My horse “should” be more advanced BY NOW….
As someone who tries to help other people understand their horses, this is something I hear a lot.
People expressing their frustration that their horse is not further along in it’s education than it currently is. As humans we have goals, ambition, plans. We want to take go out trail riding along the beach with the wind in our hair in perfect harmony with our horse, we want to dance with our horses or even win ribbons or prizes. Some might even want to get accolades, respect or acclaim from other people as a result of their marvelous skills and abilities with their horse.
People dream, visualise and then take action. They might sacrifice a lot of time with family and friends in persuit of the dream. They work physically hard, spend a fortune on feed, vet bills, massage, chiropractors, farriers, saddle fitters, equipment, clinics and lessons… all chasing a dream.
In other words the person puts everything into chasing the dream, they give it all they have got.
Meanwhile the poor unsuspecting horse is not even aware there is a dream to chase.
At some point in time, usually a few years down the track, the rider starts getting frustrated and starts asking the question: “Why is my horse not doing ____ BY NOW!”. (You can fill in the blanks).
Maybe it is a jumping horse that is still too tense and nervous, it hits rails, spooks, rushes fences etc. Maybe it is a dressage horse that still is not doing Grand Prix yet. Maybe the horse can’t even walk around a show arena and stay relaxed let alone perform an intricate choreography in response to subtle cues from a rider.
As an equine behaviourist I understand how horses learn. I certainly keep an open mind and I don’t profess to have all the answers but I have noticed some glaringly common themes among horse riders and trainers.
Any decent horse trainer knows that there are vitally important basics the horse has to learn before it can go on and do the more advanced work. The horse needs to be able to walk, trot and canter, maintain a ryhthm, be supple, loose and balanced before any advanced work can begin. The horse also needs to have developed the correct muscles to carry a rider. The horse needs strength and fitness to physically do the movements correctly.
I would like to suggest that whoever your trainer is stick with them. As long as they are compassionate for the horse and they have previously trained a horse to the level you want to train your horse to, then go for it. Stick with the one trainer, but also make sure you put in the effort to actually practice the things your trainer suggests!
That might sound obvious but far to many people will have a lesson from someone. The trainer will suggest they need to work on one exercise so they can progress but instead the rider will go away and spend the week doing something completely different. Then the next week the trainer will have to tell them to work on the same thing again, and so on and so forth.
If you had of spent the week working on the the thing your trainer suggested, the trainer would most likely be able to give you the next piece of the puzzle. However instead you have to keep on working on that “boring” stuff that you think has nothing to do with your goal. Your trainer however is a little wiser and knows that if you get the boring stuff right, then you can easily progress to the next level. The other thing that happens is the person who has a lesson, then never practices or even does anything with the horse from one week to the next. So each time the horse has had a week off in between sessions. Certainly not the ideal way to build muscle, however I have successfully helped a few riders this way because at least they were not practicing the wrong things in between lessons. Progress is slow, but still progress.
Things are ticking along ok, the rider is making some progress with the horse although maybe not as quickly as they might have first hoped. However they are happy and keep plodding away chasing the dream.
Now at this point we insert some kind of a training break, be it a horse injury, rider injury, holiday, weather event, special occasion or whatever. The horse just had to have a few weeks off for whatever reason. Meanwhile there was a lot of rain and there is heaps of grass and the rider continued to feed the horse as if it were a racehorse in full work (enough protein and sugar to turn even the most relaxed horse into a fire breathing dragon).
Ok so now the rider gets back on the horse, hopefully with the sense to have done some groundwork first, but perhaps not. Things go a bit pair shaped when the horse is very fresh and the horse learns a whole new repertoire of airs above the ground that it did not do before. Rider rings trainer and trainer is back to giving lessons (the same ones as before) to help get horse and rider up to where they were before the break. Progress after many weeks the horse is NEARLY back to where they where before the break. At this point usually the rider will have entered for some type of competition that they and the horse are not mentally or physically prepared for. They then inform the trainer that they have a competition next week and they want to work on the movements for the competition.
Trainer raises eyebrows and thinks to self, “we nearly had the basics established and now we are going to stuff them up by working on all these things the horse is not ready for”. Trainer needs an income and does really like the rider and horse and loves helping them so tries to suggest competing at a lower level or holding off on competing. Nonsense, rider knows best and wants to go ahead. Rider is going to compete anyway even though trainer suggests they are not ready. Rider has looked at test and thinks they can do all that easy peasy.
