By Patty Wilber
This past week I had a mild case of Covid, which mainly consisted of me feeling very tired, sleeping a lot more than usual, and riding fewer horses. But it did give me some time to ponder.
There a lots of great resources about the techniques involved in teaching a horse new skills. Applying the techniques, it has been said, by many before me, requires “timing” and “feel”.
Of those two, I think “feel” is the hardest. I think there are two kinds of feel.
In teaching flying lead changes, for example, I can “feel” when the horse’s body is the right position to allow the horse to have a fighting change at getting the change, but perhaps even more important is to recognize how the horse himself emotionally “feels” about the whole thing.
Before you think I am going to have everyone pull out crystals prior to mounting up, the point really is that each horse is an individual with her unique abilities and personality. Or “horseanality” if you prefer.
For me, this means that horse training is not a “one program fits all” proposition. Thus:
- It may mean building an attitude of confidence in a shier animal instead of a focusing on a particular skill. I have a horse right now that is just starting to canter, much later than “usual”. While she was physically capable of cantering, mentally she had little focus. I waited until I felt she would be able to do it without stress. When I did ask, she cantered nicely, with no drama.
- It may mean back to basics. Another horse had difficulty with rushing into his canter. Rather than doing transitions over and over under saddle, we did trot to canter transitions on a lunge line, lateral work and hip control exercises. He ended up excelling at, well, everything. He did not need to be forced to “get it right, right now.”
- It may mean getting help. I was feeling that Lucy was just too slow for Working Cow Horse, but Darren Miller pointed out that I had been allowing her to pick her top speed, which turned out to be a lot slower that what she was capable off. Lucy was ready for me to expect more and when I did, she did not lose confidence, she delivered. I was the one the needed help to see I could ask more.
- It may mean finding the best fit for the personality of the horse. LT is a cowy, light footed, fast, athletic horse, but she (as I mentioned last week) is not a huge fan of the show ring class, Trail. Can she get better at it? Sure. But should I expect her to win a world championship and be angry with her because it is not her favorite? No.
- It may mean finding the right fit for the abilities of the horse. Not every horse cares to watch a cow. Not every horse is built to jump. And conversely, sometimes horses that are not supposed to be good at something, just are. Like Snowman, the Amish plow horse turned international jumper
For me, the fun of training is to try to help each horse reach for their long-term potential by finding the balance between pushing them to the next level while keeping them confident and bright-eyed.