When working with horses it can be easy to get caught up in the moment and trying to get something perfect. Have you ever been working with your horse and thought “that was really good, I’m going to try it one more time.” Have you ever then wished you hadn’t tried it again because it got worse?

We have to remember that horses don’t speak our language, so the way they know they’ve done something right is because we give them a reward or because we move on to something else. For example if you ask your horse to trot, you will give the cue and when the horse trots you will leave them alone. During ground work an example is we pick out a hoof and then put it down and move on. We don’t stand there and pick out the same hoof 10 times.

We need to become masters of rewarding in the right moment, and moving on when we have understanding.

Once your horse really understands something and knows they are doing it right you can ask them to do it longer, further, faster, or with better quality. For example when teaching a horse a haunch turn, you may start with a slow single step. After they get it, you could ask the horse to speed it up like a spin.

Imagine a teacher gives you a book to read and they ask you to repeat a word you say incorrectly. They continue asking you to repeat the word again and again. Every time you say the word you aren’t entirely sure if you’ve said it right because no matter how you say it, you’re told to say it again. You repeat it again and again, sometimes differently. At the end of the session you’ve read one book with a lot of repetition in the words. Would you feel a bit annoyed or frustrated? Would you feel like you didn’t really know when you were right? Would you feel like you’re not smart and not a good learner?

Now imagine a teacher that gives you a book to read and allows you to think and sound out any confusing words. They only make corrections if you’ve asked for help, stop trying or get something incorrect. You finish that book and try another. At the end of the session you’ve read a couple different books and learnt to problem solve difficult words by sounding it out. The teacher never lost their patience with you. How would you feel after this session? Would you feel confident in your ability to learn? Would you want to learn more?

Horses can have very similar feelings and experiences about learning as humans. Horses do better if you provide guidance, but aren’t a drill sergeant or harsh critic.

Horses have to feel like there is a right answer, that they can find the right answer, and that they won’t be in trouble for trying to find it.

There are different horse personalities. Some horse’s like repetition because it helps them feel secure. Other horses hate repetition because they find it boring. If your horse seems to relax with repetition then you don’t need to be as creative to do different things during a session. However, it’s still good to change it up so your horse becomes more confident with new things.

How do you know when to move on from something new you are teaching?

  • Your horse has made some progress to get the answer correct.
  • Your horse has been allowed time to ‘soak’ on the thought by simply just standing there and allowed to think about it. During this time (which could be a few seconds to 10 minutes or more) the horse has yawned, blinked quickly several times, licked & chewed, or taken a big exhale. These are all signs the horse has relaxed and thinking.

If you aren’t teaching anything new, you can just look for the horse responding correctly to the tasks you are giving them. If they are getting it right, try to move on and do something else.

What if you want to repeat something more but your horse has already done it right? Do a couple different things and then try it again.

Sometimes we want to practice something again and again because we need the practice. Instead if you can put your horse first and move on when your horse needs to, they will probably do it better and be happier.

Tip: Before you even ask your horse to do something, know exactly what you want from your horse. For example before you ask a horse to do a trot circle, think about what quality of circle you want you’re your horse before you will give praise or move on to something else. This way when you get the quality, you know to quit and praise right away. Don’t get greedy and try for more, or you could be stuck wishing you’d quit 10 seconds sooner.

Horses that feel like they get a lot of right answers try harder, learn faster, and aren’t afraid to learn new things. Make your horse a power learner by:

  • praising your horse for things done right,
  • allowing your horse time to stand and think, and
  • moving on to different tasks after they’ve done it right.