About 15 years ago CJ and I were riding with our longtime friend and horse trainer Dennis Paschal. We were down at his place riding in his indoor arena. All of a sudden, someone opened up one of the overhead doors.
Dennis’s horse just stood there and looked in the direction of the door while our horses headed instantly in the opposite direction almost dumping us in the process. When our horses had settled down Dennis exclaimed cheerfully, “We should do that again!”
So for the next half hour we just rode around the arena while someone opened and closed the overhead door until we could stand right next to it and it didn’t bother them anymore.
We all know riders who have a created a list of things that they don’t want going on around their horse. “My horse doesn’t like mail boxes.” “My horse is afraid of dogs.” “My horse doesn’t like yellow rain slickers.” “My horse doesn’t like a step up trailer.” “My horse doesn’t like to cross water.”
For some people the list just goes on and on. I know because, before CJ and I started training and riding with Dennis, we were that person!
As our relationship grew with our horses we found things that our horses didn’t like. So we started trying to control the environment around us so our horse wouldn’t be put into a situation that he didn’t like. This is faulty thinking.
What we need to be thinking is “We should do that again!” When we discover something our horse is uncomfortable with, it is our responsibility as their caretakers to help them to learn how to deal with it rather than run from it.
Dennis has taught us that while we may have plans for a ten mile trail ride, we might not make the whole ten miles. The time to address a training issue is when it first comes up.
Instead of hurrying our horse by an obstacle and then continuing on with our goal of a ten mile trail ride, we need to take the time to help the horse become more comfortable so that it doesn’t become a bigger issue in the future.
Once we were riding with Dennis and we came to a stream we had to cross. My horse had been through many streams, many times, but today the water was a little faster and a little deeper than he was used to.
Instead of just pushing him through the stream and continuing with our plan we stopped and spent the next 45 minutes playing in the water. Entering the stream and standing for a bit and then exiting the stream. Walking up and down the stream and then out.
By the time we were done I could back my horse into the water, turn him around and back him out of the water. My horse became so comfortable that he eventually laid down in the water. My horse has never had a problem with water since.
We can’t possibly control everything in the environment around our horse. But we can help him become more comfortable with things. By taking the time it takes when a problem first shows up (instead of ignoring the problem and hoping for the best), we end up with a much safer companion.
Some of the friends we used to ride with don’t ride with us anymore because they are tired of us stopping in the middle of a trail ride to address a problem. But that’s OK. To them, training is done in an arena not on a trail ride.
When Dennis comes to work with one of our horses he usually will have something in mind to work on that day. But half the time what was planned never happens because something comes up and that becomes the focus of the lesson.
Dennis says, “The horse writes the book, we just turn the pages.” Even though we may have a plan for our horse that day, we have to be flexible and change what we are doing depending on what the horse needs that day. Not what we need.