Following John’s Mare as she is started iv: backing

Description & photos by Jenny Barnes with quotes from Mark Langley.

Currently in one of the worst droughts for this time of year in living memory, Mark watered the round yard before he started work. John’s mare, having never seen water hosed or heard a pump before she arrived with us, coped well and managed to get a shower in the process.  “If the mare hadn’t coped, then I would have stopped hosing.”

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John’s mare has had 2 days off since her last session with Mark, when she was introduced to a saddle. Although her trust with Mark is increasing along with her naturally high boundaries reducing, 2 days can mean a lot.  Once the watering was over and Mark turned towards her to start, she instantly trotted off away from him – looking over the rails and dismissing him. I have noticed before with her that she is most calm when she is slow. Trotting around Mark, sometimes darting behind him, almost toying with him as she got close but refused to acknowledge him, was a sign that she was uncomfortable.  Mark would draw her in, only for her to split away from him again, snorting as she went.  Now she wasn’t afraid to get quite close to Mark. She was making her point quite clearly.

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For a true partnership to work, your horse has to be listening to you & paying you attention.  For the time that they are with you, their thoughts need to be on you. It is no good trying to teach a child who is daydreaming, staring out of the window; or playing on their iPad. And it is the same with horses. But how do we bring those uneducated thoughts to us willingly, without force?  I have watched Mark train horses for over 10 years and I still don’t know the answer to this tentative question. Yet somehow, with every horse that Mark works and especially with horses like this independent mare, I see them switch and become willing partners, eager and focused.  Is it their ultimate respect for Mark? Does work stimulate and interest them? Or do they give up and submit? I am sure that I have watched many of Mark’s horses enjoy learning – walking ears forward and briskly out of the yards. I am also sure that I have seen them try to learn. They really concentrate, really tune in. So is the difference between submission and stimulation just down to the teacher?

John’s mare is obviously currently not wanting to learn. So how does Mark tackle it? He finds a small problem. And fixes it, without chastisement. And before he goes any further.

The girth pressure is reapplied, and she resists it a little, getting close in on Mark.

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What Mark finds is that when he tries to block her out of his space, she rears.

He said it was because she wouldn’t go backwards.  So that is what he worked on.

“The mare was tense and looking for ways out when I applied pressure. When I tried to stop or realign her energy to keep me safe, it was enough to create more tension. So I went back to teaching her to soften more in the halter so that she could understand true backwards.”

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The photo below shows her walking backwards, which the two of them did, all the way round the round yard. Great, right? Nope. Apparently she was walking away from him, not what he was asking. She actually wasn’t letting him get past her shoulder again.

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But she did.

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So the lesson went on. You can see there is resistance and uncertainty. Look how stiff she is.  But there is so much patience. So much commitment and belief in her.

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Perhaps that unwavering teacher who gently corrects and reassures, offers the new thought: from friendship. A friendship built over a lot of time, patience, understanding and respect. On both sides.

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Following John’s mare iii: Introducing the Saddle

Words & photos by Jenny Barnes with quotes from Mark Langley

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This time not only was John’s mare attentive and trusting towards Mark, she was also learning. As you will see through the photo’s, her ability to respond calmly and correctly to what Mark was asking enabled him to go one step further – to introduce the saddle.  Her response was expected – she did buck – but actually only a little.   The mare that was looking for a way out only 2 days ago, was now looking towards Mark.

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Mark started by going through the steps he had previously worked through – the lunge stick, the flag stick and this time also the whip.

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She is responsive now – and also soft. Mark is so careful to work on that right from the start. And they respond so well.  No-one wants to see a horse nervous, or in a lather of sweat. Look at her here above, she is inquisitive and willing. Ready to start learning.

As Mark introduces the whip to her for the first time, she stands remarkably still. He cracks it beside her, and flicks it over her, around her back and legs. She doesn’t flinch, standing still and calm.

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It is when she is still that she is attentive to Mark. So what will she be like once he starts moving again?

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She does it. She keeps her steed as Mark wants it and stays focused on him, already starting to lunge. Everything takes time. One step, then another. Then a pause.

