“Where did you learn this? Who taught you to do what you do?” Occasionally when I travel and people see me train these are questions that I get. What people are after is my story and philosophy of training. Well, the story of how I learned what I know and how I continue to
learn is much more like that of the next guy then not. I didn’t study under one man or theory. I grew up with horses, cowboyed some, and worked with and for men most people have never heard of. One of those guys is Garry Stephens. If you have never met him you should. He has forgotten more about horses then most people have ever learned. He taught me a great deal. He had various ways of saying things in order to try to convey thoughts to me about horses. One of his sayings was, “Paul, if you ride them they get broke.” As I think back to what the message I caught was when he originally told me that, it was literally and simply “get on and go.” Now 25 years later there is more experience to guide this thought and here are a few of those thoughts.
Miles do matter. Horses do not have access to google, or smart phones or even books. Green horses can’t learn how to stop better by asking an older more seasoned horse how to do that maneuver. Every horse has to learn by his own experience. No matter how well-bred they are or what their full siblings have accomplished each horse has to gain his own resume of experience. This is how they learn…..by doing. As riders we have to make the effort to ride. It usually isn’t good enough to ride twice a week. There have been times when I was told by other trainers that they would put me out of business, or how busy they were sure to become. Their credentials may have been better and they may have had more talent but they simply didn’t ride enough.
Part of the necessity of riding is the physical component. There simply isn’t enough physical exercise in two rides a week to promote learning. The two are connected. The horse can’t learn when he is fresh or when he is tired. He has to be in a sweet spot between the two. Getting them rode down to a point where he can learn is critical to the training process. They are a bit like six year old boys; they need to get some sweat on them before learning makes any sense to them. Schooling a fresh, green horse often makes them resentful and actually sets them back in the process of getting broker.
Consistency. Some folks do ride, and will ride regularly which helps get them broke (broke here meaning the horse doesn’t buck the rider off) but the horse doesn’t get very handy. Part of the problem is that in all the riding they send inconsistent signals. A simple turn to the left might be a neck rein-regardless of the horse’s ability to neck rein-next time it might be a pull or jerk to the left. Next time the rider might look left and spur with the right foot, next time maybe a combination of all of them. In short a simple left turn becomes harder and harder to execute because of the inconsistent signal and corresponding stopping of that signal. Really the horse doesn’t care what signal you use. His brain wants a clear consistent signal with a consistent ceasing of the signal. Then he knows what’s expected. He finds comfort and happiness in the expected. He gets agitated when the unexpected happens. Be consistent.
Intentionality. When we are out for “just a ride” whether that is trailing cows or going for a trail ride we can be training our horses. For example, when behind a bunch of cows for several hours you can work on bridling your horse, stopping him at a walk or trot. There are all kinds of time when he is in a frame of mind to learn. Be intentional, school him for a few minutes then drop your reins and let him be. Same thing can apply while out trail riding. Collect him, and then give him a break. Roll him back on that brush patch. Go beyond being the passenger along for the ride. It doesn’t take much intentionality to consistently get more out of your horse. All it takes is a little thought.
In short, make sure you are riding your horse. He doesn’t get broke and handy by sitting in the pasture. When you are riding make sure you are aware of how consistent you are being with your cues. Don’t ambush your horse with your signals. Finally, be intentional up there. Each ride is filled with opportunities to make your horse a little handier and more enjoyable to be around.