It’s the Little Things…Some Thoughts on How We Train Our Horses

In the past two years I’ve spend a great amount of time teaching my horse the little things that make daily life a lot easier, such as standing still when I mount and having good feeding manners. Quite often we seem to expect that these things come naturally for horses and that they are just as important for them as for us. Which is of course not the case. I see lots of horses being yelled at or hit because they don’t do what the owner expects. What I don’t see is an effort to teach the horse what it is exactly that we expect, and how to get there. In the wild, horses are not tied up, they don’t have to stand still when someone is climbing on their back, nobody picks up their feet. But of course we all know that horses can learn almost anything if we explain it well to them.

Recently, I’ve been watching these teaching videos by Bent Branderup (see links page). He teaches all his horses to stand still without being tied up for grooming and tacking up. Of course he’s not the first one to do this, but it was the first time that I thought this could be a good exercise for me and Nazir. It took some days and a good deal of my patience, but we managed! First, he couldn’t stand on one spot longer than five seconds. Whenever he started to move or walk away, I said “ho” and stopped him on the rope that was still hanging over his neck, then backed him up to the spot where he should stay. Grooming and tacking up wasn’t going all that fast in this phase. I took care not to yell at him or become impatient in any way. It was also a good exercise for me I can tell you. Then, suddenly, after a few days, he got it! Now he still might wander off from time to time, but we’re getting there.

the little things the little things2

Two days ago, a saddler from Germany came to our stable to fix my saddle. I did things how I always do them: brushing Nazir without him being tied up, putting on saddle and bridle. Then I noticed that I forgot to put on my boots. I went to the tack room. When I came back Nazir still stood where I had left him. The saddler said, quite amazed, “He just stood there! Does he always do that?” I said, “That’s what I taught him.” Sometimes it’s the little things that make us proud.

It’s also these little things that tell a lot about how horse and human get along, whether they understand each other and whether they manage to communicate with each other. Have a look at your stable next time: how does she lead her horse from the paddock? How does he react when the horse doesn’t want to stand still? How are these little problems solved? Do you explain to your horse what you want him to do? In a way he understands it? What did the horse learn after such a conflict? That humans scream and are unreliable, or that you can be trusted and that you made him feel comfortable?

If we don’t manage to explain and teach our horses the simple things, how can we expect them to be at ease with the performance of more complex behaviours? If we fail to establish a basic communication, our method will most likely be even less accurate when it comes to more complicated tasks, such as trotting on a circle, doing flying changes, jumping over a fence. I think that good horsemen (and -women) are also good pedagogues. They can break down complex behaviours into smaller steps and explain these in a way that the horse really understands. They would never ask too much at once and only go to the next step or level if the horse is comfortable with the previous one. They also take a step back if necessary. Teaching our horses in little steps also requires an awareness of the logical sequence of what we want to teach and the knowledge the horse needs in order to perform the task. We might have to think it through and make sure we laid the necessary foundations. We need to make a plan. The days when I go to the stable with an idea of what I want to achieve (and how I want to achieve it) are usually better than the ones on which I just drive out there without a plan and see what happens. The more our horses can do and the more they feel comfortable with what we ask of them, the more they trust us and the more they develop this proud expression and confidence that we all love to see.

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