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Next comes the saddle cloth. She has to accept the feeling of it falling off her and the visual sight of something landing unexpectedly near her. Everything is preparation for when Mark rides her. If he or his saddle was slip off her, he wants her to understand it.

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Each time Mark goes back to rubbing her down, she lets him a little closer in. This is great.

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Now a new pressure – around her girth.

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Next, Mark introduces the saddle blanket and saddle. The saddle Mark uses is an old western saddle that can fall on the ground without offending anyone. It’s light and easy for Mark to place. Just like the cloth, he is careful to let her see it fall a few times and watches her reaction.

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Then it is fastened. “Before sending her out on the lead on her own, I made sure that she can lead and follow me around at a walk comfortably.” She seems fine with it on her ‘good’ eye….

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….then she is asked to go the other way, putting Mark on her ‘bad’ eye.

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She’s not so good this eye…!

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Mark pulls her in, bringing her attention back to him, as he asks her to go back on her good side and get her confidence again.

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When she settles, the ‘bad’ eye is better already. So, a check on the girth, and a repeat, though this time without the bucks.  Her ability to move on from bucking and accept the saddle surprised me – I thought she may have more determination in her. Perhaps though, this is an indication of her intelligence.

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Although having a strong, confident mare is not unusual or difficult; this mare also has a tendency to switch off Mark and want to be somewhere else, clearly ignoring him as she does. This can be quite dangerous, and especially when you are training a young horse. Mark has to make sure that she will understand the signals he will teach her now that he may have use on her mentally back to bring her back to him. When our horses that roam free on our 500 acres come up to the yards, they catch her attention and give Mark the chance to start this right away.  Look at her ignoring him asking her to bend and focus. It takes a several tries before she comes back to Mark, but that is all he needs once she does, and her lesson ends.

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Following John’s mare in work through photo’s: ii

Written by Jenny Barnes with quotes from Mark Langley

Following the lesson yesterday, we were all hoping she would come in soft and calm; that she had gained more confidence in Mark. Sure enough, as Mark walked into the round yard, she just stood there: still, head lowered, and calm. For all the stress that she must have felt as she had Mark riding Henry above her, she must now be starting to understand that Mark was okay to be around. Inseparable to her obvious stillness was a trust and acceptance in Mark that you can see in her eyes. Just heartening to watch.

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As Mark took his time getting her halter on and moving around her, she wandered off, and once more showed her dismissive side. The dogs, thinking there was more action to be had, keenly kept an eye on things from their only vantage point – peering in from under the gates, Mark’s avid spectators.  

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She is more relaxed with Mark, but still weary.

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“I started ponying by just sidling up to her, to rub her with my hand. She stood well and was calm as I rubbed her over her back-line. I was very happy that she accepted this from both sides as she was better than how she finished yesterday.”  Mark took her straight out into the bigger yard. She ended the last lesson leading softly, but would she still brace and pull away today? The dogs were excited, Henry was a bit toey – there was almost an expectation of action.

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It all started off well with Mark reminding her of his flag rope again as he went. “She led well and I managed to travel around quite fast in the big yard.”

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Then, a rush forward and up she went.  It can all change so quickly.  “When I applied more pressure, she still had a tendency to brace or rush away from the rope.  This is just still her trying to escape when frightened.”

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Calming her down again, bringing her to a stop and a moment to know standing is the right option…

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Then Mark takes her back to the round yard. “I let her go to see if we could remain connected without the ropes.”  Before Mark moves on to the next lesson he is careful to remind her that he needs to be able to touch her and that that it is okay.

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She is attentive once more and watches as Mark unsaddles Henry.

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Mark shows her the saddle blanket. A prelude of tomorrows lesson?

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Back to ground work. Mark has to watch she doesn’t nip him and has his hand ready all the time.

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Now Mark wants to get her to move around him slowly, not rush.  She is uncomfortable, so she trots and canters around him. It takes a bit of careful positioning by Mark – watch as he works her on both sides, and look how close she gets to him!

