The worst thing to do is force your horse into an exercise he (1) is unprepared to understand (2) is uncomfortable doing. “Sink or swim” is a bad teaching tactic for people and for horses.
Once you have answered The Most Important Question to ask at the beginning of the training ride:
What Does My Horse Need?
You now need to ask The Next Most Important Question to ask at the beginning of the training session:
What Exercises Will Supply What My Horse Needs?
The constellations of exercises for use in training sessions are as numerous as stars in the galaxy. Let’s narrow down our focus with a couple of observations and goals.
1. Does your horse need confidence?
Open the file in your mind labeled “Exercises that we know how to do well”. Perform the exercise and praise the horse for the effort, then make a small alteration in the exercise that draws the exercise out past your comfort zone and perform that version and then praise the horse for the effort even if it is a little shaky. If the horse is frazzled then follow up with the simpler version and praise.
Example 1: Your horse finds a walk “head to the wall” leg yield fun. Ask for a more difficult version: “down quarter line push to the rail” leg yield. Then try out a more demanding version: leg yield from rail to quarter line and add on another quarter line leg yield to the rail to finish up a fun sequence.
You build the exercise by laying a foundation of simple and moving up in increments. Go back to simple if the horse begins to get fearful or worry.
The worst thing to do is force your horse into an exercise he (1) is unprepared to understand (2) is uncomfortable doing. “Sink or swim” is a bad teaching tactic for people and for horses. When the horse fears an exercise then you prepare the horse with a deconstructed version of the exercise and work on the simplified parts of the exercise.
Example 2: You are introducing a “down the quarter line and push to the rail” leg yield. In response to your aids your horse throws his head up and rushes forward instead of going sideways. Keep calm and offer Deconstructed Leg Yield Exercises:
1) go to the rail and practice a turn on the forehand with a pause between each step “around the clock”.
2) Then ask for one or two steps of turn on the forehand on the wall until you are at a 35 degree angle to the rail Pause, then put the haunches back on the rail instead of going all the way around.
3) Walk a couple strides forward on the rail, and then two steps of turn on forehand, then put the haunches back on track, and resume walking on rail. Praise him or her. 4) Then without stopping the walk, push the haunches one or two strides in turn on forehand. Remember to ask for only a couple steps in the baby leg yield and use lots of praise.
5) When your horse can comfortably do a leg yield on the rail, return to ”down the quarter line push to the rail” leg yield and see if he balanced better on your aids.
2. Does your horse need “Waking Up”?
When your horse is sluggish and not interested in the riding session it is up to you as the teacher to make the session fun and engaging.
What attitude did you have while preparing for and performing the exercise? Where you happy, confident and encourage, maybe a little playful? Feel the way you want your horse to feel.
Go for a hack and drop in some small lessons during the hack
Change the work arena for a pasture or another venue
Play Red Light, Green Light. Make several quick changes in gait and speed. Challenge and do not punish. Reward at the slightest effort to “play”
Integrate cavaletti, ground poles or small jumps during the exercises
Give your horse a reason to view you as interesting, not alarming, and not boring
3. Does your horse need a quicker response to the aids?
Again be “playful” with your aids and your geometry. Light and quick aids incite activity. Squeezing, monotonous aids elicit boredom and irritation.
Drilling is boring. Limit your tries at an exercise to 3 times (whether it worked or did not work) and move on to another exercise. Go on to another exercise that is fun and active. The next exercise can be related but simpler than the failed one.
The worst thing to do is “Spank and Crank”. When you use the “go forward “ aids never give a simultaneous “don’t go anywhere” aid!
Use light aids and follow up with a quick, light tap with the whip to emphasize that you want a quicker response.
Example 3:Play a version of Red Light/Green Light. Begin trotting on a twenty-meter circle, upon crossing the centerline walk three (or four) steps then trot briskly on. Upon crossing the centerline on the other side of the circle walk three (or four) steps and trot briskly on again. Repeat the walk steps every time you cross the centerline.
