To help guide you to a deeper relationship with your horse.


Horse Training Principles
The key to building an effective partnership

The goal of this article is to present you with a set of principles that create a framework to help you and your horse build the relationship you have always wanted. These principles will not teach you how to ride or train horses. But, they will guide the teaching of your horses. Also, they can help you select a method or teacher to help you develop your horse-human partnership.

It is important to realize that when we (humans, horses, or otherwise) encounter any activity, event, person, or object, we unconsciously ask ourselves:
“What is it?”
“Is it familiar?”
“Is it comfortable?”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Is it unfamiliar?”
“Is it similar to something comfortable or dangerous that I have already encountered?”
“What should I do about it?”

Sometimes, if the event is unfamiliar, happens suddenly, or the activity, person, or object appears to be dangerous, without thinking about it, we can immediately go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. In this hyper-alert state adrenaline rushes through our body and we cannot think clearly; we can only react. That is why our attempts to communicate calmly with fear-filled horses are often unsuccessful and potentially hazardous.

There are many popular horse-training methodologies that cause horses to become reactionary and then oblige riders, with bits and other equipment, to subdue and control nervous animals who are too frightened to think. The problem with these training styles is that they rely on power and control and can cause horses and riders to suffer discomfort and injuries. Additionally, every time horses are put into a frantic state, opportunities to develop real partnerships are lost.

To create lasting partnerships with our horses we must create lessons that transition horse-students gradually from what is familiar and comfortable to concepts that are similar and comfortable. This allows horses to maintain relaxation while they confidently use their intellect and body to learn the ideas we present. The following is an approach that truly works.

Rather than thinking in terms of movements that we make horses do, we must frame all horse-human interactions as friendly cross-species conversations. Horses must be relaxed, focused, self-confident and confident in their human partner. Horses, when relaxed, are friendly, thinking creatures, and like you, have opinions about everything. Our conversations must take the form of questions such as, “Can we do this movement together?” “What do you think about that?” “Can you do this?” When we engage horses in mutually enjoyable conversations, we have the opportunity to “grow” conversations from familiar and comfortable “questions” to those that are slightly unfamiliar but similar and comfortable.

Effective communication is based on the following six principles:
• Both communicators must be able to utilize verbal and/or non-verbal language to define objects, situations, movements, and feelings.
• The communicators must establish a common language.
• The language must be used to create a friendly environment where both partners happily listen to the other.
• The “words”, whether verbal or non-verbal, must be clear and free from ambiguity or misinterpretation.
• New concepts must evolve from a familiar and comfortable activity to one that is new, similar, and comfortable so that relaxation is maintained at all times.
• At the end of the conversation, both parties must feel enriched.

Once we understand these principles, with a little imagination it is fairly easy to teach horses just about anything. Let’s look more closely at each of these principles.

Both communicators must be able to utilize verbal and/or non-verbal language to define objects, situations, movements, and feelings.
Many studies have demonstrated that horses can think, define situations, problem-solve, and communicate their opinions by verbalizations and body language. To maximize their chances of survival, they have evolved to understand other species’ verbal and non-verbal communication.

The communicators must establish a common language.
Humans must learn the meaning of their horses’ facial expressions and body language; whether they are happy, sad, scared, annoyed, interested, or bored. This knowledge will guide your efforts to engage in a friendly conversation. At the same time, teach your horses your “words”, both verbal and non-verbal (body-language). Once horses learn one word they are ready to learn more. Begin by teaching horses their name. Teach them “Good”, “Nice”, “Come”, “Whoa”, “Walk”, and “Stay”. Name each one of their feet (for example: A,B,C, and D), Ask them to move each foot using “Come”, “Back”, “Up”, and “Down”. Ask them to “Touch” grooming tools, tack, and other objects. Teach them “Trot”, “Canter”, “Turn”, “Left”, “Right”, “Jump”, “Cross”, and so on as their skills develop.

The language must be used to create a friendly environment.
To create an enjoyable experience, use “Good” and “Nice” and lots of praise; pats, rubs, and hugs; and a bit of apple, carrot, or other edible reward whenever horses attempt to problem- solve or when their performance improves. As they broaden their knowledge, taper off on the edible rewards, but continue to use “Good”, “Nice”, verbal praise, and physical affection. However, re-introduce edible rewards when teaching a new activity and at the end of each session. There is absolutely no place for punishment during these lessons. The goal is to build friendship and trust.

The “words”, whether verbal or non-verbal, must be clear and free from ambiguity or misinterpretation.
Most activities are easier to teach on the ground before attempting to teach the same activity on the horse’s back. When mounted, careless shifts of balance, hands, legs, head, shoulders, and hips, send mixed messages to horses. Remain still and balanced when riding and only apply one “word” at a time. Use audible words such as “Trot” and “Canter” with the body-language cue until the horse thoroughly understands the body-language cue.

To maintain relaxation, new concepts must be introduced gradually from a familiar and comfortable activity to a new and unfamiliar but comfortable activity that is very similar to the previous activity.
If the horse misunderstands what you are asking, review the principles and retrace your steps: Are you speaking the same language? Does the horse understand? Is the horse happy? Do any of your words (both verbal and non-verbal) lack clarity? Have you accidently moved from the familiar and comfortable to the unfamiliar and scary? Go back to where the movement was familiar and comfortable and begin again. This time, however, build the lesson more slowly to make sure that the new request is similar and comfortable in order to avoid the previous slip-up.

At the end of the conversation, both parties must feel enriched.
Each communicator will walk away from the discussion, reflect upon it, and define the experience as pleasant or unpleasant. If the experience is not emotionally rewarding for both horse and human, neither will be excited about engaging in further conversations. If both communicators define the experience as “pleasant,” they will seek more opportunities to engage in similar conversations. If one of the communicators looks upon the experience as less than rewarding and mentally labels it as “unpleasant”, that communicator will avoid further conversations.

I hope you can use these principles with your horses regardless of the riding discipline. If you follow this format any mistakes will be easy to catch and correct and your horses will look forward to spending time with you.

Chris Forté is the owner of the Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center. This article was first printed in the Equestrian Connection: the Pacific Horse Advertiser, April, 2013.


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