I feel like my greatest challenge as a trainer is knowing when to take my time to really get something good and when to move forward so as not to drill.
Some of my friends implement a “45 minute rule” where they set a timer and wrap up when it goes off. In a lot of ways this makes sense. After 45 minutes you have probably already done a lot of good work and are getting into that nitpicky mindset. It’s a great time to stop!
However, the so-called “45 minute rule” is a bit limiting. I have definitely had horses who are still working through major issues at the 45 minute mark. There are horses that might need 60 minutes or even 90 minutes to just start to understand how to release a brace. Giving them this time and space to work something out is infinitely valuable.
So where do you draw the line? How do you decide when to stop? When do you know you have made progress and should leave it for another day?
One really inportant piece to this is the “time and space part”. If you are in your horse’s facing asking for stuff for 90 minutes you have probably gone wrong. If you are hanging back waiting for the horse to process something, the time is less of a big deal since you aren’t “pushing” for a result.
A really good indicator that you have reached a good ending spot is when your horse has a big let down. That moment when you see the tension running out of the horse’s body and he just seems fuller, you should always be done. Let the horse soak in that moment and then put him away. See if you can start there with your next session.
However, not every session can and will end like that. You don’t always get those big wins, which is what makes it so difficult to know when to call it quits. Sometimes pushing for that big let down is too much for the horse and wanders into the territory of nagging or nitpicking.
Another good time to end is when you make just a small step forward. You feel the horse is ready to do more, but you have made progress and you tame your ego and purposefully decide not to be greedy. It is always better to end earlier than you could have than keep a session dragging on too long.
Having an element of urgency and things to do always helps me in this department. If I have all the time in the world I might not be as aware of the length of session and might not have the awareness necessary to monitor my session. Having a few more horses to work or an upcoming lesson gives me enough motivation to keep the element of time in the back of my mind. I don’t get too lost in the session to forget when to be done.
However, this can backfire with people who tend to be quick and want to get the job done. At the end of the day it is more about you knowing your tendencies and being aware enough of the situation to notice when your habits are sneaking in.
Inevitably, you will sometimes take it a step too far. This will especially happen when you are first bringing awareness to the length of your session. You might find that you have been dragging your sessions out for far too long and never even knew.
You know you have gone too far if the horse starts to drag his feet or gets a weary look on his face. Training sessions should never last to the point that the horse gets tired, either physically or mentally. If you get there, ask the horse to simply let down and then take some deep breaths, apologize, and be done.
If you ever get to the point where you are frustrated, your horse is frustrated, or you begin to care more about the result than the process, be done. You have definitely gotten carried away and nothing good will come from a lack of controlled emotions. Put your horse away, maybe lightly reflect on what happened, take a deep breath, and move on.
In the end, knowing when to keep going and when to stop is tricky because it is really about the awareness you bring to a session. You have to be aware of where you are, where your horse is, and what you have been working on. As you become more used to this question you will begin to feel more confident in your response and be able to trust your gut. After all, that is your best way of deciding.