by Mitzi Summers
Ever since the first human decided to swing his leg over a horse rather than have it for dinner, I imagine there have been discussions of sorts on how best to accomplish this feat. There are many schools of thought, and many “systems” of training. In many ways it is positively progressing as riders really try and take the time to try to understand how a horse learns, and what is progressive and humane and what is contra-indicated.
I recently rediscovered in my massive library a book published in 1974 written by a respected horsemen who indeed has since come up with many good ideas. What I found interesting was the methods advocated in training a horse, especially a green one. Please note I am NOT approving these methods! For example:
1. To start a young horse on a lunge line, slap him on the leg or pull his tail to get him moving.
2. Teaching a weanling to tie….(without preliminaries), tie him snugly to a post and let him fight it until he gives in.
3. First mounting. The method advised is that IF the “colt” is gentle and barn raised, you must tie up a foot or hobble him to mount.
4. The young horse was to learn “whoa” in two days. The first day using a bosal hackamore you simply yanked his nose shouting “whoa!” and he started to get the point. By the second day he learned this so on the third day you could progress to sacking(!)
5. Now on the third day you sack the horse out, which is similar to flooding.
You tie him to something from which he cannot escape or hold him enough so that he cannot get away, and the poor animal will be terrified and try to flee (his natural instinct), and some may even finally resort to fight, (which of course labels him as a real rogue), until they are exhausted and give up.
Let’s go over these methods as if we were horses. Most of my readers already realize the error of these methods, but it may give you ideas to present to others if you are confronted with these methods.
1. Pulling on the tail or slapping the leg to get him moving — Horses have to be able to make a connection to a sensation and to what is being asked of them. They are definitely creatures of the senses, with tactile responses on the top of the list.
There is a great game you can play with other people to illustrate this point.
Have two people stand facing each other. One plays the part of the horse. The ‘trainer’ wants the horse to turn around twice. That is all. He may yell at the horse to turn. Of course that would not work. He may push on one shoulder, putting the horse off balance and also on the defensive, since horses have much fear. He may push on the shoulder harder, and yell louder. (That always works, right?)
Even though both participants know this is a game, often the “horse” player really begins to get upset. That is when the trainer can simply gently take the horse by both shoulders and rotate him around the turns and then say “Good boy.” Then repeat and then repeat. Of course the “horse” would then understand what is expected of him. I see this often when people start to teach a horse to lunge. They somehow expect the animal to know he is to go around them in a wide circle simply because they have attached a lunge rope and added a whip to their repertoire.
Obviously gradually accustoming him to the body language of his trainer, and the gradual accustoming of the suggestion of forward movement from a halter (NOT a knotted one), and a tap on his haunches, will quickly make sense to him.
2. Teaching a horse to tie has the same answer — it is a gradual process. Horses are very claustrophobic. To tie them by the head and allow them to panic and fight until they submit is very cruel. It is a lazy quick fix or may even be done by people who enjoy starting a fight so that they can force the animal to submit thereby enhancing their egos.
Obviously gradually introducing slight tension to the horse’s head and allowing him to gradually submit is the obvious answer to this. Being there with calm and low energy is as crucial as is taking your time. It does not take long, and your horse will never have the terrifying memory of being forced to be immobile while (in his mind), fighting for his life. The excellent author Temple Grandin likens this sort of training to causing horses to have permanent symptoms of PTSD, and can emotionally wreck your horse.
3. Hopefully, the #3 directive is obsolete, unless it appears in some outdated Mustang 3-day Miracle Mania event. Mounting a horse for the first time should be anticlimactic. If the correct ground work has been established and taken time to be understood and to be effective, the horse will accept a human on his back and be allowed to gradually become accustomed to the weight and the extreme change of balance. This is why it is of tantamount importance to take all the time that one needs in allowing a horse to be able to carry a rider.
There is an excellent chance for horses to break down fairly quickly if they have to carry riders for any length of time before they are allowed to develop the correct “carrying” muscles to support weight on their backs. They are often forced to move incorrectly because they are unable to support themselves and a rider effectively. All sports involving people require much time for training the human body to learn to carry itself effectively to duplicate maneuvers required for the sport. Why would we not give the same consideration for our horses?
4. Horses of course learn by association, and positive rather than negative reinforcement is the best method in which to train a horse. Consistency, clarity, clear repetition, and the ability to change methods according to each horse’s individual needs is of paramount importance. Obviously, niggling on a bosal and shouting “whoa” may not be crystal clear to him. It is even surprising to me that this method was recommended in this book which was highly touted and still actively sold. If I have a horse who charges through me, I usually use the TEAM method of the first leading position, i.e., holding a dressage whip at a far distance at an angle which neither threatens nor surprises the horse. It simply serves as a visual barrier. Add this to the body language of the handler, and a brief half-halt through the arm and hand of the grounded body of the handler always result in a positive result.
5. The best trainers never produce panic reactions in a horse. The successful training of your horse involves gradually allowing them to become habituated to as many of the environmental stimuli that they will encounter. There are good programs of “bomb proofing” your horse out there which will introduce and explain techniques during the weekend which the participants then continue methodically at home.
On one hand, I think that we all are progressing in understanding how horses learn, and monitoring and questioning our training methods to reflect this. But we all need to still be observant and questioning. With the training of horses becoming an ego and money-driven business, there is always the danger that it is becoming show business, and not the art of science of working with a horse through information that has been learned through centuries of interaction.
Progress in theories of horse training
by Mitzi Summers