by Mitzi Summers
A dangerous precedent has developed in the new world of mass marketing of training techniques, RFD televising, and huge big-name clinics which can include as many as 20 horses at one time in a ring. It is dangerous because it creates and encourages the tendency to lump horses together in an assembly-line technique of training, and to include their owners and trainers in this same mass. It leaves no room for individuality.
I travel all over the world helping people learn how to train their own horses with positive reinforcement and non-abusive methods. Because of this, I have witnessed many different training facilities and numerous training teachniques. As a positive, in almost every instance the horse owner wants very much to learn how to correctly work with their horse, so that both of them learn and enjoy the learning process. For the most part, they bought a horse because they admire and love them, not to bolster their egos or increase their income.
Every single horse a trainer has access to has a different modality. They have a different history and genetic setup, and they react differently to outside stimuli. Only part of this is evident on first “meeting” the horse. It takes a highly concentrated, intellectual, empathetic and “sense of the horse” approach to figure out how best to work with each horse. It cannot be done in a large group. It cannot be a rubber stamp approach to training. Schooling each horse involves all the senses of the trainer.
The best way I can explain it is that I take the time to get a “click” with each new horse. Then the horse tells me what he needs and how best to achieve it. The training process is a bunch of little “clicks”, and you must develop a horse’s trust. Good horse training should be dull to the uneducated observer. It should not be chasing a horse around until he is half dead, fearing the whip or rope or plastic bag or flag or whatever new gadget has been invented.
Variables in each horse assessment
1. Past history of the horse
Before working with a new horse, what the horse has been exposed to in the past is of the utmost importance. This of course is usually not possible to obtain in a very complete form. Horses have fantastic memories, and this can make training or reschooling relatively easy if it has been done correctly, or difficult if errors have been made, and unfortunately we can all make errors.
If the horse has had several different owners who trained him differently, a horse can be so confused that he is very frightened and insecure. Misinformation and conflicting information is confusing and frustrating to a human – to a prey animal it is very negative.
If you cannot obtain much of a history on the horse, they can tell the trainer a lot just by their actions. If I am working with a new horse and take him out to lunge, and he immediately reacts by becoming upset and dashing about, I know that he has been lunged incorrectly — possibly chased about by a trainer to make him tired which, of course, is not what lungeing is all about. It well may not have anything to do with the current owner who has hired me. She has had me come to learn how to train her horse with positive reinforcement.
It is fairly easy to reschool a horse to accept lungeing as it should be…accepted as an exercise whereby he learns mostly by voice commands and body language with the aid of a long lunge line and a lunge whip used AS A GUIDE, to move correctly and develop his muscles correctly. The same holds true for free lungeing or round penning. If the horse is frightened and dashes about, this demonstrates that this has been learned incorrectly and can damage the horse psychologically as well as physically.
2. Correct methodology with each individual
With the exception of threatening you physically, with a horse who is confused and not sure of WHAT he is expected to do the basic tenet is that he can do no “wrong” as he is not sure what IS correct. It is up to the trainer to find a method to explain to the horse what is expected of him. This is what I stress in my “How-To” Training Clinics. It does not matter if you have successfully trained 200 horses to back up with a certain technique. If the next horse you work with does not “get it”, it is not up to him to try to figure out what you are trying to get him to do…it is YOUR responsibility to “dig deep” and find a way to show him the behavior you want in a way he understands.
Never let a trainer tell you your horse is (take your pick), stupid, stubborn, willful, dishonest, etc., etc. This is usually a way for a trainer to find a way to blame the horse for something that he cannot do… figure out a way to successfully train that particular horse. This is why I explore all different techniques people offer in their training guides. There may be one thing that they say that may work with a horse I get six months from now that I had not thought of before.
I was once called to a stable in Alabama to work with a Morgan gelding owned by intelligent, dedicated teenage girls and their mother. They called me in tears because they had attended a “Trainers Weekend.” He had about 20 people all together in a large ring. He had a well-known name so these people had paid quite dearly for this privilege. He had many small round pens set up, and was proceeding to teach all these horses and people at the same time his methods of teaching their horses to be submissive to them. They had to be the “boss mare” so that their horse was easier to train.
The girls were not successful in getting their horse to work in the round pen as the trainer wished. Granted, he spent possibly 20 minutes with them. The Morgan got progressively more frightened and almost ran the girls over, trying to find an avenue of escape. The trainer pronounced the horse unsafe and untrainable and said they needed to sell him. His quote, “Any horse that does not learn this is unsafe and must be sold.”
When I came to work with the Morgan, the first thing I had to establish was low energy….that I would give him time to understand what was expected of him. If he did not understand what I was showing him in one way, it was MY responsibility to figure out a way to get him to understand with calmness and acceptance. You have to LOWER the adreneline level with horses like this, not raise it so they are frightened for their safety.
The girls did their homework, and only with positive reinforcement they are now showing, drag hunting, and trail riding their horse. The ground work was comprised of lungeing and double lungeing and some in hand work…..only to get the horse to further understand what his job was.
Training horses is fascinating, fun, and rewarding hard work. A trainer needs to be humble, and let the horse guide him. You need to LISTEN to what each horse is trying to tell you, i.e. “I do not understand, you frighten me, I feel unsafe in this strange place, I am in pain, etc. etc. Training is as much a mental than physical endeavor. Make certain that your trainer (or that you) consider each horse as an separate personality and attempt to understand him as much as possible.