If your horse has holes in his training it means that somewhere along the line his training has been incomplete.
Training holes can show up when:
- a newly purchased, well-trained horse is moved to a new location
- a horse trained in one discipline is changed to a different type of riding
- a young horse’s training is rushed to get him ready for sale or competition
Your horse’s training is similar to going to school. The general foundation is built from kindergarten through high school, each grade builds the foundation for the next and you don’t move on until you’ve pass the previous grade. In high school you may start to focus on a particular area of interest (e.g. math over history). That focus deepens even more in post-secondary education.
Horses with a solid training foundation, on the ground as well as in the saddle, and brought along at an appropriate pace are confident, relaxed, supple, balanced, and willing, and have learned how to learn.
Problems like resistance, tension, imbalance, and unwanted behavioural issues happen when the horse’s training has holes. In an attempt to “fix” these problems, some trainers and riders apply band-aid solutions like tighter nosebands, stronger bits, tie downs, and other equipment. But those solutions are focused on the symptom rather than the cause.
If your horse has holes in his training, you need to go back to basics to fill in those gaps and build his solid foundation.
Find the Holes
What skills and abilities does your horse need to do the job he is being asked to? Break the list down to its smallest components then ask yourself if you have the skills and abilities to teach your horse what he needs to learn. If not, you will benefit from working with a coach or trainer who can help both you and your horse learn those missing skills.
Does your horse have the skills and abilities but is lacking the life skills? (e.g. traveling to and performing in new/unfamiliar places; confidence leaving the herd, trailer loading, etc.) Learning to perform well in all kinds of locations and situations requires giving your horse experiences in different places.
Horses are location-specific learners, meaning the horse performs well in the place where he is accustomed to practicing but seems to forget his training when taken to a new location (i.e. a horse show).
Is your horse being asked to do things he is not physically or mentally ready and able to do? When the horse’s training is too fast for his learning ability he does not understand and can become confused, anxious, frustrated, shut down, or become angry.
Determine Root Causes
Always investigate and eliminate physical issues like soreness, lameness and ill-fitting tack with the expert help of your veterinarian, farrier, saddle fitter, and bodyworker.
Is your horse physically able to perform what he is being asked to do? Consider the level of suppleness, straightness, relaxation, movement, collection, engagement, impulsion, etc. required for the work you asking of him.
Does he respond well to light cues or is there any tension, anxiety or confusion present?
Is he well balanced, easy to steer, adjustable (in pace and speed) and able to move freely in all gaits? Can he perform well balanced, smooth up and down transitions between gaits?
Does he lack confidence when he is away from his herd or from other horses? Is he anxious with unfamiliar sights, sounds or locations?
Create a Plan to Fill the Holes
Once you’ve determined what the holes are in your horse’s training, your next step is to create a plan to fill in those holes. Remember that you are building a foundation, so the order of the steps in your plan must build one on the other. For example, being balanced and rideable at the trot comes before asking for canter.
Go back to basics and take your time! Be patient with yourself and especially with your horse. Break down goals into the smallest components and achievable steps and work at your horse’s pace. Remember that good, effective training does not happen quickly.
Every time you handle or ride your horse you are either training or untraining him. So, be honest about whether or not you have the time, skills and abilities to do this training on your own or if you need the help of a qualified coach and/or trainer.
Taking the time it takes to build a solid foundation in your horse creates an amazing partnership with your horse. Setting and achieving appropriate goals for both of you, can require you both to learn new skills. The end result will be that you both enjoy positive experiences together.
Regardless of what your goals are, you owe it to your horse to provide him with the skills and positive experiences he needs to be safe, healthy, and content.