Updated: Feb 9, 2019
People often wonder, how do you take a constantly rotating collection of horses from vastly different breeds and backgrounds and apply the same training program to them? Where do you start? It’s not a simple matter, but it can be boiled down to one main theory: always walk before you gallop.
I mean this literally, as well as figuratively. A proper training system is built upon strong basics, and never asks the horse to do something that is more than one step ahead of what he already understands. With horses from all different walks of life, it can be difficult to create a training program that works universally, but we’ve been able to come up with ways to consistently improve each horse.
At EWS, every horse that enters the training program starts in the same place, no matter what we know or do not know about their past and their history. I can spend weeks, and sometimes months, doing a mental checklist of equine comprehension and skill set. Yes, I want the horse to “do what I want him to do” to an extent, but more than that I want to see that he fully understands the exercise and is able to willingly complete it with relaxation.
It always starts with ground work. A horse that balks at moving forward when you lead him is guaranteed to balk when you get on his back. Start the conversation with your horse about moving his feet appropriately when you’re leading him around the barn. I want them to move forward off a little touch, halt when I halt, move sideways off of hand pressure on the side, and stand politely.
Good ground manners is something that all horses can have, regardless of size, shape, gender, breed, or character. This is non negotiable. Handling a horse that consciously or unconsciously ignores you is both aggravating and potentially dangerous. This is something I am not flexible about, as I believe that attention and respect are built on the ground. If I don’t have it here, why would it appear when I get on their back?
Some horses come with decent ground manners, and some come with absolutely none. A politely obliging horse is achieved through quiet repetition, reward for good behavior, and firm reminders. At no point should your horse physically overpower you on the ground! Remember that you are the leader, and as such, it is your responsibility to give directions, and make sure that they’re good ones. Being the leader is great, but it also means you have to be fair and ensure the safety of the horse at all times, or their trust in you will wane.
After I get to know the horses on the ground, I’ll take them down to the arena to work on some lunging. Lunging is another skill set that all horses can possess, and it comes in quite handy for a variety of reasons throughout their career.
The physical distance that the lunge line creates between myself and the horse shows me exactly how attentive (or not) they are, as it permits them to ignore me if they wish. The lazy horses will refuse to go forward, and the insecure and nervous ones will spin around endlessly ignoring my calming tones to slow down.
Again, walk before you gallop. Start on a very small circle at the walk. Ask your horse to halt. Reward the horse when he halts. Practice walk/halt/walk transitions both ways for a day. Perfect the voice cues. The next day, try some trot on a small circle. Practice walk/trot/walk/halt transitions. Perfect the voice cues. This is all rather mundane, but until you can do these things, why would you try cantering on a big circle unless you want rope burns on your hands and a confused horse?
If I establish from the beginning that I am always fair, the horse is more likely to trust me in the future when I climb on his back. If I ensure that the horse does not ignore me when I ask him to go forward or come back, I have a better chance of this happening later on.
If I begin the conversation with the horse on the ground, my success in the saddle will be more likely. Horses are linear learners, which means that they perform best when they understand everything step by step. In order to get to the finish line, you have to check each box, and take one step at a time.
All horses that come to EWS start in this way, and some progress through this stage faster than others. However, a willing equine partner is built brick by brick, and if you go slow in the beginning and are patient with small signs of progress, you’ll have the full picture later down the road. ~Kate