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 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 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.
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 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.