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When she slows, she calms again.  Mark wants her to walk around him, on both sides.  She has come a long way from yesterday.

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Following the progress of John’s mare as she is started: captured by photos (i)

Written by Jenny Barnes with comments from Mark Langley.

John’s mare has been with us since late last week. She was reasonably quick and confident to face Mark. There are only 2 angle’s that she likes – running away from him and facing him. She is very nervous and protective of both of her sides.

Mark had got her to the stage where she could accept rope pressure and come off it; lead; and Mark could rub her on the front of her face; her forehead; and the sides of her face until her shoulder.  But she is still uncomfortable with him there.

So now Mark has decided to use my “pony horse”, Henry, to get up close to her. They had already been yarded together and got on well and Henry is a seasoned pony horse.  Mark wanted to try to get her softer and responding better on the lead. He also wanted to get her to the stage where she would accept him much more – to a point where he could smother her whilst she remained relaxed.

As you will now see, Mark starts leading her and sometimes she would let him in, sometimes she would duck away again, and Henry had to be patient as Mark worked her again.

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Then, all of a sudden, she went again – lunging forward and often up. Mark had to make sure he always had Henry and his rope in the right position.  “During the lessons, she showed an ability that she could be quite soft and supple to my rope but under certain pressure, or changes of pressure, she could be quite reactive and brace. I really have to work on taking that trapped feeling from her mind.”

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Calm again.  She just needs to stand still so Mark can touch her.  Will she let him?

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Mark is careful to work her on both sides, so Henry has to be able to move easily around the rope – and often under the rope to make it easier for Mark to do this.  (How good is Henry?!) “She still had quite a lot of trouble accepting Henry and I beside her.”

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Mark gets a little closer…

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Next, Mark introduces a stick with a bit of material on the end – his flag stick. It’s just enough to be visual with a soft feel and light enough for Mark to place where he wants it. It maintains contact when she moves. She doesn’t like it at first…

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…Then she gets better. “It wasn’t long before I was able to rub her all over with the flag stick.”

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But all of a sudden she was off again, ducking under the rope and spinning back on herself. This mare can move – the round yard Mark is working in has rails that are about 1.4m high – she’s jumping sideways here and clearing the rails! Mark is quick to let the rope go here – it wrapped over her head as she spun and he doesn’t want it to hurt her at all.

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He catches the rope, and settles her down. And now Mark wants her to calm as much as possible again.

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Time to try that physical touch…”By the end of the lesson I could only just rub her with my hand across her back to her hip for a brief moment before she would move. To me though, that was a good change.”

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And to end on a good note. “At the end, she followed softly on a lead out through all the yards, happy to travel at my speed, without looking for a way out. She seemed to have lost the brace that she had at the start of the lesson.”

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Initial Handling with a Foal

