Reisa has selected several sections of my book that she feels provide educational lessons on training, and she’s asked me to expand on those ideas in a series of articles. In beginning the process, I found myself digressing into other areas I find important for training, and she agreed to let me write articles on those ideas as well. Instead of writing them in the order they appear in my book, I’ve decided to write them in the order I feel is appropriate for training, although they certainly can be applied at any stage regardless of the level of the horse’s training.
The first bit I’d like to write about is how training on a horse’s back begins on the ground. In the section showcasing this in my book, I use hand-walking to establish a more personal relationship and implant the necessary respect for not only training, but any good relationship. However, I chose to begin with this lesson on DressageTrainingOnline.com because ideally it should be implemented before a horse is backed. The crucial lesson is teaching the horse to pay attention to the rider’s body language–the only language the two will ever share and the foundation of training.
Although I’m tempted to say that this insistence on the horse paying attention to body language begins the day a horse is introduced to a leadline when he leaves his mother’s side, like a baby human, the discipline that it will take is unfair to implement yet. I’d say the mindframe begins then, not the insistence. The insistence begins when the horse is mentally mature enough to understand the discipline, I’d say at round about two years of age. From there on, it’s 100% of the time as consistency is absolutely critical in training. I tell my students that if they correct a horse every time for the same mistake, it’s training; if they let the horse make the mistake with no correction sometimes and discipline him other times, it’s abuse as it holds no meaning to the horse.
As I explain in my book, when a horse is on the leadline, I don’t want to have to touch the line at all. He should be absolutely aware of what I’m doing at all times. If I stop, he should stop. If I go, he should go. To teach him that this is his responsibility, if I stop and he keeps walking, I give the lead a jerk–not a pull, a jerk that’s preceded and immediately followed by slack. If necessary, I give him several jerks separated by slackness instead of a long, hard pull. As soon as he stops, I reward him, but he’s not allowed to move until I do. When he’s focused on me, I begin to walk again, and if he doesn’t follow or meanders into walk, I keep my body facing forward and reach behind me to give him a little fwack with the whip, again rewarding him when he does what I ask.
I carry this attentiveness to body language on to their work on the lunge line. When I lunged my horses, very little voice was necessary. If I raised my whip, it meant to transition up: halt to walk, walk to trot and trot to canter. If I dropped my whip to the ground, it meant transition down. If I wanted the horse to slow down–unless he was running because of nervousness in which case I’d use my voice–I’d only use the line, again, jerks instead of pulls and always followed by a reward. If I wanted him to get a move on, instead of clucking I’d swish the whip either through the air or fwack the ground. One of my biggest pet-peeves is a noisy lunger. A horse doesn’t know words, so how’s he supposed to respond to the word canter if the rider’s talking all the time? My rule for students is to only use their voice if they expect a response. Only cluck if they expect a forward response and be prepared to back it up with the whip. Only say whoa if they expect a slowing response and be prepared to back it up with the line. All aids are positive not negative. This is a rule in training that will always remain: the cluck, whip or leg says go forward, it doesn’t say don’t slow down; a whoa, the line or the reins don’t say don’t speed up, they say slow down.
Starting their education this way not only makes them better to handle on the ground, it ingrains paying attention to a rider’s body when she sits on his back and therefore makes the initial training easier. Another reason to implement this ground work is, like I describe in my book, to establish a genuine partnership with a horse. Not only does the insistence on making him pay attention to body language aid in training, it establishes the sense of respect crucial in every working relationship as well as friendship. Giving him treats and coddling him may make him like a person, but I find that establishing respect creates a stronger relationship. Again, I want to stress the importance of consistency and reward. Establishing a good working relationship and friendship requires mutual respect, and these are the ways a rider can show that she respects the horse.
Courtney King Dye