Except rider forgets that they can do all those movements when horse was last in full training and fitness going at its best. (Probably this was weeks, months ago before time off, injury etc). Horse can probably only maintain movement for 3 strides at the moment and is not ready to do enough strides of the movement required in the test.
Rider goes ahead and goes to the competition. Horse is not ready and they don’t score very well. Rider is dissilussioned, hates dressage, hates the judge, wants to give up, is a hopeless rider, needs a new coach, needs a different horse…etc.
Rider goes back for lessons and the trainer thinks good now we can fix the basics. Several weeks of lessons go by rider and horse improves, but wait, then the cycle repeats itself!!!! Arrrrgh!!!!!!!!!!!
About now any well meaning trainer is very sympathetic with rider that this is how it goes, its a tough learning curve. Training a horse really does mean taking the time it takes. You can not rush the process. Each horse can only progress at the rate it is physically and mentally capable of…you JUST CAN’T RUSH IT…or else you RUIN IT!!!
At some point or another the rider gets frustrated that they still have not arrived at the dream or reached the goal. Often this is when the rider starts taking their frustration out on the horse. They start to up the pressure. As a result the horse gets more and more nervous, tense and anxious. The other thing that happens is the rider finds a new coach. Maybe even several new coaches. “Lets have a new coach every day of the week”. Surely between the knowledge of all these coaches I will definitely achieve the dream, or so the rider thinks.
The problem with this idea is that one of the vital ingredients for training a horse is consistency. Without consistent consequences for a behaviour the horse will not develop consolidated responses and habits. Whether the consequence of a behaviour is that the horse gets the release of pressure or that the horse gets a carrot or whatever, the quadrant used by said trainer, the main problem is more often that there is no consistency. Rider thinks lets try this method today, then tomorrow they are trying something else they read on an in internet how to article, then the next day they are doing something else they saw in a video.
It is consistency and predictability in the horses environment that allows a horse to relax. When things are unpredictable that is what gets a horse really anxious and worried.
It takes repetitions to build a neural pathway. Lots and lots of repetitions. Then we can gradually shape the behaviour by ever so slightly raising the criteria of the behaviour.
So now the rider goes to a new coach, who suggests a whole different method, other cues, a whole different process. So then the poor horse gets even more bloody confused and stressed. This then causes the rider to also sack the new coach and probably go back to the first coach…because at least things were slightly better before we confused the horse with a whole new system. Hang on a minute though there is another coach coming from very far away who has apparently trained fjord ponies to do tempi changes while chanting om with Monks in Saris. Sign up immediately for this clinic as this will undoubtedly solve all the confusion you have recently created in the horse with the other three different coaches.
So what can we do about all this? Stick with a trainer. Stick with a process or a plan AND FOLLOW IT.
Take the time it takes to train your horse. Enjoy the journey, and try to be consistent. Stop comparing yourself with what someone else and there horse is doing. Stop comparing your horse with where you think your horse should be up to. Stop beating yourself up for letting your horse down and confusing it…yeah you probably did but you were trying your best. Yes if Charlotte Dujardin was riding your horse it probably would have been doing Grand Prix 5 years ago but this story is not about her it is about you and your horse. This is your story, your journey.
There are so many variables that can affect how long it takes to train a horse to Grand Prix. Even the masters say it takes at least six years and that is with all their years of practice, experience, skills and knowledge. It is also on a naturally athletic and talented horse. Every horse is an individual with a unique upbringing background and history or reinforcement. Every person is a unique individual./ When we then combine the horse and the rider and their environment. We then have a whole lot more variables. You cannot possible compare your journey with your horse to anyone else’s journey with their horse, because they will be completely different.
Now I am going to get a bit zen about it all.
The way it is, is the way it is. Breathe. Accept it.
We keep learning along the journey with our horse. With each horse we learn more, we improve our knowledge or training, we improve our own riding and training skills. Maybe you won’t get to the Olympics with this horse…so what? the horse doesn’t care. Your tried your best and got to where you are today. Start from where you are today, that is all that matters to your horse. Be kind and fair and accept that this IS where the horse is up to. Train the horse that you have in front of you. I like to say that you always have to train the horse that shows up on the day. Forget what happened yesterday, last week, last month. This is where you and the horse are today..NOW, IN THIS MOMENT.
This moment is the launch pad, the starting gate…this is where your journey starts.
by Georgia Bruce