compare it to his memory of what usually happens in a similar situation. I hope you disappoint his expectations. I hope you are slow and affirmative, as if the new horse was still that precious foal. I hope you start from scratch because those patches won’t hold. Starting the horse all over again, with haltering, is actually the shortcut.

If you have a horse that was trained in a more fear-based method, it feels like that should be an easy transition to make. We think it’s good news and they should be pretty enthusiastic that we’re so kind. Grateful even. Meanwhile, the horse is concerned for his safety, like every other day of his life. Horses need time to balance those things out in their head. It’s nothing less than behavior modification.

You actually know how your horse feels. You hear railbirds in your head telling you what you do is wrong. Most of us have struggled to learn a better way, but in the process been frustrated with ourselves and lost in the process. We stared at our horse’s calming signals and saw their stress. Then we are in a big do-gooder hurry to fix it all as quickly as possible. With the best of intentions, we scare them. Intimidation can be done with hate and frustration, or with love and hope. If we’re honest, we have so much emotion about horses that we are like a searchlight, a little too bright.

Instead, go join the horse in that metaphorical parking complex at night. Acknowledge that it’s a little scary for both of you. Rather than scream and rush to save him, breathe into your anxiety, so your horse can do the same. Then settle in to rest together in the dark. You have more in common than either will admit, but in this uncertain moment, be worthy of trust. Let your horse know he is perfect in this dark place. He doesn’t need discipline, and he doesn’t need a savior. Domination, done with fear or love, is a stumbling block we can move beyond. Be his equal, no less or more. That’s what partnership means.

It was never about the horse’s shortcomings in training. For good reasons and bad, it was always about our impatience during the first training sessions down to this very moment. The secret of retraining is to not do it. Instead, offer what was truly missing, safety and security in his home. Then wait. Let the horse choose to follow you back, just like that first walk.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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17 thoughts on “The Difference Between Training and Retraining a Horse”

  1. Compassionate, insightful and awesome. Thank you for speaking your truth, which resonates with those of us for whom connection, not doing, reigns supreme.

  2. Love it, Anna, as usual! Every horse I have ever owned has come with baggage. Some haven’t had it too bad and are packed for overnight. Some have enough baggage for a world cruise. We can’t unpack for them, all we can do is breathe and give them the safety and security to unpack for themselves.

  3. I love this Anna, thank you! I adopted a horse from a rescue nearly 4 months ago. When he came to live here he didn’t think much of people, and it brings me so much joy to slowly but surely earn his trust. I’m certainly no trainer but we’ve made great progress and you are always sitting on my shoulder helping me forge our path.

  4. While I can understand from the human point of view why horses get moved from home to home, I have always thought it quite anxiety-inducing for the horse. Of course, I’m sure there are many instances where it was a blessing for the horse to have the change. Thank you, Anna, for teaching us that our job is to offer time and patience; at least I think that’s what you’ve been doing!

    • The nagging is working!! Yes, I think it is right for horses to change homes for many good reasons. We just have to take care of them while they do.

  5. I really took the blog to heart today, Anna. Steely and I are your living and breathing best example and a success story in the making. I have had the large leaps of trust with him that I have been waiting for for almost 6 years. It. Took. That. Long. Listening to you repeat over and over again that you can never go too slowly or take too long has completely changed the way I work with my horses. I can say thank you for showing me the way. Their gratitude shines in the way they cooperate with my requests softly and confidently, letting peace and partnership lead the way. Keep nagging. It’s working!!

    • No one cheers louder for you and Steely than I do… but I also need to add that he had a longer road back than most. You have done a fabulous job and not many would have had your patience. In the end, Steely is the big winner and that is the best news ever.

  6. Anna, I have been in the process of waiting for Ferd and Noche to move through their subtraction process for the past 5 years. Some days I see evidence of them building new skills, but they have done this on their own, it is nothing that I have trained. Do you think a horse can partner independently with a human and merely choose to accept the human’s offerings without formal training?

    • Do we know for sure that this situation with Ferd and Noche isn’t partly a response from formal training before coming to you? Yes, I think horses are capable of healing and moving forward without a structured path. I think you are doing just that, they learn constantly whether we think we are training or not. Allowing a horse time and space is training. I wish training was defined as learning coping skills for regulating and releasing stress. Not romantic or dramatic, but I wonder if that shouldn’t the more of a focus in grade school too.

  7. Thank you for such your insight about what horses go through, in a new home and through the years of “training” in their lives. Maybe it’s a cliche, but it underscores again that it’s not the goal, it’s the journey that is important. Slow is better, I just wish some friends would take the time necessary to just be with a nervous new horse instead of expecting them to be perfect and then sending their (insecure, jumpy) problem horse off to one after another trainer. Keep up the great work and thank you!

    • Thanks, Jinx. Your comment makes me smile… I agree. Not sure what the hurry is when any donkey will tell you going faster takes longer…

  8. I’m so grateful for the perspective you have shared, here and in other posts, about the impact a move has on a horse. The are brilliantly sensitive, but somehow the clarity of how an abduction (let’s be honest) impacts them had never dawned on me. Maybe dogs, ever adaptable or at least better at hiding it, set an unrealistic expectation? Anyway, thank you for this view.


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