If you choose to start breeding your own horses, whether you just have one brood mare or a number of brood mares, I believe it is extremely important that the brood mares are easy to handle and are not too frightened when working around them.  When handling the youngsters, it is important to get them handled and understanding some of the basics BEFORE you wean them.
I like to handle foals to start initially with the Mum in the same yard in hand. I begin with only using a long lunge type stick (approx. 1.8-2m long, not too heavy).  First it is good to walk around with the mother and make sure she is comfortable with the stick and can gently move her hips around so that you can control the angle that she is standing so that you can move her around by controlling her hips and put her where you need her. I may spend 5-10 mins doing this with the mother while the foal is in the same small yard. It gives the mother chance to get comfortable with me being in there with her foal and also comfortable in moving her around.
Generally when you get in a yard with foals that are a bit wary, they will try and hide behind Mum and try and get a drink. So the first part of the lesson, try and move Mum gently out of the way, similar to the way that she would move in the paddock when she doesn’t want her foal to drink. In moving mum out of the way I try to position her behind me. The foal will get a bit worried because suddenly Mum isn’t there to hide behind and you are, so expect to keep moving mum behind you and soon enough the foal will stand on its own. When it does, don’t do anything, just try and let it relax.
Over time, the foal will get comfortable standing on its own and will pay you some attention. You can choose to have a stick or not to have a stick but I find that most foals will be a little bit more threatened by the presence of your hand than a dead object like a stick.  It also is an extension so we don’t have to be so close to introduce the foal to feel.
Once the foal is standing on its own and Mum is comfortably behind me, I gently offer the stick or my hand. If the foal tries to look and tries to understand or puts its thought in any way towards me, I lower the stick and step back to give the foal space and show that that was the answer I was looking for.
If the foal gets a fright, generally, it will go to Mum. So you just go back to getting Mum behind you and the foal standing comfortably on its own.  You should only keep Mum moving away gently to keep the atmosphere calm.
The foal may sniff the stick, it may just offer its shoulder – so gently work your way in rewarding the tries of the foal, using approach and retreat. When you are first able to touch the foal, touch it for a tiny bit and then give it space. Over time you can build the length of time you touch it up. To start with, it is more important that the foal get used to you walking in and out and in and out than how long you can be with it in one go.
Once they are not threatened and they have an understanding of you and feel safe around you they will let you stay with them for a longer time. You must move away from them before they lose interest in you and move away from you.  Keep them curious.
When they first let you touch them with the stick, some may sniff the stick and offer their face, some may stand a bit to the side and you at first you may only be able to touch them near their shoulder. Don’t force their face or start where you think you should start. Start where they let you. Some even let you touch them on the rump first. You will start in this area until they get comfortable and then using an approach and retreat method you will slowly work your way over their body.
Every so often, let the foal go back to Mum for a break.
Once they become calm and not so reactive, they will move away and you can keep a gentle pressure of the stick on them until they stand, then release the stick to show them that standing was good.
Generally by this time, once you have touched them all over with the stick it is not very hard to get in with your hand and start to rub them – first where they let you and then move your way from there around the body.
Getting the foal to face up is not that important. It is much more crucial to be able to walk around your foal with them being comfortable no matter where you are.
Once you have got to the stage where you can put a rope on a foal and work it, then I would separate them from Mum. Teaching a foal how to understand a rope and pressure and release is a fairly big thing and you don’t want it to go wrong. These initial teachings affect how a horse assesses pressure from the start. If you can get it right, future training is less offensive and much easier.
A little bit each day is better than one big lesson. Don’t over do your foals.

Knowing when to take a break in your training


Often, ‘taking a break’ is put in the context of your horse having a rest. But a lot of the time, it is so that the trainer can take a break. In general, if the horse is at a stage that you think needs a rest from the lesson then the rest that you have will prepare you more mentally for the next lesson that you have with your horse. There has been times in education where I have been busy with horse after horse, and the tough one comes through. The day is hot and the hours are running short. The lesson pushes on, the horse seems to have roughly done things that would seem like progress but you would have liked a better try or more progress so you ask again and for more. The horse starts finding the things that it has just done a little more difficult, suddenly your patience levels seems to have shortened and your stress levels are up. The ideal would have been that you reward the horse with a good rest when it first showed some signs of try, no matter how small they may have been. So, once you realise that your horse isn’t going that well, that you aren’t going that well, do you try to push the lesson to finish on a good note (which probably wont happen because you are already red in the face) or do you stop, go and have a cup of tea and come back in 5? Think about it. Think about the lesson. Think about other positive things, and re-start it when you are calm and ready.  And then maybe, you might just go in, reward the horse for its small try’s and both leave on a happy note.

So, when you next set out to give your horse a lesson, have no preconceptions of where you want the lesson to end.

You do need a system in place for your training, but the system has to be flexible to tailor for individual horse needs, ability & mood swings. The system – or plan – is only there to keep you & the horse on track.

How to use your surroundings to stimulate your horse

Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose.

Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose.

Training and riding your horse is about building a happy two-way partnership.  You can use your surroundings to make your relationship with your horse beneficial for you and also stimulating for your horse.

I want to encourage all of you to get out and about; and when you are out, to still train. And here’s why.

