Article based on an earlier version which appeared in the American Association for Horsemanship Safety Newsletter, Winter 2000 issue:
From Natural to Second Nature
By Paul Kathen
Founder and Head Instructor/Trainer
Tex-Over Farms, Inc.
Dogs will shake or roll over at the sight of a piece of rawhide. We can teach chickens to play the piano and pigeons to guide missiles. Why is it so difficult to train our horses? The method of teaching in all cases is the same. We apply a stimulus and when we receive the correct response, we reward.
Horses will also quickly learn to respond to voice commands on a longe line. Like dogs and birds, they will perform tricks in short order in return for treats. When we climb on a horse’s back, two things happen however. First, the horse just may not like the extra weight on its back or gets frightened by the weight and rids itself of it. Due to the horse’s great strength, it has little difficulty in doing so. Like a lion tamer, we deal with an animal that is physically much stronger than we are.
Second, when the horse decides to tolerate the load, our weight will throw the horse off its natural balance. This graceful horse becomes clumsy, shortens its gaits, stumbles, leans, drifts, and wants to stop. Because of the loss of its natural balance the horse is uncomfortable moving and therefore uncomfortable to ride. This imbalance also often causes the horse to be unable to obey. I like to compare this to the imbalance of a man jumping off a moving vehicle. Momentum keeps this man running and unable to stop unless he would find something to catch his weight on. In the case of the young horse with most of his weight on the forehand, when asked to stop, this youngster will catch himself by leaning in the rider’s hand.
So, the trainer’s first task is to help the young horse find its balance under the rider. She does this by riding large circles and straight lines, taking care to find the best rhythm for the horse at this time of its training. This is the most effective way to develop the horse’s strength and create the relaxation necessary for learning. Keeping the demands low (large circles, long lines, and a rhythm comfortable for the horse), the trainer also creates in the horse the confidence necessary to tackle the more demanding work still to come.
As I mentioned earlier, the horse needs to work in a relaxed manner in order to be able to learn. The next step in the training of this horse is for it to become more comfortable accepting the aids of the rider and to correctly respond to them. Outside of learning a language that both horse and rider understand, the animal begins to trust the rider and submits to her. This aspect of training must not be underestimated because the rider’s safety depends on it as well as any success in the show ring. If this willingness to submit is not established in the horse at this point, the alternative is to break its spirit. This, however, means to forfeit one of the objectives of training – to bring out the natural beauty of the horse. I personally also believe that a horse whose obedience is based on fear of punishment, has little self-confidence and may overreact when confronted with external sources of fear and thus endanger its rider.
Up to this point the trainer has concentrated on helping the horse find its balance under the rider and to move in a rhythmical and relaxed manner in order to gain strength and coordination. The horse has also learned to understand the rider’s aids and the trainer can now begin to influence the actions of the horse toward the goal of a comfortable, obedient, and powerful horse that will be beautiful to observe and serve its rider safely for a long time.
Horses, like humans, are born uneven. They prefer one side of their body over the other. To make the horse straight (equally strong and supple on both sides) is the trainer’s next task. In order to accomplish straightness the trainer first develops in the horse a desire to go forward (impulsion). Many transitions of the gaits, changes within the gait, the beginnings of lateral work, smaller circles and spirals all help to improve impulsion in your horse provided they are ridden correctly.
By correct riding I mean riding from the back to the front with the limitations of the horse in mind. The trainer also must not sacrifice rhythm, relaxation, and proper contact to gain impulsion. The rider must take care not to ask for more than the horse can balance at this stage in its training. From this point forward the horse learns hardly anything new. What changes all the time is the degree of difficulty, i.e. ten-meter circle to shoulder-fore to shoulder-in to travers to half pass.
For many centuries trainers have looked for better methods of improving their horses. There were three powerful motivations to excel at working with horses to gain their confidence and turn them into reliable partners:
1. Survival (combat from horseback)
2. Social status (the courts of Europe)
3. Competition (the Olympics)
Fortunately many of the masters passed on what worked for them. Others copied their methods, expanded on them, and thus we arrived at a system that has proven to be effective.
Let us return to the practical side of training. We have established that in order to correct the natural crookedness of the horse, the trainer needs to instill in the horse the desire to go forward. Aided by this impulsion, she now takes care that at all times the inside hind and inside front leg of the horse are on the same line. She keeps the inside hind leg on the track that she wants to travel and aligns the front to it. Riding like this in both directions, on circles and straight lines, and gradually adding a positioning of the poll, the horse will soon work equally well on both hands.
As I describe these steps of training in their sequence, it must be understood that there are no strong lines that separate them. On the contrary, the lines are very fluid and at times the trainer may borrow exercises from the higher steps to overcome a plateau on a lower step if that seems to work with a particular mount at that particular time.
