A Couple Of Issue Regarding Starting A Horse
I’ve been tossing up whether or not to write about this topic because it has the potential to get me into hot water with a particular well-known trainer and his followers. But I think there are some important lessons to be learned from the subject, so I’m going say something.
There are a zillion things to talk about with regard to breaking in horses. But a couple of them have come to mind recently that I’d like to mention.
The first concerns a comment regarding another trainer by one of his clients. The person was recommending the trainer to another person with the comment, “He’s really good. He does most of his riding on the road, so they’re really quiet to ride in traffic.”
There was a trainer that lived near me in Victoria too that people use to recommend almost entirely because he did most of his riding on the road too. People seem to think this is a good thing. I guess it’s because some folks get nervous about riding a green horse on the road or trail and feel reassured that the breaker has worked a lot on that issue.
I don’t do a lot of trail or roadwork before sending a horse home. I do some. But most horses get between 2 and 6 rides out before they are ready to go home. Most of my work is done in the round yard, arena and paddock.
Well, it comes back to my alternate training scale – focus, clarity and softness. These are the things that I spend most of my time working on a horse. When I have a half decent handle on these basic things for the green horse, I never have any issues with riding them out on the road. They never get anxious from separation anxiety. They rarely shy except at the occasional thing that surprises them (like a deer in the bush). They never bolt and cars hardly ever bother them. The issues that people worry about with riding their green horse out on the road don’t really become a problem if the horse has focus, clarity and softness.
My concern with trainers who ride out a lot is that most of them are doing nothing more than being passengers trying to get the horse accustomed to being ridden out. They use the familiarity that comes with being ridden on roads a lot as a substitute for training. To me, training is more of a mental exercise than a physical one. I am training the horse’s brain to accept me and accept being directed by me. I don’t have to do miles and miles if I am connecting to the mind of the horse. But if I’m not making that connection I had better do lots and lots of miles to at least get the horse use to things.
I’m not bagging riding on trails or the road. A lot of good work can be achieved out there. But most people don’t put in the good work. They simply ride in an effort to get the horse use to being ridden away from home. But I don’t find it very necessary. The horses I start are generally pretty good on the trail because of the work done at home.
Here is a clip by Warwick Schiller. He is answering a question about separation anxiety in horses. His answer directly relates to the subject about the need to do lots of riding on the road or trail when breaking a horse in.
My second concern is regarding the importance of obedience in training. I was browsing a book at the library the other day. It was one of Andrew McLean’s books (I can’t remember the title) where he discusses learning theory. Learning theory is a term coined by him to describe his idea of how training can be applied to a horse in accord with how he believes horses learn. My interpretation of his views is that horses should be taught to obey commands from a handler or ride and that every problem stems from a break down in obedience to those commands. For example, the rider applies the leg aid to ask the horse to go. If the horse does not go, the leg aid is applied firmer or for longer until the horse goes forward. That’s it – no questions ask. Now this may seem reasonable at the start. But consider how Andrew applies this principle. He has stated in the past (I think it was in an article in The Horse Magazine) that if a horse spooks at an object the rider should direct the horse towards the object until the horse sniffs it. If the horse does not approach the object it is a failure of the go command and the horse is demonstrating disobedience to the rider’s leg. In this case the solution would be reinforce obedience to the rider’s leg through further training.
I refer to Andrew’s work only because his booked reminded me of why I don’t like it. But there are lots of trainers who approach training in the same way. For them, training is about teaching obedience and disobedience is a lack of training to the aids.
But in my view what these trainers don’t appreciate is that probably most disobedience is an emotional decision for a horse. Most of the time (but, not always) when a horse says “no” is stems from a concern for his safety or anxiety caused by confusion or lack of confidence. Rarely does a horse say “no” from belligerence. It mostly comes from an emotional concern. But rather than address the emotional concern, they treat the horse as if his disobedience is a considered decision derived from a bad attitude.
If a trainer does not appreciate the emotional component of disobedience and works in way that is only concerned with blind obedience, there is no reason for a horse to ever have confidence or trust in anything a trainer may ask. If the human shows the horse he does not care if the horse lives or dies by demanding he sniff the scary object, what does that do for the relationship?
Check out this video clip. It’s Andrew’s son, Warwick working with a young breaker. You might notice that Warwick does nothing that actually helps the horse do better. He just tests to see what the horse will do. But the focus, clarity and softness are exactly the same at the end of the clip as they are at the start. This exactly my experience with training horses for obedience.