Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rules to Train By

I try to keep my approach to training simple. Simple translates to a few ‘simple’ rules.

1. I choose a positive approach. I believe the best and it will probably happen. Why? Because my horse takes his cue from me. If I choose positive over negative, I have a better chance of positive. If I believe the worst of my horse, he will probably give me his worst. If he senses I am anticipating bad behaviour he may oblige.

2. I have a plan. It’s time better spent and more productive to spend 45 minutes thinking about what you are going to do and 15 minutes riding, than muddling around for an hour without a plan.   

3. I put my horse on a program. The first rides of a horse’s life set the tone of the training program, one of the reasons I still start my own colts. I believe the first six to eight rides may be the most important rides of a young horse's life to send him down a path of least resistance - followed by a step-by-step training program, of course.

4. I deliver the same message, the same way, every time. A horse learns by repetition, consistent repetition. If I repeat the same message, the same way every time I ask, the horse will learn the skill.

5. I use the ladder approach. My training program is like a ladder. The first step is the easiest exercise, the first rung; the second a little harder and so on. If a step is too difficult and the horse exhibits a problem, “stepping back down” to a lower “rung” and spending more time on a basic maneuver will almost always fix the problem. For example, if the horse will not change leads, he will only get better at missing the lead if he “practices” not changing. If I spend more time on basic leg yielding and body control at a walk and jog, nine times out of ten the problem vanishes when he returns to loping and changing leads. By climbing that ladder slowly, and never missing steps, the horse’s training will be solid for life.

6. I teach my horses to give to my hands and give to my legs. If my horse gives to the pressure from my hands by giving to the bit and moves away from pressure from my legs, I can teach him almost anything. With combinations of bit and leg pressure at different speeds, I can teach him different maneuvers.

7. I ask, then demand, then correct. If I “ask” my horse to respond to my aid and he does not, I “demand” by applying a slightly stronger aid. If he still does not respond, I “correct” by applying a stronger aid still. For example, if I ask him to move laterally off of my leg, I first squeeze with my leg. If he does not respond, I turn my foot to use my heel. If he still does not respond, I bump him with my foot, touch him with the spur. The next time I ask, I will ask with the softest aid first, my leg. By repeating the request this way every time, the horse will always learn to respond to the softest aid and I can eliminate the “demand, correct”.

8. I am aware of the height of my hand. Always, I strive to give clear signals to my horse. A confused horse will not learn, so the more consistent and concise my program is, the better it is for both of us. I am very strict with myself when it comes to the height of my rein hand. It’s simple – when I am happy with what my horse is doing, my hand is down; when I want anything (correction, change of maneuver) I raise my hand. If I am loping a circle and he is staying on the circle at a consistent speed, my hand is down. If he falls into the circle, I lift my hand to correct. If I stop and don’t want him to move, my hand is down; if I stop and want him to roll back, I pick up my hand. When he is trained, movement of my hand may be subtle, but it is always there and he knows. The reason he knows is because he has been trained that way from the beginning.

9. I raise and lower my hands slowly. When I lift my hand and apply pressure to my horse’s mouth, I am careful to apply the pressure slowly. There are two reasons for this. If I raise my hand and pull abruptly, my horse does not have a chance to react before he feels the increased pressure; if he is not responding to the bit, abrupt pressure will probably cause him to throw her head up. My horse can accept pressure if applied slowly.

10. I keep my signals soft. Tenseness and impatience have no place in horse training but, when I am frustrated, difficult to remember. It is amazing to me how much difference it can make if the muscles in my rein arm are soft – not surprising when I think of where that rein goes – into my horse’s mouth! I constantly remind myself to soften my forearms; when I do, I have much better results.

11. I listen to the horse’s side of the story. If I really pay attention, a horse will tell me his own story. I know most history of my own horses, of course, but when a new horse comes to my barn for training, especially one that has been handled a lot or ridden, I rely on what the horse tells me. For example, if I raise my hands and the horse raises his head, I know the rider has released pressure when the horse’s head is up. I will have to re-program him.

By keeping these simple rules in mind as I work (and play!) with my horses, training progresses at a steady pace with the end result a calm, responsive partner for not only reining, but any horse activity I choose.

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