Three Lessons To Teach A Kid
The other day I overheard a very smart person (my mother), having a conversation with someone on the 3 things that she believes are vital in teaching your child to help them to become successful. These three things are; how to work, how to think, and how to love. Listening to this, it really resonated with me that I believe these are three things that I effort to teach my young horses when I am developing them. Now some people may say how can you teach a horse to love or to think, but I think it is possible. Furthermore, I think that when you have a horse that loves or has a big heart they will go that extra mile and put in that extra effort when you need it.
Funny enough, I was having a conversation with someone yesterday and I said my number one required trait in a horse is self-preservation, I want a horse that is going to protect themselves and myself before just reacting. I want a horse that is not going to rear up and flip over on me, or a horse that is going to slip on footing and then slip again because they did not think. I want a horse that learns lessons and does not make the same dangerous mistakes again and again. As I have gotten older and had a few bad accidents that have left me scarred physically, and mentally have been a challenge to overcome, I want a horse that is smart or knows how to think to keep themselves safe. Then becomes the question how do you teach a horse to think, well I think they have to be born with some of this, but then it must be cultivated and you must teach a horse to give in to pressure of soften away from it for the pressure to go away. When I work with my young horses, I let them make mistakes, but then I teach them how to get out of them. I teach them resistance training and that they cannot just run when scared, that they have to think. I really think this is a problem for many horses that when they feel pressure physically or mentally, they just want to shut down, or over power the pressure to try to get away, but that is not the correct solution for them.
I know that some people will disagree with me, but I let all of my young horses step on leadropes in a controlled manner, I want them to learn that when they step on the leadrope they have to move their feet off of it before they can move their heads or the rest of their body. To do this go in a ring where it is a closed environment with soft footing in case something were to happen, attach a lead rope or even a lunge line and drop it on the floor, but then put a second rope on that you keep a hold of. Start out with your horse walking very slowly and encourage them to step on the lead rope, but when they go to jerk their head away, ask them to stay still and just stand there for a minute and then back them off the lead rope or move their feet to the side. The goal is to teach the horse to think about how they have to move their feet in order to release the rope. It teaches them that they have to give in to pressure in order to get away from the pressure or for the pressure to lessen. This seems like such a simple useless exercise, but it has a bigger meaning and could help you when you go to teach them about bridle pressure to create a steady connection. When you start them under saddle and ask them to soften to the pressure or connection in the bridle they will more willingly soften (hopefully) instead of fighting against you. We had a horse get loose here sometime last summer and they got their foot caught in the reins; as soon as they felt the pressure they stopped and put their head down waiting for me to help them. It can be dangerous when a horse reacts to pressure without thinking so if we can teach them in controlled environments it can make it much safer in the long run and in my opinion this translates to the riding.
I think this also applies mentally, especially when training young horses that they can feel overwhelmed or too pressured when being asked something. I think in this case teaching them to think, means building a solid foundation of the basics and teaching them how to move off the leg, how to react to pressure on the bridle, etc. When I jump my horses I want to find a variety of distances and from a variety of speeds, because I want them to think how to get out of different situations. They have to learn how to jump from a deep distance or a bit longer distance because when this type of situation happens in the ring you do not want them to shut down or panic. There is not one person in this world who will not miss occasionally and if the horse knows how to react there might be a much better outcome. On this same vein, is teaching the horse to think about the jump and study it to jump it correctly, while staying relaxed. This can be done through different gymnastics or cavaletti exercises teaching them to shorten and lengthen their strides when necessary. I think teaching a horse to think, goes hand-in-hand with their rideability and can help them to be more confident because it better prepares them to handle a situation.
I heard over and over again from different people this weekend that they think our horses perform so well because of the bond I have with them and because they love me. I have also heard numerous times that people think I am crazy because I treat my horses like my kids; I talk to them (my sister laughs at me all the time because I tell them exactly what I am thinking; they understand), I hug them, and I pay attention to their emotional state of mind. I want to know if they are stressed, nervous, insecure, etc., because only then can I help them as needed. Timing wise, it was so funny to hear this because I was already in the middle of writing this blog, because I think it is so important to teach a horse how to love and it truly makes a difference. You see these horses that are so mechanic and they just have no will to “fight to win.” A horse just like a child needs to feel loved and cared for in order to want to perform their best, because let’s be honest a horse has to want to perform, plain and simple. To teach a horse how to love I think you have to show them love and cultivate your relationship with them. A friend of mine wrote this perfectly, “This is an intangible dimension of training which just does not always exist. We typically leverage a horse’s willingness to be trained, but this added piece of personal connection within that willingness, motivating that horse even more strongly, this is a wonderful thing.”
Showing a horse that you love them does not mean just giving them lots of cookies or letting them do whatever they want. Although anyone that knows me does know that my horses get plenty of cookies. Horses need boundaries to feel loved; they need to know what is expected of them and what is allowed. They need to respect you and respect your space, because I think love does not come without respect. Horses to begin with are herd animals and growing up in the wild they knew who the leader was and they looked to the leader for not only protection, but also guidance on what is accepted and this then translated into love for that leader. They would do most anything for that leader.
