Horses are fluent in the spoken language of the horse. Any movement that you ask your horse to perform is something he already does naturally. The horse can carry himself with perfect balance while executing the most technical movements. We do not need to teach the horse how to move. However, we do need to teach the horse how to move under our weight based on our cues. This is the equivalent of teaching a child who can speak how to read and write. We must take the horse’s natural movement and language and translate it into a series of symbols and cues that we can use to build a story. This is similar to teaching the horse to read and write.
Just like with a child, the process of learning the written language must be broken down into logical steps that build on one another into more complex thoughts. It takes a human many years to get to the point that they can write an essay or read a novel. We must allow the horse time to work through the learning curve and become proficient in working in partnership with people. We must break training down into logical lessons that progress naturally through their training. It is important to remember that, like children, each horse will have his own strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, abilities and interests. In addition, we must understand that the horse does not tell time and may not complete a lesson in the time frame that we would like. If you plan to teach each concept in a 45 minute lesson you will likely become frustrated. The horse will pick up some concepts in 20 minutes and others in 90. You must work at your horses pace with each new concept and keep in mind that sometimes less is more.
When training the horse you must start with the ABCs as your foundation. This includes haltering, grooming, working on the ground, moving away from pressure, accepting equipment, accepting the rider’s weight and offering responses to stimuli. There are dozens of fundamental pieces that must be learned as a base to training under saddle. I would consider all of these things to be the consonants in the alphabet. They are absolutely integral to forming words and will be put together in varying combinations to create different meanings. If you skip any of the basics, you will eventually come across words or phrases that you cannot build without that letter. It is important to take the time to learn the entire alphabet so that you don’t have to send the horse back to kindergarten later in training.
As you know, consonants make up the majority of the alphabet but without vowels to link the consonants together the English language is useless. Vowels make up less than twenty percent of the alphabet but are present in every single word. They are the power house letters. In the case of teaching horses the fundamentals, vowels are represented by core values such as trust, relationship, respect, confidence and communication. These core concepts will be utilized, in some combination, in every task you ask your horse to complete. You cannot have solid movements and training without linking your basic training together with solid core values. As you are teaching your horse his ABCs I want you to remember the importance of vowels.
Once your horse knows the alphabet you have all of the building blocks to continue training. You never need other letters. You have the basics and then begin to put those things together into words or more complicated tasks. The next thing you would teach a child are short, simple words. These are words that the child already knows but you are teaching them how to read and write the word. For example, one of the first things you will likely teach a horse after you get on is to walk forward. The horse already knows how to walk – he’s been doing it since he was less than an hour old. However, it is a new thing to walk forward on command while carrying the rider’s weight. This is like learning to spell the word “cat”. You take the concepts that you have already taught the horse and put them together to create the desired outcome. Let’s say the “c” is the training foundation of carrying your weight and the “t” is moving away from pressure. You have to have a vowel in there so we will call the “a” trust. You combine carrying your weight with moving away from pressure linked together with trust and your horse walks forward off your leg aid.
At this point he deserves a gold star at the top of his paper. Be sure to reward every movement that he correctly gives you. This is not the time to fuss over how fast he walked off, if he went in the correct direction or his head carriage. All of that comes with time. You can’t be disappointed when your child has messy handwriting, can’t yet spell the word “dog” or doesn’t understand punctuation. You haven’t taught those things yet. Reward the horse for walking forward. When he has practiced that you can try another short word. The rest of it will come with time. You slowly start to teach your horse more basic words and soon your horse will be able to walk, trot, canter, turn, stop and back up without too much of a struggle because you are using a concrete alphabet the horse understands.
The next logical step is to teach the child really simple sentences such as “the dog ran”. You want to start with words they have already learned – keep it short and simple. This will look like basic patterns and transitions in training. Maybe you want the horse to walk a figure eight pattern with a halt each time you come to “x”. To do this you use the basic words that the horse has learned – walk, turn and halt. Remember that each of those words is made up of the foundational pieces that create the alphabet. You can’t lose sight of the individual letters and simply view it as a word. The letters form the words and the words form the sentence. This also means that you must hold onto those vowels – practice your relationship, communication, trust, respect and confidence in every section of every ride. It is also important to remember that this is still a simple sentence structure – do not ask for straightness, bend, working in a frame or perfect tempo.
If your base up until this point is really solid the child will be able to start sounding out words. You can ask for more complex “words” through your aids and the horse should be able to start deciphering your intent based on the aids applied. This is the point that you start to ask for the horse to carry himself correctly, bend, straighten, move laterally and change speed within each gait. Remember that each of these are separate concepts and you must build them in a logical manner. Bend at walk is different than bend at trot or canter just as working in a frame is different at walk than at trot or canter. If you want the horse to bend while in a frame it is an even more complex word and is, again, different between the gaits. The horse is starting to learn more complex words but being able to write one difficult word does not mean that he will automatically know the next word.
From here you start to build more complex sentences with longer words. Perhaps you go back to the figure eight pattern but now you are asking for straightness, bend, a change of speed within the gait, or a lateral movement within the figure eight. I would recommend learning each of those things one at a time and then slowly combing them until you can have any or all combinations within the same figure eight. You cannot expect to accomplish everything all at once. Allow your horse time to learn one concept, reward him and then move onto the next concept. Eventually, you get to the point that you can put together entire paragraphs and then full stories.
Remember that a child does not start reading the classics in third grade. They know every single letter in a classic and will even understand a lot of the individual words but they are not yet to the point that they can follow such a complex story. If you ask them to read something that is beyond their ability you will discourage them. The goal is to pick stories that are a challenge and introduce new words or concepts but are not so far out of reach that the child is left feeling stupid. The same is true for the horse. You want to push them to learn but you don’t want to overwhelm them or punish them for failing to succeed at something that they are not yet ready to accomplish. You must encourage them and reward them for trying hard and never break their spirit. Just because you can read the novel doesn’t mean that they are ready to go there with you. You must work with them at their own pace.
It is also a really nice reward for a child to get to choose books that they enjoy. A child will choose a more challenging book if it is on a topic that they really enjoy. Give your horse a chance to read fantasy books if that is what he is into. In other words, go on trail rides, play games or go back to basics on occasion. No one wants to read text books everyday – it kills your enthusiasm for reading and writing if you never get to enjoy the creative, fanciful side of language. Don’t just drill your horse in the ring. Everything you do can be enhanced by changing things up. Even if you do flat work out in a field on occasion you will get better movement and enthusiasm from your horse.
Remember, that even when you get to doctorate level work you are still only working with the same 26 letters in the alphabet. You never move away from that foundation – you just build on it. So take the time to teach the basics and to teach the horse how to learn. Also remember that you can never decide to stop using one of those foundational pieces because then the entire framework of the written language falls apart. It takes years to get to upper level work in any discipline but you must carry each lesson that is learned along the way to be able to build the full story. You can’t write the next great American novel without the letter “q” or the word “the” – they are small but integral pieces of the English language.