Avoiding The Training Rut
By Raye Lochert
Training horses is something I love. I love the different personalities, the interaction between the horses and me, and the challenge of bringing the natural talents to the surface. I also love the life. Getting up early, cleaning stalls, feeding, fixing what needs to be fixed, building something new and the independence.
Even though I do what I love, once in a while I’ll get stuck in a rut. I get bored. Just when I finish a horse it's time to move on to the next one. Trail rides start to blend together. Riding in the arena just seems like I'm going in another circle. Here are some things I do to change things up.
When working in the arena I make up new patterns or exercises for the same old thing. Instead of working the canter on the correct lead I'll work on the counter canter. For stops I might switch to rollbacks. But my best rut buster is heading to a different arena where I might run into other people. The change of scenery is one thing but the distractions it offers my young horses is invaluable. I like to call them training opportunities.
Working with distractions will dramatically increase a horse's performance if you use it effectively. It exposes them to new sights and sounds that may be a little scary and will test the level of attention your horse keeps on you. Of course, you don't want to insert you and your horse into an obviously dangerous situation. Your horse should be safe to ride at all the gaits and stop when you ask. Going to a new place will raise anxiety levels but you never want to ride a panicked horse.
One primary key to riding your horse in a new place is to prepare by familiarizing yourself ahead of time. Go in advance without your horse and check it out to make sure it’s something you think your horse can handle. See how many people are usually in the area you would park and tie up. It definitely wouldn’t hurt for you to walk the trail as well.
Once you're there with your horse ride where you can in a confident manner and not where you can’t. If your horse wants to stay in one area or away from another don’t force the issue. Forcing your horse to accept something is not the goal. The goal is to change things up while making your horse as comfortable as possible. By riding where he’s less anxious you'll create a more trusting and confident horse. If you force him to accept something really uncomfortable then he will associate the idea of travel with being scared and soon you will have trailer loading issues amongst other things.
Turning our trail ride into a “training ride” can change things up. Rather than just riding from point A to B I'll work on specific tasks while going from A to B. This can include stops, collection, and engagement while riding down the trail. I'll pick areas where I can lope out and work on transitions and lead changes. If my horse can do these things going up and down hills, around trees, and on uneven trails then he'll be a superstar in the arena!
I’m fortunate to have a local polo field which is an awesome place to ride. It’s wide open, level, gorgeous and always has dog walkers. When I arrive I always take the time to walk the perimeter in both directions talking to anybody I might run into. Then I start out slow and define the area I am going to ride in and build from there. This gives the other users an idea of where I'll be riding which is usually away from where they are throwing balls for the dogs. Not everyone has access to such a great place but many towns have private arenas or fairgrounds that are open for a day use fee or yearly membership.
To really shake things up for the horses that are nearly finished in their training I'll go to a horse show or rodeo and ride where I can. Sometimes all I get to do is just stand and watch but this is teaching my horse to stand still while other things are happening. Horse shows and rodeos are busy places and only the horse that is mentally ready should go. Taking a fresh yearling who can barely lead is asking for disaster and has no business being someplace that can cause problems for other horses and riders. Make sure you have complete control in lesser situations before attempting any new environment.
With a little imagination your training can be taken to a whole new level. Changing things up will increase your horse’s performance making riding in your quiet home arena exciting again. It will also let you identify the areas you need to work on.
As always, be safe and enjoy your horse.