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In the round pen: Let’s start training your driving horse

By PATRICIA DEMERS - Horsetrader columnist - November 20th, 2014 - Trainer Tips

SherylLynde_170pxWhen starting the equine, a controlled environment is necessary, such as a smaller arena or a round pen. This is where I like to introduce to the equine yielding to pressure; use of the whip and the vocal commands: walk, trot, WHOA. I use a combination of theories of ‘Natural’, ‘Resistance Free’ horsemanship and the German Training scale. There are other methods of training, and as with any type of training, you must choose what methods work best for you. For this portion of training, the horse can be “free lunging” with no equipment necessary. No harness is needed at this point in training, and we’ll introduce it and the blinders in time as we progress in the round pen.

Rewarding for good behavior. I find that many humans forget this part of training, as we get so focused upon the steps of daily training. This can be done by three methods of positive reinforcement: (1) touching- such as petting or brushing, (2) verbal- “good boy”, (3) food reward- small treats. When your horse does what you ask, you should reward with one of the 3 methods each time. This is referred to as ‘operant’ conditioning and ‘random’ reward. Your horse will look forward to his reward, and for reassurance that he did his job correctly! Without getting a positive reinforcement of reward, your horse may become sullen or apathetic about learning and responding. You wouldn’t go to work if you didn’t get a paycheck! The happier you are about your horse, the happier your horse will be to do his job.

Yielding to pressure. Start this with a halter and lead rope. When I start to work with a horse, I introduce him to yielding to pressure. In basic training, you want your horse to yield to pressure, and to follow its head with its body, freely. The horse should yield its head and neck without resistance, to both the left and right, and without moving his feet until requested. You need to be able to control the horse’s head to control the body further along in training. Next, you want to be able to move/ yield the hindquarters away from you. Lack of resistance is important, so take your time.

Introducing the whip to the horse. In driving, the whip is one of your TOOLS, and it is used like your leg in riding would be: to go forward or laterally. It isn’t to be used in creating fear, but respect of pressure to move in a manner in which we are asking. As I go thru my yielding exercises, and ask the horse to move/yield its head, neck ribcage, or hindquarters, I will start to substitute the whip for my hand. At first I use the whip butt- like a crop, tapping the part of the horse I want to move. Then as the horse gets further away from me (as on the rail), I’ll use the length of the whip and lash gently flicking it, at the points of the horse’s body that I want to yield and only using as much ‘pressure’ as needed to get the response I desire. The horse needs to understand about moving their body away from pressure by touch. When the blinders are added later in training, the horse won’t be able to SEE the whip, but will have to move/yield away from the touch.

This introductory part of training is very important for building trust and mutual respect between horse and trainer. Time and patience is needed. Nothing will be gained if the trainer loses his patience and the horse gets frightened or resistant.

Working on the rail. Put the horse on the rail, asking it to walk, be relaxed, and move in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm. Relaxation and rhythm are the first steps on the German Training Scale. From this point forward, in our driving training, we will be pressuring from behind and asking the horse to accept it without fear, as well as have the confidence to be out in front of us without trying to evade us. Now we start introducing the verbal WHOA. Ask your horse to WHOA at the walk while on the rail, using an authoritative voice, and draw out the tone of your voice. Long and low- Waa-lk, wh-oooa. These can be soothing and quiet, not abrupt. Just ask. It may take a couple of requests before your horse starts to listen to you- be patient. You may want to pressure your horse to stop by stepping towards the rail, a few strides in front of your horse’s path, pointing your whip at the rail, and slowly raising your whip to act as a barrier. Be careful as your horse may run past you the first couple of tries as he starts to feel the pressure and feel the need to escape. You effectively, stop his forward movement by creating pressure. As soon as the horse stops, step back slowly to release just enough pressure so he doesn’t turn around or scoot forward. Reward and repeat! Work both directions. When you have walk, whoa, stand, transitions, you can add ‘Trot’ and continue with transitions until your horse stops and stands with ‘WHOA’, until you ask him to more forward again.

WHOA is the most important word a driving horse needs to know. It’s never used in driving to slow a horse, it means STOP all movement. STAND is the next important word your horse must learn. You STOP at the stop sign, but the horse must STAND until asked to move forward!

Your beginning goals are to ask your horse to yield his body to pressure; accept the whip to move his body without fear; work on the rail with relaxation and rhythm, and to WHOA and STAND, on command.


Patricia Demers is a trainer based in Lancaster, CA., who specializes in carriage driving. You can submit questions or reach Trish at driving@horsetrader.com.

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