Principles of training

I love training animals, and what I also love is how transferable skills are. I read books on training horses, books on training dogs, books on training children and what is noticeable is how the skills and lessons I learn when working with one I can use on another.

All the scenarios are different. Teaching your toddler to use a potty, teaching your horse to do a half-pass and teaching your dog to sit, may at first glance appear different, but there are themes of similarity through all of these.

Firstly, they all have a clear outcome. You know what you want to achieve. In each instance you want to teach them to do something rather than to teach them not to do something. In each scenario you praise the moment that they begin to do what you are asking, praise and reward.

Rewards don’t have to an actual “thing”, rewards can be a sticker chart, a piece of cheese, or the release of pressure. (I’ll leave it up to you to match up the rewards with the scenario!)

In each instance you ask for something to happen, you praise and reward the moment an attempt to do what you asked is made, and then you repeat. And as the understanding expands, so you begin to only praise when you are closer to the desired outcome.

In all instances, if you ask in an unclear manner or are inconsistent, you will make it harder for the other party involved. If some days you can’t be bothered with potty training and just leave your toddler in nappies, if you put your legs in different places on the horse, and if you use a different word for sit every time, you will make life harder for yourself.

Equally if you don’t praise and reward the other party has no idea whether or not they have done what you wanted. The repetition means that the other party learns. So, all of these three scenarios can be broken down into the same stages. Ask, praise, reward, repeat.

I would also put wait in there. When we are learning something, it can take time for our brains to process the information and work out what we are being asked to do. Think how slow you are the first time you do something new, and then how it becomes second nature once you have done it many times? So, after you have asked, pause, give them a chance to work out what you are asking and how they are going to do it. If you make the time span on your instruction being followed too small, you are asking for problems.

So, ask, pause, praise, reward and repeat.


It’s not just repetition…

Everyone always says keep doing it, it will get better. Keep trying, keep practicing. This is true, but only to a point. Practice does make perfect,  but only good practice works.

Imagine. You are teaching your horse to canter. Each time you ask for canter, you put your outside leg too far back and your horse bucks into canter. What do you think will happen if you keep on doing the same thing? Your horse will learn that when you put your leg that far back he bucks into canter. You have practiced, you have followed the instruction, but you have only practiced the wrong aid, so it hasn’t worked.

It would have been better in this instance to think, I am struggling with this, so I will wait until my next lesson and then check I am doing it right, rather than keep on doing it wrong. Maybe you could have just practiced your walk trot transitions for the week till your lesson instead.

Of course sometimes we aren’t sure whether we are doing right, but if you aren’t sure, then see whether you think you are getting the right response. Are you teaching your dog to sit? Is it sitting properly? Or does it keep lying down instead? Are you teaching your horse to wait in his stable doorway without rushing? Is it working? Most the time we know when we are doing it right, as we get the right reaction. Be mindful of whether the result you are aiming for is the same as the one you are getting.

Training is fascinating and endlessly rewarding and training using repetition is an essential part of that training, but it is vitally important to make sure that you are doing good practice not bad practice, as only perfect practice makes perfect.

Top 5 tips for riding in a collecting ring

We are all feeling a little ring rusty after our prolonged period of box rest, and probably over-excited to be out and about again! So in case anyone needs a bit of a re-fresh, here are our top 5 tips for riding safely and responsibly in a collecting ring.

Top 5 Tips:

Pass left to left – the oldest and simplest of the rules. Always pass left to left when working on the outer track. If you struggle with left and right, write an “L” and an “R” on the back of your gloves.

Walk on an inner track – this allows riders travelling at a faster speed to continue around the outside, without you getting in their way. Likewise when transitioning down to a walk check there is not someone cantering up behind you, who might not be prepared for you to slow down.

Do not block the entrance – simple courtesy mainly, but also horse can often nap leaving or entering the collecting ring or arena, so it basic safety to keep it clear for people who may be having a difficult time persuading their horse to enter or exit.

Look up! – do not ride round staring down. Firstly it will tip your centre of gravity forwards, causing your shoulders to round and straining your neck, and secondly you cannot see where you are going! Simply being observant while riding with others will make you safer in the arena. It is always good to notice that there is a horse out of control at the other end, giving you plenty of time to come back to a walk and calm your own horse down.

Red flag on right, white flag on left – if there are flags on jumps, be sure to follow this rule, thereby preventing head on collisions. Do not cross in front of jumps without being very sure that no-one is approaching and certainly do not loiter around in front of the jumps.

If everyone can follow these tips for good arena and collecting ring use, we will all have a more enjoyable time. Remember a smile goes a long way, riding and competing are meant to be fun! Also, we are all human, mistakes happen. It is very easy to get engrossed in what we are doing and forget to look around and nearly crash. But most people will be forgiving as long as you apologise. A simple “sorry” goes a long way and can prevent a small incident escalating into a massive row. Do put a green ribbon on a young horse, and a red ribbon on a kicker, so that other people are aware of your horse’s behaviour. If we all act responsibly and politely we will all enjoy ourselves.

