Learn As You Go

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My first horseback ride was at six months of age, and horses have been a constant in my life since then. During my teen years, it was common for a rider to do hunters, jumpers, dressage and combined training all at the same time, all on one horse — possibly even all at one show.

Like most teens, I was pretty impressed with myself, that is until I worked with Thoroughbred sales yearlings in Kentucky during summer breaks from college. That’s where I accepted the facts that 1) not all horses are sweet and 2) I didn’t know that much. Since then, I’ve met a number of Olympic-level riders and trainers in different disciplines and found out how much more there is to learn. Ironically, it seems that the more accomplished the person is, the more likely they are to say they don’t know it all. I certainly don’t, but I have learned a few key points:

1) Horses need strong foundations. Good trainers work from the ground up. A horse that won’t behave on a lead isn’t truly trained under saddle either. Along the same line, if you don’t take the time to train your horse to have a good walk, you’ll never produce the trot you’re looking for either. And so on.

2) All horses should be able to go in a snaffle. There’s nothing you can do with any other piece of training equipment that you shouldn’t be able to do in a plain snaffle. There’s a catch, though: You have to be a rider capable of doing so. If not, you need lessons.

3) You can’t make a horse do something. We’re not stronger than our horses, but we are supposed to be more intelligent. You can’t make a horse stand still, not spook or not buck, but you can outsmart him. If he won’t stand, ask him to do something he will do, like back up or turn on the forehand, then go back to the stand. Repeatedly. He’ll figure out that standing isn’t so bad. If you know your horse is going to spook at the noisy tractor, don’t simply brace for the impact. Give the horse something to do — lateral work, tight serpentines — and take his mind off the threat.

I’m sure you’ve picked up good advice over the years, too. We’d like you to share it with us. Remember, we’re all learning and trying to achieve the same thing.

-Cynthia Foley