Guest post by © Noor Tanger
Training horses is pretty difficult, if you want to do it the right way. There’s so much you have to keep in mind at the same time to get optimal results. You are literally your horse’s fitness trainer and mental coach!
The most important thing in training should always be the well-being of your horse. Training a horse with integrity is different from forcing him into performance ‘tricks’.
The training should always lead to an improved balance in order to prevent injuries. Tendon injuries for instance, are often a result of the horse being crooked (even a tiny bit crooked) which leads to one leg consistently carrying more weight than the others, which will increase the stress and the wear and tear on the tendons until the horse is lame.
The same goes for problems in the back or pelvis, caused by the horse being ridden with a hollow back. That is why it is so important to do things correctly. Because I know how much time and effort it takes to train a horse well, I am happy to provide you with some tips to train more effectively.
10 tips to instantly make your training more effective!
1. Always start the training with a positive mental attitude, but without expectations.
Expectations create a form of pressure in your mind and your horse will feel that pressure. Just start the training with a positive feeling, the rest will follow.
2. Ride every line with an intention of improving the balance
Visualise every line you want to ride beforehand and observe what happens once you put the horse on this line. Adjust the horse’s alignment so he cannot deviate from the chosen line of travel. As a result, all four legs will stay exactly in their proper tracks, which will improve the carrying ability of the hind legs and transfer weight from the front legs to the hindquarters. Set out cones in your arena to ensure that your circles are neither smaller or bigger than intended. This is not easy in the beginning, but it will definitely improve your training efficiency!
3. Reward your horse a lot and abundantly!!!!
And not just when he did something special, but also for the smaller steps in between that lead up to the bigger stuff. This will keep your horse motivated! And it has another wonderful effect: You will get a happy feeling from it yourself, too! A big pitfall for us riders is to correct what we don’t want, but forget to reward what we do want. This will involuntarily lead to a negative atmosphere. Learning is much more fun (and easier!) in a positive environment!
4. Be consistent
Of course you have heard this before.....but admit it! Sometimes you ride your final trot - walk transition of the training session not like you should (as in: your horse imitates a llama and because you were done with training, you just let it go and give him a long rein). But...remember: a horse gets better at what he practices....
So if you let him do things the wrong way..he will get better at doing it the wrong way....
So important! A horse can only learn well when the brain is in a relaxed state. The degree of relaxation correlates with the posture of the head and neck. Scientific research proved that when a horse is moving with his head up high, the brain produces adrenaline (in case he needs to defend himself or run away). When the head/neck is lower with a relaxed body, the brain produces endorphines/serotonine/dopamine.
When the horse has gained more carrying ability in the hind legs and moves with a relaxed topline, he will also stay relaxed when he elevates his head and neck from flexed hindquarters. Elevating the head while he doesn’t have the necessary strength in his hind legs yet will only create tension.
So should you just let your horse fall apart with a long neck? No, inviting the horse to lengthen the neck a little from a relaxed jaw is enough. You will feel your horse lift the back under you, and he will make bigger steps. Work on the carrying ability by riding in a slow tempo and balancing your horse. When the horse is balanced in the slower tempo and getting stronger, he will also be able to keep his balance when you ride him more forward.
6. Pay attention to your elbows!
Let someone take pictures or video of your riding. Watch them closely and focus on your arms. Are they straight or is there an angle in them? Is there visible tension in your arms? Is one elbow placed more back than the other? Is the bit pulling the corners of the mouth upwards or is the connection on the reins soft and light? A soft connection begins with a relaxed seat that absorbs the motion of your horse. When your lower back is able to absorb the motion of the horse’s back, you will be able to keep your hands quiet and your arms and elbows relaxed. However, quiet hands doesn’t mean that they should be rigidly in one place. We need to be able to move with the horse’s mouth and the movement of the neck so that there is a flowing connection from the hindquarters to the mouth at all times. If you want to have a soft connection with the mouth, you therefore need to work on the suppleness of your lower back and absorbing all the movements there. You can communicate with your horse in a much softer way if you do this.
