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The Pitfalls of Training

Published: 8/31/2016
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

With the exception of my school horses, I don't often let other people ride my horses.  I like to be the only one to mess them up, thank you very much, and I try to keep them working on a feel so that we can communicate with each other quietly. 
When I worked at a public boarding and training barn, an employee once led my horse into the barn and complained that she dragged on the lead rope.  "I thought she'd be better trained than that," she said.  It started a lively debate about the difference between training versus feel and communication.

In my mind, training is a system of repeating cues until receiving a desired response.  Horses are flight animals. If you've seen the video of a chicken round-penning a horse, you know that it doesn't take much to elicit a flight response from a horse.  Applying pressure in some form, whether it’s verbal, physical or mental, until a horse responds is training for a cue.  

For example, to teach a horse to speed up, the rider either clucks, kisses, kicks with a leg, spur, or whip until the horse responds.  To teach a horse to canter, the rider slides his outside leg back. These cues are repeated until the horse is familiar enough with the cue and at some point will not need more pressure from the rider.  Then he is considered "well trained."  All another rider would need to do is apply the aids in the correct way at the correct time and the horse would elicit the desired response.

The problem with training is that often the rider inadvertently asks the horse to ignore what his body really is saying and respond to the cue. 
  • Consider a rider who is tense in his hips tells the horse "don't go" but then kicks until the horse does go.  This horse learns that in order to avoid the pressure of kicking, he has to first ignore the feel or the rider’s hips and respond to the forward cue.

  • Horses are often lunged with the person's body language completely obstructing the horse from going forward, and then chased forward with the lunge whip into that block.

Working on feel is a different matter.  Sometimes my students or clinic participants tell me, "I have to ride him this way. It's how he's trained," or "He can't do that. He isn't trained to do that yet." 

My responses:

All horses understand feel.  It's how they communicate with each other and their world at large.  It doesn't matter how a horse has been ridden in the past. When they start to hook back into working off feel, it's something they all can tap into.  They just need to be made aware of it again as it pertains to coming from a human.  

Horses can do just about everything we ask of them (with the exception of some movements such as Spanish Walk or other circus-type tricks).  All correct riding is a development of their natural movement. Asking them to hold a shape they’d assume naturally but for longer periods of time will develop suppleness and strength.  But you're not teaching them anything new.  You're not training your horse to canter. He knows how to do that.  He knows how to do airs above ground and piaffe. And he can slide to a stop or collect whenever he wants to.  All you're asking him to do is to understand what you want and prepare his body so he can do it when you ask.  

A horse that works off of feel is one that I call "barely broke." He isn't trained through receptive cues. He is tuned into the rider and responds to their level.  He's taught to pay attention and connect, so that he can hear all the subtle messages that come from the rider.

The rider listens to all the horse's messages too.  They have a two-way communication that's constant, and it can be loud and harsh or quiet and subtle.  Or anywhere in between. The pair that is working on feel is working on refining their communication system, not creating buttons to push.

If I'm not communicating effectively, my horse is going to rise to a certain level.  And if you take my horse and you don't pay attention while you lead, she will tune you out and may drag on the rope.  Or, she may spook or zoom ahead because she is not receiving the communication she needs.

When I spent a week with Brent Graef, he asked me to lead a young horse back to the barn.  I was ever careful and worried about messing up this sensitive little number. As I was walking, my arm holding the lead rope swung back and forth slightly.  The mare stopped dead in her tracks and backed up violently.  I looked at Brent and back down at my arm, and realized what had happened.  I tried walking again, this time careful not to let my arm move. She wouldn't walk.  

Brent told me my arm was now too stiff, and had deadened the life in the lead rope.
"Damn," I thought.  "I know so little. I can't even lead a horse properly."  

It was an eye opener. I spent some time later with another horse trying to get the life in the rope just right, so the horse didn't resist but could flow.  I had to learn to get out of its way so I could communicate.

Learning to work on feel is much harder than learning how to apply aids.  Anyone can elicit a response from a horse.  A chicken in a round pen can do it.  

But it takes a lifetime to understand ourselves, our bodies, and how they impact the horse. It takes a lifetime to understand a horse's body and mind.  The level of refinement here is infinite. The things one can do by working off feel are incredible.  It's a worthwhile journey for those who have the patience and desire to really communicate with, not just ride a horse.

View Reader Comments:

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9/2/2016 Laurie Grann
Wonderful article. I too, keep striving for what can be between myself and my horse . It is hard because it is us that have to change but oh.. sometimes it feels like magic, Laurie
9/4/2016 Robyn Rawson
Mmm, lovely insight and instructive contrasts help my understanding. thanks Amy.
9/12/2016 Debbie
Feel is an easy concept, hard in practice. Being mindful helps, but difficult in that my mind wanders between feel/response and the exercise at hand. I have found that rotating between a rope halter, bitless bridle, and bridle with snaffle bit helps my brain and hands. I feel like Amy, though on a much lower level... "I know so little"... But as a professor once told me, "It is OK to be ignorant, just not to remain ignorant."
11/2/2016 Alex
Wonderful article. I too, keep striving for what can be between myself and my horse.

   
"A horse doesn't care how much you know until he knows how much you care." - Pat Parelli