Understanding how a horse thinks is the foundation for all my bombproofing strategies. If you understand your horse's motivation, it will be easier to comprehend why certain training methods are effective, while others are not. All horses have the same basic instincts, though they undeniably vary in intensity with each individual.
Imagine you are hacking toward your friend's house, preoccupied with removing bits of hay from your gloves, when your horse spots the tent a neighbor's child has set up. It's windy, and the roof of the tent billows. Your horse jolts to a stop, and he wheels and launches himself in the opposite direction. As you struggle to haul him back under control, thoughts roll through your mind. Stupid horse! He nearly ran us right into that tree. He has the brain of a hamster.
Your horse, of course, considers this scenario in another way. He saw the tent shuddering, waiting to spring toward him and swallow him whole, and supposes it was his quick reaction that saved his skin (since you obviously were dozing and failed to note the danger). You and your horse are both doing what comes naturally: You're thinking like a human being, and he's thinking like a horse. The point? He's not going to start thinking like a human being -- not now, not next week, not ever.
The Comfort Zone
When your horse lopes around the same small course of fences that he has negotiated a hundred times, he's well within his comfort zone. On the other hand, when a green 3-year-old is asked to leap a log into water, he has been pushed far out of his comfort zone. As far as he's concerned, you've asked him to do something impossible, and he doesn't like it.
Whenever you train your horse to another level by introducing a new stimulus, you need to find the boundary of his comfort zone, and push him to stretch a bit beyond it. You need to "tread the line" and find the right balance just beyond the place where he remains relaxed but before the place where he is totally uncomfortable. This "breaching" of the boundary of his comfort zone is what gets him closer to accepting a new stimulus.
But you'll have to strike a balance: Challenge a horse too little or too much and he won't learn anything. Deciding on the level of stimulus is a very personal thing, unique to each animal and circumstance. What constitutes a minor test of nerve and obedience for one horse may be an insurmountable obstacle to the next. It depends on the horse's natural aptitude, coupled with his experience level and prior training.
The comfort zone boundary can also be physically established by distancing a horse from a threat. Usually, when a horse flees, he assesses the risk by glancing backward while he sprints. Eventually, he stops galloping. He's calculated that he's out of danger. He may have traveled 20 feet or 100 yards, but right then, he has reached his comfort zone.
Asking the Right Questions
Imagine a noisy machine, like a bulldozer. If it is clanking around right next to your horse, the noise will probably upset him. But will he flinch at the sound when it's several blocks away? Probably not. Somewhere in between these extremes is the boundary of your horse's comfort zone. When you work to gradually increase the size of the comfort zone of your horse to anything--from sudden loud noises, to rocks on the ground, to cars whizzing by--you are sensory training your horse.
Think about this concept and try to imagine how things appear to your horse. When you decide which route to take in crossing a ditch, consider whether your horse can tackle a steep bank, or will a flat, open crossing amply challenge him? The idea is to ask questions, but only ones that your horse can reasonably answer successfully.
So how do you decide what is an appropriate question for your horse? The key to your success is that you must have a probable positive outcome. A positive outcome first means that you can actually get your horse to do what you ask, and second, that the experience will build confidence in him. If you have reasonable expectations of meeting these criteria, then the task you are asking is appropriate.
In my clinics, I often ask horses to cross a mattress. Chances are, this pushes the horse well out of his comfort zone. He will almost certainly be at least mildly alarmed, and he may well back up, spin, or try to bolt and leave entirely. He may even rear. However, in a controlled, clinic environment, one way or another, it's a pretty sure bet that eventually, the animal will see things my way and attempt the crossing.
Now, if you aren't an experienced rider, and you plunk down a mattress in your field and ask your mount to cross it, you might not be so sure of the exercise's outcome. If you don't possess the knowledge or equipment to work your horse from the ground, and you haven't the foresight to bring a friend to help you, your horse may not cooperate even with coercion. If he refuses to traverse the mattress, and you don't have the tools to insist on his obedience, all you are successfully teaching your horse is that he doesn't need to obey you in all instances. Obviously, if you can't get your horse to do as you are asking, this can't be considered a positive outcome.
The second part of determining if the question you're asking your horse is appropriate is whether it will result in a confidence-building experience. If I'm successful in getting my horse to cross the mattress, the experience will almost certainly create assurance. The mattress won't actually spring into the air and "bite" my horse on the fetlock; it won't trap his feet or hurt him. He'll end up on the other side of it, alive and intact. I haven't "lied." In other words, I haven't asked him to perform a task that might indeed be harmful to him. Once he has repeated the task enough times, he'll start to grasp that nothing terrible is happening to him. Then, he'll begin to graciously comply, and also relax.
