Training horses poses many challenges from horse to horse, but there are general practices you can put into play when working with a green horse. Together with professional eventer Kyle Carter the USEA's Educational Collaborator Ride IQ has put together six positive habits to incorporate into your daily riding and training practices to ensure success!
Practice with Purpose
Everyone in every sport has been guilty of it: mindless, unfocused time practicing. Most of us have heard of the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop proficiency in an activity. Thinking about what practice should look like can be complicated and overwhelming, especially when you consider the number of years needed to truly be a “proficient” rider. Focus is diﬃcult to maintain long term. Because we know it takes decades, we find ourselves rationalizing putting off hard work and pushing the goal post further away. To effectively achieve your goals, you must first learn to bring purpose and direction to your schooling rides. Keep the goal post crystal clear.
Focus: Friend and Foe
We’ve all been there. We focus on a task so intently that we forget all other aspects of our riding. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of value in focusing on improving a specific skill, but it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when we get too caught up on a single movement or exercise. Too often, we lose our position because we become so blinded by the exercise in front of us. I’ve been riding for nearly 50 years, and I still need to regularly remind myself to sit tall, shoulders back, take a deep breath. Losing sight of our aids and our position because we’re drilling on a specific movement is only going to hinder our and our horse’s ability to improve. Even if you get the response you’re looking for out from your horse, if you got there by using a combination of aids you won’t be able to recreate, you’re not training your horse. It’s our job to train our horses with purpose and to create a language we can speak repeatedly throughout the partnership. We have to be careful we don’t become so obsessed with what we are trying to accomplish that we create resistance in our partner.
Creativity is Essential
It is hard for anyone to be creative every day. Before you get on to ride, pick one new thing you want to work on that day: it could be trying to turn without reins at the walk or working into corners. It can be a 5-minute exercise, but it’s important to mix in something new to your rotation of exercises to keep your horse interested and to keep you fresh as well. It is easy to get on and feel like the task of coming up with something new to work on is too large. I call this writer’s block. Meanwhile, your partner is ridden into a haze of purposeless training. In my experience, horses often respond to being bored in one of two ways. One, they create their own entertainment by spooking in an effort to escape the mental prison of boredom (we see this a lot in the winter months when the rider can’t stimulate the horse without competition). Two, they lose the desire to work and become flat and unresponsive. Not all horses show to this extreme, but if we want our horses to perform for us, we have to perform for them.
Plan Ahead and Develop a Strategy
Developing a strategy for training is essential to achieving success. You need proper and achievable goals laid out with an active timeline. An active timeline is when you allow your horse to hit goals at the speed that suits their natural and individual development. Sometimes this can happen faster than we forecast, but in most cases, it will take longer. Mastering a skill almost always happens slowly. A challenge with an active timeline is that it’s easy to allow advancement to slow to the point of stagnation. Taking regular lessons often helps with this, but it is in the day-to-day work that true advancement occurs. The best way to avoid stagnation is to plan short-term, achievable goals on a 3-month (or less) timeline so you always have something you’re working toward.
While keeping your goals in mind, make time each week for mindless hacking for you and your horse. Hacking is so important for exercising your body while not demanding too much mentally. It is also vital to building a relationship with your horse as your partner.
Train Your Subconscious
It is essential to remember we are training our subconscious to execute actions as they should happen while our conscious focuses on active response to what is actually happening. This cannot occur without training our subconscious during our daily rides. For example, we need to practice an indirect rein for those moments on course when there’s a tight turn and our reins have slid. We practice jumping without stirrups for that moment on course when you lose one or both stirrups and need to keep riding. We should apply this way of thinking to every possible outcome. We must start with getting the fundamentals perfect, so they’re a part of our subconscious. The important thing to remember with riding is you’re always learning. Even Olympic gold medalists must get on each day with an intention to learn something new and train their bodies to perform better.
Move on From Frustration
If you find yourself getting stuck trying to do an exercise that your horse isn’t understanding, ask in a diﬀerent way or move on to something else. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep the work positive and entertaining rather than sticking to some arbitrary plan. Remember most days it is not worth drilling to the point of frustration as the horse is often the one who suﬀers. Your daily goal should make learning fun for your partner and hopefully engage their mind. If you or your horse is getting frustrated, there’s a disconnect in the language you are speaking to each other. Rather than yelling louder in a voice, they aren’t understanding, simply move on to something else and come back to it another day when you’re ready to ask in a different way. Don’t be afraid to change up where the ride takes you.
We are fortunate to be in a sport that oﬀers variety if we search for it. Everyone benefits when a variety of scenery is added, and variety is readily available with horses. While trying to challenge your horse it is equally important (if not more important) not to over-face them. Pushing your horse too far beyond their comfort zone runs the risk of creating resistance through training as opposed to training to work through resistance. Challenging your partner should keep them interested, improving their mental and physical health in conjunction with learning new skills.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of all the habits that bring success when training horses, most top riders still work every day to master these. The goal is to figure out who your horse is and let them develop while maintaining their essence. Find out how to bring out the best by working with their idiosyncrasies. Like raising children, you can only try to guide without fighting who they are. Remember to pat your horse because they’re not out there doing this for themselves, they are doing it for you. Don’t forget to have fun with it!
About Ride iQ
Ride iQ is the first audio-focused training platform for equestrians and it offers something completely new to riders: the opportunity to get audio instruction while they ride. The Ride iQ mobile app has hundreds of on-demand audio lessons and the coaches include Doug Payne, Sinead Halpin Maynard, Leslie Law, Kyle Carter, and several more. There are lessons suitable for every level of horse and rider across eventing, hunter / jumpers, and dressage. Ride iQ membership costs $29.99/month or $249/year, and every membership includes a no-obligation 7-day free trial. You can learn more about membership at Ride-iQ.com/membership.
Get to know each United States Eventing Association (USEA) Areas a little better in this new series, Meet the Areas! This month’s feature is USEA Area I which is comprised of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Founded in the 1960s, Area I was the birthplace of the United States Combined Training Association (USCTA) which was founded in 1959 and would later evolve into the USEA in 2001. In 2021 just under 800 members made up the membership count in Area I.
Trainers, riders, parents, and more are in for a real treat when the all-new USEA Eventing Handbook by the Levels is officially released. Those participating in the 2022 USEA Instructors’ Certification Program (ICP) Symposium at Barnstaple South Farm in Ocala, Florida on February 8-9 will be the first to set eyes on this all-encompassing guide that has been two years in the making.
The USEA established the Young Event Horse (YEH) program in 2004 to identify young horses that possess the talent and disposition to, with proper training, excel at the uppermost levels of the sport. While the goal of the YEH program is to identify horses that will be successful at the four- and five-star levels, horses with the potential for lower-level success are also showcased by the program.
Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.