When To ?Push On??One of Horse Training?s Biggest Challenges

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My article in the upcoming February issue of the?Horse Journal?is called ?When To Stop and When To Push On,? a question that I think underlies every aspect of training horses. But don't look for a single, black-and-white answer to what to do if your horse is shying, rearing, bucking or refusing?because there isn?t one. It all depends?on the situation, the horse and the rider?s experience and ability.

Generally, though, the answer to most horse-training issues is to press on, to confidently ans positively address the issue, although not always in the same way.

I'm going to tell you about two real-life examples to illustrate my point.

The first is Boogie, a warmblood stallion who just turned 4. We started him in work last spring and are now preparing him to start his competition career. He's a real athlete?He's beautifully built in a compact, very balanced way, and dressage and jumping are easy for him. Wow, He's got tremendous scope and is just a natural jumper?I've been lucky enough to start numerous really good jumpers over fences, and He's certainly at the top of the list.

But Boogie is absolutely a teenage boy?He's in love with his own power, driven by the hormones coursing through his body, but deep down inside lives, I believe, that niggling anxiety all teenage, un-neutered male mammals contain: Am I big enough, strong enough, fast enough, tough enough, handsome enough' Riding him is walking a thin line between harnessing that power and stroking his ego. And I have to do that without letting my ego?my own male anxiety?get in the way.

I believe it's not going to do Boogie?s training any good for us to get in a male contest of strength. But I have to, every single day, remind him that I'm in command, that I'm his sergeant major, and that he must go and do what I tell him to do. ?No? is not an acceptable answer; he must always go forward and face whatever challenge confronts him head on, like a good soldier. And then I tell him what a brave little star he is.

Here's an example: A couple of weeks ago, I was riding him up the hill of our driveway, when we encountered a vulture sitting on the fence that borders the driveway, airing his wings in the morning sun. Since we were downhill from the bird, when it took wing, it had to come at us to gain airspeed. Boogie, naturally, thought the big bird was attacking him and spun around to gallop back down the driveway. I got him under control fairly easily, but now he walks up the driveway anticipating that that mean vulture is going to attack him again.

Last week he made his worry into a big deal, and we had an episode of rearing and spinning. I'll admit to being concerned for my safety as we plunged about the hillside driveway, but I worked very hard not to let my own anxiety ruin my response to Boogie?s anxiety and misbehavior. I dug my spurs into him, gave him several taps with the whip, and growled at him as I tried to send him up the hill, and then his owner, Roxanne, who was accompanying us on our stalwart schoolmaster Schultz, began to trot up the driveway. That got Boogie going forward in a calm, positive manner, solving the problem, at least for that day, and we continued on a lovely hack. I hope that the next time we try to walk up the driveway won?t be as exciting.

I could have just had a big fight with Boogie, two male egos arguing about who's stronger. But would that have accomplished anything' I would submit it would have just added to the horse's anxiety about going past the spot where the vulture attacked him. But?we did press on in a way that, I believe, will yield a positive training result.

Here's another example. We have in training a mare named Wallaby, whom we found in a field almost four years ago and then sold about nine months later to a young teenager. Wallaby and his rider returned to us for training about 18 months ago because they were having problems and no one seemed able to help.

Well, when we found Wallaby she had severe back and hip problems, we presume as a result of some kind of accident or fall. Regular chiropractic work eliminated her discomfort and stiffness and allowed us to build new strength in her back. Wallaby is a very expressive little mare, and her back was her basic problem again when she returned. We know that if she gets grumpy when you work her, sHe's telling us she needs to see the chiropractor.

SHe's an example of my point that, if your horse starts misbehaving (especially if it's a problem he hasn?t shown before), the first thing to check is his physical state. Stop and figure out what's wrong, before you just press blindly ahead.