How the ‘dog-paddle’ mentality will make you a better horse trainer

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How the ‘dog-paddle’ mentality will make you a better horse trainer

In my last article, I described how the “dog-paddle” mentality can help us succeed at new tasks. Rather than adopting the extreme of “hope I float” on the one hand or “perfection only” on the other, we can take the middle-road approach and aim for completion. Dog-paddling means you can stay afloat, and staying afloat means that you can learn a more elegant, faster stroke in time. Applying this thinking to training horses, especially inexperienced ones, can help us produce willing, confident partners.

Horses have astonishing memories. They can recall experiences they’ve had, feelings they’ve felt, and even things they were scared of three months ago. In short, if you hurt their feelings, they are not likely to forget it. So we should make sure that we try to set them up for success whenever possible.

But just like riders have “firsts”—like that first ditch-and-wall, or that first bank out of water—horses have to face their “firsts,” too. Your horse can’t gain experience without trying new things. At some point, your baby horse will have to jump her first ditch and her first trakhener. And in doing so, she may feel trepidation. Your job is to tell her this: she doesn’t have to do it perfectly, but she has to do it. She must complete the task—assuming you’ve prepared her appropriately. But don’t worry about mastering it the first time around. Remember that at first, she is allowed to dog-paddle.



Let me be clear: the goal should never be mediocre training. Mediocre training makes mediocre horses. But teaching a horse to dog-paddle before he is mentally or physically prepared to do freestyle is not a bad idea. He’s allowed to be a little clumsy or make a mistake; he just needs to complete the task. Once he completes it, you can teach him how to do it better. Once you can dog-paddle, you can be taught how to swim properly.

If your horse is spooky, make it a goal at his first event to jump all the jumps. That can be your only goal. Make it clear to him that he must complete this task. Assuming that goes well, set a slightly harder goal for the next event: to jump all the jumps, jump them with straightness, and stay at the same pace all the way around. Your horse will get better at his job if you set the bar at an achievable level when approaching a new task.

I hesitated in writing this article because I am not of the belief that our standards for training should be low. But I am also learning, as I ride different horses and bring my own younger ones along, that sometimes it is too much to throw them in the deep end and ask for perfection the first time they attempt something. We have to remember that these animals are trusting our judgment, and building trust requires that we make them feel like heroes—even if they are just dog-paddling along at first.

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