The Six Golden Principles of Horse Training

The co-founders of Cavalia share their insights on equine behavior and training in this excerpt from their new book, Gallop to Freedom. Plus, watch a video preview of the book!

Husband-and-wife team Fr?d?ric Pignon and Magali Delgado first became known to the world through their equestrian-themed show, Cavalia, which began touring in North America in 2004. Billed as an “homage to the poignant history and fascinating bond between human beings and horses,” Cavalia features 30 highly trained horses performing in a spectacular multimedia program of dance, live music and visual arts. Now Pignon and Delgado are sharing their training and handling secrets in their new book, Gallop to Freedom. In this chapter, adapted from the book, the husband and wife pair describes the philosophy underpinning their relationship with their horses.

Watch a video preview of their book:

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Principle OneFoster a more equal relationship, based on trust and respect, in which we learn from each other.

I believe we can forge a new kind of relationship with a horse based on a greater degree of equality than most people have thought possible. Horses themselves form very close relationships that can last a lifetime. I want the same: I want to reach the stage where they don’t drive me from their space and I don’t drive them from mine. I have to convince them that the space belongs to both of us. In our liberty acts, I have to put these beliefs to the test in front of audiences. When I come into the ring with loose horses, I have an idea of what we may be doing together but I never know exactly how the evening will turn out. Occasionally, I am amazed and delighted along with the audience.

During these liberty acts I initially allow the horses to position themselves for their own comfort. For instance, in the act I do with three Lusitanos, I let them choose who wants to be in the middle. But once established, they have to keep that order. When I do the same act with the much younger Friesians, Phoebus and Paulus, together with Guizo, a pure Spanish horse, I persuade Guizo to be between the other two since this avoids potential trouble when the Friesians become overexcited or decide that it would be fun to have a brotherly nip.

Three Stallions Invent a Number On another occasion I was doing a number with the three stallions Aetes, Fasto and Templado in Essen, Germany. At the end of the act the horses galloped across the ring toward me but, as they were stopping and preparing for a cabrade, Aetes turned around and galloped back to the other side of the ring (about 65 feet away) where there was a box. There he turned again, put one front leg on the box and performed a perfect jambette. At the same time the other two stallions reared up into a wonderful cabrade. When Aetes saw this he galloped over to join the other two. Then they came toward me, all three content. The jambette had made up for the disobedience, and Aetes knew it. This number was a total surprise to me–like a gift of joy.

Principle TwoNever adopt “standard” or inflexible methods of training but recognize that each horse develops as an individual and reacts differently to the same stimulus.

It is commonplace to say that every person is different from everyone else. The same is true for horses, and the difference between each is as great as that between humans. Many characteristics are decided by hereditary makeup, the rest depending on upbringing and relationships with other horses and with humans.

When I explain to people that I am not in the business of putting forward yet another training method, they quite naturally want to know what method I do favor. As usual, there is no simple answer: Lots of reasonable methods have been developed over the years, but you have to apply all of them with sensitivity and without losing sight of the principles I am trying to instill–that is, of course, if you are won over to our approach.

In dealing with other people we learn to be aware of their wishes and their reactions. Likewise, we can learn to read horses, but their language is different so we have to learn it first. When people deal with horses, all too often they ignore this obvious truth and throw common sense out the window. They follow some method they have been taught or heard about and apply it without any attention to the horse’s reaction. They make no effort to gauge whether the horse likes what they are trying to do or not. Put yourself in the horse’s position. Would you care to be treated like this?

Principle ThreeReduce stress and become a safe, trusted “haven” for the horse.

A feeling of security is much more fundamental than the need for food and so constant that it is a basic element in the training of a horse. I consider removing anxiety, reassuring the horse and producing a “comfort zone” as the steps to be taken before any other. As soon as a horse feels secure you can begin the process of enabling him (I purposely don’t use the term “making”) to cooperate and work for you. If the horse wants to work and finds pleasure in working, his reward is security. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with occasionally using food as an incentive, but this should never become automatic.

I often reward my horse by allowing him to do a favorite action. As you know, Aetes likes nibbling my chin, so at the end of a show I let him do this, and of course the audience loves it. Quite often I will already have left the stage when a horse returns to me and wants to do his favorite thing. If I can afford the time, I let him, and if I don’t have time–because I have to go on stage again right away, for instance–then I will come back and make it up to him. I have to keep each horse’s peculiarities in mind during a show. By remembering to allow Fasto a fair amount of galloping, I reduce his stress. If he is stressed at the end of the act when the horses lie down for the applause, he’s tense and shows me his unease. If he has had a good gallop, he is relaxed and sits perfectly still through any amount of clapping.

When Lancelot becomes anxious in the middle of a performance, he is like someone in front of a void: He freezes and his muscles tense up. As soon as I see this, I let him put his head in my elbow, which is his way of telling me that he wants me to calm and relax him.

Flight Is His Right, But My Protection is Better The great advantage of liberty training is that there is by definition less stress from the outset. It is often months–with Templado, it was years–before I put a saddle on a young horse. This makes it much easier to encourage, if not to provoke, the horse into showing initiative. I want him to understand that he has various choices even if I help him make his decision. This matter of choice even extends to galloping away from me. Since I am working with him in a closed arena his freedom is, in the end, limited by the fence and he will eventually stop. I may keep his attention by waving my whip or calling softly. I have to convince him that he will not find the peace he wants unless he pleases me. Gradually he works his way back to me and we resume where we left off, calmly and without recrimination or punishment. A horse soon learns that the alternative to flight is to put himself under my protection. But flight is always his right! It is up to him to decide how to deal with his fear.