Does your horse need clarity of aids?
You should take a lesson on a horse with quicker, more confident responses to get the timing of aids, and then go back to your horse with that improved feeling and see if you can get the same response on your horse.
Communicate that feeling to your horse and encourage. Do not punish!
Avoid using conflicting aids.
Secure aids (especially outside aids) feel more like you are “catching of cradling” and strong aids are more punishing and suppressive.
Allow a small window of time for your horse to respond. Praise any effort.
Be consistent with the lighter aid that precedes the stronger aid; ask, then tell.
5. Does your horse need a better rider?
Please be honest. We admire your resolve to work through to the next level that you have never ridden or trained before. But every bumble you make delays the innocent horse’s progress.
Do the exercises in your comfort zone that work in today’s session
Put your horse in training with someone you admire and whose riding style complements your body type. (Find a way to afford it. It will cost you more by delaying your horse’s education.)
Take lessons on a horse that can help you develop the skills to ride at that next level so you are ready to pick up where the trainer leaves off.
A competent trainer can progress your horse faster than you can imagine. Set certain goals then match you education to that shared goal.
Congratulations! You did a very horseman like thing for the happiness of the horse.
You have a training plan already outlined and you have a lesson plan for that day’s training session.(read You Gotta Have a Plan if You Want to Succeed ) You have just swung up into the saddle and are walking to the training arena. Youknow what you want out of the session but… now is the time to ask that very important question: What does my horse need?
All your hopes and dreams, all your plans and schemes mean little to your horse. He has his own set of plans for the day. It goes like this:
Breakfast! My favorite thing!
Pasture! My favorite thing!
Dinner! My favorite thing!
“Being ridden” is quite often very far down on his/her list of fun things to do today. Only clever and empathetic riders can get their horse to look forward to being ridden. How many times have you seen a rider holding a halter approach the horse only to have the horse take one look and turn away from the rider? In some cases, the horse runs to the far end of the pasture. The horse that greets the rider at the stall door with ears forward tells the tale of a rider that knows how to supply what the horse needs to have a real partner in training.
A clever rider finds the key to the horse’s interest in the task at hand. Each horse’s needs are different but they generally fall into several categories.
The horse needs comfort.
The horse needs confidence.
The horse needs courage.
Let’s look at each of these needs.
When the horse needs comfort.
Is the horse sick? — Get his temperature, take his pulse, take his respiration and capillary refill time, has he/she pooped, has he/she drunk water— then get a vet!
Is the horse hurt/lame? —Get poultice/bandages/bute/wraps or Get a vet!
Does the saddle fit? — Get a saddle fitter!
Does the bridle and bit fit? — Fix it! Change bits, lower/raise bit, buy new bridle that fits better
Do I sit easily and in balance with the horse? — Work out more, do more core work, do more yoga, take lunge line lessons!
Is the footing comfortable for this horse? — Work in the level field, find an area of the arena that is not too deep or hard or worst of all, uneven
Is the weather causing anhidrosis (non sweating)? — Work in the cool of the morning, work in the shade, splash water on horse during session, stop working so hard and just hack lightly. Try supplements designed just for anhidrosis.
Is the work I am asking too hard for this horse? — Consult a trainer for scaled down versions, work shorter versions, do something within the skill set of this particular horse.
Am I pushing the horse too fast? — Go back to the preparatory schooling figures or work on the purity of basic gaits and come back to the harder movements in a couple weeks.
Am I approaching the difficult movements with tension and negative attitudes? If you approach a movement or schooling figure like a trip to the dentist or gynecologist office your horse will reflect that negative attitude with fear or resistance.
