How much is too much in regards to horse training?

Cowboy and April - The first groundwork day.

Cowboy and April - The first groundwork day.

Question: How much is too much in regards to training? How often should you continue to ask a horse to do something before the horse gets fed up and quits or becomes anxious? We have a “trainer” (I say this lightly) at our barn who does the same maneuvers over and over again for up to half an hour or more. Her horses are nasty, edgy and nervous. I don’t claim to be any great horse trainer, but it makes sense to me that maybe those training methods are being overdone. What is your take on this sort of thing?

Answer from April Reeves: Hah, I get horses in who are edgy, nasty and nervous, and it’s my job to get them back to happy, useful and safe. It’s all in the eye of the trainer as to what is appropriate.

There is also common sense here, although common sense isn’t that common. In my world there is no need for repetition that is so drawn out it no longer gets the result you need (notice I didn’t say ‘want’). That simply borders on abuse, which turns the horse into nasty, edgy and nervous.

When do you stop? The second you get any level of positive response. If you keep asking and don’t get anything for about 6 to 8 tries, find another technique, or rethink if what you are asking the horse may be too far, too fast for him to cooperate.

The level of response you are looking for varies in the horse. A younger horse only needs to show me he understands, and then we move on to something else. I will come back to the same ‘question’ for the horse later on during the same training session, and I will be looking for a bit more of that “oh, I think I get this” attitude from him. If that response is within the first time I ask, I only ask once more and move on (re-test). I will ask a third time and if I get an immediate response I need, I consider the lesson to be seating itself within the brain as the horse ‘soaks’ the information and keeps it.

Six days ago I introduced a movement to a green 4-year-old Andalusian filly. The lesson was – move out to the rail at a half pass. On the left rein (moving left around the arena), I was about 10 feet from the rail. I ‘opened the door’ on my right side by drawing my right leg out and pushing on the stirrup (while keeping my body centered and balanced) and opening the right rein (away from the horse’s neck). I ‘closed the door’ on the left side by using leg pressure at the girth (don’t let your leg slide back and allow your heel to come up, a common problem riders need to correct immediately) and brought the left rein slightly up and in front of the wither, but not crossing the wither, with a soft contact. The filly responded slowly by crossing her front and back legs slightly and moving to the right toward the rail, keeping her body reasonably straight, but moving her shoulder more than her hip.

The filly did more than I expected (she did move forward and sideways), so we carried on down the rail, and before we got to the next corner, I moved her off the rail another 10 feet along, and asked her to half pass over to the rail again. She did pretty much the same as the first time, so we quit and went on to some trot work, stopping, and about 10 minutes later, came back and revisited the half pass lesson, which she did much softer with a more even pass.

In my books that was a great lesson. I did it only 3 times for the first session. The next day I tried it again, and she moved to the rail easily first time. So I introduced the same lesson in the other direction, which proved a big tougher. I revisited that lesson 3 times, with no more than 3 requests each time, before she showed a small improvement. Humans have to remember that while the horse may not be responding in the way and speed ‘you’ think is fast enough, to the horse, it is a very big deal indeed.

On the third day, the minute I dropped weight into the stirrup away from her side, she moved into it. I tried this both directions and she was quicker to respond on her bad side. Again, I did not push the lesson for long. Each time was short and sweet, with a little rub for being ‘special’ each time. I believe horses respond a bit better to a soft rub (not a patting hit) after they do something well, than to just do nothing and say that that in itself is the reward. It’s just my personal experience.

By the sixth day (today) this filly is listening to my weight-to-stirrup cue, and is moving all around the arena with or without the rail. I use the rail to start as it does tend to ‘beg’ the horse over easier than trying this without a rail. I like to set up my horses for success, not failure. Keep it easy, exaggerate to teach, and refine from there. From here I will take this lesson and expand on it, adding another lesson with it and building the aids and cues as we go. This is how they learn. Start easy and simple, then begin to put each single lesson together with another lesson. Grand Prix dressage is the epitome of a horse being able to decipher 7 to 8 different cues given at the same time and understanding what the question is.

The point of this is not to show you how to half pass with pressure, but to see how utterly simple and quick training can be if you are consistent, and do not labor the point. Horses don’t get repetition all the time, regardless of the many trainers who continue to tell you that this is what you need to do to teach them. I have found that very simple communication (one lesson at a time), done WELL, can teach faster than trying to do it over and over until they get it. When is the point where the horse gets it? The second he makes the slightest try in the right direction.

I must admit, these Andalusians I have in for training are exceptional, and not all horses are going to respond as well, but generally, when taking a young horse who has had no prior experience with humans, and you get to start them from scratch, the process can be very quick and one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. There is nothing better than seeing a horse leave with a foundation on it that the worst of riders would have trouble breaking.

This filly also had a great deal of groundwork, with side passing as one of the lessons. Groundwork done well, without question, leads into better saddle work in shorter time frames.

Older horses often have to have their ‘memory banks’ rebuilt. It’s a matter of replacing habits you don’t want with habits you do want. It takes almost 3 to 4 times as long as a fresh youngster will take, but the same rules apply; keep the lesson simple and singular, don’t labor the point, seek the smallest try and reward it.

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