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Elements of effective training

In my last post I talked about what a horse needs and how the natural drive to ensure that his needs are met will influence his behavior. In this post I would like to go into some more detail about how to structure your interactions so that you are meeting his social and intellectual needs, reinforcing your leadership position, and creating an environment your horse can learn in. Since I would like to keep this information as general as possible rather than specific to any discipline, I will delve more into the theoretical than the practical. The practical application of the theory will depend heavily on your specific situation and goals, and it would be impossible to adequately address all of the nuances of possible contexts in this post. Regardless of discipline, though, there are certain characteristics that all good horse training shares, and it is these we shall focus on.

Consistency: I'm certain that by now this word is starting to sound like it's coming from a broken record, but I can't stress the importance of consistency enough when it comes to horse training. A quality horse trainer will be consistent in his or her expectations, behavior and schedule when it comes to interacting with the four-legged student. Let's examine what consistency means in these three aspects of training and handling in more detail, starting with expectations.

Imagine you are an employee at a large company with multiple bosses. You don't know from one day to the next which boss will be overseeing your work. This would be fine, if all bosses expected the same in terms of input, output and what your tasks should be. But what if they didn't have the same expectations? What if one boss thought your job description was to act as his personal assistant, another thought your position entailed mostly interacting with customers, and yet another considered your duties to include technology expertise and being in charge of the sales calls? As stressful as it might be to not know which boss you were going to have on any given day, how much more stressful would it be if these varying expectations came from just one person?

Many of us act like this schizophrenic boss to our horses. One day we may expect him to behave in one way, and another day we don't have the same expectations at all, and then we wonder why he seems defiant or "difficult." One of the examples of this type of handling that sticks out in my mind is the story of the barn-sour horse (notice that the term "barn-sour horse" does nothing to implicate human error). The owner of the barn-sour horse was in the habit of going out on trail rides alone when she was short on time, allowing her horse to charge home at breakneck speeds, and then upon their arrival back at the barn, she would immediately untack him and put him back in his stall with a bucketful of oats. Once in awhile, she would try to go out on a leisurely trail ride with a friend, and would be unable to comprehend why her horse refused to just calmly walk home.

If we put ourselves in her horse's shoes, the problem becomes quite clear--her expectations (which had been reinforced time and time again through her treatment of her horse) had changed and he had no way of knowing this. She had (inadvertently) taught her horse that she expected him to run home when they were out on trail rides. Why wouldn't this be what he thought he was supposed to do? He knew that the barn was the place where he would be allowed to rest with his buddies and get a tasty treat, to boot, and that this happened sooner the faster he got back there. How schizophrenic would his owner seem to him that she had insisted on and reinforced the same behavior every time they rode, and then one day get upset with him because she expected something different?

Another example of this inconsistency of expectations can be found in many people's handling of young foals. I cringe everytime I hear a little girl or boy say the words, "Look, mommy! The baby horse is sucking on my fingers! How cute," because I know that this same horse will be chastised unfairly for the same action the second he starts getting teeth. How was he to know that humans would change their expectations just because he grew some teeth? In short, pay attention to your expectations and make sure that they are consistent and that your treatment of the horse clearly communicates to him what they are. This may very well require thinking ahead. Just because you think something is ok today doesn't mean you will think it's ok tomorrow. Think of how your treatment of your horse is always reinforcing or discouraging certain behaviors and tailor your interactions very deliberately to make the sure the horse's actions jibe with your expectations--both of today and tomorrow.

This leads us to consistency in behaviors. Consistency in behavior is closely linked to consistency in expectations, although there is something important to add about behavior. In order for your horse to trust you, it's important that you don't let your moods get in the way of your conversations with him. He must be able to rely on your reactions to him and his behavior and not be afraid that what solicited a non-response one day will elicit anger the next. A good horse trainer will leave his or her emotions at home and not let a bad day at the office or a fight with a spouse affect his or her behavior toward the equine student.

