Spring Fever

By Laurel van der Linde

It has been a long, hard winter. When compared to the extreme sub-zero temperatures in the Midwest and on the East Coast, those of us in SoCal have no reasonable argument to complain. But, complain we will when given the (seemingly) inordinate amount of rain and the resulting mud and its after effects.

Mud is no one’s idea of a good time, least of all our horses. Having to deal with the squishy stuff 24/7 is enough to turn “mudd” into a four-letter word. But the rain was much-needed and we are all more than ready to welcome spring. Time to get back into the barn, dust off your saddle, oil your tack, grab your grooming kit and assist your horse in shedding that itchy winter coat. While you are removing the last vestiges of mud, your mind turns on the equine pursuits of the next three seasons – trail rides, arena schooling, maybe even some horse shows, all of which means getting you and your horse back into shape and finding the right trainer.

Where and how to begin? Analyze the immediate needs of your horse. Is he a youngster going under saddle for the first time? Is she a veteran who needs a “tune up” after being idle for four months? Are you thinking about participating in some horse shows, or simply looking to achieve your and your horse’s “personal best” by schooling in the arena and unwinding on the trail on long evenings? These are all different needs, yet they are all related, as they all must stem from a solid foundation which will allow you and your horse the versatility you need to meet your goals and keep both of you interested in what you are doing.

First, training is more than a skill; it is also a philosophy – or should be. Let’s back up 24 centuries or so to the founder of all horsemanship, Xenophon. As an officer in the ancient Greek cavalry, Xenophon’s success came from the realization that a) the horse is bigger than you are; b) your opponent on the other side of the field is definitely not on your side; so c) your horse had better be; and d) he will only work with you/for you if he has been well-treated and properly trained. Xenophon said, “He (the horse) should be taught not by irritating, but by soothing him, that there is nothing to fear.” This is the essence of all horse training.

If your horse is a youngster and needs to be put under saddle, let’s first dispel the notion of “breaking” him. You don’t want your horse “broken,” you want him trained. This takes a high level of sensitivity, patience and some instinct on the side: sensitivity to the individual animal’s natural ability, personality and intelligence, patience to get all three of those elements working in concert, and instinct to know when the training methods are working and, more importantly, when they are not, and how to correct that situation. While all equine disciplines evolved from practicality – roping,, cutting, hunting, war maneuvers, etc., the foundation of the horse’s training is the same; the different disciplines are merely variations on a theme. Not only does your horse need training initially, he (and you) will need it continually. The Europeans regard riding as an art form; art demands consistency. You know what happens to your body if you don’t exercise. The same thing applies to your horse; if you don’t use it, you lose it.

So, how do you find someone who ascribes to these principles? This can be a bit tricky. Unlike Europe, trainers in the U.S. are not licensed. Anyone can hang out a shingle and declare themselves a horse trainer. Clearly, this leaves the neophyte at sea. You want to do the best for your horse, but how do you know if you are making the right choice?

Recommendations from someone who has or has had a horse in training with a given trainer can be a place to start. But even this has its pitfalls, as trainers can become gurus and this can be dangerous. No one trainer has all the answers.

If your animal is stabled at a barn, chances are there are trainers leasing space and running their training business from there. Observe them in action. Do you like the way they work with the horse? Are they operating from a principle of cooperation or domination? Are they simple and clear in the directions they give the animal, or aggressive? Most importantly, observe the horse he or she is training. Is the animal relaxed and focused in his work? Does she look calm and happy? Horses love to learn as long as the lessons are presented properly.

Speaking of lessons, schedule some with the prospective trainer. Everyone is a bit nervous working with someone new, but does this individual put you at ease? Are you focused and relaxed in the tasks you are asked to perform? After the session, do you feel like you have accomplished something? You may be a bit sore, but is it a “good kind of sore”? Did you enjoy the work? Ask the trainer about their philosophy of training and applied methods. Even if you are a novice, do you agree? Use your common (horse) sense. If you can’t answer these questions positively and concur with that individual’s training techniques, you are headed in the wrong direction. And finally, do your personalities mesh? No matter how highly recommended, if you and the trainer don’t “click,” it’s not going to work. This is also true of your horse. Personality conflicts between horses and trainers can, and do, occur. Some horses will be belligerent with one trainer and perform beautifully for another. Go figure.

Once you have decided on a trainer, be sure to watch your horse’s sessions. While you can’t (and shouldn’t) be around for all his training, you do want to observe some of it. Progress should be self-evident. Ask questions. Any decent trainer will be happy to answer them. Pay attention to your horse. His body language will tell you if he is happy in training. If he is not, find another trainer immediately or your horse will end up paying the price for that misstep and that is not the easiest situation to correct.

The stories of horse abuse by both owners and trainers are legion. If you decide to rescue an abuse victim, you either need to have extensive experience rehabilitating an abused animal or can find a trainer who has that background. Neither the horse nor you can endure any further egregious mishandling. In order for any trainer to work effectively with a horse, it stands to reason that the trainer must first gain the animal’s trust. Generally speaking, horses who have never had any bad experiences will offer that trust willingly; abuse victims have every reason not to. Your rehabilitator must have infinite patience and an extraordinary amount of intuition and instinct. Rescue and rehabilitation present different and complex sets of training challenges.

Finally, read! Tomes have been written on training. Some equine publications are breed specific while others, like Horse Illustrated and Equus, are general in application. Then there is YouTube which allows you to watch videos of different trainers employing their techniques. Listen and learn by watching them at work. You can learn something from every trainer – including what not to do.

At the end of the day, training is a rewarding experience for the three of you – your horse, you and the trainer. Understand that none of us will ever know it all. Every horse offers a different set of physical abilities and, yes, mental acumen. Like children in school who must learn the same curriculum, no two are alike and the way they achieve that knowledge will be different for each.

Happy riding…