When a Horse Needs Confidence
Cultivate your own positive and encouraging attitude during the training, even in the face of your horse’s panic or anger
Take baby steps to conquer the insurmountable difficulty
Make sure your aids are clear, consistent and timely
Reward with your voice, or patting, or a treat quickly at ANY sign of your horse attempting to do the new/difficult thing
Limit repetitions of a movement to only THREE tries (good or bad move on to the next skill/movement/schooling figure)
Never ask for anything new or stressful or difficult when your horse is tired
Never ask for anything new/difficult when your horse is frightened
Now is the time to ask for something your horse likes to do
Never ask your horse to repeat something he/she performed correctly for the first time ever. Walk away in glory! Ask again tomorrow after your horse has slept on it with that reward and good feeling of being your partner.
When a Horse Needs Courage
What is the difference between confidence and courage? Confidence is the ease that the horse has with his rider and his job. Courage is the attitude with which your horse greets any new/frightening experience.
Never force your horse with kicking/hitting/spurring while driving the horse’s face is in (or over) the frightening object! Your horse will associate the punishment with the object forever more.
Come at the fearsome object sideways, not face on
Work your way closer with a couple of passes
Allow the horse a moment to come to terms with the fearsome object
Do not let the horse become mesmerized, move on!
Ride behind or alongside of another horse that is brave
You must be brave and confident (not angry or nervous)
Distract your horse with a well known and loved movement or project when something frightens him
Present the horse with an easy project that tests the courage without overwhelming the horse first before asking facing the exceptionally frightening object. After these early success where you develop trust between you and your horse, then increase the excitement level as you develop your horse’s courage “muscle”
Have a plan where you develop your horse’s courage muscle over days and weeks
When you supply what the horse needs
it allows the horse to perform as your partner.
One more suggestion:
Build your partnership from the ground up!
A partnership formed on the ground does transfer to an under saddle partnership
I now had trouble finding and keeping Heroes. When looking for heroes in the real world should I expect my heroes to be infallible? Was my hero bar set too high for mere mortals? Just how human will I allow my heroes to be?
My heroes changed, as I grew older. At an early age I adored Mighty Mouse. He would come to save the day. I just knew it. He told me this every Saturday morning. When I was older I dreamed about National Velvet. Oh! How the wind blew in my hair as I galloped around the living room when I won the Grand National on Pie! With more maturity I read about and idolized William Steinkraus. I had graduated to idolizing real people. Now at 63 my heroes are Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Charlotte Dujardin and my Mother.
At a young age I did not differentiate between the real world and the made up world. Good was good, the same in a book or a movie or during school. If “it” made me feel protected, cherished or special then “it” was good. Superman never hurt a nice person. Roy Rogers only fought the evil people in the defense of the defenseless. There was a clear division between evil and good to my naïve, young mind.
My intention to overcome adversity and be good at something was sparked by the story of Velvet Brown and Misty of Chincoteague. I was still stuck in the dream state of how I wanted the world to be, but I was now aware that the going would not be smooth or easy. I grew up swimming and diving competitively so I already knew that discipline and persistence was required to be ”good” at something. Swimming taught me that you could be “good” at something and still get beaten by someone faster than you. No shame; just work a little harder or longer and then you’ll be “good” and also win. I was closer to realizing the “Trouble with Heroes” but still in a dream state.
As I matured from awkward teen to newly minted twenty-something with a university degree I started looking for my heroes in the real world. I was always an avid reader of books and especially books about riding. These book heroes included William Steinkraus and Alois Podhajsky. Horsemanship that was based on compassionate personal behavior towards horses and people became central to my own behavior. It wasn’t easy finding real life examples that measured up to this lofty ideal. In fact it was easier to find the example of how NOT to behave. However, I was sure that “I was better than that”. Arrogant youth, thy name was Carol.
Personal Aside: I want to stop to thank my friends and family members that coped daily with my idealistic (and possibly insufferable) attitudes while on my quest for superior horsemanship. I saw myself as a kind and dedicated exponent of the equestrian arts. I must have been an insufferable and narrow-minded bore to be around. I hide behind the banner of “I Meant Well”. Thank you for sticking with me during this awkward learning phase.
