Under Pressure: Human Ambition and Horse Training

Most of us would like to achieve something in our horse training. We would like to improve a gait, refine an exercise, or learn the next one. Quite often, when I speak to horse people, I hear “I want my horse to do X”, or “My horse should do Y”. Especially in training systems that are level oriented and have a step by step structure, the students would like to get to the next level with their horses or earn the next certificate.


These systems are of great help for humans and can also be beneficial for the horses, if they break down complex exercises into a logical sequence. However, one should not forget that the steps and levels are man made and have little importance for the horse. Our horses do not care about if they perform level one or level two exercises (whatever that might mean). But what they do care about is the way we handle them.


By adhering to a certain training system and wanting to do well in that system, we often transfer the pressure that we feel, the pressure to achieve our next goal, to our horses. We would like to pass this touchstone or test, get that certificate, score high in a competition, win a prize. For others, it can be about about satisfying the expectations of people around us, or the general expectations of the horse world, of the horse community that we associate ourselves with.


What I wanted to say is that most of us feel a certain pressure, from whichever direction, to achieve something with our horses. Our horses, in return, react differently to the pressure they feel from us, depending on their type. Some start nipping, some start to be pushy, others get very insecure and start spooking. They might loose the shine in their eyes, stop giving their best and loose motivation, or start to retreat inside and become unresponsive. Your horse might become hard to catch, swish its tail often during training, or press its ears flat against the head.


So when there is any unwanted behaviour, instead of trying to refine our technique or trying to stop that unwanted behaviour, we should check our own motivation first and if we are creating too much pressure in our training. Due to the goals we might have set for ourselves, we might ask for too much, and our aids might become demanding instead of asking softly. We might also forget the basis, such as a correct stellning and bending, or a forward down, and press on with an exercises that might still be too difficult for our horse or be too little understood by us. We are not open anymore for the suggestions of our horse and just want to get through with our plan. Most of all, we might forget why we are doing it and make the horse do something “because we said so”, thus sacrifycing trust and our good relationship. In short, we might have to let go of our expectations.


Our horse might feel that he is never good enough because, mentally, we are always one step ahead.


When we go to our horse the next time, we can check ourselves already on the way. Do we think “How can I get my horse to do/stop this” or “When will my horse finally lean that”? Do we already have a lesson plan, did we note down the things the horse learned yesterday and already made some points on what should be on the agenda tomorrow? When we get to our horse, do we ignore his current mood (sleepy, too energetic, low motivation…) and go through with our training anyway? When was the last time we just played with our horse or spend time just being together on the pasture? When was the last time we just groomed him as if he were the king’s horse, just to bring him back to the paddock?


Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good to have goals and to have a plan of how to get there. Thinking through what you would like to do with your horse is also what makes horse training successful, and ambition is a useful and powerful motivator. On the other hand, we should be aware of how much pressure we put on ourselves and how much of that pressure we take with us to the stable. Our horses don’t “have to” do anything! Achieving our next goal is a choice that we made, not them, and in their world, it also doesn’t make any sense.


Usually, when I have a certain topic on my mind, I come across articles or books that exactly fit to what I’m just thinking about. So while opening Facebook in order to start writing, I saw a great article by the German behavioural biologist Marlitt Wendt which added to what I had already written.


Marlitt says that many horses are constanlty in education modus. They have to learn something new all the time, focus, and improve details. She emphasises that all beings need time and the freedom to apply the skills they have already learned, to present themselves and be praised for it. They need the time to try out the new ways of movement that they have learned. For her, it is also important to discover the present moment together with the horse and not plan the future all the time. (Marlitt’s website: http://www.pferdsein.de).


Now, that we all set our goals for 2017, let’s also be aware of the horse’s side and appreciate them for what they are instead of only thinking about what is still missing or what might become.


3 Comments on “Under Pressure: Human Ambition and Horse Training

  1. I think the one thing that gets short shrift among too many riders is the application of praise to the horse for even the tiniest effort in the proper direction. Although the following is often quoted, nobody seems to know who originated it. All I can say is, it really works: Ask often, demand little, reward generously.

  2. I walk a fine line with my OTSTB, he is a proud horse, who is not always easy to work with. I have goals but not a “Horse Guru Timeline” as sometimes Beaux picks up stuff really quickly and others take longer. He has 9 years of racing under his belt and I’ve really struggled with him “unlearning” a few things and that other things (like cantering) is OK. I am always thrilled to read articles on others who caution ambition and human pride over the welfare and what’s best for the horse.

    • Thanks for your comment Jane 🙂 I also have a horse with a difficult past and it’s very easy to stress him. He has virtually no stretch zone, a very small comfort zone, and a huge stress zone. With him it’s also walking a fine line. Often, I don’t even know what caused his stress. It’s easy to keep my ambition in check, I just know I can’t put any pressure on him. He’s shown me again and again. With “my” other horse (who actually belongs to my best friend) it’s different. He is very tolerant and has a huge comfort zone. He always gives his best try and I’ve only seen him stressed a handful of times. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s easy to put pressure on him, because he won’t necessarily show discomfort right away. Lately, however, I have seen his enthusiasm for our training dwindle a bit and his eyes were less shining. I exactly know why: things were going great and I was taking the next step in his training. I put too much pressure on him. The thing is that with a horse like him, it’s not so easy to spot when he feels a bit overwhelmed. He just retreats inside. Only when he cannot handle it anymore will he explode, and then you might think that there was no warning. But he has shown you all along, just not so obviously like a horse that starts moving his feet when he feels uncomfortable.

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