What the Trainer Must Know Dick Pieper
“… start with a colt that is athletic enough and talented enough to do the job, and never let him have a bad day.”
Photos courtesy of Ross Hecox
No one starts on a two-week trip without knowing his destination, but people often start riding horses with no idea of where they’re going or what sort of direction they plan to take. When I train a reining futurity horse, I start him as a 2-year-old and try to have him ready to peak in December of his 3-year-old year so that he’s ready for the National Reining Horse Association Futurity. That doesn’t allow much time for mistakes.
The secret to success is start with a colt that is athletic enough and talented enough to do the job, and never let him have a bad day. I must stay aware, then be consistent. Eighteen months is not enough time for that horse to have a setback. Even so, I must use the horse’s clock and not the calendar when charting his progress.
And that’s the same for any horse whose future lies in any event.
Have a Plan
From the day he undertakes the project of schooling a 2-year-old, a trainer must have in his mind the entire chronological order for each step all the way to the finished product. And he must never deviate.
Change has an effect on the entire scope of the program. For example, a novice starts out with a 2-year-old. At first, everything seems to be going well, and then the novice runs into some problem. He talks to someone else who trains and decides to try that person’s method.
So the novice changes the way he does things. That confuses the horse because this new method is based on a different background of basic training.
I don’t imply that I never change methods. One of the most enjoyable things about training horses is that I continue to learn new methods. But when I change anything, it is with a lot of thought. I might decide to change something and work it into the next horse’s training, but I don’t change on the horse midstream. That’s not fair to the horse. If I did that, I’d be saying that everything I taught him until now has been a lie.
If you are telling the horse, “I’m the leader,” and then halfway through the program, say, “I don’t know, let’s try this,” the horse is going to get confused and become increasingly inconsistent. In other words, if you’re inconsistent with the horse, he mirrors that and becomes inconsistent with you.
I outline a program that has complete continuity from beginning to end. Each step progresses naturally to the next and lays the foundation for more difficult tasks to come. The basic communications I use in the beginning are the same ones that I use later with the finished horse.
In order for you to train a horse to a high-performance level, you have to understand that the mental aspect is as important as or more important than the physical side. Before you can think of performing any physical maneuver with a horse, you have to develop that horse’s willingness.
To do this, the trainer has to condition himself to remove any outside thoughts that might influence his work with the horse. He must train himself to ask for the same response and in the same way every time. His body language must be the same each time he asks for a particular maneuver.
Basics are important in both the physical and mental sense. In a horse’s early training, the goal is to instill a set of basic skills. These are the building blocks on which every future maneuver is based. These are the controls that are used throughout his life. While he is learning those basic skills, the horse also learns an attitude of cooperation.
Just as he learns through a lot of repetition to respond correctly to pressure from the reins or the legs, the horse also learns to be acquiescent. I develop a sense of compliance in him. He learns through the repetition that I don’t hurt him or overload his wagon, so he has nothing to fear. That sets the tone for our conversation.
I’m developing a workmanlike attitude in the horse —conditioning him to accept that most days he goes to the work area and does strenuous work for an hour to an hour and a half. He accepts this the same way he accepts the fact that I feed him, brush him or clean his stall daily.
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 4