Training horses is not supposed to be mortal combat. We’re supposed to be using our much bigger brains to make learning seem doable and non-threatening to our equine partners.
Knowing exactly how to do that, however, isn’t always obvious. In fact, I’ve spent the last 25 years figuring it all out. In particular, I’ve analyzed the basic philosophy of Tom and Bill Dorrance (making the right thing easy, the wrong thing difficult) to see how it applies to day-to-day training. In this adaptation from my new book, I’m going to share some key strategies with you. Whether you’re a rookie or well advanced in your horsemanship, these concepts will enable you to become a better rider--and wind up with a better broke horse.
So, without further delay, here are the rules of thumb for "riding smart" that I’ve accumulated over the years:
Maximize every moment
Whenever you’re with your horse, you’re either training or untraining him. If you’re picking out his feet and he’s leaning on you or dancing around, don’t let him get away with it--that’s setting an "I’m the boss" precedent in his mind.
Instead, take the time to set his priorities straight by insisting that he stand obediently when you need him to. If you’re riding him through a gate and he won’t move laterally off your leg, school him until he does. If you’re going down the trail on a pleasant morning and he’s pulling on the bit, don’t think, "Oh, it doesn’t matter now." It does. All these random moments add up to a lot of good training; don’t waste them.
Set him up to succeed
Your horse must understand and accept an idea before it can become his own, and only then can you train him how you want him to do what you’re asking. Another way to think of this is that you must show him until he understands and accepts a maneuver, and only then train him on it.
This means you must use your aids in a way that enables your horse to "find" what you want, rather than forcing him to do your bidding. Yes, hauling on the reins is one way to get a horse stopped. But how much better to lope him until he’s a bit tired, so that when you pick up your reins he wants to stop. Help him figure it out, and give him time to do so, then reward him when he does the right thing
Once he’s figured out the what, only then can you start teaching him the how. Using our stopping example, that would mean getting his hind end up under him as he stops, staying off the bit, and so on.
This is so important! Think back to your school years...did you learn more from the teacher who rushed you, then bullied and humiliated you for a wrong answer? Or from the teacher who set you up to find the right answer, then told you how clever you were when you got it? If you help your horse--instead of hammer on him--when he’s confused, he’ll start to think of you as a friend he can look to for guidance when the going gets rough.
Be a contrarian
This goes along with training every moment. If your horse is wanting to do one thing, make him do the opposite. Is he leaning in one direction? Make him go the other way. Is he amped up and wanting to lope? Make him stand still for a moment. Does he want to stand? Make him lope. Is he eager to be at the front of the line? Put him n the back.
In other words, don’t let him train you. If he’s a spook, don’t forsake trail rides--go on lots of them and get him exposed to all those frightening things. Don’t make excuses for him.
By insisting he do what you want rather than what he wants, you’re continuously reinforcing that you are the boss, not he. Horses crave leadership, and if you don’t provide it, they will.
Rule out physical pain
You can’t train a horse that’s hurting, so whenever your horse is being stubbornly resistant, make sure it’s not because he’s in pain. Is he tossing his head? His teeth may need floating. Refusing to stop? His hocks may be sore. Resisting a turn? His suspensory ligaments (the structures supporting the back of the lower leg) may be sore. Always check with the appropriate expert--a veterinarian, chiropractor, or equine dentist--to rule out physical pain before pushing through in your training.
Train both sides
Whether you know it or not, you own two horses, a right horse and a left horse, and they both need to be trained. Never assume something you’ve taught your horse to do using one side of his body will translate to the other; it won’t. You must train both sides individually.
If he can shut a gate working off your left leg, also teach him to do it off your right. Each side will likely require slightly different approaches, because most horses are a little stiff (resistant to bending) to the left and hollow (bend excessively) to the right--a function of their natural asymmetry. Ultimately, you’ll spend about the same amount of time working your horse to each side, striving to make his stiff side more flexible, and his hollow side more evenly (and not overly) bent.
A horse’s brain is like a computer, so the old “garbage in, garbage out” admonition applies. With a computer, if you enter a command that’s just one letter off, the computer won’t recognize and perform the command. Similarly, if you want optimal performance from your horse, you must ask for a movement exactly the same way each time.
Sometimes we get frustrated with a horse that’s not responding correctly. We think, “You dummy--you did it fine yesterday.” But our horse is thinking, “Yes, but you cued it differently today, so now I’m confused.” A fully trained horse is often able to fill in for a miscue, but while he’s still learning, the more precise and correct you can be, the faster and more reliably he’ll learn. Good stuff in, good stuff out.
Develop great timing
Horses learn from the release of pressure, not the application of it. And when you release, your horse will associate that reward with whatever he was doing immediately before the release. So if you’re even a split second late releasing, you’re confusing your horse and slowing his learning, or even inadvertently “rewarding” something else entirely.
If you’re asking for a step backward, for example, the instant he even begins to think “back,” lighten the reins for an instant as a reward, then resume asking.
If you miss that moment, and instead lighten as he’s raising his head or opening his mouth, you’re rewarding him for what you don’t want. Timing is everything.
Be consistent and fair
A cue can’t mean one thing half the time, and something different the other half--because you don’t enforce it. For example, "whoa” should mean stop--not slow down.
If you’re inconsistent in your follow through, you oblige your horse to choose whether you really mean it each time you ask. That gives him only a 50/50 chance of doing the right thing. Inevitably, he’ll choose the easier, and in most cases, wrong thing and get himself in trouble. This inconsistency on your partis like lying to your horse, and you must be honest to gain his trust.
Similarly, you must never lose your temper. When you do need to make a correction, it must always fit the crime. Never suspect that your horse is trying to be bad on purpose--he isn’t. You probably confused him, so take that into consideration in your response.
A scared and intimidated horse isn’t going to try for you. But if he understands that you’ll always be fair with him, he’ll get confident enough to give his all. That said, don’t hesitate to “raise your voice” if that’s what’s needed.