In light of the two recent horse acquisitions in my circle of people and the necessity to do more with these equines than "just ride," I've decided to start writing about some of the initial steps we might take with a young, inexperienced, green, out-of-shape or unfamiliar horse in order to set the stage for a successful long-term relationship.
I should probably add that your horse doesn't necessarily have to fit into one of the above categories to benefit from these ideas and suggestions, and for some, these musings might serve as a basic refresher to remind you of how your "finished" horse ought to look, feel and behave. After all, a horse never stops learning and adapting, so if we as the handler remind ourselves from time to time what it is that we set out to accomplish with our horse we are better able to keep him on the right path (or redirect him back to it), no matter how old and finished we may think he is.
In subsequent blog posts, I hope to address such things as goal-setting, some elements that are indispensable in any good training program, physical conditioning and why it matters, and behavior modification, just to name a few. Feel free to contact me if there are any questions or suggestions you have or if there's something you feel I missed. Also, personal anecdotes and success stories are always appreciated!
The best place to start any endeavor is to determine what the final goal is. The long-term goal should be one that can be broken down into several smaller or shorter-term goals arranged in a logical sequence so that each one builds on the one before it. The final goal may or may not actually be attainable, but it gives you an idea of that elusive ideal that you are pursuing. You should be able to ask yourself during each step towards your long-term goal: what does success look like at this point in the process? In other words, how do I know that I'm on the right path? Being able to identify what success looks like--not only in the long run, but from one day to the next--is an important part of effectively using goals to guide your horsemanship.
No matter what your discipline or what you want to do with your horse, I think that all equestrians--from cowboys to cavalrymen--can agree on a few basic goals for their four-legged partner. These goals will have both long and short-term relevance and different markers of success along the way. For example, I think we can all agree that we want our horses to be physically healthy, from birth until death. We must continually ask ourselves, how do we know when we are on the path to reach this goal? What does it mean to achieve physical health at different stages throughout the horse's life? When we think of what a healthy horse looks like, we may come up with such images as a shiny coat, bright eyes, and most important, a strong, sound body that enables the horse to continue working comfortably well into his old age. Our short-term, "bite-sized" goals to achieve the lifelong physical health of our equine could be broken down into the pieces that will determine his health both in the long and the short terms, e.g. understanding and applying proper nutrition, providing regular hoof maintenance, employing training and conditioning techniques that focus on obtaining the maximum athletic output with the minimum amount of impact or damage to the horse's body, and ensuring the the safety of his environment, among other things. If our long-term goal, then, is optimal lifelong health, the way we know we are on the path to reaching this goal is by continually identifying the different markers of success for each of the previous "parts" that will add up to the end result we are seeking.
Another goal that most of us are looking to achieve with our horses is quite simply to be sure we are enjoying them as much as possible. Horses are far too expensive of a hobby to feel that they are fun to be around only sometimes. We all want a horse who is not just a mode of transportation (that's what our cars are for), but also a friend whose company leaves you wanting little else in the world. What this ideal equine pal looks like might vary from one person to the next, but in general I think it's fair to say that the better manners our horse has, the safer and easier he will be to handle, and therefore, the more pleasant he will be to be around. A horse who is calm, attentive, obedient, well-socialized, respectful, intuitive, compliant, willing, friendly and curious about his handler's wishes tends to be a fun, safe horse to spend time with and ride; on the other hand, one who is constantly flailing about without concern for the people in his proximity or on his back, putting everyone's safety in jeopardy with his 1,000 lb. temper tantrums, screaming to his buddies, pinning his ears, and making threats to his handlers tends not only to be unpleasant but also extremely dangerous. For those out there with "finished" horses, take note! It's easy to get accustomed to ugly behavior and normalize it, forgetting what "broke" looks like, but I've met some "broke" horses (according to their owners/handlers) who I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Pay special attention to the importance of safety that is inherent in this goal. It should go without saying that if we are fearful for our personal safety, it is impossible to enjoy ourselves.
Lastly, most of us can agree that we want a horse who enjoys us like we enjoy him. No one looks forward to going out to the barn only to not be able to catch their horse, nor do we want a horse that is fearful and mistrusting of his handlers. It is much preferable to show up at our horse's pasture or stall and have him waiting and eager to put his nose in the halter, load into the trailer and go for a ride. In my opinion, some of the best rides are on horses who are just as happy to be out riding as I am, and some of the best four-legged friends are the ones who enjoy people to such a degree that they are just as content in the company of a human as they are with an animal that is of their same species.
Even though I listed these goals as though they were three separate entities, we can see that a relationship between them exists. A horse who is not physically healthy probably won't be as much of a joy to be around because he won't be able to do his job satisfactorily and safely. An unhealthy horse is not a willing horse, and if he doesn't feel well when he's being asked to perform tasks for humans he will likely have a negative association with people and won't enjoy having them around. A horse who is mistrusting, doesn't like people, or worse, is aggressive, will obviously be unsafe and therefore unpleasant to spend time with. Recognizing that these goals are interrelated will help us design a training and conditioning program that makes sense for all three pieces of the puzzle that make up the "big picture."
To design your personal goals, ask yourself, what does my perfect equine partner look like? Decide what other elements or characteristics your ideal finished horse would have and add them to your own list. Goal setting is a very subjective and personal undertaking, and no two of us will have identical ideas of what we're after with our horses.
>Long-term, "big picture" goal should be broken down into smaller parts with identifiable measures of success
>No two people's list of goals for their horses will be identical; however a few universal goals will transcend disciplines and should be worked towards by all horsemen (and women). Examples of such universal goals include:
1. maintaining the health and wellbeing of the horse throughout his life
2. to enjoy our horse as much as possible, which implies staying safe
3. to be enjoyable to our horses so that our presence is an asset to their life
>Even seemingly unrelated goals are intertwined and interrelated, and an awareness of their connection
will help guide our plans for carrying them out in a deliberate way