Let’s flash forward 45 years (or so). It was a very bumpy ride. There were quite a few real life people that at first look I would think, “Hmmm, I like what I see here; this is effective and compassionate riding”, only to later witness these same people in an all too human loss of patience and more violent use of aids. How do you know when an aid or a harsh word has crossed over from effective to abusive? This was an important question with a slippery answer.
I now had trouble finding and keeping Heroes. When looking for heroes in the real world should I expect my heroes to be infallible? Was my hero bar set too high for mere mortals? Just how human will I allow my heroes to be?
Good training requires a clear idea of where you are going and how you’re going to get there. However, we know every horse is different and needs different approaches to learn well. I needed examples to emulate. But who do I trust to have the right answer?
Living a good life is not easy. How do I cause no harm to others while I work towards my life goals? I know there were times that I never saw the hurt I caused in others. Forgive me.
Here are a Three of my Grown Up Heroes.
1. Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice since 1993, showed me that you could be of the minority opining and still express your opinion, clearly and confidently in a quiet voice. Here was a human being that overcame life obstacles without trampling others beneath her feet. Here was someone whose opinion may have been in the minority but was justly recognized as valid.
Here are two quotes that resonate with me and I carry them with me through the rough times in the saddle and out of the saddle.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg: ON CRITICISM AND NOT GETTING A MAJORITY VOTE (on the Supreme Court Decision)
“I’m dejected, but only momentarily, when I can’t get the fifth vote for something I think is very important. But then you go on to the next challenge and you give it your all. You know that these important issues are not going to go away. They are going to come back again and again. There’ll be another time, another day.”
Ruth Bader Ginsberg: ON BEING REJECTED EARLY IN HER CAREER BY A FIRM THAT HAD ALREADY HIRED A WOMAN
“You think about what would have happened … Suppose I had gotten a job as a permanent associate. Probably I would have climbed up the ladder and today I would be a retired partner. So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great good fortune.”
Was she without fault? No. Ruth Bader Ginsberg acknowledged that she had spoken hastily without thinking about the consequences. In general the Supreme Court Justices are to avoid commenting on political candidates. As reported in the LA Times 9/19/2016 “Ginsburg said that she despaired for the country if Trump were elected, and she described him as egotistical, inconsistent and a “faker.” She faulted Trump for saying “whatever comes into his head at the moment,” but then acknowledged that she too had spoken without thinking about the consequences.
A younger me may have said, “Well, she was a disappointment” and not value her heroic example. Now I say “Well, that is how to respond if I ever speak without thinking about the consequences”.
2. Charlotte Dujardin
Charlotte Dujardin earned the hero status in my eyes by not just her words but also her actions personally and professionally. As an elite International Competitor you are under constant scrutiny. Every day cameras are poised to capture any blunder or bad training or awkward personal moment. News outlets can’t wait to offer good money for any sensational photo, however misleading, which may cause an increase in their readership. Instead there are landslides of videos on YouTube and photos in many news outlets that confirm a history of steady, quiet and cheerful riding/training/showing. I had the good fortune to witness her competing at the World Cup in Las Vegas 2015.
Riders knows that training is never easy and never simple. How could Charlotte be that even tempered? How could everything she do be that easy? Answer: it wasn’t. Carl Hester (Charlottes mentor and coach) and she point out publicly that there was more than one short-tempered exchange between them during training sessions. Charlotte has had her personal problems publicly scrutinized when her long time partner Dean Wyatt, separated from her due to Charlotte’s overwhelming career demands that resulted in a lack of time and attention to her relationship with him. His very public marriage proposal after her triumph in the Rio Olympics drew (mostly) acclaim. Her entire competitive career was an important part of who she was, so he would accept her as she was as long as she made room in her life for him. Charlottes riding and competing example, year after year, showed a heroic consistency of virtues that has her at the top of my Horse Heroes List and her public acknowledgement of her personal missteps and correction of her priorities shot her to the top of my Personal Heroes List.
