How to teach your horse anything

Whenever an idea forms about what I want to teach my horse Kyra I set it as a goal. I then start writing a training plan and make a shaping plan to achieve this goal.

Goal setting

My goal in this example is teaching Kyra to stand still, next to a mounting block, until I mounted and give the cue to walk.

Shaping plan

After I set my goal I make a shaping plan. I think about all the possible steps I have to teach Kyra to achieve my final behaviour: standing parallel to the mounting block so mounting is safe and easy for me. I have to teach her to stand still when I’m mounting, put my feet into the stirrups, taken the reins and I am ready to ask her to walk.

I write all these steps down. I don’t even have to bring it to the barn. Just writing it down makes me focused.

A few of the building blocks of this goal are:

  • making her comfortable near the mounting block
  • teaching whoa
  • mat training
  • hip targeting (to be able to align her to the mounting block)
  • aligning with the mounting block without stress
  • waiting until I have mounted
  • and walking on queue


Context learning

Horses learn in a certain context. I use this into my advantage when I am teaching Kyra something new. I practise as much as possible in the same circumstance (context).

If I have a portable mounting block I always put it in the same place in the arena to practise. I will only put it in another place if she has already mastered lining up in the first spot.

I lower my criteria a bit when I change something in the context she learned the behaviour. In this way I always set Kyra up for success and I always have a good feeling too!

Set it up for success

I always take into account my horses emotions when I teach her something new. I recently saw a video in which the trainer put the mounting block next to the track in order to mount. Unfortunately this was the place where her horse was the most nervous (‘trapped in between the fence and the mounting block.) She made her training much more difficult than it needed to be.

For Kyra the most comfortable spot in the arena was in the middle where she has the most space and couldn’t hurt herself. Secondly I noticed that facing the door was more comfortable for her than facing the opposite side of the arena. I guess she likes to know where the exit is… After all it is an enclosed area and horses are flight animals.


Then I started to practise the steps in my shaping plan. I usually go up one criterion if Kyra masters it three times in a row.

Latent learning

After a few days of practise I give Kyra a break or I train something completely different. Often something she has already mastered. After giving her a ‘weekend’ off she performs much better. This latent learning is very valuable to me. It saves time!

Rinse and repeat

After a short break I lower my criteria a bit and start with some repetition to give her the confidence that she knows what is expected. After that I can move on very quickly.

Context shift

After Kyra has mastered the basics of the new behaviour, I change one thing in the context. I put the mounting block somewhere else in the arena. Not too far away from where she was used to.


After a few times of putting the mounting block in different spots in the arena, I noticed that Kyra generalized the mounting block. Time for a real change: a different kind of mounting block.

I started practising with benches in the park, fences, rocks etc. Now Kyra is used to all kinds of mounting blocks and she is very safe to mount.

This is the general ‘recipe’ I use in teaching my horse new behaviours. You don’t have to use positive reinforcement training to use this in your training.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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9 thoughts on “How to teach your horse anything

  1. Great advice as always, I now need to generalise the mounting block with Mojo, he lines up beautifully in the school. So I will move it around and then try outside.


  2. Interesting that Kyra is better after a weekend off! This is something I’ve noticed with Billy, he’s so keen after a couple of days off to show what he’s remembered, its lovely! So it’s down to latent learning? I will try to learn more about this 😊


  3. Great read, I used the context learning as well with the flying changes, now we seem to be able to do them wherever, whenever 🙂 I am not yet at the point of being convinced about the latent learning as it seems to me that I (!) need the daily training to get my aids straight…does latent learning work for humans, too? 😉


    • I believe it does, Dressage Hafl. If you have the feeling that you need the daily training to get your aids straight, I am wondering what is missing.

      Do you really forget the aids if you don’t ride a day or two? I don’t think so. I hope not. 😉

      Maybe you are lumping your criteria (the criteria you set for yourself I mean) and make too big a steps in order to really learn them. I believe once the aids are in your ‘muscle memory’ (latent learning helps here too) that you don’t have to think about them anymore.

      Riding aids are really simple if you understand some basic anatomy principles. Maybe you are ‘overthinking’ them too much? That can cause worries that you forget them?

      In my experience if I learn a new skill in riding (for example when I learned how to feel what hoof is/hooves are in the air) I can get caught up in my thinking. By taking a break I can get back to my ‘feel’. More practise doesn’t always equals better results, sometimes taking a break will help you getting better results.
      Let me know if this makes sense to you. 🙂


      • that perfectly makes sense, I am an overthinker per se and no, it is not like that I would actually forget the aids, but it SEEMS to my head that I need yet another repetition to get it REALLY right 😉 So I took a break from the changes today, hope that I can ride them still tomorrow 😀 thanks!


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