There seems to be this idea in the horse world that you are only training your horse when you are specifically working on something. Most people don’t consider their grooming and tacking up time to be part of their training. Training only occurs when you are actively working the horse in a round pen or in the arena. Not only is this inaccurate, it also creates a world of problems for horses and riders.
The horse is learning from you the entire time you are with him. If you don’t view all of this time as training time, your horse is likely learning behaviors that you don’t want him to learn.
Often horses are pushy when not in a “training session” because their owners are not paying attention. The horse knows he can do as he pleases and ignore his rider. These small issues show up as big issues under saddle that riders don’t know how to fix.
When you don’t view all the time you spend with your horse as part of your training, then you likely have different expectations for the horse at different times. This can be very confusing and frustrating for the horse because in his eyes your rules are always changing.
For instance, when most people groom their horse they don’t care if he is paying attention to that. All they care about is that their horses standing relatively quietly and not getting in their way. As a result, most horses tune out, get distracted, or shut down during grooming time.
Riders will then walk their horses to the arena while the horses are only paying enough attention to half heartedly follow the riders. Once the riders get on they will frequently ask their horses for quick forward movement to “wake them up”. The horses are jolted alert and begin their ride anxious and confused.
All of this can easily be prevented by expecting your horse’s attention from the moment you greet him. This way you always expect the horse to pay attention and the rules never change.
Of course there are variations to how much the horse needs to focus depending on the exercise. Horses are great at paying attention to lots of different things so we don’t always need 100% of their focus. When we aren’t asking anything of the horse we only need enough focus for the horse to know when we do ask something of him.
For instance, when grooming we only need to horse to be aware of our presence and what we are doing. When we ask him to move over or pick up his foot he should be ready to respond. When we are asking the horse for an advanced movement under saddle we need a lot more of the horse’s focus so that he can read all of our aids that lead to the advanced movement. The rule is always the same though: the horse needs to be focused enough to know when we apply an aid and respond accordingly. The more aids we give the more the horse needs to focus.
In order to achieve this level of focus from the horse we need to break up the pattern that most horses have fallen into. First off, we need to train ourselves to be paying attention. We can’t expect the horse to focus if we can’t even keep track of what the horse is focused on. Secondly, when we notice the horse’s attention wandering we need to get it back. To do this we can ask the horse for a simple movement as soon as he begins to get distracted. If we wait too long we will have to be bigger on our aid to get the horse’s attention back. Timed correctly, the horse can respond to the aid and will be refocused.
When grooming, since I think this is where the biggest issues occur, we can start by not tying the horse. Instead, hold the lead. I know it’s awkward, but this will help you pay more attention. Ask the horse to stand quietly while you groom. When you notice his attention has begun to wander, his eyes have started to close, or he is focusing on some other activity, ask him to take a step forward, backward, or to the side. Then, go about grooming again.
This attention to detail and focus from both you and the horse will greatly improve your relationship. You will find you don’t have to get big in your aids as often because you are catching things sooner. You will also find that you don’t have to fight with your horse as much because the rules are consistent. It’s amazing how much we as riders don’t notice when we aren’t “training” our horses!