Besides providing your horse with a reliable, steady mood he can count on, consistency of behavior has other implications for your horse's perception of your trustworthiness, as well. Something to remember about horses is that your relationship with them is not a static one. This is largely because of how the equine brain is wired to constantly test the status quo in their surroundings as a matter of survival. Just because there wasn't a mountain lion behind that bush yesterday doesn't mean that today there isn't one, and he can't take for granted that the lead mare from yesterday is still the lead mare today in case she has broken a leg or been taken out by a grizzly bear. The whole herd could starve to death waiting for their fallen leader to take them to food or water! This means your horse is constantly "testing" your suitability to be a good leader, and any lapse in consistency of your behavior may communicate to him that you are failing at your job and he can't trust that you're taking care of things the way a good leader ought to.

As a wise horse trainer once put it, "You are always either training or un-training your horse," meaning that we are all horse trainers if we are horse handlers, and we should be aware that every interaction is effectively shaping the equine partner you have. You can't allow for bad behavior thinking that you just don't feel like "training" that day or that you'll have a horse trainer come out and "fix" him later because that's not your job. Be aware that every time you so much as touch your horse you are training him, like it or not. Keeping this in mind will help you maintain consistent behaviors when you're with your equine partner.

Consistency in schedule is a fairly straight-forward concept, but I'll talk about it anyway. If you only come out to the barn twice per week, then spend half of your time there chatting with friends or riding someone else's horse, you are not doing any favors to your relationship with your student. Ideally, you'd be out at the barn every day spending time with your horse; if that can't be achieved, as close of an approximation to it as possible should be strived for. In short, to see consistent progress, one must put in consistent time, maintain consistent expectations, and demonstrate consistent behavior.

Frequency and quality of time trump length of time: I wanted to add this after talking about consistency of schedule because it's important to realize that a lack of consistency can't be made up for in one long weekend. Your horse will make faster progress with more frequent, shorter and more positive sessions than he will with infrequent longer ones. A horse who is only caught once per week and then worked hard in one long session to make up for the trainer's lack of availability and consistency will quickly become bitter and sour towards people (see anecdote below). Horses, especially young horses, don't learn best with infrequent but long sessions, and you're bound to run into problems as their attention span wanes and they start thinking about rest and food rather than work. You're not setting your horse up to win if you put him into situations where his focus isn't on the task at hand and then you find yourself obligated to "correct" his "misbehaviors." Making sure you are setting the stage for your horse to succeed is also part of our next point....

Make the "good" easy and the "bad" hard: A good horse trainer will be able to clearly communicate to the animal what his expectations are and make the right answer so easy that the horse's only option (and desire) will be to comply. Then when the horse does comply, he should be praised as if he's the smartest and best animal in the world for doing so.

Imagine you are a grade school teacher administering a multiple choice test, and although you've highlighted the right answer for every question, you still tell each student how brilliant he or she is for selecting correctly and reward them all with five gold stars! This is how you should try to make your lessons for your horse. Create an enjoyable game that's easy for him to win and then say pretty things to him when he wins, and he'll always want to come play with you (not to mention, when the horse wins, so do you).

How do we create a training method that sets us up to win by making sure the right "answer" is always the easiest? It is important to make the right "answer" the one that is the most obvious to the horse by putting all of the pieces in place so that compliance is the most appealing thing he can do. Let's look at an example. In his book If I Were to Train a Horse, Jack Brainard talks about how to train a reining horse to stop. He tells us that the best way to train a horse to stop is to use a bit of "horse psychology," setting up situations "where the horse wants to stop." After working a horse for some time, Jack points out that most of them are more than happy to stop. So, he recommends finding a spot in the arena where the horse will enjoy standing comfortably and cuing for the stop when the horse most wants to, then making a big fuss over him for complying with the cue. Furthermore, he states that it's important to let the horse begin to associate the same spot in the arena with the stop so that he starts to offer it on his own when brought to that spot. This way, says Jack, the horse is offering the appropriate behavior and the trainer isn't having to pull him down into the ground every time to get it. He additionally stresses the importance of having a good ground (arena footing) for stopping and the correct shoes on the horse to make the task easier for the animal.

As you can see, Jack Brainard has set the stage to make the behavior he wants easy. He makes sure the horse has the right footwear and footing, asks the horse for what he wants when the horse wants to give it, and then repeats enough times that the horse begins to offer the desired action without needing to be overly corrected. He's making the horse feel like the right answer is the most appealing and easiest thing to do, and then he tells the horse how good he is for doing it.