Be consistent
There’s nothing like having a nice, secure and safe area with a good surface to work a horse in. And sometimes we need this to work on some of our areas of foundation and high level performance training. It’s not good to put a sliding stop on a horse on a slippery grass paddock!  But something that happens quite often is that people become too secure in the arena. It’s easy to do all of our training in the arena and then when we ride outside we just sit on our horse on a trail ride. There are 2 problems with this: we can become a bully in the arena and just a passenger outside; a passenger with no leadership.  And we become inconsistent leaders.

Riding outside creates stimulation & reduces restrictive reactions
It is easy for horses to shut down in the arena – we are only riding from one fence to the next. After a while, there can become no purpose to the horse. Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose. I have found that horses that work cattle and muster or ride out with other horses generally seem to be happier.
Horses need time outside; the confinements and associated anxieties of not getting this can make them feel unsafe outside. But without this exposure they will never settle or become in partnership with us.  An example of extremely restricted horses are stabled horses and confined stallions, which are often treated with caution because of their extreme behaviours.  If only they could get more of what is natural to them by being outside.  This concept follows through to our regular horses and affects the way they are able to be trained.  Someone once told me about their horse who could cope with being tarped and desensitised to a range of objects but who still jumped at things outside. All the ground work and desensitising in the world won’t make you a better leader which your horse will feel safe under or rely on. Sometimes, you have to get on, get out and ride.

And if you do all of your training in an arena or enclosed area, don’t be surprised if your horse gets sour. Doing all your training in one area doesn’t expose your horse to new things which means when you get to a show it may not cope just because the arena might be different.

Harness their outside energy and forward focus for training
If you are training your horses for performance, there is no problem with doing a lot of the foundation outside on trail rides.  Over the years of starting young horses, nearly all of my foundation has been achieved on forest trails, in paddocks and out on our property. It’s easy to find rhythm and energy in our horses outside – they generally have more of a forward focus. We can harness this rhythm and energy and use it in our training.

So here’s what I’d like you to think about trying. Don’t let your horse go too long on a trail ride without giving them little jobs to do. Keep in contact with their brain and remind them that we are still up there, showing some leadership.  By giving them a little lesson, then letting them ride for a bit before another lesson, we are giving them time to relax. This break in stimulation avoids the drain that lesson followed by lesson can produce in an enclosed area. These jobs can be working on their foundation, giving purpose to what you are doing.  Whilst walking up a track, move sideways, walk straight and relax and then move sideways the other way.  If you stop to look at a view, stop and back up a bit, working on getting a couple of soft back steps.  Flex your horse before you ride off. Bend around trees.  Find a nice grassy flat spot and do some flat circle work. Remember though, riding outside is supposed to be enjoyable so don’t over do it.

By the time you go back to working in the arena, you will find that because of the consistent work that you have been doing outside, some of the areas that you have been working on have improved.

Remember, the arena is just another tool to advance some areas of performance.  It’s what you do in that saddle that counts – whether that’s inside or out.

Questions to ask when buying a horse

Not all of these questions will be relevant to all horses but I hope it will help in avoiding you being caught out and buying a horse that is unsuitable for you.

  1. Why are they selling it? Is is because they don’t have enough time (a common answer) because they don’t have enough time to educate it or enough time to enjoy it?
  2. When was it last ridden?
  3. What is it like in a group?
  4. What is it like in traffic?
  5. Has it been ridden or worked today?
  6. What is it like around other horses?
  7. Can it be shod/ lead/ rugged/ floated?
  8. If it is unbroken – why?
  9. What type of bit/ bridle do they use?
  10. How long have they owned the horse?
  11. Has it had any serious injuries or lameness after work?
  12. Is it up to date with its vaccinations?
  13. If you are on the coast, does it suffer in the summer?

Should we bring our horses down to our level?

Mark Langley riding

Mark Langley riding

We got asked an interesting question recently: Are we training our horses to come down to our level so we can handle them or are we rising up to match the potential of our horses so they can be at their best and happiest? 

This question sounds like it should have an easy answer but the answer is actually requires quite a high level of understanding of a horse – both mentally & physically. As every horse and rider has varied personality traits we also have different body rhythms.

