The Training Process
The training process is always different for every trainer, rider, and horse. This is because no two horses can be trained exactly the same way. This is one of the things that is so intriguing and exhilarating about working with horses.
Training is always a process, but it is never exactly the same process. What gets to the mind of a lazy, out of practice, Quarter Horse might not have the same effect on a reactive, catapulty, rescue horse. The bottom line is, all horses need a trainer that has the ability to read them and adapt based on how they act and react. Now... keep in mind that there is no ONE right way to do anything when training. There are, of course, some wrong ways and abusive ways. But not ONE right way.
I am writing to share my experience with one horse. To share the whole process, the good and the bad. To serve as an example of one way to take a horse from their first ride to a national competition in nine months.
My background in natural horsemanship, reining, western pleasure, ranch work, and trail riding forms the basis for all of the training I do with every horse I come across. With Jazz's background in racing he is a bit different from my usual horses: he keeps his neck out, head up, mouth against the bit, and knows that any form of encouraging forward motion leads to galloping as fast as physically possible. This is all basically the exact opposite of what you want to see in a western pleasure horse.
In general, I have found it easier to work with an unstarted horse with a clean slate than to 'undo' the training a horse already believes is right for his life.
And so... the challenge begins.
These are our goals, in order of importance:
Controlling the body on the ground
Softness in the mouth
Riding quietly at a walk and trot
Stopping/backing off my seat
Cantering on correct lead, slow, and balanced
Smooth easy gait transitions (walk, trot, canter)
Challenging the mind, playing
I will go over a few of the key foundations today.
This is always the first thing I establish when working with a new horse. It is important to keep yourself and the horse safe. If you can't go out in a pasture or in a stall and catch your horse and lead him quietly then the training progress might be a bit slow. A horse HAS to respect your space. He can't try to run you over or run away from you.
There are plenty of horses out there that are hard to handle, just because Jazz is a racehorse does not make him hard to handle. In fact, he's an absolute dream. We had zero work to do in this department as he is naturally very kind and calm. One thing to keep in mind when you have a horse that automatically enjoys your company and walks up to you just because you are there and breathing is to not baby or "spoil" them. Horses do need tenderness and love, of course, I love on Jazz every day. But, it can be easy to let a sweet horse get too comfortable and soon his head will be in your space every second he can get it there. A horse rubbing his head on your body is cute yes but not respectful. A horse nudging you every time he sees you for a treat might be cute the first time or two but can easily lead to nipping. I generally do not give treats to my horses in training due to this issue.
A horse should come into your space if he is invited in, otherwise a horse should be perfectly content to stand anywhere you want him and let the human approach his space. Setting boundaries with your body language is a huge factor in the beginning stages of training. If he gets a bit too pushy I lift my elbows or arms in a warning to keep out of my space. If he gets closer and his face runs into an elbow or arm... well, he might just not try that again. I do not haul back and hit him and will not do that with a horse unless they are being deliberately ugly: nipping, biting, kicking out.
A HUGE part of gaining control of a horse's body is through lunging. Where would the horse world be without lunging? Lunging doesn't fix everything in the world, but... it might come close
I lunge in a round pen with no halter/lead and I also lunge on a long line with a rope halter. Please look up videos and tutorials on natural horsemanship and lunging if you'd like to see more details. Just a few widely known credible sources with much more experience than myself include Stacy Westfall, John and Josh Lyons, Dan James, Clinton Anderson, Ken McNabb, etc.
The goal is to get the horse's feet moving around you, gaining control of his body and his mind. You want the horse to focus on you, as his leader, on the ground and start communicating with him before hopping on his back. Jazz had many questions about what I was wanting of him when we first started. It consisted of a seemingly long stare down as I took my stand in front of him, held my hand holding his lead rope out to point the direction to go, and tapping his shoulder lightly with a lunge whip continually. The conversation within him went a bit like this: why is she facing me... I'm not supposed to go away from a human holding a rope... humans always want me to follow them everywhere... why is she tapping me that's annoying... maybe I should try going away from the tapping... hey it stopped... oh it started again... I guess I'll keep going... OK, I'm walking around you human...
