Different Horse Training Techniques: Try It, You’ll Like It

When it comes to horse training, there’s no one size fits all.
You don’t have to stand on your head in the saddle to try new techniques. But if your coach wants you to try that, you should at least be willing to give it a chance. Who knows, you might like it. If you are not willing to try new things, then you are condemned to repeating your bad habits forever. Not everything you try will work or improve your horse. Some of the new techniques might make you and your horse worse, not better. If that is the case, stop. Learning what not to do can be as important a lesson as learning what to do. Walk for a second, think about what went wrong, evaluate the new technique’s effect on you and your horse, make an adjustment and try something else. The correct answer is there someplace. You just have to be willing to make mistakes until you discover it. | © Pierre Costabadie/arnd.nl

Have you reminded yourself lately that horses are wonderful? No matter how haphazard or awkward our efforts, horses seem to figure out what we want them to do and happily do it. This is something to keep in mind the next time you are obsessing about perfection and the “only right way” to do something. 

I have watched many different dressage trainers. When working toward collecting the horse, one told the rider, “Drive with your seat bones, press harder with your seat, drive your horse forward while holding a steady contact.” Another advised, “Lift your seat, get light in the saddle, close your legs, bring your horse’s stomach up to you.” Two entirely different sets of directions—yet in a few minutes, at least to my eye, both horses started to elevate their paces and become more collected. Somehow, despite contradictory advice from humans, the horses understood what was wanted and produced it. These were really good trainers, and I am sure that if I had listened long enough, I would have heard each say something different to a different student on a different horse at a different time in their development. 

Be Willing to Experiment
It doesn’t just happen in dressage. I used to ride point-to-point races. One horse I rode was a dead runaway so I asked a couple of trainers how to get him to settle down and not waste his energy early in the race. One trainer told me to start with my reins in a double bridge and lock them against the horse’s neck so he couldn’t get away from me. The other trainer told me to start with my reins looped so my horse would not have anything to lean against. Neither one worked, but it was fun experimenting, and Old Lockjaw had a ball.

For the most part, horses like humans and they want to please us. This means that if we are nonconfrontational, we can use different approaches to teach them something. Of course, your progress with your horse will be easier if you teach him a simple exercise first before you do something more complicated. Proceeding from the simple to the complex is the surest path to success. For example, your leg-yielding will be much better if you have taught your horse turn on the forehand first. The hard part is deciding how to teach something, and this is where trainers and theoreticians start to confuse you because they have different opinions about the process. 

The best advice I can give you is to relax and try whatever the trainer du jour has in mind for you. Basically, it either will work for you or it won’t. Either way you have learned something because sometimes learning what not to do is just as important as learning what to do.

Horses’ Needs Change With Time
Part of your confusion caused by conflicting advice is a natural part of your learning experience. Horses change as they mature, and something that a green horse needs is not necessary with an older, more experienced one. In addition, different types of horses need different approaches. For example, Thoroughbreds rarely need as much leg to produce impulsion as colder-blooded horses. Part of my endless fascination with horses is that each is different and needs a slightly different approach than any other in the world. I have a short attention span, but I’m never bored around horses. There is always something going on that will teach me something new.

Some of the contradictory comments we hear are based more on a rider’s or trainer’s individual preferences than on any theory of equitation. In turn, those preferences are usually based on the person’s past experiences. If they became famous working with a certain type of horse, they will tend to tell riders to do what they did, even though the horses currently in training would benefit from a slightly different approach. However, the charming thing about horses is that their desire to please is so strong that even under an inefficient system, they will seek out the desired result and give it to us time after time.

Classical Methods Yield Consistent Success
We also should notice that any horsemen who achieve long-term success are going to be basically correct in their methods. We occasionally see trainers succeed with idiosyncratic methods, but they rarely duplicate their results after that once-in-a-lifetime horse retires.

So if you change barns or trainers and are told to do something different than you have been told in the past, what are you to do? (It should be a given that the advice, although different than you’ve gotten in the past, does not have the potential to harm your horse.) Whether the technique works or doesn’t, you have a best-case scenario. If it works, you are a better rider on a horse who is improving; if it doesn’t work, then you know what not to do, which is valuable. Just don’t forget the advice, even if you decide not to apply it for yourself and your horse right now. That advice probably worked for some horse and rider somewhere, and you want to have new solutions available when a new horse presents challenges. If the new horse is a different type than your last one, then the very things that made the earlier advice ineffective for your previous horse might be exactly what you need this time. 

More Than One Strategy Works
You will be getting advice about horses for the rest of your life, and much of it will conflict with earlier advice you have gotten. Learning about horses, how to train them and how to ride them, is a lifelong process of learning from your mistakes. If you keep in mind that every system has pluses and minuses, then you should be able to progress.

I am pretty relaxed about the various systems we see applied these days. At one time or another, I probably have used most of them myself and learned the pluses and minuses each entails. I know where I want to get with my horses. I also know there is more than one way to get there and most of them will work. I had my nose rubbed in this recently when I had a horse at a big-time three-star event receive the best-conditioned award. He is a wonderful horse, and the rider truly does her homework. Both CCI and CIC divisions were offered, and I was fascinated to see another trainer win the best-conditioned award in the other division. I say that because the other trainer uses a completely different conditioning system. I emphasize a lot of walking and long, slow aerobic cantering (the walk and the gallop are both four-beat paces). The other trainer uses a lot of long trot sets and short sprints for cardiovascular work. Two very different systems, yet both produce good results. You can see why I smile and shake my head when people ask me about the right way to train horses.

Another example of no single correct way is advice concerning how to use your eyes when jumping. I have firm opinions about this, not because there is only one right way but because my system works the best for me and my students. I want my riders to look at the top rail of the obstacle until it goes out of sight between the horse’s ears (see www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com). Other very successful trainers tell their riders to look above the obstacle and let the horse determine when to jump. Very different advice, yet both techniques obviously work. Your job, as with any conflicting advice, is to find out what works for you and your horse and then keep doing it. 

So the next time you receive some new advice that conflicts with something you have been taught to do in the past, try it. Whatever happens, both you and your horse will be the better for it. Don’t worry so much about the right way as long as you and your horse will come to no harm during the trial. When it comes to conflicting advice, the best comment I have ever found was in the 1911 U.S. Army Manual of Horsemanship: “Any system of equitation that disturbs the equanimity of the equine is flawed.” If your horse is happy, you can’t be too far off the correct path forward.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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