What Jack doesn't do is set the horse up to fail. He doesn't ask the horse to learn how to stop in a rock pile, without shoes on, when he's still fresh and headed towards home with a pack of wolves chasing him. Do we want our finished horses to be able to stop in those conditions? Of course! But we're setting them up to learn how to do what we want in the easiest way possible. This goes a long way in avoiding conflict with our animal, which is our next point.

Avoid conflict: A younger, less knowledgeable version of myself thought that a good horse trainer would try to set the horse up to fail and then make him sorry he did by "winning" the ensuing battle. For example, if a horse looked like he wanted to buck, I thought that the right thing to do was to mount up and push his buttons until he blew, then ride the bucker 'til he quit, proving to him that he better not want to buck again because it didn't "work" and I had "won."

The older, wiser me realizes that this concept of horse training is flawed for many reasons (although, unfortunately, I see it all too frequently, still). First of all, if push comes to shove, it's no secret who's going to "win" given the sheer size difference of horse versus man (luckily, horses are not naturally aware of this difference unless we point it out to them by picking fights we can't automatically win). Even the best bronc rider out there has met the horse who can get him off, and I'm sure my butt's not made of velcro!

The second reason that this method is bound for failure in the long run is that it does little to foster a positive relationship between horse and human. If we're always looking to find the "fight" and then "win" it, we aren't working with our horse, but against him. If we think in terms of working with him in the above example of a horse who looks like he's wanting to buck, a judicious and knowledgeable horse trainer would first examine the (more than likely) possibility of human error causing his desire to buck. Horses typically buck for one of three reasons: 1. They have excess energy and are feeling a little frisky, so they might give a little crow hop as an expression of their jubilance (these hardly qualify as bucks and even a reasonably competent equestrian can sit through one of these if need be). 2. They are experiencing some sort of discomfort, be it mental or physical, and bucking is the only way they know to express this. This could be a saddle fit issue, kissing spines (more on this later), lack of physical preparedness to do what you are asking of him, he could be feeling confused and pressured, he's sure what you're asking of him is going to cause him harm, etc. 3. The horse has essentially been conditioned to buck, whether deliberately (in the case of rodeo bronc horses), or unintentionally (in the case of a horse who has learned it to be an effective method to get rid of his rider time and time again). Also under this third category of reasons horses buck is the malicious horse who is actually trying to hurt his rider; malice isn't something that horses come standard with; it must be cultivated in them.

What you may have noticed from the previous list of reasons horses buck, two-thirds of them are human-caused, and only one (the least concerning of the three) is something that is to some degree out of our control. I would guess that most of the horses who are bucking under saddle fall into the second category--discomfort. If we just get on this animal and tell him, "alright, let 'er rip you son-of-a-·%&?!=", we haven't addressed the root of the problem, we've just showed our horse that we're not attentive to his needs and that we aren't "hearing" him when he "talks" to us. If we manage to "ride the buck out of him" he may indeed learn that bucking is ineffective, but he also learns that his handler is inattentive, unresponsive, and unfair, and the issue that caused his desire to buck is likely unresolved.

A better way to structure your sessions is to make sure to minimize conflict. This will ensure that you don't undertake a battle you may be doomed to lose, and it will communicate to your horse that you are an attentive and benevolent leader. If a horse looks like he wants to buck, rather than make it your goal to fight it out with him, make it your goal to finish the session without him having to resort to this stress-induced behavior. Keep the session short and focused on trying to identify the issue, then work with your animal to trouble-shoot and resolve it before it's a real problem. If he has excess energy, try giving him a nice, long turn-out before asking him to work. If he's confused, accept the challenge of trying a new way to communicate an idea to him. And if he's in pain, address his pain before proceeding with his training.

One thing that will go a long way in helping us avoid conflict is the ability to adjust our expectations without sacrificing the long-term goal. For example, if a horse doesn't want to be patient and wait for his handler while on his way from the hitching rail back to his stall, recognize that this is a normal tendency for a hungry horse and assume that he's not being antsy to bother you; he's just antsy because he's excited to get back home and it's likely that he's been allowed to rush back to his stall in the past. We could try to insist that he stand there until we're satisfied, and stubbornly refuse to let him move for hours to prove that we're in charge, but the chances of winning this battle are slim (nor do we want to be there all night). Instead, a more productive way of dealing with the issue would be to insist that the horse be patient and not run us over to get home, but don't ask him for more patience than he can reasonably give at this point in his training. Ask him to stand respectfully still for a moment, and then make it your idea to move off again a second before you know he is going to get antsy and start engaging in the behavior you're trying to avoid. The point that you've communicated to the horse is that he moves his feet when you tell him to and not before, but by adjusting your short-term expectations slightly you've communicated this point in a way that avoids conflict. The animal and you both end the lesson feeling pretty good. The long-term goal is of course to have a horse that will wait patiently and respectfully for any amount of time, but it makes sense to achieve this goal in bite-sized pieces rather than insisting on it now in a way that creates a battle that one of you will inevitably have to lose.

