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Look for improvements – not perfection – in fixing behaviors

By SHERYL LYNDE - Horsetrader columnist - December 18th, 2014 - Trainer Tips

SherylLynde_170pxBad attitudes result in bad behaviors. If you aren’t able to determine the cause and make appropriate corrections, then bad behaviors never stay at the same level — they escalate. What was a reluctance to go forward will progress into bucking or rearing. Ear-pinning while being cinched will progress into nipping. Confused spooking can result in bolting.

When I have a “problem” horse, I must first rule out pain. When was the last time their teeth were floated? Are their feet in good shape? Could they have ulcers? Two-thirds of all horses have ulcers, and they can develop in as little 48 hours caused by separation anxiety, a change in environment, infrequent turnouts, trailering, exercising, training or showing. The only way to really determine if your horse has ulcers is to be scoped by your vet, so be sure to consult your vet about treatment and preventative measures.

Once pain is ruled out, then it’s time to start making the corrections. If I have a horse that is sour in the arena, then I change up the program and trail ride. A trail can provide a wonderful environment for training. There isn’t anything that I do in the arena that I do not do on the trail. We work on transitions, lead departures, stops, rollbacks and speed control. If the problem is refusal to go forward, providing a different environment will stimulate their desire for go. Think about working in the same position, performing the same tasks and working with the same people for a number of years. Would it be a surprise to find your enthusiasm and attitude slipping? If your employer is tuned in with his employees and wants to lift morale, he understands that the answer isn’t to increase the intensity of the work load. Instead, the answer is to change the routine.

Good training takes time. If the horse’s behavior has been steadily declining over the past year, it isn’t going to be fixed on the first day. I will start in the arena so that I can see the extent of the problem. If the horse has been primarily ridden in the arena as a performance horse or is just basically lazy, then I’ll spend the first week on the trail, going up and down hills, circling trees and brush, loping circles and navigating different terrain and footing. I like to keep the workouts varied, giving them several breaks as rewards for doing a good job. If it is the first trail ride for the horse, which is usually the case, I will enlist the help of my training partner to ride with me on a calmer, more seasoned horse to give mine more confidence. When improvement has been made with forward impulsion and the horse is responding to my cues, then we head back where the ride ends — in the arena. The arena becomes the release and the place of rest; this is where I dismount, loosen their cinch, and then lead them out to the crossties.

In the first stages of a horse’s training, trail may encompass 95 percent of his regimen with five percent in the arena. As training progresses, more time will be spent in the arena and less out on trail. When I can enter the arena and my requests are performed without resistance, then I just sit and allow the horse to relax as a reward before I dismount, loosen the cinch and exit the arena. There is no reason to continue drilling – I’m just looking for improvement, not perfection.

The horse at some point will backslide and give me a refusal, either out on trail or in the arena. This is the normal progression of training, and it gives me another opportunity to change his attitude. If I apply pressure with my calves and I receive an ear-pinning, I will bring his nose close to my toe with one rein and escalate pressure with both legs until I get him circling in a small circle with energy and then change direction. If I have his nose to my toe, he can’t buck or rear and I can insist with my legs until he moves with energy and his ear pinning has stopped. Working in a small circle with energy is a lot of work. If his resistance is at a Level 5, then my request is a Level 6. Once there is improvement, I will loosen the reins and ask for forward impulsion. As soon as I get the forward impulsion I am looking for without resistance, I will reward him by releasing the pressure with my legs.

By providing varied workouts, making consistent corrections when needed and giving rewards when earned, you will produce good results.


Horsetrader columnist Sheryl Lynde is a John Lyons Certified Trainer who specializes in foundation training, colt starting and problem solving. She is based in Temecula, CA.

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