However, if I "lie" to my mount, the opposite is true. If I ask my horse to leap a fence that's beyond his scope, and he's unsuccessful in clearing it, all I've demonstrated is that he should use his own judgment to decide which obstacles he should attempt, and that he should be prepared to refuse any task that seems questionable. In these kinds of circumstances, I'm training my horse, very effectively, to not obey.
Once you breach your horse's comfort zone boundary, he'll react by rearing, bucking, shying, trembling and so forth. He's showing you that he's frightened, resistant or both. It's now necessary to work through the reaction. For example, if your horse refuses to go forward, you can push him in circles until he obeys your leg. Or, use his herd instinct to help you, and let him follow another horse. If all else fails, you can school him from the ground.
Reinforcing with Repetition
Repetition is the glue that makes the lessons stick. Let's go back to the example of the mattress one last time. The first time he crosses it, your horse is still liable to be frightened. He'll probably jump over the last half of the mattress and may land running. He may act as if he thinks that he was merely lucky to have lived through the single attempt. Even if you've done everything right, this one (probably ragged) crossing likely hasn't totally convinced him that the obstacle is safe.
Be aware that even if a horse calmly walks over an object several times, he may not have fully absorbed the exercise. Sometimes, a horse can be completely habituated to a new object or task in one lesson, and other times, he'll need the lesson repeated on subsequent days before it is really taken in. For example, a sensible horse may accept all water obstacles or all logs on the ground after schooling over a single stream or log. However, the spooky, high-strung horse may also need to negotiate different logs or other water obstacles before you can consider him habituated to these things.
In both cases, repetition is what convinces the horse that whatever you're asking him to do isn't harmful. Once your horse negotiates an obstacle (or learns a new skill) without harm or punishment, he will be more willing to try it again. The horse performs a little better each time, and therefore, his assurance and obedience grows.
Be careful, however, to avoid asking for so much repetition that your exercises become monotonous for your horse. When introducing a new skill, limit your session to 20 or 30 minutes. There's a fine line between adequately reinforcing a new skill and exhausting your horse, which can set up problems with resistance later.
Proactive vs. Reactive Skills
Management skills can be used in either a proactive or reactive manner. When you anticipate a potential problem and try to thwart it, this is considered proactive riding.
For example, imagine you and your horse are out on a trail ride. As you hack by your neighbor's field, you notice he has acquired several new pets--llamas! You don't wait for your horse to spot the animals. Instead, you immediately ask him to concentrate on his job. You bend him in the opposite direction of the llamas and ask him to take a few steps forward. In the meantime, you push him into an energetic trot.
Since your horse is busy yielding to the bit and your leg, he never even sees the llamas. As a result, he remains relaxed and is past the potential problem in no time. Thanks to your speedy thinking and reactions, any stopping or spooking has been averted. You have prevented a problem using proactive skills.
A reactive skill is when you take action in response to something that has already happened. The same scenario demonstrates how this might work. Let's say you don't notice the new arrivals. You're busy thinking about how nice it is to have escaped the office and how wonderful it is to enjoy the day with your horse.
The first indication that something is wrong is the ugly sensation that your horse has vanished from underneath you, and the saddle is nowhere near your bottom. You grab at the air and manage to find a piece of leather (which later proves to be the pommel). You cling to it as your horse plummets backward.
Though you somehow manage to stay aboard, your horse's confidence has been shattered. He refuses to go toward the pasture and plants his hooves in the grass. He's shaking, and his eyes are as big as apples. But you need to get him by the pasture.
It's the only way out to the trail, and besides, he's supposed to do what you say. It's time to employ your reactive skills. Since he won't move in a straight line, you turn him in a circle and kick him with your heels until he bounds forward. Then you straighten him and ask him to edge by the field again. It takes a couple of tries, but your stern reminder to respond to your leg works. Your horse, though still afraid, trots by the llamas. You have used a reactive skill to correct your horse's behavior.
Rick Pelicano has been a mounted police officer with the Maryland National Capitol Park Police for 20 years. He was named the American Riding Instructor Certification Program instructor of the year in 1995.
This book excerpt comes from Bombproof Your Horse by Rick Pelicano, published by Trafalgar Square Publishing. A longer excerpt ran in the March 2004 issue of EQUUS magazine. To order this book, visit HorseBooksEtc.com or call 1-800-952-5813.