Horse training, food for thought for beginners

You should practice things your horse already knows before introducing something new. New skills should be introduced on something your horse already knows. Building on previously learnt skills is the key to being successful in horse training.

Horses are usually trained so they will accept being ridden, and they follow the signals of their riders. If your horse is well trained, it will respond when you ask it to do something. This prevents the need for whips or crops to encourage or punish a horse to do what you want, and you should never punish a horse!  There are no fast and hard rules about how much time a horse training session should take.

Training your horse on a lead also includes teaching it to stop and turn at your command.  This is vital, you will use this almost daily with your horse. If you horse is trying to shoulder you out of its space during lead training, this is just your horse testing you… be ready for it.

When you start to train a horse for the first time, it helps to have an understanding of how horses react to eachother, and how they think in the wild.

This can help you understand why training needs to be a gradual process of getting your horse’s attention and then teaching it what you want it to do. Your horse should, ideally, see you as its lead mare, regardless of your gender! If your horse is a natural born leader however, you will often find training your horse to be quite a challenge, hopefully you’re up to the challenge!

Horses are herd animals, generally one stallion is the head of a herd of mares, but it’s the “lead mare”, or herd leader that calls all the shots, parden the pun, it determines where the herd goes, who drinks and who eats first…

Horses are animals of prey and fear other animals and people too. It has no way of knowing what your intent is when you approach it. It watches your actions and most importantly, you body language, then it decides its response, either to flee or wait and stand.  Their instinct is to run from danger and in the beginning you’re danger! That instinct is still in them even as they sit in their barn.  In the wild, horses with broken legs can’t survive, it can’t run away… you have to prove to your horse that you don’t want him for dinner!

Instinctively, herd animals such as horses want the leader to show them how things are, what the pecking order is and what to do. Your interactions and relationship with your horse will be much more satisfying for both of you if you lead by earning your horse’s trust and respect, and keeping it that way.

Horses will usually not begin formal training until they are about two years old. Foals though, are able to learn how to behave around people from a very early age. It is important for you to spend as much time as you can with your young horse. This way, it will become used to being around you, and by extension, being around other people.

Start your training session by warming up your horse, both mentally and physically. This time allows it to loosen its joints and warm up its muscles. Lungeing, or longeing a horse, is a typical warm up method.

We encourage you look at training and riding your horse with a bitless bridle!  There is no need for a bit!  Please consider what a bit means to your horse and the pain it can inflict.  You can train your horse without a bit and we encourage you to go bitless!  At the same time, bitless bridles can also be used in the wrong way, causing pain and too much pressure!

Bits are not to blame for all issues though, it’s the people who ride them and use too much pressure.  If you’re soft, your horse will be soft… If you’re going to use a bit… then a young horse must learn to accept a bit as something natural and normal to have in its mouth.  This doesn’t happen overnight though. To make this easier, a horse trainer will slowly introduce a mouthing bit, for just a few minutes at first and building on this slowly, until the horse no longer objects to it.

Once your horse is old enough to start training, you must use ground work before ever attempting to ride it.  Lungeing, or ground training with a long rope, is the first step to training your horse. The lunge (longe) line attaches to the horse’s halter and will allow a large circle of movement while you teach it the commands you want your horse to obey and understand.

When you move, your horse will interpret this as a change of direction from its lead mare and will also move. Once your horse understands your body language, it will naturally follow your lead. Go lead mare!

Ideally, the cool-down period for your horse should begin when the training has been going well, and before your horse becomes tired or frustrated. You want your horse to remember the pleasant things about training and ending positively makes this easier.

When introducing your saddle, allow your horse to see the saddle, repeat this for a few days, allowing your horse to get used to it. Add new things just a small amount at a time.  Then start hold the saddle over him, not touching him, until he loses his fear of it. When your horse is ok with seeing your saddle and you’ve held it over him without touching, it’s time to put the saddle on your horse.  Be ready to do a lot of reassurance and stroking! You can add new things when your horse has lost his natural fear of the last new thing you introduced that scared the living daylights out of him!

When your horse is comfortable with the saddle, let the horse wear it during longeing.

A common quote in the equine world is “Green on green makes black and blue”.  What this means is that a new rider (green rider) and a green horse (or inexperienced horse) makes for lots of bruises, headaches and heartaches!  Mismatched horses and riders is one of the biggest reasons people that come in with a passion for horse riding, get out of horses altogether.

Your horse is more than likely to use its own ideas and instincts if your horse doesn’t see you as a leader worthy of being followed. You might not agree with this. Many problems with horses come from them not trusting or understanding human behaviour.

People are great at making assumptions with their horses.  Horses live in the moment every single day. Here is a top horse training tip: When things get tough, and they most certainly will at some time, it is very helpful to have an objective and knowledgeable person you can count on to help set you and your horse on the straight again.

Start by making a list of what you are going to do with your horse, or what you want to use your horse for.  What is its current level of training?  Where do you want to get to?  How much time do you have available for training your horse every week?  If you’re thinking of competitions, what competition level and goals do you have?  What are you trying to accomplish with your horse, what would you like to do together and how?  Do you want him to be con?dent on the trail with a large group of riders?  Do you want to jump him, run barrels, or do dressage?  Be as specific as you can and ask for help from a knowledgeable horse person or horse trainer if you’re not sure.  If you don’t have a plan with your horse, then you’ll never arrive where you want to be! Want a sour horse?  Just ride all the time with no purpose, it’s bound to get you both bored!

If your horse is showing bad behavior, it doesn’t mean you need harsher horse training equipment.  It doesn’t mean he needs a bigger bit or a tie-down, it means he needs better training, it means he needs more attention paid to his emotions.  Build a training plan that is broken down into manageable chunks.  Your timeline should be based on your available time and takes into account your horses current training level and his learning ability.  This will drastically cut down on frustration for the both of you!

Pick a horse that is best suited to your needs.  I don’t know why a lot of people believe that if they just buy a horse, saddle it up and go ride that the horse should just blindly follow your orders like some sort of robot. If you want to ride something that never has an opinion of its own, or doesn’t have a mind of its own, then you need to buy a quad bike!

It is so very easy to just train your horse based on your emotions. Horses just don’t think that way. You need to understand this when learning about horses.  Have a language of communication established first through quality ground training.  This will dramatically increase the bond you have with your horse while you are riding. Don’t just saddle up and ride!  Train your horse by allowing him to repeat behaviours over and over again.

Yes, you can tell when your horse woke up on the wrong side of the corral…  You can tell which lead he doesn’t like to take…  You can tell how he shies at the shadow cast just the wrong way and oh boy… that dustbin was there yesterday and didn’t spook your horse… You can tell which are his favourite treats. That familiarity is what will make for a great partnership. It is also tell what can turn your relationship dangerous and stale.

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We would like to know how we can help equestrian sport and activities in South Africa, if you have any questions or suggestions, let us know.