How are Horses Trained?

I got an e-mail this week from Holland asking me to settle an argument that they were having.  The question was this, “Do horses train better with the whip or with love?”  This month’s article is my reply to that question. 

Horses are trained neither by the whip nor by love. They are creatures of habit and are trained by:

Rewards and

They are creatures of fight and flight.  So, if something scares a wild horse, they automatically kick or paw at it or run from it.  They learn very early on to defend themselves.  Had they not learned to respond in a defensive way, they would have become extinct long ago. 

So, as we begin to train a horse, we are always aware that what we are doing with him is going to become a habit – whether good or bad.  We are teaching him something every time we have any contact and dealings with him.  If we repeatedly give a clear, concise, consistent cue and he understands what we want and we reward the correct response, he will become trained.  If he does not understand what we want, he may learn to defend himself or do the opposite of what we want. 

I have trained horses for the public now for many years.  I can tell you how a person has related to the horse they brought me by handling that horse myself.  And sometimes, I can tell when they are unloading it and leading it to the barn what I am in store for.  I have seen horses literally drag their owners around my yard.  I know immediately that it has no respect and has not been taught the very basic habit of leading.  Leading is coming forward to avoid pressure.  Dragging the owner is moving against pressure.  Leading is a learned behavior.  Dragging is also a learned behavior. 

To teach a horse is to show him what you want, reward him when he does it and correct him when he doesn’t.   We start in small increments and build up from the basics.  It is just like building a house. If the basic foundation is cracked, the building will not be a long lasting, solid and usable building. 

We need to think about what rewards a horse and be sure to reward him when he does what you want.  You have a very small window in time to reward him.  A few examples of rewards are things like: 
When you ask a horse to come forward and he does, release the pressure. 
When you have made a good run on your horse – immediately release the tight cinch.
When you ask for the horse to move off of your leg and he does, release your leg. 

The same goes for correction.  We have a very small window in time to correct him.  A couple of examples of positive correcting are:

1. I ask him to move off of the pressure of my lower leg – he pushes into my leg instead of yielding to it.  My ask will then become a tell.  If he still does not yield, I then command him to move over with a sharper kick.   I corrected him by increasing the clear, concise, consistent cue in three increments. 

2. I ask him to gather at the first barrel and he sticks his head in the air and goes on.  I stop him and back him to the place where I wanted him to gather.  I then go back and ask him to gather again.  I then repeat the maneuver
( sit down, say whoa and take slack out of reins) and make sure he understood where I wanted him to collect his hind legs.  I corrected him by re-enforcing my cue with patience and clarity.  I corrected him immediately.  I understand that he must understand collection at every gait.

I mentioned that horses can learn to defend themselves instead of learning.  We have to create an atmosphere for learning.  If your child was not responding in the way you want, would you just slap him in the face?   I find that the horses that learned to defend were asked in ways that were not consistent to learning.

Say in example # 1 your horse did not move away from the pressure of your lower leg, so you choose to stab him with a spur.  I believe that spurs have a place, but if you use a spur, you better know exactly when to apply and at what degree or your horse may just stiffen up his mid parts and learn to defend his middle against your leg  instead of learning to yield.  You may cause more problems than you already had.  (especially in the light, responsive horses)

Say in example # 2 your horse runs to first barrel and does not gather and you make your run and come out of the arena and whip him and jerk his mouth all the way to your trailer.  What have you taught him?  You just taught him that when your hand starts to come back, he better stiffen his neck and get ready for the jerk.  You taught him the first steps of bracing and defending.  You have taught him to watch for your hand or foot.  This can be the first steps to refusing to turn a barrel. 

Horses that perform from pain and scare are not trained.  There is a BIG difference.  Horses that are trained can be ridden by children, amateurs, etc.  They are a delight to watch and fun to ride.  Horses are not trained by love or by whips.  They are trained by repetition, reward and correction repeated clearly, concisely and consistently with patience.

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Copyright © 2004 - 2011 Joyce Loomis-Kernek
Last modified: January 05, 2014