8 Reasons to train your own horse
Have you ever looked at your trainer riding your horse and wondered ‘why can’t I do that’? Or wanted your horse to do something, such as load on to a trailer, only to have to get someone else to help you?
If so, the problem may be the fact that you are not training your own horse. Here are 8 reasons why you should:
- You are responsible for your horses’ welfare
Owning a horse means taking responsibility, not only for its maintenance such as providing food, water and shelter but also its welfare in more general terms. Looking at the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, freedom from hunger and thirst and freedom to express normal behaviours and freedom from disease, are covered in how you choose to manage and care for your horse. However, the three Freedoms pertaining to freedom from discomfort, pain, injury, fear and distress are influenced by how we interact with the horse. How we train the horse can determine whether or not these basic welfare requirements are met.
Training that involves pain, discomfort, fear or distress is, sadly, not unusual. It is important to look critically at each new training method you encounter. The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) has a set of Training Principles that enables you to assess any lesson or method. Click here to see the principles: https://equitationscience.com/equitation/principles-of-learning-theory-in-equitation.
- Learning how to regulate your horse’s emotional level
Training is all about being able to raise and lower the emotional level of the horse. You need to know how to do this, not the trainer. How does your horse react when you raise the emotional level too high? Or, when the emotional level is too low? How can you tell when your horse is in the engagement zone?
When training goes wrong, when the horse gets anxious, tries to escape or simply nods off in the middle of the lesson, what has usually gone wrong is that the emotional level has been too high (anxiety) or too low (falling asleep). Training doesn’t require a big increase in emotional level (see: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0174313) but it does require some to engage the horse with learning. It is only by training a particular horse that we learn just how that horse’s emotional level varies and where it is ideal for relaxed and engaged learning.
- Working in the engagement zone
When you train your own horse, you are developing what I call a ‘bubble of communication’. This means you are constantly communicating with your horse with pressure-release and response-reward patterns. Your horse is attentive and responsive to your signals. The engagement zone is like a bubble because a bubble is fragile and must be cared for to maintain and strengthen.
A horse in the bubble of the engagement zone is relaxed and listening, unlike the anxious or distressed horse. When you lose this relaxation, you know your horse is no longer in the engagement zone. Learning how to get your horse into the engagement zone, where the horse is a little more emotional that it would be if it were standing in the field but not so emotional as to be anxious, is the real art of training. By learning how to get your horse to such a receptive state and keep it in the engagement zone while working, you become your horse’s best possible trainer.
- Building a bond
When you train a horse, according to the ISES Training Principles, you build a strong bond with the animal. Your training develops patterns of pressure-release and response-reward in the horse and teaches the horse to relax and look for answers when learning rather than seeking escape options – a response to confusion, distress or anxiety. When using evidence-based, ethical training methods, the more you teach your horse, the stronger this bond becomes.
- Locating training holes
Your horse’s education rarely progresses on a perfectly linear upward trajectory. At times, especially as training becomes more complex and challenging for the horse, your horse may be so focused on the ‘new’ element that it appears to ‘forget’ a previously learned behaviour.
We are fond of saying ‘horses can only think of one thing at a time’ and if the new lesson is particularly demanding and an integral part of the response was not established as an automatic behaviour, you will need to go back and address this before continuing.
Let’s use the example of trailer loading to demonstrate this point. Your horse is relaxed and travelling in a soft frame under saddle, has good shoulder control and you are starting to establish independent hindquarter control. However, when you approach the trailer, your horse will not load. If we break this lesson down for the horse, we quickly discover that the horse is simply not responding to two cues, go forward and go backwards. If we trained our own horse, we will know how these two cues were established and thus know how to reinforce them now. In this example, fear or anxiety have crept into the training environment, possibly because of an experience the horse had in the past, but as we know how the horse learns and how to teach or reinforce desired behaviours, we are quickly back on track with a relaxed horse in the engagement zone.
- Building on strong foundations
Whenever I release a training video on flying changes or canter half-pass, I get so many people eager to give it a try. It is wonderful to see how keen riders are to progress with their training but sometimes we forget that these more advanced maneuvers must be based on strong foundations. To train both flying changes and canter half-pass, we need to have shoulder control down to a pivot on the hindquarter and independent hindquarter control and without these two elements our lesson is likely to end in confusion and anxiety for the horse. When training your own horse, you can be sure each step of the solid foundation has been laid before attempting to progress, thus easing and simplifying the process for our horse.
Another good example here is the movement of piaffe because it is often seen, in training demonstrations, as a movement at liberty and being reinforced with a form of positive reinforcement such as food or a secondary reinforcer such as a clicker. However, the movement was not taught with the simple use of food or a clicker in the beginning, these elements are used to shape the behaviour after the initial use of pressure-release elicits the first piaffe steps. Without knowing this, and if you did not originally train the movement yourself, you are unlikely to be able to improve or repair the movement, should things start to go awry.
- Horses learn patterns
With each new lesson you teach your horse, you are teaching a new pattern of behaviour – a cue that signals the horse to perform a particular behaviour to get a reward or a release (or, as is most often the case, both). Your pattern is going to be slightly different from mine, no matter how well I might try to explain my pattern to you. The position I am in, my timing, the amount of pressure I use, all of these things and more, will be different and, as far as your horse is concerned, signaling different behaviours.
When someone else trains your horse and then you take the horse back, the horse has to learn your signals and cues as they will not be exactly the same as the other trainer’s. By training your own horse you skip this often confusing and frustrating step for the horse. It also means that, at the end of the day, you have a much better understanding of what you are asking the horse to do and how the horse is accomplishing the movement.
- You learn so much about your horse as you train
You know your horse better than anyone else and as you train your horse you learn more and more about each other. Most importantly, you learn how to recognize when your horse is happy and relaxed and when your horse begins to feel anxious or confused.
Horses are wonderful non-verbal communicators; we just need to watch a herd of horses together to realize this. Much of the ‘learning’ that goes on when we are training our horse is our learning – learning to recognize when the horse is happy, relaxed, too emotional or distracted.
I strongly encourage you to start training your own horse. People often tell me that they don’t feel they have the experience to train their own horse but it may be better to look at it as a blessing in disguise – an opportunity to learn together. Start with something simple, such as give to the bit or move your hips to the mounting block. You will find that when you break a lesson down into manageable chunks for your horse, just how easy and fun training can be and what a sense of confidence it will give both you and your horse.
The moment you begin training your own horse and taking responsibility for its behaviour and welfare as a result, is the moment you begin to build that bubble of communication. Once you know how to get your horse engaged with you and with learning things really start to progress. The first thing to change is your confidence and your horse’s confidence – you learn that you can change your horse’s behaviour and your horse learns that you are engaging and that lessons are fun.
To read this and other horse training, behaviour and management articles, visit Horses and People Magazine.