TBT: Recognizing the Stages of Training

This article was published in the Aiken Horse magazine in 2013.

Horses Are Always Learning

Horses learn from every interaction they have with people. If you handle or ride horses, you should think of yourself as a horse trainer! This means being present, paying attention, and being aware of whether your actions are teaching your horse something you’d like him to learn… or not. Consciously or unconsciously, you are training or un-training your horse all the time.

One idea that can help you develop your awareness and think like a trainer is recognizing the stages of horse training. Good trainers always know at a given moment whether they are Teaching, Refining, Testing, or Maintaining a concept or skill. The duration of your session, the timing of your aids, the complexity of your requests, and the firmness of your corrections all depend upon your horse’s the stage of training.

These stages refer to the teaching of any one single specific skill such as backing up or yielding laterally to leg pressure rather than an overall stage such as being “green broke” or “made.”

Teaching

Teaching is a one-time only stage that may last from less than a minute to over an hour. To preserve the horse’s confidence in a learning situation, a good trainer removes every possible “roadblock” to learning. A trainer plans to do her teaching session when the horse is mentally warmed up, calm and connected with his handler/rider. The trainer chooses an environment and the tools that will facilitate clear communication. She makes sure the horse feels safe to experiment and try new things as he figures out what the trainer wants. She breaks down a complex task—say, flying lead changes or opening a gate while mounted—into small pieces so her horse can be successful and feel smart. She is willing to take as much time as necessary to make sure the horse understands every piece of the new skill. And she stops the lesson and does not “drill” the new skill once the horse is feeling confident with the concept.

Common rider mistakes at the teaching stage: Assuming that the horse already knows a skill he hasn’t been taught, failing to break down a complex skill into simple enough parts, increasing pressure or force rather than “explaining” the task, not taking enough time for the horse to become confident with the new skill, failing to recognize that the horse has learned the task and it’s time to move on!

As soon as the horse has learned a given skill, you never have to re-teach it. You do however, have to maintain, test, and/or refine it in order for your horse to keep progressing. Stay at the teaching stage too long, and it becomes drilling. Your horse will lose enthusiasm for performing the task and may develop bad behaviors out of boredom and frustration.

Maintaining

Maintaining a skill requires practicing it often enough, and with enough precision that your horse stays sharp. While he will not “forget” a lesson once he’s learned it, a horse will often check to see if a certain request is “negotiable.” In the dominance hierarchy of a herd, a horse will see if he can increase his status by ignoring requests made by a more dominant herd member. Much like a teenager! So, if you get the sense that your horse is saying “I can’t hear you la la la la,” you may have passed into maintenance stage! Being consistent and following through with your request is the key now. You need to run through your phases of pressure a little faster now than in the teaching stage, or you’ll lose your horse’s attention and interest.

Common rider mistakes at the maintenance stage: Allowing obedience to “slide” by not recognizing that your horse is offering less, keeping your timing and phases of pressure the same as in teaching phase.

Testing

During the testing stage, you are asking your horse to perform a skill he knows in a new situation. You might be asking him to back up off a trailer, or back up while a group of horses are riding away from him, or back up while his pasture mate is running around in the field next to the arena. He knows how to do it, but now you’re asking for him to back up in a more challenging situation. It may feel like he suddenly “forgot” his lesson, but something is just keeping him from being able to give you the answer. As humans, we are very prone to become frustrated until we can shift our perspective. This is where horse psychology is so important: you need to be able to see from his point of view what is keeping him from responding to your request… is he nervous? Unsure? More interested in something else? Unmotivated? Highly stimulated? What can you offer him to get his brain back on your team? You may have to abandon your original request temporarily until you have him focused and calm. Get his mental state right again, and the skill will magically re-appear!

Common rider mistakes at the testing stage: Losing patience with your horse! Failing to recognize that for him, it doesn’t feel like the same request in this new situation. Failing to change your priority from obedience to shaping a calm and willingness mindset where your horse can be obedient.

Refining

Refining is a lot like teaching and maintaining, but instead you are taking an existing skill to a higher level. Can your horse back up straighter? With more energy and enthusiasm? Take more steps or move off of a lighter request? Can you string several skills together in a row, such as trot to halt to rein-back to trot again? Refining is a part of every trainer’s regular routine; part of thinking of yourself as a trainer is the responsibility to improve just a little with every ride rather than simply maintain.

Common rider mistakes at the refining stage: Expecting everything to improve at once instead of choosing just one facet to work on at a time, trying to refine before your horse fully understands the skill, trying to refine when your horse is not in a good learning frame of mind.

