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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

Ask easier questions

So many battles can be avoided with our horses if we slow down and learn to release or reward for the smallest try. When you make the question easier, the horse can find the answer more easily and we can train with less stress, frustration and confusion. A horse trained in this way is much calmer, less likely to panic or become upset by new questions and will build positive associations with humans and training.

Sometimes we can think we’ve broken things down as small as possible but here are some ideas of how we can break down common training issues even further:

🐴 Teaching a horse to back up - Backing up is physically taxing for horses. Instead of only releasing when a hoof has moved, release for the tiniest weight shift back, eventually the hooves will move off the lightest pressure because you made the question easy and the movement felt comfortable. If we make the horse back up with a lot of pressure, the movement won’t feel pleasant for them and, from a learning theory perspective, not releasing pressure until all 4 feet have moved is an illogical, ineffective way to train as its difficult for a horse to understand why the release happened.

🐴 Horse won’t hack alone - Hacking alone is a big ask for a herd animal, we can prep by having the horse really confident on the ground, then we can practice mini hacks which might be just out of the gate and back. We can take our horses out in company and practice riding level with another horse (or person) and in places where the horse feels confident take them out in front for 10 seconds, gradually increase. Calm experiences build confidence, not battles “won”.

🐴 Loading issues - It is so common to see horses get anxious as soon as they see the box, so instead of pulling your horse to the ramp, stand quietly with them at their threshold until they feel calmer, then gradually ask them to investigate closer. When we add pressure to a stressed horse, that is when you get explosive behaviour. If the sight of a box makes your horse bolt in the other direction, start with just the sight of it and build from there. Positive reinforcement is really powerful for changing these associations over time.

How you get there does matter because while the end result may be the same in a literal sense i.e. the horse has jumped the jump, emotionally it is very different.

Let’s say Horse A spooks at a filler and is kicked, growled at and chased for a few minutes until he eventually jumps, getting a sock in the mouth from the rider as he has jumped awkwardly. Lets say Horse B spooks at the filler and we move the fillers out and quietly trot through moving them gradually closer until he is happy to pop over them. Horse A just had a stressful, negative experience and learned that when he is scared he will not be listened to and even when he does the scary thing it is uncomfortable. Horse B just had a positive training experience, he learned that he can stop and assess and pressure won’t be added so he doesn’t need to panic and maybe humans make good choices for him so he will be more likely to feel confident in the future.

Training can start to look and feel very differently when our goal changes from “get the horse to do the thing” to “help the horse feel comfortable about doing the thing”. 🐴

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