Little by little…

…one walks far. I love this Peruvian proverb, it seems so apt for the modern day and everything that we do. I have seen it on a necklace, that’s on the wish list!

It fits so perfectly with everything. Want to compete your horse in a dressage test when it won’t even trot?  Approach it one step at a time, rather than sitting down and giving up. Work on the walk, practice your trot transition. Aim for one nice trot stride, come back to walk and then praise. Gradually that one nice trot stride will become a whole long side, gradually you will be able to maintain a whole circuit. In time, you will be able to add in a canter transition and repeat the whole exercise. Next you simply take your horse somewhere else and practice doing it in a different environment. And, then you are ready to compete.

Everything is possible. Your filthy, muddy, hairy pony in the field can be transformed into a gleaming show pony. Your terrible puppy that chews and runs round you can be transformed into an obedient well-trained dog. Your incredibly long list of things to do, can be broken down into small parts, which you can tick off.

Remember a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Every rider you admire or look up to had to learn rising trot, no-one was born knowing how to make a horse Piaffe. You can do anything that you want to do, you can learn to be good at anything. Everything simply requires the building blocks of learning. If you try and make your hairy pony do a half-pass it probably won’t, but if you teach it to leg yield, and then a few steps of shoulder-in and then build onto that some quarters-in, suddenly a few steps of half-pass are going to be there, and before you know it, you will be half-passing happily from one side of the school and back again.

Naughty or struggling? Can you tell the difference?

Our horses rarely wake up in the morning, and think “today I will be really naughty…today I will only canter on the left lead not the right lead.” This is a common issue that many of us face, and our perception of the problem is one of the key factors in helping to solve this issue.

When we train horses, we train them to accept and understand the aids that move us from trot into canter. When they are learning this can be difficult for them, as they have to work out the connection between our aids and our desired outcome. It is our job to give these aids clearly and consistently, with much praise for the correct response, so that our horses learn what we are asking for. Without praise, they won’t understand that they have done as we have asked. Praise can be verbal, or can be through the release of the aid.

When faced with a horse which will canter on the left, but not the right lead, we become frustrated. To us, in our logical human brains, we feel that the horse must be being “naughty” as we know full well that he understands and can carry out the action from trot to canter. However, it only takes some weakness, or stiffness in his body, to cause him to struggle with the transition on this rein. This imbalance in the body can be harder to pinpoint than a more obvious lameness, but it is up to us to work it out.

Horses can only communicate their pain, or distress through their actions, they have no other language. In general, they are incredibly stoic creatures who will try their very best despite the limitations of their bodies, or our, sometimes vague, aids. If your horse cannot do something that you ask of him, it is not a personal insult! He is simply trying to communicate with you, in the only manner that he knows how, and it is up to us to listen.

There are many exercises that you can do on the ground before you get anywhere near riding that will help you to listen to what he is trying to say to you. Can he bend his neck equally to both sides? There are many excellent resources available showing you how to do simple carrot stretches (beware of your fingers!). When turned in a tight circle do his hind legs step under to the same degree on both reins? Does he track up evenly when walked and trotted in-hand? Any difference on the left and right side in-hand will be likely to provide you with the key to why he is struggling with ridden work.

So, the next time you are feeling frustrated by apparent naughtiness in your horse’s behaviour, take a moment to stop. Take a moment to listen to your horse, and think about what he is trying to say. Our horses are always talking to us, when we take the time to listen, we might hear what they are trying to say.

What is it with women and horses?

By guest blogger Sue Palmer

Over the years I’ve met many incredible horse men and women, and I’ve been very lucky to build a great network of people I can turn to for advice on a wide variety of equestrian subjects.  We don’t all need to ‘follow’ the same people, and this blog is about being open minded to many different approaches to horsemanship, as long as those involved are, as I aim to be, doing their best and actively engaged in ongoing learning.

One of my favourites is friend and mentor Kelly Marks of Intelligent Horsemanship.  I’m jealous of Kelly’s insight in choosing the name ‘Intelligent Horsemanship’, as to me this says it all! Kelly has an apparently insatiable appetite for reading and learning, and embraces the emergence of science into horsemanship. The Intelligent Horsemanship magazine is always a great read and I highly recommend it. This quarter’s edition includes:

What is it with women and horses?
Dr David Marlin:  ‘Roadwork’ – Get the FACTS
Intelligent Horsemanship Debate – What comes out best – Man or Machine?
Lameness – Are we looking at it all wrong?
IH Training – The Angel is in the detail.
IH Training – Bonding with your new horse
Monty’s Spring 2018 tour report
The totally INSPIRATIONAL Tim Stockdate Big Interview
PLUS all the usuals AND
Do you know someone who could be our IH Young Equestrain Photographer of the Year?!
For details of IH Membership and entry to the competition go to