In addition to the years of training these successful performance horses receive, one important ingredient they have that your horse may lack is willingness.
A willing horse is created through a training process that develops the horse’s confidence in itself and trust in its rider. I learned how to develop willingness through teaching horses to jump and from learning TTEAM (Tellington Touch Equine Awareness Method). Training horses to jump and TTEAM share one basic principle I believe is key to producing a willing horse. In jumping terminology it is called, “not over facing your horse.” In TTEAM language it is called “chunking down.”
To teach a horse to jump, a good trainer doesn’t set up a three-foot fence and run the horse at it repeatedly, or pressure the horse until he finally jumps. If he did, he would scare the horse and ruin his desire to jump. A good trainer begins by walking the horse over a single pole on the ground and gradually building from there. How often have you seen someone face a horse with an entire horse trailer, then repeatedly try to pull, push, frighten or whip a horse until he steps in?
If you look at trailer loading as a jumping trainer looks at teaching a horse to jump—you wouldn’t start with a trailer at all. The TTEAM exercises for trailer loading begin with walking the horse over a piece of plywood on the ground. By “chunking” the process down into small exercises at which the horse can be successful, your horse will develop confidence in his ability to do what you ask.
If you are careful never to ask too much, to return to an easier exercise should your horse have trouble, and to praise the horse for each good effort, you will soon develop a horse who is willing to attempt whatever you ask. He will do this because he has never been frightened by being over faced, has never been shown what he cannot do and because he has always been rewarded for his efforts. This simple procedure creates a firm foundation on which to build a successful training program.
I base my training program on the belief that most horses are very willing to work with people when given a chance. “Chunking” a training exercise down in this manner is a way of giving the horse a chance to understand what I want and i a way he can learn in a relaxed manner.
Returning to the trailer loading exercise; use a 4x8 foot, 3/4 inch thick piece of plywood lying on the ground. Let the horse investigate it, then walk across it, then halt and back off of it. Once the horse is comfortable with this, create a platform by resting the plywood on four 4x4s and repeat the exercise. Food sprinkled on the plywood will encourage the horse to lower his head, keep him from holding his breath and will help the horse associate something positive with the situation.
Next, enlist four friends to hold up sheets of plastic to make a chute to walk the horse through. The chute should form an open “V,” slightly narrower at one end. At first the sides should be far enough apart that the horse can walk through without becoming upset. Approach the plastic chute from the wide end first. Each person holding the plastic should have a handful of grain. By encouraging him to eat a little grain, the horse will learn to associate something good with the plastic and chewing will help keep him calmer. Gradually make the chute narrower.
Once the horse is comfortable with this exercise, lead the horse under a rolled up sheet of plastic held high by two of your friends as they stand on hay bales. Start with the plastic high and the hay bales spread wide, then gradually lower the plastic and bring the bales closer together. If the horse becomes resistant, go back a step or two until the horse regains his confidence before proceeding. Be sure to praise the horse’s every effort. When your horse is calmly accepting these exercises you can then combine them.
Always proceed calmly. It is important that the horse remain calm and encouraged to keep its head low—at or just above the level of the withers. This helps the horse think through the situation rather than activating his flight reaction. It is important to offer reassurance to a horse that is frightened by talking to him in a low, calm voice and by stroking him.
Some people mistakenly think that any stroking or reassurance constitutes a reward and is the wrong thing to do when a horse is resistant. A reward is only a reward if it increases the instance of a behavior. This requires a number of repetitions. Reassurance, when a handler strokes the horse and speaks calmly, will cause the horse to relax and even lower his head and chew or sigh. This is a positive sign that the horse is becoming less frightened and is beginning to trust his handler.
When all training is approached in this manner, horses offer little resistance. If the horse does resist, attempt to understand why. Is he afraid? Is he confused? Is there a physical problem? Some people are quick to say a horse is stubborn and will turn to forceful training methods when, in reality, there is some other problem which needs to be addressed. People may also turn to forceful methods when they feel they are out of training options.
With a more patient approach, you have the option of breaking things down into smaller, easier pieces. And for those who are interested in speeding the training process, keep in mind that the horse learns faster when things are broken down in this way. So you may actually progress faster by going slower!