This is a question that I’ve been asked repeatedly in my many years as a horse trainer and as winter slowly recedes I thought it an opportune time to address it. It’s especially relevant as over the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of working solely with my own horses and I have experienced the joy that comes from their enthusiasm to learn and play with the work.
Of course I know from first-hand experience that this is not always the case and so I wanted to start to address some of the reasons why this might be. For more information on this and a multitude of other topics please sign up to my newsletter here.
A Lack of Play!
In my own work I’ve realised that quite often the missing link in my relationship with my horse or indeed their relationship to the work is a lack of play. Often horses kept in isolation, such as unsocialised horses and stallions, may have to be retaught how to play and to have fun, particularly in the arena or training space. Play can easily be achieved by dedicating some of your time together with your horse to asking questions about how he or she would like to spend their time. Sadly some horses initially just don’t know what to do, as maybe they have never been allowed to play or perhaps it’s just not in their nature, which can often lead to them running around like a lunatic or simply standing still and looking blank. In my experience neither of these responses are particularly conducive to a healthy aptitude to learning or working as a team.
What to do about it?
With a correct halter and a rope attached you can give your horse’s play some structures through the addition of some body language cues. This will enable you to encourage your horse to avoid manic behaviour but equally give you the opportunity to walk a mile in their shoes. You can learn so much by encouraging your horse to explore their surroundings whilst observing the choices they make and that’s why I always start new horses in this way as it provides me with a wealth of information based on the choices they make. Also by identifying myself as an observer rather than a teacher the horse will inevitably start to open up to me and play. This is a great starting point for youngsters but can also be an invaluable rehabilitation tool for horses that have been troubled by people in the past.
When to stop?
Developing your horses exuberance and sense of play also enables us to measure when it’s the right time to stop training. On so many occasions working on various comp yards in my youth I would watch horses being led back to the horse walker or stables looking like a sweaty mess and wonder, what can the horse have possibly learned or taken away from this experience? Having followed many of these horse’s educations over the past twenty odd years, the answer is not a lot. If you ask a horse an honest question via a cue and without a threat at any point during training, quite often horses that have been mechanically produced to a high level simply don’t have an answer because they have not understood what has happened to them. This is why I always aim to check at the end of our practise that the horse is just as keen to play and demonstrate exuberance. If they’re not then I know perhaps we performed too many reps or that the exercise was too hard, and I will simplify the training tomorrow.
To summarise, if my horse leaves the arena still showing off and proud and playful, I know that this is the feeling he will associate with the movements and he will come back tomorrow hungry for more. By giving horses the opportunity to calmly and confidently show us what they want, they can start to feel truly seen for the first time. To be truly seen and accepted for who we really are by our friends, teachers and mentors is always a life changing experience and by offering this to our horses we can develop a greater understanding of who we need to be for them.
If this sounds familiar, and you’d like to know more about how to achieve this goal whilst staying safe and having fun then .please join us here at Student of the Horse on the Genuine Horse Development Course. The Genuine Horse Development Course: Art of Basic Horsemanship module kicks off in April, though please note places for 2020 are extremely limited. Please use the following link to find out more and register your interest here
I hope this little post inspires you to get out there and allow your horse to feel seen.