When I was training my horses and ponies for horse agility I began to notice something interesting: When the teaching session was short, ending on a positive note, the animals appeared to learn more quickly. Due to my other work commitments, my daily training time was limited, so I would set small, achievable tasks for each horse to be sure that we could reach a positive conclusion in the time I had available. Because the question I asked of the horse was so simple, as soon as he had either completed the task, or made some headway toward achieving it, I would stop and reward him. I was amazed at how quickly the horses learned a new skill even though the sessions were so short. However, I became even more interested when I realized that when I set up a session with a realistic goal, every animal achieved that goal in less than three minutes.
I began to time my training sessions, being careful not to allow a three-minute time limit to influence my instruction techniques or put either of us under pressure. I was also careful to vary the task from day to day, so that the horse did not become bored with the lessons. Again and again, I found that the animals were quietly working toward a successful conclusion and actually appeared to be learning more quickly.
In other words, my training time could sometimes be only a few seconds! I was always very careful not to get greedy and make each daily task more challenging: I just kept slowly building up to the bigger picture, patiently, with each exercise solid before I moved on.
Suddenly, training a horse at liberty to cross a tarpaulin in an open field was possible. There was no discomfort, restraint or concern from either party. I was achieving far more than I ever believed possible by doing far less than I had ever done before.
I came to the conclusion that if I set a small, achievable goal every day and worked toward it, stopping and rewarding when we were on the road to success—and not always when the goal was achieved—we moved on extremely quickly. If we didn’t complete the exercise that day then it was because I had asked too much.
I taught my horse Secret, at liberty, to jump through a hoop in an open field in only a few minutes, but those minutes were spread over six days. I then researched this idea and found that in an experiment carried out in 1980 by a scientist called Rubin, ponies were trained in short sessions for either seven days, two days or one day a week. The results were surprising: The ponies who were trained for only one day a week achieved a higher level of performance in fewer training sessions.
The researchers concluded that trainers need to keep sessions short, work on a different skill each day and stop drilling the horse after he has performed it. By accident, I had discovered the secret! Short, productive sessions over a longer period achieve better results. And so 3-Minute Horsemanship was born.
Seven basic principles
When things get too complicated, basic principles are what you can always fall back on. So often people ask me how they will know if their training is working or making things worse. I always answer that as long as they have stuck to the Seven Basic Principles no harm will have been done, even if they didn’t get the answer they were looking for. These principles form the foundation that must be in place before any horsemanship skills can develop. These principles are presented here in no particular order: None of them is of greater importance than another.
Use the Power of the Pause
We live in an instant world. When we press a button we expect an immediate response. We ask a question and expect an answer right away. But let’s think about this “instant” bit.
When we are asked a question, what happens? We hear the question, we decide what answer is appropriate, then we answer the question. That’s not instant. The same thing happens with the horse. First of all he needs to recognize that we are asking him to do something, then he needs to decide on the answer, then he replies.
Whenever you ask a question of the horse, you must make sure that he can hear you, that he understands the question and is capable of answering it. Then, just wait. Wait and wait and wait some more! The question may be as simple as: “Can you walk through this narrow gap?” Or you may be cantering around the arena on your horse and ask him, “Could you please look into the center of the arena very slightly?” In both cases, you’ve asked a question. Now let the horse answer it. Don’t meddle with him; he’s thinking! If you’ve asked the question correctly, it’ll never take him longer than three minutes to give you the answer. That’s the power of the pause.
Allow the Horse to seek peace When a filmmaker makes a documentary about horses, he knows he would soon lose his audience if he filmed just an ordinary day. There would be a lot of eating, a few hours of standing together snoozing, a bit of mutual grooming and rolling, with a few seconds of kicking, chasing and general liveliness thrown in. Filmmakers sit for months to create a program that is 30 minutes long, and they aren’t going to waste all those exciting seconds of galloping, rearing and chasing by leaving them on the cutting room floor!
So everyone thinks horses spend all their time dashing about. Horses certainly don’t waste energy galloping around anymore than they have to. Like most of us, they want an easy life, good food, companionship, and freedom from pain and fear.
When we set about training the horse, however, we often unwittingly put him into stressful situations where he is unable to express his desire to run away. When a horse is afraid, his learning ability is diminished because all he can think about is leaving. If we slow down the training process and work quietly on tasks that the horse is capable of achieving, and reward him when he gets it right, he will be more enthusiastic about joining us in the training area every day.
I do believe it goes one stage further, however. I believe horses actively seek peaceful people.
A friend of mine was escorting a ride in Hyde Park in London when one of the riders fell off and the horse bolted. Everyone began running around, trying to catch the frightened horse before he ended up on the heavily trafficked road. He became more and more scared until he saw a young girl sitting quietly on a bench reading a book. She was the only peaceful person he could see in the whole park, so he galloped over and stood with her until help arrived.
Be the peace your horse seeks, and he will always want to be with you.
know what success means Success is relative. For one person, it is a quiet, enjoyable ride. For another it’s winning a gold medal. To be successful you need to know what your goal is and how you are going to get there. This is the essence of 3–Minute Horsemanship.