Feeling a horse “own” a skill you have taught him, and “answer” your aids calmly, obediently, and with confidence and enthusiasm is the best feeling! I wish it for you, and I hope recognizing the stages of training helps you as it has helped me understand my horses’ development and learning processes.

TBT: Tips for the Hard-to-Clip Horse

This article was published in The Aiken Horse magazine in 2011.

Trimming or body clipping with electric clippers is easy to take for granted if your horse is not afraid of clippers. But owners of tough to clip horses know that a fearful horse can be frustrating and even dangerous. Slowly introducing your horse to clippers in several short sessions BEFORE you clip him will save you and your horse many hours of stress over the rest of his lifetime. And it will set up a trusting dynamic between you and your horse.

A quick note: Can you twitch or sedate a horse for clipping? Certainly many people do. This article addresses teaching a horse to clip without restraint or tranquilization.

#1 Start with the right attitude: Understand the horse’s Umwelt

Umwelt is a wonderful German word which most closely means “point of view” or “frame of reference.” Whenever we handle horses, it is important to remember that the equine umwelt is very difference from a human perspective. As a prey animal, horses are much more sensitive to feeling trapped than we are as predators. Horses also have areas of the body that they know are most vulnerable to attack so they are instinctively flinchy and protective of these places. These spots include the muzzle, poll, ears, throat, belly, legs, and anus. So even before we add in the clippers, it’s important to understand that restraining a horse by cross-tying or tying him and handling these sensitive areas is already going to trigger his survival instincts. In an older well-broke horse, these instincts may be deeply buried under layers of domestication and years of training and desensitization. A younger or hotter horse… not so much. So always keep in mind that a fidgeting horse may actually be a horse that doesn’t feel safe. Observe his body language carefully, be aware of the “kick zone,” and before introducing the clippers be sure that your horse calmly accepts your touch in all the areas you plan to clip. Most importantly, be patient and respectful of your horse’s umwelt. He’s not being naughty or stupid when he acts afraid. In his mind, his life is in danger and he is just trying to survive as he is hard-wired by nature to do.

#2 Emotional Fitness is the safest form of “restraint”

The more the horse is restrained when he is afraid, the bigger the wreck you’re likely to have if he panics. It is common for a frightened horse to pull back, rear, kick, or strike. It is strongly recommended that you hold the horse yourself (drape the lead rope over the crook of your arm) until the horse can stand totally relaxed and calm for clipping. Only then do you have “permission” from the horse to tie or cross tie him, and you must be prepared for this to change when you get to very sensitive areas such as the ears. Many people find that the emotionally fit horse will not need to be cross-tied or tied at this stage. For more information, see the article Teaching Patience to Horses.

#3 Introduce the clippers in stages

The most common problems horses have with clippers are the sound, the feel of the vibration, the cord, and the touching of sensitive areas, especially while being restrained. Breaking these problems down and introducing them in pieces can help your horse be successful.

  • If you use corded clippers, get your horse used to a rope dragging on the ground, touching his legs and sides first. This will also help horses that are skeptical about the hose at bath time.
  • Let your horse smell the clippers and run them all over his body while they are off first. Practice holding his legs, head, and ears and touching him with the clippers with the same motion that you will use while clipping. Don’t allow the blades to snag the hair and pull.
  • When you turn on the clippers, begin with them at a distance from the horse and wait for him to become curious about them and want to investigate. Turning them on and going straight for his nose will startle or offend all but the most clipper-broke horse.
  • Once the horse is totally calm with the sound of the clippers running around him and turning on and off, rub his body with the running clippers beginning by his shoulder or withers and gradually working out in all directions from there leaving the most sensitive areas until last. Think about using the clippers the way that you would use a curry. Move nonchalantly, not too tentatively or he will get suspicious of why you are sneaking around.
  • Turn the clippers on and off during this process. Try to time it so that you are turning off the clippers when your horse is the most relaxed so you are rewarding that mental state. It may take you several sessions, don’t be in a hurry. This is an investment in your horse’s emotional fitness and time well spent!

#4 Practice & Other Tips

Make clippers part of your grooming routine. Even if you don’t actually clip your horse every time you groom him, running a little pair of cheap battery powered trimmers over his “iffy” spots for 2 minutes a day for a week or two can help prepare him to body clip like a pro.

Check the blades frequently to make sure they’re not getting hot. Use your hand and rub the part of the body that you’re about to clip so the feel of the clippers doesn’t catch the horse by surprise. This technique can really help sensitive horses that are bothered by the vibration on their muzzle, legs, belly and ears especially.