6 Overlooked Training Principles

If you're training a horse, you probably devote a lot of energy to technique. Technique isn't everything, though. Here are six useful horse-training concepts, often overlooked, that'll help you train a better horse.


1. Train off the rail.

Any horse benefits from this, even one destined for rail-class competition, and here's why: When a horse is ridden out in the open, he has to take all his guidance cues from the rider and learns to pay attention to what the rider's asking him to do. But if he's allowed to use the crutch of following along a fence (also a crutch for the rider), he soon gets used to using the fence as his autopilot guidance system. That allows him to tune the rider out to a great degree, contributing to problems with the next overlooked principle.

2. Keep the horse's attention captured.



A horse in training is just like a kid in school - if his attention wanders away from the teacher, he's not able to absorb the lesson being taught. There's a simple way to monitor a horse's attention, and that's to watch his ears. They point toward whatever's on his mind. When they're flicking back to the person in the saddle, that's where his attention's been captured. But when they're aimed straight forward or trained on something passing by, the rider's being ignored in favor of another focus. If the rider habitually allows that to continue without doing something to remind the horse, "Hey, I'm still up here," the horse will learn that it's OK for his mind to wander when someone's on his back.

3. Instead of protecting a horse from distractions, use them to develop attention span.



I've known people who are so careful about avoiding distractions during training that they'd ride inside an isolation bubble if they could. Initially, this may keep the rider from having to deal with blowups, but eventually it always backfires - simply because the horse never develops the skill of listening to the rider no matter what else is going on around him. I've found that the surest way to develop and confirm a horse's attentiveness to the rider is to train him in the company of other horses. By asking the horse to do work that requires attentiveness - something beyond going around in mindless, repetitive circles - the rider produces a horse he can ride confidently in just about any circumstance.

4. Training for "wait" is just as important as training for "go."



One indicator of a really, really broke horse is his willingness to wait patiently but attentively for the rider's next signal. Instead of making his own decisions about when and where to move into or out of a maneuver, he accepts that the rider's the one who calls the shots. This skill, like attention span, is one that has to be developed through deliberate training and lots of repetition. The hardest part about teaching a horse to stand and wait for new signals is having the patience to do it. The impatient rider can pretty much count on ending up with an impatient horse.

5. Thorough training is as much about lateral work as it is about going straight ahead.



This is a principle that's well known by dressage riders but largely ignored by many people who ride and train in western saddles. All forms of lateral work - sidepassing, two-tracking, haunch and forehand turns, etc., - yield performance benefits you just can't get from riding straight ahead all the time. Among them: increased coordination of horse and rider alike, strength through the shoulders and hindquarters, greater attentiveness to the rider's leg cues, increased attention span, and a higher degree of overall body control.

6. If you've been using a technique that isn't working, don't continue to use it.



This could be the one principle that's helped me the most in my own efforts to be a successful trainer. The horse is a creature of habit, so the more times he performs something a certain way, whether right or wrong, the better he'll get at doing it - and the harder time the rider will have in getting the horse to change.

Classic example: attempting to get a horse's head down and his speed slowed by pulling straight back on the reins. This encourages the horse to raise his neck as he leans into the rein pressure, and that just makes him go even faster. Though this technique never works as intended, you still see riders continue to use it over and over, hoping for magically different results.

Bob Avila trains and shows western performance horses from his stable in Temecula, Calif. Among his many wins is the 2003 open championship of the National Reined Cow Horse Association Stallion Stakes. His Western Horseman book, Win With Bob Avila, includes more of his champion-caliber advice. Look for it in the Books section of this Web site.