As was mentioned earlier, we must not lose something already achieved in order to move up in the demands. Rhythm, relaxation, and the acceptance of the aids are especially not to be endangered. The horse’s trust in the rider, its self-confidence, and impulsion may be lost, and those are hard to regain.
By now you may have realized that there are not many strong rules about this business of training a horse. One thing that is certain, however, is that you will not complete one phase of training successfully without having achieved satisfactory results in all of the phases below it. Add to that the fact that all aspects of training should never be considered as finished or complete. The moment you quit working to maintain or improve what you have gained, it begins to deteriorate. The horse will return to its natural way of going.
With all these words of caution in mind, let us move on to the last step in the basic training of the horse, - collection. First, I must say that we started the process of changing the horse’s balance very early in its training. The horse’s front legs carry two thirds of the rider’s weight. That takes the horse out of its natural balance. In order to overcome that, we convince the horse to carry its head a little higher and engage a bit more in the hind leg thus causing a shift of weight towards the hindquarter. Also in the process of straightening the horse we strengthened especially the weaker hind leg so it can carry more weight on that leg. Collection, however, goes beyond finding a new balance to accommodate the weight of the rider and to strengthen the horse so it can move comfortably under the rider.
In collection, we shift enough weight back so that the hind legs now must carry as well as propel the weight of the horse and rider. The direction of movement then changes from forward (natural direction) to forward upward (artificial direction).
At this point many horses will offer serious resistance because they object to the burning in the muscles of the hindquarters as they must now support the increased bend in the hips, stifles, and hock joints. Imagine yourself walking with bent knees, - better yet - try it. You will soon feel what the horse is objecting to. So we are back to building strength. That means working the horse to its limit, resting, working in collection again, resting, etc.
Our system of training has again given us tools to use to facilitate this task. Many of these exercises we have already practiced in their earlier form such as transitions from gait to gait or within the gait, i.e. walk-trot or trot-canter. Now we will try walk-canter and back to the walk. We will combine exercises like shoulder-in, ten-meter circle, travers.
The body builder knows that in order to increase volume and strength of a muscle he must stress it in one or all of three ways. There must be repetition (rhythmic), duration (holding in a certain position as long as possible), or increase in load. The muscles of the horse respond in the same way. Let us consider the shoulder-in as a gymnastic (strengthening and coordinating) exercise. The trot is a clear two beat rhythmic movement, the rhythm becomes just a little slower (more time for the muscles to hold the joints in a bend position) and due to the bend in the body, the inside hind leg has to carry more weight. Repetition (the trot), duration (the slightly slowed rhythm), and the increased weight all serve to strengthen that particular group of muscles (shoulder-in left – left croup).
Since horses are motivated by a desire for harmony with their rider, they will give this exercise a good try. When the muscles begin to burn, their desire for comfort exceeds that of harmony, and resistance rears its ugly head. At first there are defensive actions like slowing down too much, looking for support in the rider’s hand, or stiffening in the topline. That may turn into more active resistance like popping the outside shoulder out, turning the “shoulder-in” into a “leg yield” or stiffening the hind legs to protect the muscles from too much effort.
When such resistance occurs, the trainer must stop the exercise, ride forward, prepare the horse anew, and try again. Should the resistance persist, it is time to stop and think about a different approach such as more time spent on a less difficult exercise like “shoulder-fore,” smaller circles, or just a few steps at “shoulder-in.” At the slightest hint of resistance, ride straight and try again. The trainer may want to change rein and see how the horse works on its other hand. As you can tell, a lot of sensitivity and thought is required to take the horse into moving in this artificial direction. Time should not be a consideration as we prepare the horse for the upper levels since usually it holds true that the more time we take, the quicker we get there.
In our effort to influence the horse we have two major tools at our disposal. One is our skill in the use of the aids, and the other is the proper execution of exercises designed to improve the horse’s strength and coordination. So, a trainer must be skilled in riding to be able to influence the horse. Furthermore, she must be knowledgeable of the effects of the exercises, experienced enough to be able to recognize the cause of a problem, and she must choose the proper exercise to correct that cause.
I hope that this article does satisfactorily emphasize five points that must be recognized and observed at all times.
Here they are once more in a nutshell:
1. Horses work best and with the least amount of wear when they move rhythmically, relaxed, and on the bit.
2. All training is progressive and must not exceed the horse’s ability at that time.
3. Today’s work must prepare the horse physically for tomorrow’s demands.
4. Using exercises is only helpful when they are the appropriate ones and ridden correctly.
5. In order to be effective in teaching a horse, the trainer must gain the horse’s trust and increase the horse’s self-confidence.
This should produce a horse that is comfortable and safe to ride, willing and able to obey, strong enough to do the work, and improved in its gaits. Oh, and yes of course, it will bring you lots of blue ribbons.
If, in reading this article, you have come away with the impression that training a horse is easy,--- read it again!