Ah, thank goodness we can officially start looking forward to spring. The days will be getting longer, things are looking up. But it’s still the holiday season, which means I have been enlisted to help a few friends keep their horses in work while they’re out of town. This means stepping out of my comfort zone.
My horse Eddie, an off-the-track Thoroughbred, has been going superbly this winter. He is feeling strong, confident, and things are just coming along effortlessly. Sometimes I even forget that there was a time where things didn’t always flow so seamlessly. So now, I have been paired with the task of schooling another off-the-track Thoroughbred, who is not as far along in his training. And also a very different conformation type from Eddie.
In just one ride, it has opened my eyes as to how fast our communication and learning when partnered with a specific horse evolves over time. With Eddie, I can just maneuver from one aid to the next, and he picks up on all my cues. Our language with each other has matured and is mutually respected at this stage. But with my new friend, I have to gauge where he is at physically and mentally. I have to investigate what aids he knows and understands so I don’t throw anything too demanding on the table.
This got me to thinking about a few core values I pride myself in while working with horses, which I thought would be helpful to share. I don’t call myself a professional, but I do have enough experience to have developed my own ideas and principles. You see, training off-the-track Thoroughbreds is a lot like putting together a piece of furniture from Ikea. The directions are pretty straight forward, but who really bothers reading them? Usually we just haphazardly put pieces together and it always works out. Maybe a few nuts and bolts are loose here and there. Maybe it wobbles a bit. But, it’s functional. Right? Well, you should read those directions from now on. Because maybe, if you do your due diligence, your Ikea piece will look like it came from Pier 1 Imports when it’s all said and done… Instead of a wobbly, but functional mess.
Ok, so horses aren’t furniture. But, we must READ them. We must develop an adequate understanding for their skills in communication, physical talent, and aptitude for learning. After a thorough assessment of their competence, we can begin to create a training program that is best suited to them.
Teach them your language.
Often times, we start horses by introducing them to various exercises and them learning through trial and error. This approach can work at times. But I prefer to make things very black and white for the horse, regardless of their skill level because not every rider speaks the same language. I like to start on the ground, with very clear cues that simulate MY mounted aids. I still do this with my horse Eddie, as a warm up before a schooling session. Static exercises are good to help the horse warm up both mentally and physically. But more importantly, the horse learns very clearly what you are trying to communicate with them. These types of exercises can include stretches, obedience skills, lateral aids, etc. The key is to make them simple and low stress.
Speak slowly, but assuredly
Nothing was worse than when my high school Spanish teacher would babble on in an incoherent jumbled up mess of word vomit that we hadn’t learned yet. Don’t be that teacher to your horse. Enunciate. Keep each aid clear and distinct. Often times, an exercise consists of multiple cues or aids. The biggest mistake I see riders/trainers make is letting each aid bleed into the next before the horse has a clear understanding of what is being asked. Then the execution becomes muddled and hesitant. Take your time communicating each cue to your horse. Allow them to react. Take it slow through these types of exercises by separating them into multiple parts. If you don’t get the response you are looking for, you can more easily detect what went wrong and in what stage.
Quality over Quantity
It is not about the amount of work you do with your horse. It’s about the amount of productive work you do. Don’t keep repeating an exercise that you are struggling with. You will just be facilitating poor training. Go back to the basics, do something the horse understands. “Three” seems to be my magic number. When I introduce an exercise, I try to get it done in three reps. One for learning, one for over correcting any issues, and one to get it right. This works for me, maybe not everyone. And most importantly, remember that each horse is built differently. Know their physical limitations so you don’t ask of anything that could cause them fear, pain, or stress. The worst thing you can do, is to sour a horse with good character by pushing them to the point of physical stress, because that will later on manifest as behavioral issues. It is better to work for 15 minutes in the proper frame and mindset, rather than to spend an hour struggling.
Ride Deep and Through
I spend 90% of my rides on a deep, connected, but relaxed frame. More than one might think is enough, and deeper than one might think is necessary. This might be what most call “long and low.” Replace that phrase with “deep and through” because that implies you are actually working a connected horse over its topline and back. I might ride in a higher frame with more self-carriage once a week, or only in my lessons. This is because, I value building my horse’s topline first and foremost. And it takes a lot of mental and physical strength on the horse’s part to ride in true self-carriage, so I try not to overdo it. It is so important to spend time working young horses on a deeper connected frame so they learn to relax into the contact over their back so they build muscle. Don’t worry if they are not perfectly on the vertical. A through and connected horse should be more of a feeling. They will feel balanced, springy, and elastic in the connection.
Vary your sessions
No matter what your discipline, vary the type of work you perform with your horse. Vary the terrain, and footing as well. Keep your horse interested and enthusiastic. Even in the winter, you can get creative with poles or fun exercises to do while stuck in an indoor. It just requires a little bit of preplanning. Get outside to do trails and hills when you can. Do trot and canter poles when stuck inside. All of these are things are beneficial to your horse. And most importantly, they will help maintain your horse’s positive attitude and work ethic.
So, I hope you find some of these values were helpful. The winter is a great time to start thinking about some of the theory and perspective behind your own riding practices. I will be taking these into my next few rides with my new OTTB friend. And I will still be keeping them in the back of my mind for my rides on Eddie. Because to me; a happy horse works better and smarter than an unhappy horse. It’s all about communication and deductive reasoning. Find what best works for you, and stick to that process and plan for your riding. Good luck this winter!