If you let a horse make the same mistake or exhibit a bad behavior over and over you are not showing them love. I want my horses to have a personality and enjoy the work we are asking them to do and I reward them when they deserve it by petting them and showing them affection, or giving them a mint. I believe that every horse is an individual and must be treated as such, I don’t want to make them all conform to a certain “norm” and I think by letting them be individuals you will find the best in them.
I will make mistakes and they will make mistakes but that does not mean you get angry or upset at your horse because you cannot allow emotions, especially negative emotions, to affect your actions. When that happens you will do something that you regret and that is counter-productive to your training and relationship with your horse. You can reward them with enthusiasm and positivity though for doing something correctly or even for them trying to do something correctly. This enthusiasm translates to them and makes them enthusiastic about what they are doing and inspires them to try that much harder for you.
Work should not just be a 40 minute training session with your horse, it needs to be a time when you are also bonding and creating a relationship with your horse. When you are praising them for a job well done or correcting them for a mistake made because if you do not correct those mistakes they become bigger problems that are even harder to correct. Correcting a horse should be done in a patient, but firm manner where you are teaching them how to do what you are asking without ever going about it in a mean way.
If I could give one piece of advice to people it would be to spend time with your horse, and put your heart into it because it does make a difference.
In my opinion, it is imperative to teach a horse how to work. They must enjoy work and they must understand that it is the time of day they have to focus and perform as asked. This is probably one of the hardest things to teach a horse, but one of the most necessary. If a horse does not enjoy their work they will be resistant to the work and unwilling to learn. They will become sour and lackluster in their performance. A horse that knows how to work and enjoys their work looks forward to learning new things and enjoys rising up to the challenges presented to them.
How do you teach horses to enjoy work:
They have to be challenged, but not over-faced
Treat each horse as an individual and find what works for them
They cannot get bored, constantly do new exercises or get out of the ring on occasion
They have to be rewarded for their efforts
They cannot be pushed when they are sore or injured, but sometimes do have to work through stiffness
To make work enjoyable it cannot become routine, it needs to constantly be switched up and horses need different scenarios so they do not get bored. Horses need challenge, but downtime or easy work is just as important so that they do not get overstressed or burned out. My horses go for trail rides at least 1-2x a week and I consider this just as much a part of their exercise program as a hard flat day or a day working through gymnastics because it is so important for them mentally. I want my horses to be horses, not just machines. My flatwork days are never routine; some days I work counter cantering and some days I work lateral work. Some days I have to encourage my horses that they need to work, but when they are exhausted I listen to them and give them easy days.
I have a specific goal with each horse every day on what I want to work on or improve and I try to meet that goal and do it as correctly as possible; don’t just get something halfway decent and move on. With that being said though I don’t think you should over-drill, like everything in life there is a fine line and working with young horses I find this doubly important. I have had this lesson hammered into me over and over. I am a perfectionist so want to do the exercise until it is 100% perfect and then I want to do it 2 more times to make sure that we are actually doing it correctly and not just getting lucky. I have learned with my young ones though that sometimes you have to stop once they have done it once correctly. Sometimes if you cannot complete the exercise correctly it is best to break it down into smaller parts or take a break and come back to it later that day or even the next day because the horse needs time to think about what you are asking.
I remember I was riding one of my 4-year-olds once and all I wanted was to canter to down a line of cavalettis on the right lead, but every time the horse would land left even though they were staying straight in their body. I then decided to approach it with a different tactic and started doing a circle over the first cavaletti so that the horse would land right and then after a few minutes I went back to the line and we cantered down it on the right lead and I immediately quiet. I knew that it would be more benefit to that young horse to stop then so they could think about what we did and worked on, rather than doing it again and possibly landing on the wrong lead and having to start all over again. If you accomplish half of the task in one day and you can tell your horse is getting physically or mentally tired, stop for the day and pick it up the next day.
I think horses need to be challenged, but never overfaced, in order to stay enthusiastic about their work. When you overface a horse you run the risk or ruining their confidence or even injury. If you ruin a horse’s confidence or make them doubt themselves it takes a long time to rebuild their confidence. Top athletes will tell you part of the reason they are so successful is because they are so confident and believe they will win. I think a horse needs this same attitude. You must build from the foundation up, so that the horse has all the tools necessary to overcome the challenges they are presented with. I also think you have to look at each respective horse and learn what they need. I had one young horse who just thrived on challenge, he would get so bored unless he was presented with a difficult task. On the flip side though, I had another young horse who constantly doubted herself a bit, and I never challenged her at home; I made sure she learned all the tools necessary to meet the challenges in the ring, but at home I did simple exercises so that she was very confident when heading to shows. I wanted her to arrive at shows feeling like she could conquer the world.
When work becomes monotonous for people or horses it becomes boring and we do not try as hard or enjoy going to work as much. When we, as well as horses, are faced with tests and we ace them it boosts our confidence and also increases our joy in working. Never forget to reward your horse for a job well done either as it makes them feel good about themselves.