By Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
If you've ever taken riding lessons, you can relate to your horse when it comes to being corrected for something you didn't do quite right. Maybe the instructor just got a little sarcastic. Or maybe she raised things to the level of a good scold. Maybe you messed up big time and got yelled at big time. Or maybe to prove her point about what you did wrong, the instructor got really stern and made you do whatever it was over and over and over to drill into your head.
Whatever happened, as the instructor got louder or pushier or stricter you probably didn't feel very good about what you were doing. Your first reaction was probably a knot in your stomach. Or you got nervous or afraid or grumpy or mad or resentful. Even if you knew you earned the dressing down you got, going through it didn't make you feel very good about riding that day.
Worst of all, you probably didn't learn much of anything except that going back into the arena with that instructor wasn't something you were looking forward to.
That's why we teach our students that there are three times you punish a horse for doing something wrong--never, never and never.
The first goal in every training session is to make the horse feel positive about himself and the whole experience he has when he's with you. Heeding teaches handlers to concentrate on their horse, to methodically apply horse logical pressures only to the point where they shape the horse's behavior, then to consistently apply and release and reapply those pressures to shape and direct every stride the horse takes. When everything is horse logical and no more than one step away from something he already knows, the horse learns to trust that nothing bad is going to happen when he's around you. That trust leads to relaxation. And relaxation and rhythm are the foundations for anything you're going to teach a horse.
When a pressure gets "louder" either physically or psychologically, the horse feels that as something he wants to escape from. Whenever he's running away from a pressure, the horse is not learning. Whenever his current rhythm is abruptly interrupted, he is not learning. So if you jerk on a lead rope, make a sudden move around his head, yank on the reins, kick him in the side, smack him with a crop or gig him with a spur as "punishment" for something he didn't do right, the only the thing horse has learned is that it's not safe to be around you. His trust goes away. Any positive feelings about the training session gets cancelled by that breach of trust.
Remember that you have to show the horse what you want him to do before you can ask him to do it. You reward any tiny move in the right direction. You don't punish wrong moves, you just ignore them. You simply go back to showing him what you want. Go back to something he already knows and can be successful at. Then ask again. If you get what you wanted, stroke him or scratch him and let him know how pleasant the whole thing was. If you don't get it, just stay calm, stay positive and start showing him again.
Once you can ask the horse to do something and get it consistently, now you can tell him to do it by just beginning the feel of a full corridor of aids. Only when the horse reaches this stage can you enforce your asking.
Here's where things get a little tricky. You have to enforce what you've asked in a way that the horse does not feel as punishment. Enforcement means re-enforcing something the horse already knows, re-minding or re-focusing his attention. That's a different attitude than correcting the horse because he's gone wrong.
When any one part of a corridor of aids gets too loud, it destroys the feel of the full corridor. A corridor of individual aids gives the horse a message about how you want him to shape the next stride just like a sentence make up of individual words tells your buddy what you want him to do. If you start a sentence then wind up yelling just one word, that one loud word drowns out the meaning of all the rest.
Enforcement means emphasizing one of your aids just enough to remind the horse of the shape you're asking for without raising his excitement level to the point where you drown out all the rest of the corridor. Maybe you've asked for the horse to work in a straight line in a particular rhythm as he approaches a jump. You have him in a corridor of aids that includes your seatbones, your hands and your legs but as he gets closer to the jump you feel him starting to belly out to the right. You could put just a little more pressure on that right seatbone to ask to him correct his bend or you could squeeze just a little more with the right leg or you could just touch him with your right spur to re-enforce or re-mind him that he's in a corridor that's straight.
If your enforcement focuses the horse's attention on a single aid or pressure within the whole corridor of pressures that's creating the feel of the shape you want him to take so that he forgets about all the rest, your aid--your rein, your seatbone, your leg, your crop, your spur--was too "loud." Punishment doesn't remind the horse of the shape you're asking for. It slaps him to attention to that one aid and makes him forget all about the rest of the things shaping the corridor. Worst of all, it changes his thinking about whether or not going back into the arena with you is something he's going to look forward to the next time.
Training is a matter of making the horse feel positive and comfortable when he takes the shapes you direct at every stride. When he there are three times you punish him for that--never, never, and never.
So here at Meredith Manor, when a horse doesn't get the shape right or misses it for a stride or two, there are three times he'll get punished--never, never, and never. And the three times instructors are allowed to yell at a riding student are never, never, and never. What's good for horses is good for people, too.
Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his "horse logical" methods for communicating with equines over 30 years as president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre (Route 1, Box 66, Waverly, WV 26184; 1-304-679-3128; http://www.meredithmanor.com), an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.