3. My Mother
My Mother rounds out this list of heroes. She was not a Supreme Court Justice. The height of her participation in the horse world was when she carefully petted a pony over the fence. Once. Her triumph was to raise me to adulthood without murdering me in my bed. (Spoiler alert: she was provoked. Constantly.) Her success at raising two boys and a tomboy who seemed to spend all their waking hours hell-bent on pushing her buttons raises Mom’s status to Personal Hero List Topper. Instead of moving to a fancier house she made due with the fixer upper that Dad worked on in the evenings and on weekends. She was happy beyond words the year Dad put in a second bathroom. We ate meatloaf every week and ate out only once a week at the local diner, who offered dinners for fewer than five dollars. Why? So all three of her kids could go to college. Yes, Mom lost her temper. We (her charming children) would say to each other “there she goes again”. We were not very sympathetic children were we? But still, she loved us knuckleheads. Whatever we wanted to do with our lives she was behind fully. (Well, it took me until I was 16 years old to convince her that horses were not a phase.) Yes, I had to sit on papers in the car on the way home from lessons so I would not “stink up her car”.
I learned perseverance from Mom. Things went badly regularly with three kids. She would yell. She would stomp around, growling about our latest transgressions. But she saw to it that her beloved family always had three things: a comfy house, good home cooked meals, and love. (Whether we wanted it or not, no matter what stupid behavior we exhibited that day.) This trifecta of unadorned life is something that happens daily in the horse world. Be like Mom and care for your horse(s) equally in the rough times as well as the easy times. Tomorrow will come. You’ll have another chance at making something good happen.
I learned to valuefriends for life from Mom. Dad and the kids were a focus of her life but her sanity was in her group of friends from childhood. Her best friend from childhood continues to be my God Mother and good friend (on Facebook no less) long after my Mother went to her grave. My Mother taught me how to value these relationships by example. Honoring the horse you ride is an important part of training. Never Forget, the horse you’re riding knows whether you regard him/her as a valued friend or not. They will never forget that friendship.
I learned forgiveness from my Mom. There were major upsets amongst my Mom’s family. She grieved her emotional separation from her sister long after her sister’s death. “Don’t let that happen to you,” she would say to me “Forgive what ever happens. It’s not as important as having family and friends”. My Mom’s mother was “difficult”. But several times a year we would, as a family, visited her. “Be nice. She is my mother and important to me.” She did her best to do the right thing even when “the right thing” was not always easy or even welcomed. Your ability to do “the right thing” and forgive any bad behaviour during the heat of a difficult training session will lift you to Hero status in the horse’s eyes.
The many things that I learned from Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Charlotte Dujardin and my Mom, personally and professionally, follow me into the saddle when I ride today. These heroes are not idealistic constructs but people that show the way to handling our all too human feelings. They show us how to treat people and horses with more compassion and respect.
Here are some thoughts from my Heroes.
*Have a well thought out training plan or opinion and say it clearly and confidently. These words turn into actions (or riding) worthy of doing.
*The majority of the time it’s not necessary or helpful to yell (or use rough aids). However you probably will yell from time to time. Apologize and move on. You are still a good person.
*Try not to say thoughtless things (or use thoughtless aids) but if you say or do something thoughtless then apologize. You’ll get over feeling embarrassed eventually. Use the embarrassment to learn how not to be thoughtless the next time.
*Offer your friendship to all you meet (or all horses you ride). It is the only correct way to deal with angry or aggressive people (or horses). There is usually sadness and hopelessness behind their anger. More anger from you will only fuel further anger.
*Value the small things people (or horses) do for you. Big expensive things come with very large karma price tags you don’t want to pay. The small generosities add up to a fortune in happiness over the years. If you ignore a generous action from a person (or horse) you risk that it will never be offered again.
Who are your Heroes, horse or non-horse? Why are they your Heroes?