Body rhythm ??  This is what I mean. When you get up in the morning, how long does it take you to put butter on your toast? Do you have a short shower or a long shower? How quickly do you walk? These sorts of personality traits and movement routines are found in horses too: some horses trot up to their feed, some walk – match a horse’s rhythm with yours & you’ll get a better training match.

I believe that when we ride a horse we need to like its natural rhythm and its natural unspoilt personality.  But both of these things can only be found when our horse is happy. Is our horse happy? 

Sometimes we can be stuck trying to train a horse not only to perform advanced manoeuvres but also trying to bring them up or down to our rhythm. If you are always asking your horse to walk faster and no matter how much you practice, every time you stop asking, your horse slows down, you are out of rhythm. If your horse always walks fast but you think that it is rushed and anxious and you try to always slow it down, you are fighting against your horse’s natural body rhythm – it’s just naturally fast.

Personality is another big player in this relationship but sometimes we focus so much on trying to change our horse’s personality that we forget about our flawed personalities.  And this is probably the one that needs to change the most to build a trusting relationship.

Our training should be focused on building a trusting relationship so that when we are with our horses, they are relaxed and happy to work with us. This may mean that you bring your horse down, relax them – in order to get that trust.

It is only then that we may get a feel for their natural rhythm and personality.  As horses can feel rushed most of the time, (due to a number of anxieties) or lazy most of time (due to sourness of repetition), their personalities can be erratic, frightened, or malicious but none of these are any indication of the true horse that we are riding.  And, unfortunately, most of these traits have been caused by people failing to rise up and better themselves or recognise the mismatch.

Horses are capable of meeting our rhythm too, though. I have trained quite a lot of horses which required me to spend a lot of time matching their rhythm but after some time, they were happy to match mine.

I feel privileged when a horse allows me to hang around it.  All the feelings that I want the horse to feel for me I have to reciprocate.   All of my training is presented as help.  As a horse owner, it is my responsibility to bring happiness into my horse’s life and to give my horse as many opportunities as I can to help my horse have an interesting life whether that be work with meaning, companionship with other horses, or breaking up its everyday routine.

So, ensure your horse is happy  and relaxed – then their natural personality will have more chance to show – and you have more of a chance to work out if you are matched together or not, naturally.

Should there be a right way / wrong way with our training?

Mark explaining at a horsemanship clinic

Mark explaining at a horsemanship clinic

When training horses your mindset generally determines how the lesson will unfold.  Sometimes to keep your calm, consistent outlook, you may have to have a few motivating and guiding words floating around your head.

Most of the time, the words I think about to keep my focus and my judgements fair and consistent are: Why?What happened? What’s needed? & How can I help?

There is a term I hear a lot around horsemanship – “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard”.

This phrase – if used right – can be effective but if it becomes the mindset of the lesson things can deteriorate and we run the risk of making education uncomfortable and in some cases can shut the horse down.  Rather, education should be something that we use to relay, soften, build and trust, and better the body function of the horse.

One particular lesson where I see an abuse of education is float loading.  I will use this as an example of a mindset.

When teaching a horse to load I commonly see horses getting shown that it is easy at or in the float and hard away from it.  This is done to an extent that the float becomes a safe escape for the horse.  But what is the horse escaping from? The person and their education.  This happens purely because of the lesson mindset.  And with this approach, subtle tries from the horse may get missed.

So, the other way to look at this lesson is: I would like to see my horse near the float and close to it or in it.  I will give it plenty of mental space for it to assess and relax. If it pulls away from the float I first ask why (it has a fear of the float); what happened (it pulled against the lead, braced in the head, neck and jaw and went backwards); what’s needed (more work on soft forwardness to lead cues and more time near float to become comfortable); how can I help (show the horse how to soften, become more forward, and not brace to the halter, work around the float and stand near it until the horse feels more comfortable with it).

The main key is that as soon as the horse tries and softens to the lesson we soften and reward no matter where we are in relation to the float.  Education is just help. Once the horse understands and its focus is with us we just continue what we were doing by going back to the float.