Photos Courtesy of Ross Hecox
I’m going to be able to establish this attitude of willingness and cooperation in almost every horse to a greater or lesser degree. But to be an outstanding reining horse — a futurity winner or world champion —it takes a horse that’s willing to accept his work completely.
Some horses develop this attitude of acceptance only to a certain point. For example, maybe your reining horse can score a 70 or 71, but if you push him beyond that, he learns avoidance behaviors that make him difficult to control.
The length of time that it takes for a horse to develop this attitude of cooperation varies. It can be a long time for some or a very short time for other horses.
A horse’s physical capabilities have a bearing on his amount of acceptance. You might start a horse that, in the beginning, you think has a great mind. As he progresses and reaches the limits of his physical abilities, that’s as far as his mind goes.
This horse is willing, but it’s so hard for him physically because of his limited athletic ability. That shortcoming defeats him.
In the same way, sometimes that bionic equine athlete gets to the point that he says, “That’s all I’m going to give you.” That can happen even though you’ve brought him along slowly and done all the right things.
If you keep pushing, you lose. Your only option is to wait until the horse’s mind can keep pace with his physical ability. Often that type horse can’t be great as a young horse, but if you are able to wait, he might go on to be an outstanding older horse.
Like kids, some horses mature earlier and others later. Sometimes they mature mentally before their physical growth catches up or vice versa. It just depends on the individual.
I see the evidence of mental immaturity as resistance to the development of the willing attitude I’m after.
For example, I can be bringing a horse along slowly, asking for small progress, but I read signs that he’s not gaining. He has great days and bad, easily can be distracted, is afraid to do a lot of things, and might be spooky, shy or silly.
The ideal is a physically capable horse that is mentally sound. He develops that willingness and workmanlike attitude at an early age. He’s also strong enough physically so that the training process is not difficult for him. He’s balanced and mature, and it’s easy for him to work and do so willingly.
There are many outside factors that influence a horse’s mental conditioning. Things like pain, hormonal distractions, nutrition imbalances—even being ridden too close to feeding time—can all have an effect on how the horse works.
You don’t want to take a chance of having a bad ride because of such outside influences.
Try to control the situation so you don’t have to compete with these factors. Never set the scenario for a confrontation. Avoid riding a sore horse. If the situation evolves to the point where the horse is sore and hates to see you coming, you’re opening the door for him to learn all kinds of avoidance techniques and respond poorly.
It’s important for the trainer to adjust his schedule to fit the horses. I ride the best horse first, the second best horse second, etc., and in the same order and time each day. I feel that this is the only way to be fair to the horse and to the customers.
With every step the horse takes, I’m looking for a sign that says I’ve asked too much. If I see such a sign, I back off and reassure. I retreat to a level on that maneuver that’s below what the horse can do. Then I take a couple of days to build back up. I don’t think anyone can train a horse to do anything unless that person is completely tuned into and striving to be aware of the horse.
Apprehension and Resistance
One key to success as a trainer is being able to tell the difference between apprehension and resistance. You have to deal with these two things in completely opposite ways.
The apprehension mode means, “Go back, relax, and reassure.”
The resistance mode says, “Firmly encourage him to step right up and do whatever it is that you’re asking him to do.”
You, as the trainer, don’t have all day to decide. The horse’s attention span is so short that discipline must happen immediately. Discipline scares him only if it comes too late. Then the horse doesn’t connect the discipline to the offense.
My whole system is based on that important pressure-response-release principle discussed in Chapter 1. These things relate to the mental as well as the physical aspects of performance:
• pressure from the rider
• correct response from the horse
• release from pressure by the rider
From the beginning, the thing I want to keep on the horse’s mind is how to relieve himself of pressure. I apply pressure, and then the horse’s job is to gain release. That never changes. From day one, in halter-breaking, he feels the pull. He reacts in a variety of ways, but he finally steps forward as desired. When he does, the pressure is released.
In every situation, whether it is reining, leading, or any aspect of interaction with humans, the horse learns that he can gain a release from pressure. There’s always a “right” response and he gains confidence in dealing with advances in his training because, as he confronts pressure, he expects to learn a correct response to release the pressure. In reining horses, this gaining release from pressure is highly defined. Ultimately, the great performer seeks a release from the suggestion of pressure.
It’s so important that the horse should not perceive pressure as painful.
Always remember: The absolute error is failing to release the pressure when the horse responds correctly. That release makes all the difference in reducing the horse’s apprehension and/or overcoming his resistance so he’s willing to perform.
Dick Pieper is internationally recognized as a horseman’s horseman and this iconic individual has influenced and developed the careers of riders and their trainers for decades. After fifty plus years in the horse industry, his name has come to stand for a special brand of arena excellence that never compromised the welfare of the horse.
For more information, go to dickpieper.com
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 5