Training Horses: Leave Your Emotions at Home

Emotional riding leads to abuse, so it’s very important to control your emotions when you’re training a horse. First, realize the animal will usually be compliant unless you are “clashing aids,” by pushing and pulling at the same time, or are “overfacing” the horse by asking it to do something above its current performance level. For instance, a young, inexperienced horse (referred to as a “green” horse) may not have established its balance well enough while carrying a rider to perform a flying change. No amount of persuasion is going to result in a relaxed and “clean” change—that is, a correct switch of all of the feet to the new lead at once—so there’s no point in starting a battle you can’t win. It only gets the horse upset and makes it much more difficult to teach the flying change when the appropriate time comes.

A horse that pulls against the rider seems to lead to abuse more than anything else. Although a horse can be prone to travel on its forehand, particularly if it is built “downhill” with the withers lower than the croup, the animal is not going to be an constant puller unless you are not riding very well. Typically, the rider will be “clashing aids,” driving the horse forward with the legs while taking an unrelenting hold on the horse’s mouth. Keeping a horse in a round frame is not a matter of brute force, but rather is the result of excellent coordination of the aids, with the rider using half-halts to lighten the animal’s front end, while keeping the horse moving forward from the legs. (See “How to Perform a Half-Halt“.) The hands and arms, working together in the half-halt, never give the horse a fixed object on which to pull, so the rider doesn’t end up being exhausted and angry.

At this point, I’d like to offer a word to the wise about equipment. You should always wear gloves when riding, for this will protect your skin from being rubbed raw if your horse begins to pull. If you want to contain your emotions and stay in the track of productive work, then don’t let your skin get rubbed raw.  Your excellent riding should make this a rare problem, but on occasion, the horse may be very excitable at a new location or you may be retraining someone else’s horse that has learned to pull all the time, due to its normal rider’s “hard hands.”

You should also carry a riding crop at all times when training, for another reason rider’s get angry at their horses is that the horse begins to misbehave—for instance, refusing to jump a fence—and the rider is not prepared to make an immediate, tactful correction with the riding crop. A situation that should have been easy to deal with becomes a much bigger problem when the horse realizes that the rider is unprepared to correct it. You can slap your horse on its barrel all you want, but it will not be nearly as effective as a tap with a riding crop. The more you advertise your lack of consistency in correcting your horse, the more difficulty you will have in training it.

Realize that the horse is just a horse, not some brilliant, emotionally-complex being. If you make your physical instructions to the animal easy to understand by making the wrong behavior slightly uncomfortable and the right behavior comfortable, then the horse will take the path of what is most pleasant. A master of this concept was Gordon Wright, whose famous book, “Learning to Ride, Hunt, and Show” is once again available and should be in every serious horseman’s library.  You can find it on Amazon.

Finally, don’t become embarrassed and take it out on your horse. I particularly see this happening at clinics and horse shows, where riders feel that everyone is judging them. The truth is that people have sympathy for those who are trying and face great difficulty, while they feel disdain for those who lose their tempers and take it out on their horses. I’d rather be known as a mediocre rider than a cruel person.

In summary, to avoid an emotional training session, don’t clash your aids or overface your horse; learn to half-half properly so that you don’t get into a pulling match; use gloves to protect your hands and carry a riding crop for immediate corrections; make the wrong behavior slightly uncomfortable and the right behavior comfortable; be consistent with your corrections; and don’t take your emotions out on your horse. If you implement these few things, you’ll be well on your way to success.