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Is your dream horse a nightmare to train?
Perhaps your cues need a fair evaluation

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - October 14th, 2009 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: I’m an avid dressage rider who has owned many horses, but my Dutch Warmblood is by far the horse of my dreams. He has everything — looks, size, movement and disposition. My only wish is that he would listen to me better. He is totally dull to my aids ,and it seems like the more I squeeze the less he goes. Where do I go from here?
— Debra of Arizona

HEY DEBRA: It’s great you have found the horse of your dreams. Everyone should be so lucky! Interestingly enough…it‘s always something. It sounds like you have reached a moment of wisdom that some horsemen reach — the realization that “pretty is, as pretty does.”

Now, you have a perfect opportunity to put “meaning to sensation.” If you achieve this step — “insensitization” — you will truly have the horse of your dreams — and not a nightmare to train!

Before we “insensitize” (putting meaning to sensation), we should make sure that your horse is clearly desensitized to the three things that they are most afraid of:

  1. Things that move.
  2. Things that make noise.
  3. Things they feel.

The first two are things most people desensitize fairly well. You can achieve this by simply sacking out your horse with a rag, paper or plastic bag. I suggest attaching these things to a long wand to put distance between you and the horse for safety. The longer, the better.

The desensitization to feel or contact is the one people don’t seem to work on enough. Horsemen will usually run a bag, blanket, or maybe even a tarp over the horse until they don’t react. I believe you need to take it a step further — pat a horse all over, from ear to rear, until the horse not only becomes tolerant but actually accepting. You know he has accepted when he not only stands without moving, but also licks and chews, lowers his head, achieves a soft eye, and even sighs. At that point you know he has gone from tolerance to acceptance.

You can get this desensitization in the three areas above by using continuous and constant stimulation. Understand that this steady, predictable contact can desensitize a horse from everything — including those things we don’t want desensitized. This brings me back to your situation with the horse of your dreams. The reason your horse does not react promptly and responsively to you is because whatever aid or cue you have been using has been continuous and consistent. You literally desensitized your horse by the way you were applying your aids. Anything you do, whether it be softly or with a lot of pressure, will become dull and desensitized if you do it continuously (keeping the pressure the same). You need to gradually step up the volume or heat in your aids until you get a response and then abandon the aid immediately.

Start on the ground and teach your horse to lunge. Use sounds to get him to move. I use cluck, double clucks and kisses for walk, trot, and canter, respectively. Once in the appropriate gait, allow your horse to make the mistake of breaking so you can urge him back into the gait with the appropriate sound. Throwing the end of the rope or lunge line or tagging him with your lunge whip is also appropriate when he doesn’t respond to your voice aids. What you don’t want to do is continuously urge the horse forward so that he doesn’t break the gait — what I call pedaling uphill. When he is in the gait you want, make a point of not moving until he actually breaks and only then is when you assertively motivate him to move. He will soon learn that when you do nothing he is on the right track.

Next, carry this understanding from the ground to the saddle, using the same sounds from lunging. Under no circumstances should you use your legs until he responds to your sound aids. Remember, the sound aids are supposed to create clear pictures of walk, trot, and canter. You can precede these sound aids by using your seat in a driving position. If he ignores your sound aids, reinforce with your whip by tapping behind your legs. When tapping, start off light and gradually increase the volume by tapping harder and harder until he reacts with the appropriate response. At that exact moment, abandon your aids and allow him to commit to the gait. Do not reapply any aid, and even if he slows down, wait from him to break the gait.

This will clarify in the horse’s mind what he needs to do to keep you from encouraging him to move on, and he will soon know what he needs to do to control YOU. It’s important to get your horse to commit to the gait (walk, trot, or canter). This means that the horse will stay in that gait without any encouragement. Then and only then should you worry about achieving a desired rhythm. The actual length of stride will come after he learns to stretch into your hands. Until he learns to commit to staying in the gait you have asked for, you should not try to bridge your leg aid to the sound aid. Once he does commit to the gait without breaking, you will be ready to put meaning to sensation and wean him off the sound aids.

Debra, I hope you find this helpful. I know your horse will! Always trust your instincts, and get help or information when in doubt.


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!

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