I started riding almost as soon as I could walk. I began learning to train horses when I was 11, specializing in show jumping and classical dressage. Before I started college, I spent a few months training horses in Germany, and during my junior year, I went to Europe to watch the renowned trainers Philippe Karl and Bea Borelle work with their horses.
Horses were still part of my life as I pursued a degree in neuroscience at Brown University; in fact, while there I conducted research on pain in horses that was later published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. After graduating from Brown, I attended Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School and apprenticed with a farrier. I am currently studying veterinary medicine at Cornell University.
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My experiences have taught me a lot about the different ways horsemanship is practiced. One thing I’ve noticed is that many people view riding and training as separate things. But riding a horse is not like driving a car; you cannot simply press a button and expect your horse to do precisely what you want. Rather, riding is more like a conversation, in which you ask your horse to do you a favor, and he decides whether or not to do it. This conversation takes place through the language of the aids.
[For your bookshelf: Horse Speak: An Equine-Human Translation Guide: Conversations with Horses in Their Language]
When learning how to ride, unfortunately, too many people are taught only how to apply the aids, and the horses are expected to already know what the signals mean. But the aids are not a horse’s “native tongue”—he learns to understand us only through training. And his understanding is further complicated by the fact that every rider “speaks” the language slightly differently: No two people apply the aids in exactly the same way, and this is very confusing for horses. But you can help your horse by teaching him what your particular aids mean.
The foundation of training
To be an effective trainer, you don’t have to be ready for the Olympics. But you do need to be able ride with an independent seat, leg and hands, because in order to train a horse effectively you need to give clear and consistent aids. These are the foundation for communicating with your horse: If you can’t apply your aids consistently—for example, if you inadvertently use your legs to keep your balance when stopping—your messages to your horse will be muddled and he’ll never understand what you want.
Many terrific books have been written on how to train horses, and anyone who would like to improve their skills will benefit from reading the works of the grandmasters and learning more about classical and operant conditioning. In general, however, the basic idea is simple: Your horse’s primary motivation is to relieve the pressure of your aids. Your job is to show him what it is you want him to do. The moment he complies—or begins to comply—you release the pressure to reward him.
[For your bookshelf: Give Your Horse a Chance: A Classic Work on the Training of Horse and Rider]
First, decide what you want your “ideal” aid to be. For example, if I want to teach my horse how to halt, my ideal aid could be sitting back and lifting my hands slightly. This motion is subtle, but once my horse is trained, I want him to notice and respond to it.
If he does not respond—which of course he won’t at first because he has no idea yet what it means—I increase the strength of the aid gradually until he performs the desired behavior. When the horse does not react to the slight lift of my hands, I incrementally raise them higher and higher. Eventually, once my hands are high enough, my horse will have to stop. (Raising a horse’s head shifts his weight to his hindquarters and forces him to stop. It is usually a good idea to choose an aid that will lead to the desired behavior if you increase its strength.)
Once the horse complies, I stop applying the aids immediately and praise him. This is how he will understand what I want. I don’t wait until he does something perfectly to reward him; instead I reward him for small steps in the right direction. This will help him learn what I want much more quickly, and he will also be more motivated to do so. Millimeter by millimeter, you still get to a meter.
In this process, it’s important to increase the strength of the aids gradually. Let’s say that you consider the strength of your ideal aid to be level 1, and the full-on version is level 10. If you start at level 1, then jump immediately to 10, your horse will feel helpless because no matter how he reacts at first, he always receives the full force of the aid.
Instead, start at level 1, then gradually climb the scale to reach 10. At the very beginning, you might have to reach level 10 a couple of times, but it is almost never necessary after that: The level at which the horse responds to your aid will diminish until, ideally, he recognizes and reacts correctly to level 1.
[For your bookshelf: Equitation Science]
As you work together, the speed with which you release the aids is important. The shorter the delay between your horse’s actions and the reward, the more quickly your horse will comprehend what you want.
The things great trainers do
As every equestrian knows, horses are complex animals, and for most, rewards are not enough to provide deep, long-lasting motivation. What makes great trainers great is the way they engage with their horses and motivate them to perform. So, what do they do?
I have been lucky enough to have observed firsthand two horsemen who have mastered the art of training: Philippe Karl and Bea Borelle. Karl was a member of the Cadre Noir, the equestrian performance team of the French military riding academy, before leaving to train others in his non-coercive riding philosophy, “Ecole de Légèreté” (School of Lightness). Borelle is one of the highest-ranking instructors in Karl’s School of Lightness, a talented circus trainer and a licensed practitioner of the Tellington TTouch method for horses, developed by Linda Tellington-Jones.