Principle FourAlways be patient and never push too fast or too insistently–and don’t allow the horse to get bored.

Magali says: “In our world everyone is obsessed with deadlines and speed. In the horse’s world you have to forget these. If you tug on a carrot, hoping to speed its growth, you will loosen the roots and achieve the opposite effect. If there are difficulties I try to divide them up into manageable parts. I wait until the horse feels ready to take the next step. I am convinced that I save time by this approach.

“When it comes to work I try never to overdo it. Deciding on the correct length of a working session is vitally important. What is more, a horse must feel that if he does really well he will be rewarded with a shorter session. If he is forced to go on too long it not only tires him, it also ‘demotivates’ him–a great mistake.

“I try to break up lessons into a logical progression the horse can understand and take pleasure in. When I make a mistake and press him too hard, I can just go back a step without having to go all the way to the beginning.”

Trial and Error The classical teaching methods of horse training are on the whole against experimentation; I believe that trial and error is the only way to proceed because, inevitably, you will make mistakes. As Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” My horse shies: Is that wheelbarrow the reason? I remove it; he shies again. Is it because he doesn’t like being away from his friends? I bring them into the lesson and try again–and so on. I spend my life trying to get to the bottom of enigmas.

In the sort of acts in which my horses take part, they are not made to rear and hold the position for a long time as they are often asked to do in circuses. I know from what they “tell” me that a long rear is uncomfortable and they don’t like it. I once allowed someone to tap my horse on his hindquarters to keep him up. Never again: The next day the horse made it crystal clear that he was upset and didn’t want to play with me. The end never justifies the means and in this case, the end was not even the correct one. The horse was able to tell me and I made it up to him.

Some people say that, in a competition, it’s all right to push the horse further than he would normally go. My answer is that if you have a good relationship you can ask a lot on one day, but the next day you must reward your horse with rest or with games he likes. I usually play a few games before going into the arena and, of course, I choose the ones that my horse particularly likes.

Principle FiveNever use force or become angry.

I cannot stress enough that any method based on achieving your will over a horse by punishment or brute force is not to be considered. If a horse does not obey you, there is almost certainly a reason for it: Either he doesn’t understand the command, he is uncomfortable, or he is fearful of what might happen if he obeys. Since my aim is to cultivate a relationship in which my horse will want to obey me, I know that a refusal has a reason. It is my job to find that reason and to put it right.

I might add that I was particularly fortunate with Templado. Once he had accepted me as his trusted friend he never gave me the slightest reason to be angry but, before he was “tamed,” there were plenty of occasions that could have elicited anger had I not been aware that it would serve no purpose.

It seems impossible to hide anger from a horse. I know this because when I was less experienced, I occasionally allowed myself to feel upset after a number had gone badly wrong. Even if one does not show displeasure, it seems that horses can sense it, but they cannot make the connection to a deed, and it only makes things worse. They do not know how to cope with our annoyance and conceive it as a form of punishment.

If something is not working out and you have already shown your disapproval without result, it is better to end that particular lesson and come back to it later. If you ever have to use a hard defensive action, say to protect yourself, follow it immediately with an affectionate action. If you correct a horse, do it immediately and then stop. As with a dog, the association of offense and punishment is lost after a very short time. Punishment that is not associated with the offense will only leave long-term resentment and a diminution of trust.

Principle SixEstablish a more “natural” form of communication–that is, further new methods.

Some people say they can speak to horses or hear what they are saying. I myself remember many years ago doubting a woman who claimed she could understand what her horse was telling her. Now I feel quite differently. As my understanding has grown I know that I can often pick up exactly what the horse is trying to get across to me. I can also transmit my own wishes and ideas. I know this because of the horse’s reactions.

Our Body Language Although we have to learn the art of close observation of horses I believe that they are very sensitive to our body language and behavior. Every movement we make, even the tiniest, is noticed by a horse, and for this reason we must learn to be precise in all our movements and make sure that our thoughts are working in tandem with them. If we make a movement or indicate an intention but our thoughts are elsewhere, the horse can very easily be confused: He is getting two messages and he doesn’t know how to cope with this sort of complexity. It may not have such a strong effect on him as any anger we might express, but it is clearly a negative emotion that will harm our relationship with him. Horses that have spent time in the wild are even more sensitive to our every gesture than horses that have been “dulled” by domestic misuse.

What’s the Horse Telling Us? People often ask me: What does it mean when you talk about a horse “telling” you?

There is no clear way of explaining this. You have to be able to “read” your horse and decode his reactions quickly enough to adjust your own actions. I notice that a lot of people do not even understand if a horse is saying “Yes” or “No.” Part of your aim must be to arrive at the point where the horse can tell you things, and you can tell him things in reply. Once he has this confidence he will not find it difficult to tell you that he has back pain or that he’s tired.

I keep all my senses alert when I am trying to understand what the horse is saying. When I get a feeling I go with it. I find that increasingly I can follow my instincts or my instinctive interpretation of images and thoughts. In order to train this ability I sometimes stay close to a horse and observe him while emptying my mind of all other thoughts. I let myself be guided by my instincts. Usually they turn out to be correct.

People throughout history were able to ask the most detailed questions of horses and understand their replies, but this is a very special gift that few people have. My own ability and Magali’s is one we have developed over time by the methods outlined in this book. I am convinced that it is a skill available to anyone prepared to devote enough time and patience to its pursuit.

This excerpt appeared in the November 2009 issue of EQUUS magazine. Adapted by permission from Gallop to Freedom: Training Horses with the Founding Stars of Cavalia, published in October 2009 by Trafalgar Square Books. Available from; 800-952-5813.




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