5 Steps to Teaching Your Horse what You Want
There is something magical about that moment when your horse understands and responds to your request. When you communicate to each other with the lightest touch. Whatever the discipline, that is horsemanship at it’s finest.
Teaching horses can be fascinating or frustrating 😅 when it goes right it can be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do. When it goes wrong, well 🤯🤬
When teaching your horse how to do something (in fact anything) knowing these steps will help you stay on track...
These steps apply the same both in the saddle and on the ground and form the basis of pretty much anything you are going to ask your horse to do, so here’s a look at each step in a bit more depth...
This is often described as ‘pressure’ and is when you ask your horse to do something. It usually does involve some sort of pressure, for example when you squeeze with your legs to ask your horse to go, that is a request.
Start by making the smallest request possible and only get firmer slowly if your horse is not responding.
If your horse is trying to do something (even if it’s not quite what you want) keep asking until he get’s it and as soon as he does, this is crucial...
Stop asking!! 😃
If you keep asking after your horse has responded you turn into a nag 🤨 It will eventually desensitise your horse to your requests.
I think most of us know a horse that you have to use your legs like crazy to ask to go and keep using your legs every stride to keep him going! 🥵 This happens because they have just switched off to the request and become desensitised to it.
This is the point when you stop asking. This is also how your horse knows he gave you the correct response to his request. Let’s take our example of using our legs, as soon as your horse goes forward, stop using your legs!
The quicker you do this, the easier it is for your horse to understand what he was supposed to be doing. If there’s no release then your horse will start to question if he got the right answer and will probably try something different or just switch off.
Here’s where you give your horse the motivation to do something for you. For sensitive horses the release is often enough but for horses that need to have a reason to do something you may need a little extra 🍎🥕
Reward is a bit more than just stopping your request. It’s that added incentive that makes your horse put in that bit more effort. It could be scratches, it could be food or it could just be having a break.
I have one horse that will virtually lie down and roll over for a treat and one for which food isn’t a big motivator at all. She is far more interested in taking a break 😌
Food rewards can also work against you sometimes as horses can get stressed about getting to the food or over enthusiastic about it. 😬
Food rewards don’t have to be given by hand if you’re worried about your horse getting ‘nippy’. For example, I’m a big advocate of having a haynet on the trailer when practising loading so they find food on the box and get an instant reward when they get in there 👍
If you’re a bit of a perfectionist like me it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing the task over and over until it’s... well perfect! Your horse needs a break to understand when he’s done good! Ideally you stop doing that task when your horse has tried hard to do what you want.
Rest doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop doing everything, for some horses ‘rest’ just means go and do something else and you can come back to it later. For others, it really does mean stop for the day! ✋
Unless it’s a particular problem that needs more I usually recommend 3 good repetitions then rest.
5. Repeat 🔂
Repetition on its own with no obvious rest or release is known as ‘drilling’, it will wear some horses down into submission but it will also cause some horses to ‘fight’ as they will feel trapped.
However, to improve you do need a certain amount of repetition in your training, it’s just important to be mindful that you don’t overdo it!!
Dressage master Walter Zettl used to have a wonderful saying ‘Go to the line but not over it’. By this he meant you want to do enough to get the best you can that day but not over-cook it so it all falls apart.
I’m sure you recognise that feeling when you know you should’ve stopped when it was going good but your inner voice went ‘just one more time!’ And it all fell apart 😩
If this happens don’t despair, try to finish in as good a place as you can and piece it back together again anther day. Fortunately for us horses are very forgiving 😅 They are usually quite happy to start again as long as we take our time and go through these 5 steps so they understand what we want 😊🦄💕
Before trying any training technique it is important to rule out pain or discomfort. Saddle fit, teeth, back, hoof balance and lameness issues should all be checked by a qualified professional before applying any training.
If you have questions or need idea's to help with a specific problem feel free to get in touch with me on email@example.com
Lyla has been helping riders and their horses in the UK, USA and Europe for over 15 years. She has prepared horses for crowds of over 6,000 people with no calmers or ear plugs for venues including Birmingham NEC, Aintree, Bury Farm EC and Hartpury.
Lyla specialises in horse psychology and behaviour problems with a specific interest in dressage and has worked with horses from grass roots to Grand Prix across the UK and Europe including international competitors and Olympians from Spain, the US, Canada and the UK.
All training techniques discussed are from experience only, it is impossible for to accurately advise on horse/rider combinations without seeing them live. Lyla Cansfield & Equine Mind & Body Training strongly advise anyone considering using any of the techniques discussed to get live help and can take no responsibility for the outcome of applying any of the techniques discussed without supervision. Riding is a high risk sport.