"Clinton, can you settle an argument for me? My friend says schooling in the arena is the best way to teach a horse to be calm and willing, and I say going out on the trail is the best way. Which of us is right?"
The answer, actually, is both--and then some. I'll explain what I mean using my mare Mindy as an example. During my tours around the country, whenever I circle the arena to demonstrate her slow, easy, collected lope--on a loose rein--people always want to know how I taught her to lope in such a relaxed way.
In fact, with everything Mindy does, she tries to conserve her energy. Why? Because I've put a lot of miles under her feet. If I start riding Mindy at 7 a.m., she has no idea if I'm going to get off her at 7:15 a.m. or 7:15 p.m.--so she always hedges her bet and assumes it'll be p.m.
Mindy's everything you want in a horse. She's quiet and easygoing, yet dynamic and responsive when I need her to be--as when we do flying changes every other stride. She's supple and athletic, has a great work ethic, and I know I can always count on her. How did she get this way?
A Broke Horse
Yes, Mindy's well bred and has a wonderful temperament. But, even more important, she's also extremely well broke. That's because of a key formula Gordon McKinlay, one of the great horsemen I apprenticed under in Australia, taught me years ago.
"Clinton," he said, "to get a truly broke horse takes three things: long rides, wet saddle blankets, and concentrated training--and you have to have equal doses of all three."
The part about having all three in roughly equal measures is what many people miss. A lot of ranch horses get long rides--from sunup to sundown, even, but they're stiff as a board in their face and body.
Plenty of show horses are soft and supple from all the concentrated training they get, but try taking one out on the trail... he's likely to spook at everything.
And racehorses always come back with wet saddle blankets, but try to do something with them besides gallop, and you'll see straight away what's missing in their training.
So, it takes all three parts of the training regimen, each with the proper emphasis, in order for the formula to work best.
I'll explain each of the three in turn.
What I mean by a long ride is one where you put some miles under your horse's feet at all three gaits--walk, trot, and lope. You won't accomplish much in terms of training, no matter how long the ride, if you just amble down the trail at a walk.
Ideally, take these long rides once a week, or at least every other week. Go with another rider if you can, for safety's sake. The ride should last two to four hours.
The best approach is to take your horse out on a long dirt road. Trot him for three to four miles, then lope him for three to four miles, and so on, incorporating walk breaks as need be. (Obviously, if your horse is out of condition, build up to this much work gradually over time.)
You'll be amazed how much more your horse remembers when he's been ridden enough to get a little tired. I'm not saying to exhaust him; just put enough mileage on him to give him a reason to want to go slowly. It really works.
'Wet Saddle Blankets'
Contrary to its name, this part of the formula is not just about sweat. You can bring your horse back to the barn tired and sweaty every single day, but if all you've done is gallop flat-out around the pasture, you actually won't have taught him much.
To get your saddle blankets wet the right way, spend time at all three gaits, really moving your horse's feet in all directions. When you're out covering country, you'll have plenty of space for training on the trail. When you're riding at home, make it somewhere with a lot of room, such as on a track if you have one available, or in a big, open field. I have a nice covered arena, but I use it mainly when the weather forces me to. I prefer to ride where I have a lot of room to move my horse's feet.
Don't spend too much time at any one gait--do a lot of transitions as you ride. Trot a bit, then stop and sidepass to one side, then lope off. Make circles and serpentines, so your horse is bending and changing directions.
"Oil all the hinges," as it were, by moving his feet forward, back, left, and right. For best results, mix it up and keep it interesting for you both.
You'll be amazed at how this kind of riding will help your horse become quiet and responsive.
This part of the formula is what I teach people in my clinics: how to get your horse soft, supple, and relaxed; moving off your leg pressure; and collected--that is, moving with a shortened frame and carrying more of his weight on his hind end, while staying light in the bridle.
Concentrated training is typically what you do in an arena, to teach your horse something new, while reinforcing and refining what he already knows.
Gordon always told me that this type of training could also be done out of an arena, however. And doing so whenever you can helps a horse avoid becoming bored and ring sour. You can make concentrated training part of what you do as you're on your long ride, or part of your wet-saddle-blanket sessions.
It's OK if there's overlap, as long as you routinely include all three parts of the formula, while providing your horse with a reasonable degree of consistency in his training.
If you do, over a sustained period of time, you'll have a truly soft, supple, respectful horse you can ride in or out of an arena and know you'll always have a safe, dependable partner.
This article is adapted with permission from Clinton's book Lessons Well Learned: Why My Method Works for Any Horse, and appeared in the May 2010 issue of Horse & Rider.