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The Learning Curve: Horses & Owners

Many people in the United States have adopted and accepted that when starting a young horse there is a magic “30 day” training period needed to get the horse in “safe” rideable condition. I on the other hand offer all training by the week, with the first week a horse is with me known as the “assessment week.” Time (the hour lesson, the month training period,) is a man “made” thing- not a horse thing. Horses don’t work by the “clock.”

"Star" a 3 year old TWH on her first ride in the mountains.
All too many times I find more often than not, many “trainers” specialize in working with the horse, but not the owner. For me, I won’t take a horse into training without being able to spend time with the owner. For those of us who do this professionally, we tend to operate at a level where what we consider is “normal” in many circumstances, most recreational horse owners have not even thought about experiencing. This is where the lack of communication between trainer and owner becomes so incredibly important. Too many trainers tend to “assume” the owner will have an understanding of what is happening, not realizing how lost the owner is. The more lost the owner is, the less they can “be there” to help their horse which leads to a lack of clear communication and respect from the horse towards the owner.

In my opinion it is just as important, if not more so, to get the owner on the “same page” as their horse that is in training. Here are a few common statements I try to share with owners:

• Just because I can get something done with your horse doesn’t mean that you will be able to.
• If you spent as much time with your horse as you pay me to spend with him, you’d have a lot better understanding of who he is and how best to work with him.
• Based on your (the owner) experience, you may be “stuck” on futuristic goals or dreams for your horse, rather than riding or working with your horse to help him in the “here and now.” If the here and now isn’t addressed, you and your horse will never get to the “future” with any quality or confidence.
• Treat your horse as you would a young child. You’re job is to be here to help him through a scenario, rather than challenge him through one.
• Horses, people and common sense don’t always go hand in hand.
• Too many riders are “reactive” towards their horses. This means, they wait and see if their horse can “survive” a scenario, rather than helping him in steps (literally) in order to come out the other side feeling mentally, emotionally and physically relaxed and confident.
• Too many owners interrupt an unwanted behavior, rather than helping the horse get to the ideal “answer” or result.
• Slow and “boring” is the ideal ride you are going for with your horse. Think back to all of the “stories” and adventures of past equine experiences and it usually involves highly stressed riders and horses.

So back to starting and educating the young horse. We don’t send our kids to school for a short period of time expecting them to have learned all that they will need to know to be successful in life. Why do we expect that this human number of 30 days is enough for a horse to teach him everything he needs to know? The education of a horse (and rider) should be an ongoing process. To many people they find this thought depressing. In a society that can’t wait to reward you with “instant gratification” results- riding is the WRONG sport for that mentality. It will only lead to frustration with both horse and rider.

I personally keep owners (as many horses as sent in from far away distances) informed throughout the training process via email or phone. This way I can slowly add new thoughts and ideas to the owner’s mentality as the horse’s training progresses so that by the time the owner comes out to work with his horse his mind is already a bit more “open” because of the background info leading up to this point.

The other point I’d like to stress is that I think it’s the professional’s responsibility to be as straight forward with the owner as possible in order to alleviate any expectations or preconceived notions from the owner BEFORE they might arise. The first thing I tell all owners is that I treat every horse as an individual and will work with him accordingly. This means the horse’s training will progress at whatever “speed” he shows as appropriate.

I do NOT guarantee (which is a word that shouldn’t ever be used with horses) that a horse will be at a certain “place” in his training by a certain point in time. This way, I haven’t promised owners an expectation that I may not be able to fulfill with their horse if their horse isn’t mentally, emotionally or physically ready. Again, my priority in working with the horse for his long term well being. I feel it is my responsibility to educate the horse as best as I can, helping him learn how to trust, respect and try so that in his future whomever may present whatever scenario, he can “deal” with it in an ideal and REASONABLE manner.
The other factor to consider in the length of a horse’s initial education is that the trainer ought to asses the ability and experience of the owner or person who will be riding the horse. Some people have years of experience but haven’t started colts but are “natural” riders who might feel comfortable on a less experienced horse, than perhaps a less experienced person who really needs their horse not just “started” but also “finished”- with the training offering the horse a lot more experience, exposure and confidence.

So the final part of the “colt starting” is the owner’s training. Helping them mentally get on the same page as their horse. Teaching them some of what I consider as the fundamental basics of THINKING when they are working with their horse. It’s my job to help take away the “mystery” of what the horse is about to do by pointing all the ways the horse is communicating with us trying to tell, ask or clarify what we are doing with them. It’s like presenting the owner with the entire alphabet so that they can spell so that they can read, rather than if they are missing letters and expecting them to be successful at reading.

It’s my responsibility to establish a clear understanding with the owner that his horse’s education is an ongoing and lifetime process. Every opportunity they work with their horse is another chance to expand their horse’s confidence.

I truly believed if more professionals and trainers put the responsibility of the ongoing education of the horse on his owner, not encouraging them to treat their horse’s as an inanimate object that they expect to just “be ready” because they are, horses and their owners would be a lot happier in the long run.

Embrace the learning curve- don’t let it scare you!


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