Gone are those awful days of following every new fad and fashion hoping that we would fit into the cool kids group. The heck with that nonsense. If others don’t like what you are doing, they don’t have to watch. You found your passion and along the way you have grown strong and sure of yourself. You have met some fabulous friends that you would have never met outside of the horse world. Never again will you waste your time trying to please people that don’t understand or care about you.
2. We have already learned the value of a budget
Yep. Learning how to use your money wisely is part of growing up. Very few of us in the horse world have an unlimited budget. Remember that day when you realized that people admired you for cleverly finding that bargain outfit from the resale shop? (They wished they had found something like that.) You looked great and still could afford to go to the show that month (or take a lesson, or clinic with someone). “Put your money where your mouth is” doesn’t mean we should go into debt pursuing what is important to us. Wear that Calvin Klein dress from Ross Dress for Less to the banquet when you pick up your award.
3. We are experts at negotiating with our body parts
Our younger selves flew unheeding into every activity that came our way. When our teachers asked us to change something about our posture or the way we reacted we were quick to say, “I just can’t do it that way”. Years of experience have taught us patience with the eye on long-term gains. We have learned that practice allows us to learn a better way to do things. We now recognize that what seems impossible to change at first, if you persist, becomes easier and easier. We no longer take our bodies taken for granted. We have learned to curate what can be done with our aging framework and have acquired a large bag of tricks that work around what truly cannot be changed about our bodies. Example: with a height of 5’3” I was never destined to be a center on the girls basketball team. Put me on a horse and I’m a force to be reckoned with.
4. We have learned that feeling stupid means you are learning
By now we know that staying in your comfort zone means never improving or growing. You have to risk something to gain something. The best lessons for improvement are the lessons where you get corrected for making mistakes or pushed when you’d rather stay in your safe zone. We know that these lessons do not feel good at the time. The lesson where the instructor verbally pats you on the head and says you’re doing fine may make you feel supported but did you learn something new? Did that lesson show you that you were capable of doing more? Did that “feel good” lesson push you up to a new skill level? Probably not. Risk and Persist is your motto now. Go for it. You’ve got this.
5. We are thrilled to be living the horse life on any level
Luminaries like Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin inspire us but most of us do not want to live their lives. We love our family, our work outside the horse world, our homes, and our children. Don’t get us wrong; we value learning important lessons from these horse idols. We apply these important lessons to our non-Olympic bound horse. These small successes are very important to us. When we feel our 12 yr. old OTTB move freely into a balanced shoulder in we are as euphoric. We won our own special Gold Medal in personal bests. These small but mighty moments with our beloved horse is why we are and will continue to be, Rocking Adult Horsewomen.
My early riding efforts were (forgive the pun) “seat of the pants” riding. You rode around walking, trotting and cantering until something didn’t go right; then you fixed it. Dorita structured that training session until it became intuitive when to stop, when to go on with the exercise and how to decide what exercise to train. Then I attended a clinic with Major Anders Lindgren; eye opening and addictive! I had always kept a training journal but this was fantastic!
Major Lindgren was a pivotal influence in the development of United States dressage instruction. In 2003 Major Lindgren was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame. Over a ten-year period, almost 1,000 participating instructors learned from his systematic, structured approach to teaching dressage at the USDF Violet Hopkins National Seminars.
Major Lindgren gave a classroom session on how to be a good teacher. The Sample Lesson plan was projected onto the screen at the front of the living room we were gathered and he broke it all down for us. I was amazed. I was naïve. Dorita Konyot taught me to train but Major Lindgren taught me how to teach.
Here is what I saw on that screen:
Holy Cow! It was all spelled out and diagramed! When I rode for Major Lindgren, I felt what it was to be taught in the Lesson Plan format. He practiced what he preached. His delivery was calm and organized. He expected you to ride precisely what he told you to ride. Slyly humorous and exhaustively demanding I loved every criticism. I grew and matured as a rider, trainer and a teacher—and not without a few tears of frustration.
It was totally worth it.
What instructor had the greatest impact on how you teach?