Fair expectations and treatment of the animal: I once worked at a barn with large number of young horses being trained by a young man who was still in high school. He was very intuitive with horses, and although he was young and lacked experience, he did a good job with the youngsters given the restrictions of his schedule and knowledge. The problem was, many of the horses he trained became extremely difficult to catch. The owner of the barn would simply shrink the size of the horses' enclosure to make them more "catchable" when this occurred because she considered it a waste of time and money to try to fix the problem--that is until she lost a sale when a potential buyer walked away when they saw how the horses didn't want to be caught. After this occurred, she agreed to let me work on some of the more difficult cases--like the mare who was being kept in a 15X15-foot enclosure and still couldn't be approached--but just until the problem was "fixed."

The issue with this most "difficult" mare very quickly became obvious; she felt that she was not being treated fairly and didn't have any desire to let humans catch her when that inevitably meant she would have to perform beyond her physical capabilities. Not that the mare was physically incapable; but she was young and not very fit because of her sporadic schedule and tiny living conditions, and without being allowed the proper time and conditioning to build up the needed musculature, she was made to work hard every time a human laid hands on her about once per week. When she tried to protest this injustice, she was of course reprimanded for being "bad." I wouldn't want to have anything to do with people, either, if this were my experience with them every time I was handled!

The remedy to the problem was simply to increase the number of times the mare had contact with people where conflict wasn't a part of it and make sure she returned to her stall with a good taste in her mouth (figuratively speaking) about the whole experience. Rather than approach her pen only once per week with the intention of catching her to ride the crap out of her her, I approached it eight times per day with the intention of simply giving her a carrot or grooming her or taking her to the indoor arena with the good sand for rolling in. Sometimes, we would do a little work, as well, but always short enough sessions to achieve something positive for which I could tell her "good girl," and then she would get to return to her pen without being totally fatigued. Once she realized that a human approaching her pen was at least 90 percent of the time a positive experience for her, she became much easier to catch, and within about two weeks was able to return to the large paddock with the other fillies.

It's important to be patient with your horse and have realistic expectations regarding his training and conditioning progress. Recognize that even the best socialized horse you know is probably far less socialized than even the most neglected dog you know, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Trying to show or compete on a horse who has been ridden only a few times per month is not, strictly speaking, fair to the animal. Competition is a high-stress situation for horse and human, and being asked to perform at the top of their potential without the proper time input is simply unfair.

Even if your schedule doesn't include any shows, be aware that the "weekend warrior" rider's treatment of his animal can sometimes include unfair expectations. We can't expect our horse to want to carry our out-of-shape body with his out-of-shape body over miles and miles of trails and have a good attitude about it when it's the first time he's left his stall all week. Nor should we reprimand him for spooking at the outside world's big, scary plastic-bag ghosts and mountain-bike monsters when the only thing he's seen in months is the inside of his stall door. Horses have an innate sense of justice, and when they don't feel you are treating them fairly, they won't enjoy your company as much as you think they ought to.

Timing, appropriate pressure, and "feel": The last element of a any good trainer's tool box is good timing. I've saved this topic for last because it's possibly the most complex and essential part of good horsemanship, and it is hard to define. Timing and use of the appropriate pressure combine to create that elusive "feel" that we all strive to have with our horses. It involves recognizing when the animal is even thinking in the right direction and honoring his attempts to please us. It also involves not just the application of an aid--or "pressure"--but the all-important release of it. A famous horse trainer (you'll have to forgive my memory for not being able to tell you the name) once said, "Horses don't learn from pressure; they learn from the release of pressure." I would take this concept a step further and say that they learn from the timing of the release of the pressure.

