Can you train your horse to be TOO obedient? – Sponsored by Back on Track

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Can you train your horse to be TOO obedient? – Sponsored by Back on Track

How are we supposed to train our horses? It seems like we need to strike a good balance between being paternalistic and letting go — being supportive but also giving the horse freedom to work things out on his own. Sometimes we need to hold their hand a bit when we teach them a new concept. Other times we need to float the reins at them and kick on through a grid of fences to let them find their scope. How does this balance of methods work in competition?

People have written about this aspect of paternalistic training before. Jimmy Wofford, for instance, argued that modern horses are losing their ability to get out of sticky situations on cross-country because they are not thinking enough for themselves. They have been so trained to be obedient in the dressage ring that they can no longer make their own decisions in times of danger.

While his hypothesis is interesting, it’s not much more than a hypothesis. We would need to know a lot more about horse psychology and the effects of certain training regimen to be sure about such a claim in a general sense. I also think that the hypothesis — that the more you train a horse to be obedient, the more he will lose his sense of self-preservation — is too pessimistic. I’ll argue that you can train a horse to be obedient without taking away his ability to think for himself. It involves a mix of paternalism and letting go. (And it always helps to have a good horse to start with.)

The horse needs direction from the rider as he approaches this obstacle, but he also needs to read it on his own and make his own decisions about how to navigate it.

Aristotle posited that the more we make good decisions, the better we get at making good decisions. That is, the repetition of good choices creates a habit of good choices. This idea is an attractive one. I think his logic applies to horse training as well.

We need to set our horses up to succeed so that they choose the right answer. When we train them on the flat, they have to believe that seeking the connection is the best and most comfortable option. Then we build on that and ask for more movement, first being supportive, and then asking for more self-carriage. When we train them across the country, we should be paternalistic when we introduce them to new obstacles. Things that look different are scary to horses. Once they have seen a drop into water in training and competition, we should be confident enough to trust them to work the footwork out on their own. The horse who is continually set up to make the right decisions will grow in confidence because good decisions will become his habit.

Obviously, it’s easier said than done. I was watching the grand prix at Palm Beach streamed online last weekend. (By the way, if you’d like some free entertainment and riding lessons from the likes of Eric Lamaze, Ben Maher, and Beezie Madden, you can find many links to live streams over the several few weeks of WEF here.) Even in show jumping, where you could argue that the horse’s sense of self-preservation does not matter as much as it does in cross-country, it is clear that the best riders know when to be supportive to their horses and when to let them make their own decisions and trust that they be careful. Darragh Kenny, the Irishman who won the class, exhibited a perfect balance of giving the horse strict instructions and letting him figure it out on his own. The formula worked.

It is worth noting that every horse is different. Some have a much better sense of self-preservation than others on the cross-country course. But the more we teach our horses to make good decisions — from the very beginning of the time we start training them — the better they will get at making good decisions. Maybe Aristotle was right after all.

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