The root of Connected Horsemanship is understanding, working with & connecting the whole horse. In training, this means that we assess and account for all the parts of the horse: the mental, emotional & physical states. The horse's natural personality, conformation, & past training/handling all play a part in making the horse what it is. When a horse first arrives for training, I take the time to assess & get to know the individual components of the horse in order to better understand it as a whole.
The 3 Components:
- Physical Condition: Is the horse physically able to do what we are asking? Is there any pain, stiffness or tension that would make the horse uncomfortable doing the work? Often, integrating body work into the training routine can solve simple imbalances & tension. However, if any serious pain, injury or illness issues exist, then I will give my advice regarding the best route to solve the problem before proceeding into training.Throughout the horse's training life, care must be taken to build muscle properly. The working horse is an athlete and must be treated as such. Through straightness training with the classical dressage gymnastics exercises, we work on balancing the horse in their body and in the way they move. By teaching the horse lateral balance (side to side) & collection (engaged hind quarters), the muscles will then be able to build & develop in a balanced way. This will help to create overall health, well being, athletic ability & longevity.
- Mental Condition: This includes the horse's personality, intelligence, tendencies and what they think about things. You can better understand the motives behind behavior by maintaining a two way communication line. This enables you to address behavior effectively. For example, did the horse kick out in pain, rebellious dominance, or play? How do you know? By reading the horse's body language & taking into account the whole horse, we are able to discern the horse's thoughts & motives in order to better understand how to approach their training. This ability can make or break someone who desires to train or work with a horse. It represents the difference between effective work & disappointing rides; real results & frustrating stagnation.
- Emotional Condition: The emotional condition of the horse has a lot to do with their constitution and how they react to things. For example, consider a spooky horse: are they fearful because of something in their past (abuse, etc.), is it because they have not had the security of a strong leader, or is their natural emotional state one of worry & suspicion? By providing for a horse's main needs (calm companionship & confident leadership), we can help foster an emotionally healthy horse. Through various exercises we build trust, confidence, willingness & security. We also provide consistent leadership & boundaries. The emotional imbalances of a horse are not just limited to fearfulness. They can also include anger, indifference, lack of enthusiasm, depression, aggression & being anti-social.
When these 3 things are all accounted for and handled properly, the "vices" or "bad behavior" goes away. When you meet their needs by providing calm companionship & consistent leadership, horses receive the comfort, wellness, security & boundaries that their bad behavior has been crying out for. By providing clear & precise communication, you give the horse understanding. Through play & positive reinforcement, you give the horse a willing attitude and a happy, gentle spirit.
What more could you ask for than a healthy, happy, gentle, enthusiastic and willing partner? It all begins with your approach.
I believe that it is essential to have very clear priorities that you never waiver from. If you loose sight of these priorities, then you will step off the path of good, honest training that will lead to your end goals and end up who knows where! The priorities that I keep in mind when training, and that you should keep in mind when working with me, are as follows:1. Safety of all humans involved. (That includes myself)
2. Safety of all horses.
3. To keep the horse calm and supple at all times. Tension and stress are the enemy of improvement
4. That at the end of each session the horse is a better horse then it was at the beginning.
5. 'As the first main principle of art I urge every rider to 'ride your horse forward and set it straight' - Gustav Steinbrecht To ride the horse forward and straight.
A Word on Treats:
Many horseman are against the use of food in training. They say that, by using treats, you are encouraging food aggression, mouthiness, disrespect, etc. However, I have found treats to be a great training tool and use them liberally, but appropriately. Food aggression stems from a dominance problem, not a food problem! I can carry a flake of hay or a bucket of grain in my hands while leading my horse (who is trained using treats) without her ever trying to take a bite. This is possible because I am clearly the leader. The hay in my hands is mine and remains so until I see fit to give it to the horse, at which point they may eat it until/unless I choose to take it back. I can peacefully move the horses I train away from their meal without any signs of arguing or aggression. If a horse is mouthy, nippy or food aggressive then do not blame the treats...the problem is clearly a lack of leadership.
On a side note, there are some dominant horses (especially stallions) who, though they have accepted human leadership, are always tempted to take it back. The addition of food into training may be too much of a distraction to them. In this case I use treats sparingly, or not at all, until the horse is firmly established & comfortable in their more submissive role.
Because horses are grazers, their body & digestive system is designed to receive nutrients throughout the day. By integrating food into your training, you are supplying the blood with nutrients that help the brain work better and create a healthier, happier, more focused horse.
A loose, relaxed jaw means a loose, relaxed horse. It can be especially beneficial to add treats or 'snack breaks' to the training session of a horse that is prone to stress, upset or tension. You are not rewarding the horse for that state of mind. Rather, you are encouraging them to loosen their jaw through the chewing of food which will (when implemented appropriately) help to loosen and relax their mind & body.
There are a few different categories of training/work that I strategically combine into each individual horse's program. Here is a brief explanation of the basic categories:
- Play & Liberty Work. I, for one, thoroughly enjoy the liberty work & the horses certainly do to! It is amazing to see the shift in a horse's overall interest and happiness when you include games & play. In my opinion, if you need tools (lead rope, lung line, bridle, etc.) to get a horse to do something then the horse is not really trained to do it. A horse is reliably trained to do something when they can successfully execute an action in a timely manner while completely at liberty.
- Tricks.Trick training is not always included in every horse's program. This depends on the needs of the horse & the intentions/goals of the owner. I do like to include trick training when possible because it really helps to create a willing horse, one that's always enthusiastically asking with a puppy dog face, "What will we do next?!" The process of trick training really helps establish the "Request, Response, Reward" pattern in a horse's mind. They quickly learn to respond to every request. Even if they don't fully understand what is being asked of them, they are more willing to try because they know that there is a reason for it & if they put a little effort in there will always be a reward at the end of the sequence.Trick training may include ground tying, coming when called, side passing to & away from you, lining up to you for mounting, Spanish walk, bowing, rearing, and any variation of these things or whatever else the clever horse may have to offer.
- Ground Work. The term 'ground work' is pretty all-encompassing. In my training program, it generally includes round penning, lunging & the in-hand gymnastics exercises of classical dressage. Also, specific & precise leadership or trust exercises may also be added to the ground work regime, as well as body awareness exercises which help teach the horse to move in a relaxed and balanced way. By using ground work correctly you can prepare a horse for riding work, address body issues, encourage proper movement, develop balanced muscle tone, & teach obedience to cues, all while developing communication, understanding, trust & leadership.
- Riding. Riding work is just the capstone of all the other work we've been building on. When you have done all the other work properly, the riding work will be understood more clearly by the horse. Riding work aims to continue to increase body awareness, self carriage, collection, balance, even muscle tone, communication & relationship. These are all important and valuable traits to have in any riding discipline.
When training a horse, I encourage the owner/handler to be involved as much as possible. At the end of the day, it is your relationship that really matters.
If you are interested in my training techniques, please also read my training articles.