Let's say we're teaching our horse to side-pass. The horse will feel the pressure from the rider's leg, and may try to respond by going forward. The rider must "tell" the horse that this is the wrong "answer" by not releasing the leg pressure and by restraining him a little more with the hands. Maybe the horse then tries to back up. The rider must recognize that the horse is still not getting the message and maybe add a bit more leg pressure and restrain a little less with the hands. Eventually, the horse will make an attempt to respond correctly by taking perhaps a half of a step sideways; or maybe they will only shift their weight in the right direction. Either way, the rider with good "feel" will recognize that the horse has hit upon the right answer--no matter how subtly or whether or not it was even on purpose--and will respond to the horse's correct "answer" by instantly ceasing to pester the him with continued pressure. Thus, when the rider asks for the next step of the side-pass in the same way, the horse will know how to achieve the release of pressure since the rider correctly rewarded his last attempt with a reprieve. The horse will only put two and two together, though, if the release was perfectly timed so that he is able to see the connection between his answer and that release.

An all-too-common mistake among new riders is to give a command and immediately give up before the horse has had a chance to respond. They say, "I did what the instructor said, and it didn't work." My answer to this is, "Do it more!" or "Do it harder!" If the cue didn't elicit a response (and you know that you are applying the correct cue), the last thing you want to do is quit administering that cue because then you've just made it more likely that the horse will not ever respond to that cue in the future. He's learned that it's meaningless since the rider released the pressure when he did absolutely nothing. This is how even a well-trained, light-to-the-aids horse can become heavy and "dead" to the aids within a short period of time under an inexperienced rider. Luckily, the problem can be reversed with a sensitive and well-experienced horseperson who will restore the horse's faith in the rider's aids when he can count on getting a release only as a response to a correctly-executed move (or at least an honest attempt at one).

Not only do inexperienced riders often fail to apply strong enough or persistent enough aids, they will frequently do just the opposite, as well. New riders can easily forget that the communication happening between horse and rider is a two-way street, so they will continue making a request even after the horse has appropriately responded. The confused animal will assume they haven't hit upon the right answer yet, and will continue searching for it, as the rider then wonders why the horse is executing moves that he or she doesn't believe were solicited. Both of these new-rider tendencies are symptoms of a lack of feel and timing, and they will both have the same long-term, deadening effect on the animal subjected to them. In other words, whether the rider releases before the horse has had a chance to respond, or he never releases even after the horse has responded, the horse will end up becoming desensitized to the rider's cues and learn to tune out any future requests. The good news is, these are common newbie mistakes which under correct guidance can be eradicated before causing any long-term damage to the horse's "control center."

Since the topic of pressure and application of aids is such a complex one, I have dedicated another post to its very important discussion, and so as not to repeat myself unnecessarily I will move on to discussing the next point of timing and feel: the correction of mistakes. No matter how good the trainer and how lovely the horse, inevitably, there will come a time that a horse will engage in an undesirable and unsafe behavior that needs to be corrected by the handler/trainer. Having to administer punitive corrections to their animal tends to be most people's least-favorite part about horse training (as well it should be). From what I have noticed over the years, the better and more experienced the trainer, the fewer and farther between these sorts of corrections become necessary; however, I have yet to meet the person who has trained a horse without ever having to firmly and sometimes physically reprimand him for an undesirable action or behavior. As long as the handler's administration of such a correction is fair, comprehensible to the animal, and correctly-timed so as be relatable to the behavior he or she is trying to eliminate, then such actions are an indispensable part of training. The problem is when the punishment doesn't fit the crime, so to speak, and the horse has no idea why he's being treated poorly.

A good trainer will be almost bipolar in his method of punishing a horse, emulating the way in which horses will punish another, lower member of their herd. I was once told that to effectively fix an undesirable behavior, "you have three seconds to make the horse think he is going to die." After three seconds, you forget about it and go back to doing whatever you were doing before the infraction occurred. If you miss your three-second window, forget about even trying to punish the horse; he's already forgotten about it and moved on and any punitive action will be unassociated with the offending behavior. Next time, try to be quicker! The need to punish the horse should be infrequent, however, if we've implemented all of the other elements of this article. And reducing our horse's negative behavior and encouraging his desirable behavior, all while fostering a good relationship with him, should be one of the main goals of horsemanship.

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