In watching Karl and Borelle work, I realized that even though they both had their own techniques for interacting with horses, there were common elements in how they approached training. Few of us will ever achieve the mastery of these two accomplished trainers but the following guidelines, which are derived from those elements, can help us achieve greater effectiveness in working with horses:
1. Deliver your aids with precision and consistency. If your aids vary even a little each time you apply them, your horse will have a hard time understanding what you want. To help your horse improve his performance, you first need to work on your own riding technique so that you can communicate effectively with him.
2. Change up your workout routines. Horses get bored when asked to repeat the same exercises over and over. Longeing, for example, can be monotonous. But if you incorporate transitions and/or changes in direction after every three turns, the exercise will be more interesting for both you and your horse. To keep a horse interested and attentive under saddle, a good rule of thumb is to avoid asking him to perform the same task more than three times in a row.
New activities will also provide needed stimulation for your horse. If you are a dressage rider, for example, consider hitting the trails or teaching your horse how to jump or do circus tricks. Doing something different from your usual training just once or twice a week will help keep your horse focused on what you’re doing.
[For your bookshelf: 101 Arena Exercises for Horse & Rider]
3. Vary the rewards. Negative reinforcement—reducing pressure as soon as your horse responds correctly—is one way to reward behavior, but there are others. Pauses, stopping to rest, are also a great way to motivate your horse, because he will learn that the sooner he does everything correctly, the sooner he will get a break. You can also use your voice to praise him when he does well. Positive reinforcement such as food rewards can be very effective when training from the ground but are impractical from the saddle. Nonetheless, when starting a new exercise you may find treats useful in helping a horse learn more quickly or when he does something particularly well.
4. Know when to stop. When you’re teaching your horse a new skill, there are a thousand things he can do wrong but only one that he can do right. Do not punish him when he gets it wrong. Instead, stop him (without releasing the contact so that he understands that he is not being rewarded), then ask him to try again. If he gets it right, give him a big reward. If he still gets it wrong, go back to a previous step in his training, and ask him for something you know he can do well. If he gets the previous step right, try the new exercise again. If he’s still having trouble, your horse might not be ready for this advance in his training.
Always remember: If your horse is not doing what you want, he is not being disobedient out of spite. Either he does not understand or he is not physically capable of doing what you ask. When your horse does not perform the desired behavior after multiple attempts, the best thing to do is to leave the exercise for a time and focus on other work.
5. Respond appropriately to your horse’s fear. When your horse misbehaves because he is afraid, the worst thing you can do is punish him. That will only make him more afraid because he will associate the thing he fears with the punishment. One option is to give your fearful horse a treat. Not only will this make him chew, which will help him relax, but he will form a more positive association between the food reward and the thing he is afraid of.
Another option is to distract your horse by asking him to perform an exercise that is physically demanding, such as a shoulder-in or a rein back, to keep his mind occupied and distract him from the fear. This is not a long-term solution, but it is a good option to deal with a single incident, for example, if you need to get past a scary object on the trail.
6. Set your horse up for success. Don’t expect too much too soon. Take it slow, start with exercises your horse can understand and master easily, and build upon his training in a logical way. Proceed to the next exercise only when your horse is ready.
Don’t forget about knowing when to stop: When teaching your horse something new, repeat the lesson enough times that he is headed in the right direction, but don’t overdo it. It may be tempting to keep going, but it is important not to exhaust your horse. If he gets too tired, he cannot focus well on new tasks. Keep each session short so you can get the most out of your horse while he is alert and motivated. Ten to 15 minutes of longeing plus 30 to 45 minutes of riding is more than enough. Don’t forget to intersperse your training with small breaks, which can double as rewards when your horse does something well. Finally, try to end each session on a good note.
7. Show your love. I believe that everyone starts riding out of a love for horses, but I have met people who think that if you are too kind, you’re soft and therefore a bad trainer. The truth is that punishment and aloofness have no place in horse training. The great trainers motivate their horses by showing how much they love them.
So how can you do that? Spend time with him that doesn’t require work—read a book in your horse’s stall, for example, or pull up a lawn chair and hang out in his turnout. Brush him for fun. Play with him both before and after you ride. Give him a carrot each time you walk by. The gestures that will work best for you depend on your personality as well as your horse’s. Your goal is to have your horse looking forward to seeing you and enjoying the time you spend with him. Remember that we ride because we love horses, and playing with them is part of loving them.
This article was originally published in EQUUS 485, February 2018