What is so exciting about the boring ‘basics’ in horse training?

When I started horse riding I started like all novice riders. My instructor taught me The Basics. I learned how to adjust the stirrup leathers and get in the saddle, to sit straight and what I had to do to transition from a halt to a walk and how to turn. Later on I learned how to do a raising trot and how to canter without falling off.

The ‘Basics’ in the past

I remember one of the standard phrases in the riding school was that the ‘basics are the most important things in riding’.

The ‘basics’ in my riding school contained: halt, walk, trot, canter, riding a circle, change reins over the diagonal and 30 cm high jumps. After 5 years of riding lessons I started wondering if I could learn something else than those ‘bloody boring basics’?

I felt really stuck at the level I was at. Lateral gaits were considered ‘advanced’ and they only taught those things if you paid extra and became member of their pony club. My parents refused to pay extra for the already very expensive riding lessons and I don’t blame them.

I developed a little resentment towards ‘basics’ because of that: basics were boring because I couldn’t do anything with them.

The ‘Basics’ now

We fast forward twenty years, to the nineties when I started clicker training my pony Sholto. The Internet wasn’t  well developed and I couldn’t find anything about horse training on The Net at that time.

There was nobody who taught me a broad, solid foundation that I could use to base my horse training on. I just learned to clicker train Sholto with lots of trial and error.

With every step forward, I probably took two (or more steps) back and it was due to my determination that I stuck with that method. There was something about clicker training…

I saw how it changed Sholto’s attitude in training. He looked forward to interacting with me and I could see he was doing his best to figure out what it was I wanted. It challenged me to listen to him and follow his lead too: to change my criteria if he got bored or frustrated. I discovered how important my timing was and I learned to think more about the setup of my training so it was easy to figure out what I expected from Sholto. It was a really difficult journey, but very rewarding.

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I also studied Natural Horsemanship at the same time and I really loved the methodology that was used. It was taught in a clear and straight forward way: step 1, step 2, step 3 and so on. It was the opposite of the struggle I had with clicker training.

This Natural Horsemanship method was so well developed it even described in detail what went wrong if you encountered a problem. ‘Go back to the basics and practise A, B or C in order to solve X, Y or Z’.

For me the strength of that method was not only based on teaching the basics, but also on the fact that I could see where the basics could bring us. When I encountered a problem with Sholto it showed me where the hole in my training was. That made it really easy to fix it.

Eye-opener

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis was when I realized that the ‘Basics’ that I resented so much were in fact golden nuggets in training! Without golden nuggets I can never make a beautiful necklace. If I don’t use my nuggets the nuggets stay what they are: small nuggets. Nice to have and to look at, but they can become so much more! Only if you melt them and use them together they can become something else, something new, something unique and valuable. That is what the ‘Basics’ mean to me today:

a broad foundation of exercises on which you can build a solid 
relationship with your horse. A relationship you both benefit from and
in which you trust each other and both have lots of fun.
If you master the [positive reinforcement] basics , you can not only 
teach your horse anything you want, you have build a solid friendship too.

 

Over the years I have developed my own basics, HippoLogic’s Key Lessons (Your Key to Success in Positive Reinforcement Horse Training). If you master those exercises you can teach your horse anything you want! The Key Lessons together form a broad solid foundation.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.
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Key Lesson: ‘Patience’

In this key lesson the horse learns to stand next to you in a relaxed way and keep his head straight forward, not too high and not too low. The goal is to reward the horse for his ‘patient’ behaviour. Of course the horse is not really ‘patient’ when he stands with his neck straight and his head on a comfortable level, it is a ‘learned behaviour’. A very safe behaviour!

Benefits of this Key Lesson are (this makes it my favourite exercise to teach):

  • It teaches your horse relaxation
  • Responsiveness to cues
  • And it reinforces calm behaviour
  • Bonus: it’s incompatible with ‘mugging’, stepping on your toes and other unwanted behaviours

Focus on what you want
It is really important that you communicate to your horse what it is you want or expect from him. If you don’t think about this, you will end up with a horse that is always asking your attention when you are busy with something else. In this case you want your horse to ‘stand with four feet on the ground, relaxed, neck straight forward and horizontal’.

Asking attention
I think we all know horses that will show their whole repertoire of tricks if people are around to get attention, kick their stall doors in order to ‘call’ people over, push a person, sniffs pockets and try to get the treats out when the person is talking to someone. Or horses that pull their handlers to the juicy patches of grass as soon when they want to check their her phone for messages. Wouldn’t it be great if your horse just stood there ‘patiently’ and waited for you to be ready to give the next cue?

This is why the key lesson ‘patience’ is an important exercise to spent some time on. The time you spend on this exercise is really a good investment. It looks like the horse is ‘patient’ but it is just a learned behaviour, just like the behaviours described above. The difference is, that the key lesson patience is desired behaviour and you can put it on cue.

Default behaviour
Just like head lowering you could choose to make this behaviour the default behaviour. It is a very practical behaviour. It prevents the horse from mugging you, pushing you, sniffing your pockets or asking your attention when you are doing other things, like talking to a friend, adjusting your tack, braiding his mane and so on. It also calms your horse down if he is excited. This is a behaviour that the trainer always should reinforce, even when it is displayed without cue. That is the way you can make it a default behaviour. A default behaviour is a behaviour a horse can fall back on when he is getting frustrated, anxious or wants your attention.

Useful
Teaching a horse to be ‘patient’ is also a useful exercise under saddle, with ground tying, waiting in line on competition grounds, during a bath/hosing him down, brushing, saddling and so on. Ask you horse to be ‘patient’ if he can’t wait for your next cue and randomly shows behaviour. It will help him become relaxed. This can help prevent frustration. Then teach your horse to wait for cues.

Reinforce what you want to see

It is just that most handlers forget to reinforce this simple behaviour of seemingly ‘doing nothing’. The handler has to be aware of this behaviour and reinforce it and put in on cue. Once you have learned to recognize it in your horse, keep it in his repertoire by reinforcing it.

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If the horse has a tendency to mug you or invade your personal space, you can start teaching the horse to ‘look away’. Later you can shape it into standing straight forward with his neck.

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Kyra ‘s head is still a bit high in these pictures. I shaped my ‘Patience’ now more into a combination of ‘Patience’ with ‘Head lowering’. It is such a great tool and helps calm the horse down and makes everyone safer!

Links to other key lessons

Thank you for reading. Let me know how what your favourite key lesson is and why.

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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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