Why training horses isn’t as simple as math – Sponsored by Back on Track

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Why training horses isn’t as simple as math – Sponsored by Back on Track

It’s fairly easy to think of Eventing, and horse training in general, in terms of numbers. A balanced canter departure is a 7; a very straight, prompt and uphill canter departure is an 8. A crooked or drifting horse on cross-country perhaps amounts to 20 penalties. A poor rhythm in show jumping delivers 4 or 8 penalties.

But it’s beginning to dawn on me that training horses is not about numbers at all. In fact, the questions we encounter in training—the roadblocks along our ascent up the training scale—are far more like essay questions than math questions. Here’s my point: there are multiple ways to train a horse that lead to the correct answer.

Horses are individuals, and we have to be pragmatic with them. Take a youngster, for example. I just bought a 5-year-old Thoroughbred cross who’s been backed and had a month of flatwork. He is a blank slate.

Horses don’t think in numbers. They don’t think, “that transition was an eight.” They perceive our aids in terms of pressure and release. Shortening and lengthening the stride might feel difficult—it is up to the rider to explain these concepts to the horse in a way he understands. We have to work in his language; we have to listen when he talks to us. There are multiple ways to reach the same answer.

Tristan learning to jump at home.

Tristan learning to jump at home.

I hopped the new horse over a few fences last week to see how he would take to it. The first few times he jumped massive, the next few times he wavered left and right. We came back the next day and did a little of the same, keeping everything simple and small, saying lots of ‘good boys’ to make it fun.



Lots of people talk about timelines with horses. Time, to be sure, is just another incarnation of numbers. Horses don’t think in numbers; they think about how things feel. Some 4-year-olds can school 3’6” every now and then, they can mature quickly and show us what they can do. Others won’t be ready to do nearly as much until they are seven or eight.

When we pose questions to our horses—questions we hope he will answer with rhythm, suppleness, connection, etc.—we often get questions back in return. The horse asks, “why should I be loose if I feel so nervous?”. And our answer can’t be something we plug into an equation. It’s not algebra or calculus—the answer doesn’t simply pop out if you enter the generic inputs. Our answer, if we are to be pragmatic trainers, must be one we pick from a number of possible responses. There are a million ways to answer an essay question—a million different rhetorical techniques, structures, appeals to the audience. So too are there a million different ways to produce a horse correctly according to the training scale.

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