by Ron Meredith
Every movement you make, everything you do in his presence, has meaning to the horse. The horse is a master at reading your body language and knowing just where you're at and what you're about when you first enter his space.
Any time you are with a horse, you have to really pay attention. Pay attention to what you are thinking. Pay attention to what you are doing with your eyes, your head, your shoulders, your hips, your breathing, how fast you are moving, etc., etc., because you can be sure that the horse is running all of those little things through his calculator as you approach.
When you first approach a green horse in training, everything about your body language should be emphasizing that you are a non-threatening presence that can be trusted. Here are some of the little things about training that, from the horse’s standpoint, can make a big difference in building and keeping the horse’s trust as the training program progresses:
It’s all about attention. If you want the horse to pay full attention to you, you need to pay full attention to the horse. That means you’re always thinking about what’s going on between you now, and now, and now. If your mind drifts back to what happened yesterday or to what you hope the horse knows by the end of the month, you’ve mentally left the arena. The horse will know it and he may decide to leave, too.
Horses are not all alike in how they learn. The same pressure will affect different horses different ways. The time frame for understanding something new you are showing the horse will vary from animal to animal. It’s fine to go into the arena with an idea of what you want to accomplish that day. But be ready to change your agenda depending on where that particular horse is on that particular day.
Train one step at a time so that eventually you can control every step. Teaching a progression of horse-logical pressures that build on one another ultimately gives you and your horse a shared vocabulary that can be combined to create very sophisticated sentences at the upper levels of whatever sport you like. Horse-logical means the mental or physical pressure is only one tiny step away from something he already understands and that it goes away if he does what you are showing him. Training the horse this way allows you to communicate with the horse very intimately, very precisely, stride by stride.
Pressures are suggestions that should create a feel in the horse of a shape you want him to take. They are not “orders” and they are never consequences or punishments for failure to understand. If a pressure startles a horse or raises the excitement level or makes him anxious in any way, it either was too “loud” or it was more than one or two steps away from something he already understands or for some other reason it was the wrong pressure altogether for the response you were trying to show the horse.
Remember not to get greedy when you are applying any pressure. Reward any try, no matter how small. Backing is a good example of this. If you ask the green horse to back for the first time with a little push on the shoulder of the foot you’d like him to move and nothing happens, don’t insist. Go back to doing something the horse does understand and try again later. If the green horse showed any sign of shifting his weight toward the back or of wanting to move the foot we were indicating, we’d call that a try and reward him by taking the pressure off his shoulder.
The best training system is one where you teach to horse what TO do rather than teaching him what NOT to do. Discipline has nothing to do with correction or punishment. It means to be a disciple, to develop a relationship between you and the horse that makes the horse feel like following your lead and mirroring whatever you show him. The power you use to get that discipleship is the power of camaraderie.
Rhythm and relaxation are the basis of everything. Watch the horse’s breathing and muscle tension. If he’s holding his breath or holding tension in any of his muscles, he’s lost relaxation. Stop what you’re doing and use something rhythmical that he already understands to get him back to relaxation before you try to show, ask or tell him to do anything else.
Horse memories are memories of feelings they associate with things or people or circumstances. They have a huge capacity for this. So you have to work at never raising his excitement level with any pressure you use. You also have to work at controlling your own emotions. When the horse gets startled by something in his environment during a training session, you just act as though nothing at all happened. You quietly bring the horse’s attention back to you and just keep going about whatever you were doing when things got interrupted. The horse eventually learns to check back with you to gauge how to react to something new and different. Control the horse’s mind and his body will follow.
It goes without saying that you never, never, never lose your temper with a horse. That’s a sure way to destroy any trust you’ve built between you and your horse. If you feel that starting to happen, it’s time to put the horse away, spend the evening thinking through why you were unable show the horse whatever it was you wanted in a horse-logical way that he could understand, and try again tomorrow.
Think “trust me” rather than “obey me.” You have to get your ego out of the training process. Focus on the horse’s success in understanding what a particular pressure suggest he do rather than on your own success or failure at showing him something you want. Focus on helping him out rather than proving your own skills. If you’re thinking about the opinion of someone who’s watching, if you’re focused on who you’re trying to beat in the class, if you’re hitching your self-esteem to whether or not you can get the horse to DO something, you’re working out of your ego. And your horse is going to know you’ve left him.
Pay as much attention to every movement the horse makes as he pays to every movement you make and his feedback will help you refine your horse logical communications. You may start to wonder who is training who.
© 1997-2012 Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre. All rights reserved.
Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his “horse logical” methods for communicating with equines over 40 years as a horse professional. He is president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited equestrian career college. Visit http://www.meredithmanor.edu to learn more.