Working with youngsters – Who’s training who? Who’s confusing who?

Photo credit: Christa Dillon

TentSale-BitOfBritain

 

WARNING: Uncensored language. But all in fun.

 

Working with youngsters – Who’s training who? Who’s confusing who?

September is traditionally the time of year when the older horses are starting to wind back at the end of the season, and the younger horses come to the fore. It is both wildly exciting and utterly terrifying attempting to tame these feral wildebeest and Gnus, but the search for the next big superstar is an addiction like no other. I adore young horses. I am endlessly fascinated with the psychology of the horse and completely hooked on the small achievements. I like finding out who they are, and what works best for each individual. I take immense pride in seeing horses that I have started, go on to achieve great things. It all sounds so… idyllic?

HA.

Much like people, horses have unique and definite personalities. Giving them a chance to express themselves is important if you want to work with them going forward. The problem with doing this is that the majority of horses have tiny little bird brains contained within stupid, fucking massive and horribly designed dinosaur bodies. In fact, statistically, the horse has one of the worst brain to body size ratios of any land mammal. And these are the very creatures we choose to climb upon and charge at solid obstacles, with carefree abandon…

I have always said that my primary job as a young horse producer lies in teaching horses to THINK. Some horses are wonderfully adept at thinking from the very first day, but chances are the genius will come out in undesirable ways – idle minds do the devil’s work, after all. There are exceptions to every rule of course, but the majority of young horses begin the training process as large, clueless yachts – they look glorious gliding along, but they fall over easily, they don’t really turn very well and you can forget about braking in a hurry.

The early days are littered with triumph and frustration. The general theory of ‘reward the good, navigate the bad’ works well if you have a horse who understands what ‘good boy’ means, and is sensitive enough to grasp the ‘pressure release’ concept. From our perspective, we are being clear and concise in what we ask for. We gear everything towards the positive so that the horse learns to enjoy work, to seek out positive behaviors and to realize that he is part of a team. But we are human beings. Like it or not, we are (allegedly) more intelligent than the horse. We can’t help but think that if it makes sense to us, then surely it can or does make sense to the pea-brained rhinoceros on the end of the rope…? I’m not so sure. I think it’s more like this:

Young horses – years 3-4.

Human says – “Woah”
Horse hears – “Blah blah blah”. Takes the folorn tugging on the long line as a jumping off point for negotiation. Flees scene with human buoy bobbing along behind.

Human says – “Walk on! Good boy!”
Horse hears – “Blah blah blah.” “Go, is it? I choose canter! Keep up, slow coach!” Flees scene.

Human says – “Pick your feet up over the poles! Good boy!”
Horse hears – “Blah blah blah.” “ARE THOSE MY LEGS??????”

Human says – “You absolute bastard! It’s the barbecue for you!”
Horse hears – “Blah blah blah. Good boy!”

The older I get, the more I think that success with horses is accidental. I spend so much of my time staring at these youngsters in disbelief, and asking myself/them/the universe – “why??” They prove absolutely that a little brain power is a dangerous thing, but event riders seem stuck at a weird paradoxical crossroads of wanting a horse to listen, but to also think for himself. It’s no wonder the poor things don’t know which way is up. “THINK! NO, DON’T THINK!” It’s confusing at best if you have a bird brain.

 


 

And then there’s the random, left field decision making that they do –

Recently, I was hacking a quiet 4-year-old around our farm, when the horse suddenly veered left. The horse couldn’t in any way be dissuaded from its intended course of action, and what ensued was akin to the action scene in the film ‘Man From Snowy River.’ Halfway down the cliff, the horse realized its folly and slammed on the brakes – but too late. The only way out was down. And that’s how I ended up cross-country schooling a young show jumper on a breezy Friday morning in the Irish midlands…

On another occasion earlier this year, I was showing a very promising young horse to some buyers. The client was a far more skilled rider than I am myself, and his associates were explaining their intended international plan of action for the season ahead. The rider was knocking an unbelievable tune out of the horse, until… just weeks away from the first big target of the rider’s season, this horse took umbrage to ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, and just sort of… exploded? I have never been as mortified in all of my life as I dusted the sand off the poor person, and uttered those famous dealing yard words – “He has never done anything like that before”… Thankfully, no bones were broken.

I’m just not really sure anymore if we are training them, if they are training us or if we are all just confusing each other. The only thing I am clear on is that for some reason, I love those early days. If nothing else, every horse you ever encounter will teach you something – namely, the best drink to take to numb the anguish…

Scroll for more top stories on Eventing Connect