Training Mythunderstandings:
Teach Your Horse Anything in 3 Simple Steps

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

When the average horse person has a training problem, they go searching for a quick fix. They want a piece of equipment that will solve the problem. Or they want a clinician to fix the horse in a weekend and give it back to them all cured of a bad habit. These quick fixes are seldom permanent fixes. But teaching your horse whatever you want him to learn is really very simple. It takes just three steps:

  1. SHOW him how you want him to respond.
  2. ASK him to give you the response you showed him.
  3. TELL him you would like the response.

These simple steps are based on the classical conditioned response training sequence that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov demonstrated with dogs in the beginning of the last century. In his early studies, Pavlov:

  1. SHOWED dogs that he wanted them to salivate by giving them food.
  2. ASKED for the salivation response with a bell as he was feeding the dogs.
  3. TOLD the dogs to salivate just by ringing the bell.

People make horse training difficult when they don’t understand that the ways that they show and ask their horse for a response must be horse logical. The heeding method we teach here at Meredith Manor uses horse-logical corridors of pressures to show and ask the horse what we want. The asking is always be done within a consistent corridor of pressures that produces a feeling of rhythm and relaxation in the horse. Eventually, just the beginning of the corridor of pressures is enough to tell the horse what we want.

SHOWING must be horse-logical. The pressures you use can be physical or psychological or a combination of both. In groundwork, for example, physical pressures can be things like a fence or a wall or the corner of an arena or a round pen, anything that holds the horse on one side or directs his movement or blocks movement. Psychological pressures that trainer’s can use on the ground include their body position, their approach towards or retreat from the horse, and fussing they might do with a rope or whip or some other attention getter.

Take plenty of time to figure out a corridor of physical or psychological pressures that can be applied in a horse-logical sequence to show the horse the response you want. Horse logical means that the horse can eliminate the pressures by giving you the response you want. Ordinarily if the horse tries to get out of doing something we want him to do, we think of that evasion as a negative thing. In the beginning of training something new, however, we want to harness the horse’s natural tendency to evade pressure to show him how we want him to move or not move.

In the beginning, showing the horse what we want may involve a little bit of extra fuss to get and keep the horse’s attention. How much fuss you need can vary, for example, depending on whether you’re working with a high strung baby horse versus a rusty old campaigner who needs a tune up or with a dominant mare versus a laid back gelding.

Keep in mind that if you use any artificial aid as part of your corridor of pressures, that an aid that is used too soon, too late, too “loudly,” or too “softly,” is not an effective aid. It is a confusing message because either the timing or the emphasis was wrong.

ASKING involves repeating the corridor of pressures in a clear, calm, consistent way that creates a feeling of rhythm and relaxation between you and the horse. No more fuss. And as the horse’s understanding grows, you apply only as much of the full corridor as you need to produce the response. You take the pressure away as soon as the horse starts to outrun it and responds correctly. That’s his reward. Repetition fixes the horse’s association of the response you want with just the beginning of the feel of that particular corridor of pressures.

TELLING means using just that first slight feel of the full corridor of pressures to get the response you want from the horse. This is the finished horse who knows you want him to canter as soon as he feels your weight on a particular seatbone and one leg sliding back. This is the horse that starts his downward transition as soon as he feels you settle in the saddle just a hair longer than you did at the previous stride. This is the horse that’s fun to ride.

Telling the horse you want a particular response by beginning a corridor of pressures or aids he understands the feeling of is not the same as putting a cue on a horse. A cue is something that the horse has been habitually exposed to as he does some activity so he comes to associate the cue with a particular activity. It can be something totally horse-illogical and it can still work. For example, a trainer teaches a horse to pick up a pleasure class lope when the rider’s toe touches its shoulder.

The problem with a cue is that you cannot change or modify the horse’s response to it by applying more or less of it. When you’ve taught the horse to respond to a full corridor of aids, you can produce all kinds of shades of response meanings by simply backing up to the asking stage.

So when you tell a horse you want a particular response, you can modify that response by backing up to the asking stage and modifying the corridor of pressures that produces it. Modifying the corridor of pressures is horse-logical. Cues are just random signal things.

There’s another reason horse trainers need to alternate between asking and telling the finished horse what response they want. Pavlov found that a problem developed when he only used his bell cue to produce the response he wanted. The dogs eventually learned that the bell no longer had any meaning and they stopped salivating. So to reinforce the meaning of the bell, he tried randomly feeding the dogs when he rang the bell. These random reinforcements were enough to keep the dogs salivating at the sound of the bell alone. So randomly asking kept the response to telling sharp.

When telling fails to get the response you want from your horse, you have to go back to asking and reinforce the horse’s understanding. You need to alternate between asking and telling whenever the horse’s response begins to drop off. This is true for the baby horse learning something new or for that golden oldie who’s gotten a little rusty.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I will always treasure the experience and education I received at Meredith Manor. To pass that along to students and horses has always been very rewarding, and I know it always will be as I watch former students pass this along to their students.
Caroline Brower: 1981 Riding Master III Graduate