7. Don’t ask anything from your horse in a faster gait that he can’t do in a slower gait, yet.
Make sure you have balance at a slower speed first, and then work step by step at keeping the balance while the gaits become bigger. Ballet dancers will practice their routine at a really slow place first, so the brain can get used to the routine and the movements, and find balance in them. When they have achieved a certain level of proficiency at the slow speed, they gradually increase the tempo. This has nothing to do, however, with your horse being responsive to your legs or not. You always want a response from the horse when you use your legs, but make sure you don’t block the horse with one arm or both.
8. Training will create bigger muscles
If you train your horse in a correct posture (relaxed top line, raised back and hind legs that step under the body mass), the top line muscles will grow. This can happen very quickly, especially in the withers area. That’s why I always tell my new students in their first lesson that they should already make an appointment with their saddle-fitter for 4-6 weeks after that lesson, because if they consistently work their horse like in that lesson, the saddle will be too small in a few weeks. The first sign that this is happening is that the horse goes very well and relaxed the first few weeks after the lesson, but all of a sudden he starts protesting. Horses are very good at trying for us even when their body hurts, and they compensate until they can’t anymore. And then it’s up to us riders to figure out why the horse is behaving differently and get that problem solved. I have often received a message 4-6 weeks after the first lesson that the horse was going so well and then all of a sudden nothing was going well anymore. And it was always the saddle that had become too small because the muscles developed so quickly.
Correct training develops the musculature in the right places and makes the horse rounder. Conversely, incorrect training will develop musculature in the wrong places. Where is your horse developing muscles? Is his underneck bulging more and more? Then it’s time to review your training and adjust things. When a horse is developing an underneck, it’s caused by moving in an incorrect posture. The good news is that this is relatively easy to change (unless it’s a conformation issue, but in most cases it’s not). So check if your horse’s musculature is developing correctly, and call your saddle fitter in time when the saddle is starting to get too small.
9. Accept that your horse will have ‘muscle-soreness-days’
As you may or may not know from working out yourself, muscle-soreness is inevitable when you train well. On days that the muscles are sore, your horse might be crabby. Things that are normally easy to ride are suddenly impossible, and then that little devil could be sitting on your shoulder saying: “Don’t be a sissy, horse! You did this yesterday very well! Stop complaining.” However, the reality is probably that you succeeded in accessing the muscles very effectively the day before when you had a great ride, so that they are sore today! And when the muscles are aching, you have to give them some time to recover. On days like that you should only ask for very easy work, or just longe your horse a little so he can relax and get the blood flowing to the muscles to remove the lactic acid buildup.
Remember: Resting is training too! Muscles grow during rest periods.
So tip number 9 is: Learn how the body functions biomechanically, and how to create a balance between working the muscles and resting them.
10. Tip number 10 is… ENJOY!
Enjoy the connection with your horse, enjoy the process of growing together, of dancing together! And be considerate of how your horse thinks, how he feels, and learns! Respect him, learn how to teach him without damaging him physically or mentally. It really is very special that the horse allows the human animal to get on his back and ask all sorts of things from him - and to expect him to understand everything we ask of him on top of that! If you want your training to be more effective, really get to know your horse, also mentally. Especially mentally! Because you will only be able to get his body to do certain things, if he is mentally able to understand you. Otherwise, it will only be forced tricks, without expression. That would only serve you, but not the horse. So let’s make this something that will serve both your horse and you! Your horse will have a stronger, leaner body and a more relaxed mind, and you could achieve all the goals you have in riding, without your horse getting injured. Because when you ride a horse in balance, mentally and physically, the chances of him getting tendon, back, or neck injuries will be zero to none.
Noor Tanger is a professional trainer and instructor with her partner, Patrick Molenaar. Together Noor and Pat train horses and riders in NL. Noor has been a Ritter student since 2012 and is an assistant teacher in the Artistic Dressage Online Course Program.
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