Having this conversation is vital to his learning process. I like his relaxed and non-reactive attitude, I would like to keep that intact. So, I am not going to run at him or whip him into action if he doesn't understand and respond right away. This first lunging session set the tone for our training.
The definition of gentleness is: using the least amount of force necessary. This is what I keep in mind every time I am working with a horse.
Another HUGE part of the first stages of training is desensitizing. Since Jazz is entered in Competitive Trail at the Makeover it is important for him to be able to control his mind and his reactions to absolutely anything. A horse is a flight animal! Loud noises, sudden movements, anything that looks strange or out of place is generally not something a horse wants to walk up to or be in contact with. Some horses are naturally much more curious than others but the same basic flight principle when things get sketchy is how all equines are hardwired.
I will use anything and everything I can think of to condition Jazz to be comfortable in all situations. While a "bombproof" horse might not technically be a possible endeavor, as a trainer you can do your best to ensure your horse can control his reactions.
That being said... Jazz is not reactive. I could go on about all the troubles and hours of desensitizing a highly reactive and emotional horse; but, this blog is about this particular horse who happens to be cool as a cucumber. (Feel free to inquire about other experiences if anyone would like to discuss the desensitizing of a reactive horse.)
First and foremost I always use long lunge ropes to start the desensitizing process. I do the same thing with every horse. Rub ropes all over their body, not slowly like the rope might bite them if I move too fast, but methodically like I'm just casually petting the horse all over with long swinging ropes falling everywhere. *Disclaimer: If a negative reaction or high discomfort comes up always go back to where the horse was comfortable before moving on slowly.* Ropes under the belly, wrapped around the belly, around the legs, around the hind quarters, under the tail (yikes), wrapped around the flank (also yikes), tightened up in the girth area.
Once the ropes are completely comfortable I move to a driving surcingle, saddle pad (rubbing all over the body), and eventually the saddle. I use the same technique as explained with the ropes above to introduce any new item, this is known as "sacking out".
One of the most important things to sack a horse out to is a whip. A whip should not be used harshly, I use a whip as an extension of my arm on the ground or an extension of my leg in the saddle. I use this training aid when my short human appendages are not long enough to reach a place to put some pressure on to ask the horse to move away from the pressure. Very quickly in this training process I sacked Jazz out to the lunge whip by rubbing it all over him and moving it casually around him, even hitting the ground around him so that he knew the whip (and the sound of the whip) was not something to be afraid of. He will stand completely still if I casually sling the whip around and slap the ground beside him. Although, when I position myself and lift my hand to ask him to walk off and lunge I lift the whip to ask for forward motion, he responds calmly.
There is much one has to learn before one can accuse everyone who holds a whip to be abusive...
Other great things to get a horse used to are plastic bags, tarps, swinging a lariat, bouncing balls, dragging an object around, anything loud and noisy (bells, horns, clapping, music, gunshots *blanks, obviously* or firecrackers). Walking on and over things such as tarps, water, bridges, platforms, a few steps, poles, walking between/through things. Everything must be introduced slowly and not all at once. All, or most, of the desensitizing above will be done with Jazz throughout this nine months as he is ready and as he progresses.
Remember, crazy riders make a quiet horse and quiet riders make a crazy horse. So don't just sit or stand there like your sitting on a glass pony or you just might find that your pony breaks at any irregularity.
Like I said, this is just grazing the surface on a few of the points of our training foundations.
I hope that recording Jazz's initial progress is helpful to any readers who need the encouragement by hearing another trainer's process. There are always struggles and places where we get stuck or where the horse gets stuck. Sometimes we need to take a deep breath and come at the situation with a new perspective or a new technique. The one thing that I think is MOST important for ALL trainers is to NEVER STOP LEARNING, no matter what stage of life you are in or how many ribbons or buckles you've won. As soon as a rider thinks that they have everything figured out, a horse will come along and show you differently. I have experienced this truth plenty of times. Horses can teach us so much as long as we always keep our minds open.
There are so many different techniques and opinions in the equine world. Get out there and seek different perspectives. Never stop learning!
I am completely open to comments, questions, suggestions, and discussions about absolutely anything. Please comment here to open a question/discussion or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also follow Jazz's Facebook Page is where his journey is chronicled daily, it is also a great place to openly discuss! There is a link on the main menu of this blog.
Thank you for reading.