One More Time!
Updated: Aug 12, 2018
One of the harder things to master in training horses across disciplines is knowing when the session is done for the day. It’s a subject that not enough attention is paid and it takes experience. We have all heard someone shouting, "One more time!" again and again. Did it really help? I have seen trainers working horses without breaks and when another questioned, “don’t you think he needs a break?” the reply was, “pretty hard when he’s not done anything for it”. Meanwhile, the horse is dripping with sweat, with no clue what it was he supposed to do or how to get the pressure off. It is our job as the trainers, the horse’s teacher to show them how to find the right answer.
Learning to Seek Answers
Foundation training is a whole other subject, but it is important to mention that horses need to be taught how to look for the right answers in their foundation. They learn that they can be presented with a problem, they change something and the pressure goes away. This is the basic premise for negative reinforcement, not to be confused with punishment. A good trainer knows how to break concepts into pieces that the horse can understand and has the timing to release the pressure and reward at precisely the right time. If the horse isn’t getting the right answer, change the way you ask the question, or take a step back and make sure that the question you asked before it has a solid answer. Sometimes, the trainer needs to change their standards for that horse, for that day. Find something, any little piece that he might have done right.
One Step at a Time
I had the pleasure of riding with Fernando Branco Cintron, a Portuguese Dressage Master a few years ago and after that, Robert Gonzalez, a Western foundation trainer. It might seem odd that I would put these two trainers in the same sentence but one thing I learned from both was how easy the horse could understand when you taught them something literally one hoof at a time. I can teach a green horse a turn on the forehand much easier and with less stress one step at a time then if I would have asked for half a turn at once. More steps in the beginning does not mean more understanding. The horse that is asked to take many steps in the beginning will probably require an aid the whole way around the turn until the rider is done asking. A horse that is consciously asked for one step at a time and rewarded with a quick rest is likely to willingly take more steps around the turn without being aided the whole time. I would rather work with the latter!
Give me a Break!
Halting during the work session is also very important. Working with Fernando and Robert, we would stop and give the horse a long rein to reward him. Not walk on a loose rein, just stand. The horse is literally not being asked to do anything at that moment. Here is where they have a chance to process, sigh, lick and chew. Then you can move on and you have built their confidence. If your horse doesn’t want to stand, you need to take a step back and make sure that your in your foundation your horse is fine with where he is and doesn’t have somewhere else to be. I see many riders give their horse just one, maybe two breaks walking during a forty-five-minute session. Even though some horses appear to be able to go and go, their mind needs a break. Some horses will tell you through increased tension or teeth grinding (this is not the only reason for teeth grinding and it’s not always bad) that they need to stop a moment. For some horses if they are grinding they teeth, they you already know you have gone too far, try to find a good place before that happens. Sprinkling little short breaks halting and walking throughout could achieve so much more! We are human and sometimes it’s tough to find that space to take breaks when we get in our zone. Always be looking to catch them doing something right.
Finishing for the Day
“When you get the answer you want, hang up.” This is one of my favorite movie quotes from Moneyball. I always think of this line when teaching and training. Even small children have mastered this concept, if mom says yes, don’t ask again, she might change her mind! When teaching their horse something new, riders can fall into the trap of too much repetition because they are not sure if their horse actually “got it”. As if the repetition would teach the horse what they wanted. It mostly just confuses them. Truth is, the rider won’t know if the horse “got it” until the next rides anyway. The best way to show your horse he did the right thing is to not ask again and possibly, get off! If you want to really rock your horse’s world for doing something right, jump off and put him away. Walk him out by hand if you need to. The worst thing that could happen here is you have a short ride. The benefits are boosting his confidence, building your relationship, confirming to him that he did something right and solidifying a concept for him. He just might be coming up to you the next day ready to try again! Overdo it and he’ll be confused, not wanting to come play with you because he just can’t figure out how to make you happy. It’s not to say that every ride should be short, but it’s a good tool to keep in the toolbox.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Be thoughtful of your horse’s mind and body. He’s out with you practicing one more half pass because you asked him to, he would rather be hanging out with his nose in the grass or taking a snooze with his equine friends. You are your horse’s teacher, guidance counselor, and protector. No one likes being told they are wrong over and over, eventually a person will just stop trying if they can’t seem to get the right answer no matter what and a horse will stop trying too. This kills his curious spirit and he won’t try so hard for you the next time, what’s the point? Protect your horse’s willingness, it lies within your hands!