Training Horses Takes Time

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Experienced horsemen will often tell you that there are no shortcuts in training horses. They'll tell you that if you're in a rush to accomplish something, horses will, sooner or later, show you why you can't hurry with their training.

Horses are intelligent but sensitive and not terribly logical animals. It takes thoughtful, clear and firm, and consistent riding to train them to do whatever it is you want to do, and that work has to be even more thoughtful, clear, firm and consistent if you're retraining a horse who has a training issue of some kind.

I find that riders often forget?or never understand?how important fitness and strength are for a horse. And those take months and years to develop. Horses don't suddenly become ?fit? for their job.

People who ride are often have no athletic background themselves, and so they can't comprehend that a horse lacking muscle tone or suppleness simply can't jump, or do dressage, or go on a three-hour trail ride. So they wonder why their horse becomes anxious or disobedient. He's trying to tell you he can't do it!

I'm going to offer as evidence that training horses takes time the performance of my two mares, Alba and Amani, last weekend at the Twin Rivers Fall Horse Trials in Paso Robles, Calif. Alba (whose show name is Firebolt) is a 10-year-old, appendix Quarter Horse mare whom I've been training for four years month, and Amani (Phoenix Amani) is a 5-year-old, Thoroughbred-cross mare whom we bred and foaled and started in basic work when she was 2. Alba finished fourth in open preliminary, and Amani finished third in training horse.

Alba was initially very much a retraining project. She was brought here for us to sell, having done nothing but barrel racing. Her former owner considered her ?crazy,? and after paying us for one month's consignment board, we never heard from him again. After 90 days of non-payment, Alba became legally ours.

She had a cute attractiveness to her and was a correct mover, but nothing about her suggested what a bold and clever jumper she would turn out to be, especially since she stood only 15.2 hands. She stormed through the first three levels of eventing (beginner novice, novice and training) in her first year of competition, and I moved her up to preliminary much faster than I usually do because the lower jumps weren?t backing her off. But my wife, Heather, and I guessed then that preliminary was going to be her ?training? level, and we were right.

Alba is now completing her third year at preliminary level. SHe's started 18 preliminary events, 14 with no jumping faults on cross-country, including her last seven starts in a row. In two of those last seven, we finished with no time faults too, and last weekend at Twin Rivers we finished just 6 seconds slow, the fourth-fastest time in the 18-horse division.

Cross-country has always been her best phase, but We've had bumps in the road along the way. By the spring of 2011, Alba?s natural boldness had been tempered by experience?meaning that she now knew enough that just leaping without listening could result in a surprise in early combinations?but she was always too excited early in the course to listen to me tell her about the combination ahead. So we had three events in which she ran out at banks or ditches in combinations early in the course because she jumped in too fast and too boldly and got surprised.

Dressage and show jumping have been much more challenging, because they require relaxed confidence. Barrel racing was clearly a nightmare for Alba, and going into a ring for both these phases has always evoked her barrel-racing memories. So, until these last few months, she?d become like sitting on a box of dynamite, especially in show jumping. At times, all I could do was steer her toward the next jump and hang on, so we often left the ring with a lot of lumber on the ground.

My work with Alba has been a lot of exercises on the flat and over fences to develop her confidence in me and my aids, to develop her confidence in her ability to answer those aids, and to develop her physical ability to easily answer the demands of competition. SHe's now had four relatively relaxed and nicely obedient show jumping rounds in a row, in which she willingly allowed me to ride her to the jumps. At Twin Rivers we almost jumped clean (for the first time at preliminary), until I tried to be too careful to the final double combination and caused her catch one rail with a front foot.

I was so proud of her after her round and as we stood in the awards ceremony with our fourth-placed ribbon. My little Quarter Horse, who sometimes acted like a wild woman, finally felt like an experienced competitor. And I was proud that I'd stuck with her, that we'd worked through the rough patches together. Overcoming her anxiety, and channeling her oversized desire to do any job right, has been a fascinating horse-training challenge, and it's been fun to see the quiet confidence that her development as an athlete has given her. She is the ?queen of Phoenix Farm.?

Now we're about to embark on our next challenge?moving up to intermediate level. I've long wondered if that would be possible, but in the last few months sHe's shown me that she does, indeed, have the scope and, now, the experience. We?ll do one more preliminary event this fall (at Ram Tap in October), and next spring we'll give intermediate our best shot.

Amani hasn?t been a re-training project, because everything she knows, I've taught her. So, whatever weaknesses she has, I have no one to blame but myself!? She too has provided challenges, primarily because she is very much a princess, and she likes to do things her way. Fortunately, sHe's an incredibly talented princess, and it's been fun watching and feeling her grow physically and mentally. A year ago at this time, she absolutely looked like a baby and went like a green horse, like a horse trying to figure things out. Now, she looks like a mature woman and rides like a horse who's got the game figured out. (SHe's now done four training-level events and jumped clear on cross-country in all of them, with two completely clear show jumping rounds. And last weekend she got a stellar dressage score of 29.1)

I'm aiming Amani for the training-level three-day event at the Galway Downs International Three-Day Event in early November, so I'm sure that I'll write more about how I've developed her in the next few months.