A Common Myth in Horse Training and The Learning Curve
By Raye Lochert
While working with people and their horses one of the most common questions I get is,
"If I quit before my horse gives me what I'm asking for does he win?" The answer is simply - no.
Horses don't think in terms of winning and losing. As a matter of fact, they don't think like you and me at all. For the most part all they want is to be left alone in a green pasture with some of their friends. So then the question arises, "Don't we have to end on a good note?" The answer here is, yes. But what’s a good note?
When training your horse to do anything the most important component is patience. Consistency is second - but patience is first. Without patience we end up with frustration, anger, and fear. Frustration in both horse and trainer, anger in the trainer, and fear in the horse. Horses have a very strong survival instinct. They are also creatures of habit. When training for something new or in a new location a horse can become anxious. Because the surroundings are not familiar and/or the routine has changed this can upset a horse and make them react differently. The mildest of horses in the show ring may become a complete wreck going on a quiet trail ride. The most bombproof trail horse will scream and jig at a show.
At the beginning of my clinics many of my riders will describe their horse as a perfect horse. Unfortunately, as soon as we go to work the horse’s performance is anything but perfect! This is normal. What’s also normal is the frustration and embarrassment level that goes up for the rider. No matter how much I emphasize to go slow, everyone tries to race through the exercises. What happens is the horse becomes heavy, emotional and finally either shuts down or becomes too much to handle.
When working with any horse I start where the horse can succeed. It doesn't matter how far from my goal that may be. For example, if it’s trailer loading or obstacle crossing I may start 20' away from the trailer. If this is where the horse will do what I ask such as go forward or back up then this is where I start. It’s important that you set the horse up for success. When the horse succeeds you can release pressure which is what the horse is looking for. When you release pressure the horse’s emotional level will drop. After repeating this several times the result is a much higher level of performance before your horse will panic. For every time the horse relaxes the less likely it will panic.
Now, back to patience. Many people think training horses is all about timing and feel. While these are important skills, patience will result in a better performing horse. We as riders have a tendency to add more pressure when the result is not coming. Through the years I have found that by adding a reasonable amount of cue pressure and waiting for the result the training goes faster. It doesn't seem like it at first but if I’m consistent in my point of release I’ve found that less pressure is needed thereby creating a lighter horse faster. The more pressure I use the more likely I am creating pain which then restricts the horse's learning because it is focused on the pain.
The single greatest thing I’ve learned over the years is the horse's learning curve. I try to teach everybody this in every clinic or lesson. Understanding the horse's learning curve has created more patience in me as a trainer. It has also made training much more enjoyable as it has almost eliminated the element of frustration.
The curve is simple:
- At first a horse will start out good (even with things they don't know how to do).
- Then they will become bad. This is where we make our first mistake by changing what we’re doing and start the process all over.
- Then they become better. They still haven’t learned it but they do get better.
- Then they become a lot worse. I jokingly call this the "I want to sell my horse" stage.
- Then they start to learn it.
If you understand this curve you will expect things to get worse before they get better. You will understand that sometimes you need to let the horse find the answer rather than force him to it. Best of all, you can smile during the bad times because you know you’re that much closer to the perfect horse.