So make a plan that is easy to follow with “mini-successes” along the way. By keeping your training sessions short and productive, you will become very aware of the small things that indicate you are moving forward and therefore feel encouraged to keep going.
The same applies to your horse. Get good at reading him so that you can let him know immediately when he’s on the right track. Leave him alone when he’s trying, but learn when he needs you to rephrase the question. Even if he just tries to answer and it isn’t quite what you were looking for, that is a moment of success because he’s trying to work with you to find the solution. With a little more information from you, he can get the answer. What a great team!
As a horseman it doesn’t matter what milestone you’ve reached on the way to the top, you will always want to have a willing, relaxed horse because this indicates that he is working with you. When he isn’t, you can only ever be the best of the worst on that day.
respect personal space
Everyone has a space around them they call their own. Horses have a personal space, too, and if you look at a herd grazing you will often find that there is a regular distance between each individual.
Just like us, horses are very particular about whom they let into that personal space, but so often people treat horses like vehicles and go barging in without checking with the horse first.
Haven’t you seen a horse leaning over a gate or door having a quick snooze when along comes a person, gives him a jovial slap on the neck, or starts playing with his lips? Then people wonder why horses bite or threaten them or simply move away.
Respect your horse’s personal space and he’ll respect yours. Never enter it without offering your hand first or calling his name. Likewise, don’t allow him to come into your personal space without inviting him first.
When a horse does push into you, do not move away because he will view this as an invitation to get even closer. Focus on your moving the horse rather than the horse moving you. Back him away from you if he starts pushing into you.
Each question you ask the horse can have only one correct answer. When you ask the question, you need to know exactly when you get the answer you want so you can let the horse know.
Whenever you ask him a question, expect an answer, and don’t give up until you get the answer or some attempt at it. Horses are so used to humans telling them to do something but giving up before the horse has had a chance to give it a try, they just stop bothering. If we would only wait three minutes, it would save so much wasted training time.
However, sometimes you will think you’re asking one question and the horse will think you are asking another. You need to make sure you are clear and consistent in how you ask a question. And, it’s really important to let the horse know when he’s got it right.
Basically, you are changing your demeanor from expectancy, as you wait for the horse to answer correctly, to peaceful relief when he does. Then you can stop asking the question, which is the horse’s reward. However, you may need to make this even more obvious for some horses and offer a treat, a stroke or kind word. Find out what makes your horse want to try even harder.
Although I am talking about consistency there are times when you do need to change the question because the horse just doesn’t understand. Experience will tell you when and how to do this. The beauty of working in three-minute slots is that if it all goes wrong, the consequences are tiny and easily undone.
never be afraid to start again
There is a myth that horses are constantly trying to outwit their handlers. Horses just can’t think like that. No matter how long you’ve been around horses there are always times when nothing seems to be working. No matter what you try the horse isn’t giving you anything near the answer you want. You feel yourself becoming irritated, cross, even angry and bad tempered.
Stop. Count to 10, walk away, do whatever defuses a situation that will only end in tears. Getting angry around horses never works and always makes things worse. Once you start putting yourself under pressure, the only individual who will suffer is the horse. Yes, your pride may be a little dented, but the horse may carry the emotional scars of your egotistical outburst forever.
There is no such thing as failure in horsemanship if you know when to stop. It’s better to have a go at something and not achieve it than it is to do nothing at all because you can learn through these experiences. Keeping the attempt small means nothing serious will come of it when you don’t get the answer you were looking for. Rethink the question to try something different, or go back to doing a movement that he did well.
be positive and believe
If you prepare and understand the route you’re going to follow to achieve your task, then believing you’ll get there comes easily. When the task looks too big then the steps you’ve planned are too big, and you need to break them down into easier exercises.
Knowing that you will achieve the final goal—no matter how long it takes or how simple the steps—gives you a positive, confident attitude that reassures the horse you are worth working with. You prove to him that you know what you’re doing and can achieve a positive result every day. This is the beauty of 3–Minute Horsemanship.
Bill Dorrance once said, “It’s really quite amazing what a horse will do for you, if he only understands what you want. And it’s also quite amazing what he’ll do to you if he doesn’t.” So after each training session ask yourself the following questions. If you can answer yes to each one then you’ve done well. If not, review your strategy and approach the session from another angle next time.
• Did I start the session knowing what I was look- ing for?
• Did I phrase my question clearly enough for the horse to understand?
• Did I give the horse time to answer?
• Did I stop and reward when the horse was relaxed and willing?
• Did we both respect each other’s personal space?
• Did I remain calm throughout the training session?
• Did we both start and finish on a peaceful note?
Adapted by permission from 3-Minute Horsemanship: 60 Amazingly Achievable Lessons to Improve Your Horse When Time Is Short, published in January 2014 by Trafalgar Square Books. Available from HorseBooksEtc.com; 800-952-5813.