Top Way To Ruin Your Training

The Number One Way To Ruin Your Training is

Training Without Release

We’ve all heard the adage that every moment you are train­ing your horse. We all agree with a nod of the head but what does this real­ly mean? It means, that any moment that you release pres­sure you are telling the horse that they just did what you want­ed. Every moment that you are with your horse, you are com­mu­ni­cat­ing what you want and what you don’t want. If you are not aware of what you are doing, you could be telling your horse inad­ver­tent­ly to do the wrong thing.

There are two impor­tant ways to sig­nal to a horse that they are doing what you want. You can reward them or you can relieve the pres­sure on them.

Release by def­i­n­i­tion is to grant free­dom; to free from con­fine­ment. When we talk of release of pres­sure, we mean stop ask­ing for any­thing from your horse for a moment. Direct or implied. That moment can be any­where from 1–2 sec­onds to 1–2 min­utes or longer. The release can be small like a give of rein pres­sure or a ces­sa­tion of leg pres­sure or large one like free walk on long rein or halt­ing and let­ting them relax and look around.  

Rewards are the addi­tion of some­thing the horse finds to be enjoy­able in some way in response to some­thing they did.  This can be a food reward strate­gi­cal­ly timed, quit­ting and going back to the barn or even as tiny as a small scratch­ing on their favorite spot.  The com­bi­na­tion of both release and reward is the fastest and strongest way to train.  Knowl­edge of both of these can help you train every­thing from stop­ping a horse from paw­ing in the isle to per­form­ing 15+ steps of piaffe.

Key Principles Of Release

You have to teach a horse what pres­sure means. Hors­es don’t nat­u­ral­ly always move away from pres­sure. They didn’t come with a man­u­al where brakes mean stop and gas means go. You have to teach them what the aids mean. Remem­ber if your horse isn’t respond­ing cor­rect­ly to your aid, your horse either doesn’t under­stand or has been taught to ignore it.

You have to release imme­di­ate­ly after your horse responds. How is a horse to know what you want if you don’t give him clear sig­nals. A release or a reward imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the cor­rect response is the only way to com­mu­ni­cate. Also remem­ber, when first teach­ing some­thing, you have to reward the try or a close approx­i­ma­tion of the behav­ior or move­ment. For instance, if your horse has nev­er backed up to pres­sure on the hal­ter, you wouldn’t expect him to take sev­er­al steps back on the first attempt. He may just take a ½ step back or even just shift his weight back.

For exam­ple, let’s talk about teach­ing a horse to move away form the leg in a yeild. In cor­rect train­ing, you are sig­nalling to the horse by adding pres­sure with one leg to sig­nal them to move away from that leg and step in the oppo­site direc­tion. How does the horse know when he did the right move­ment? If he steps into your leg, you increase the pres­sure. This way you are sig­nal­ly to your horse, “nope that wasn’t right”. If he moves for­ward, you keep the leg on him but ask him to slow with your seat and legs. Again that tells him, “Nope that wasn’t quite it either”. Maybe your horse backs up, then you real­ly need to increase the leg pres­sure and add some pres­sure with the oth­er leg. Final­ly, your horse takes a step side­ways. RELEASE the leg ask­ing. STOP ASKING. This is how your horse knows he did it cor­rect­ly. To real­ly seal the deal, now give your horse a pat or a treat. Give your horse a break. Let him stand there for a moment. Don’t imme­di­ate­ly jump into train­ing it again or into the next les­son.

If you keep ask­ing, after the horse has yield­ed, you are actu­al­ly not teach­ing him to yield any­more, you are teach­ing him to ignore your requests. Once a horse under­stand how to move side­ways off the pres­sure of your leg then you can use pres­sure and release in small incre­ments to build dis­tance or dura­tion. What I mean is after the horse moves off your leg side­ways and you want the horse to take 2 steps, you release after 1 step but imme­di­ate­ly ask again. Build­ing on this sequence, you can teach the horse to leg yield across the ring. But it starts with clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the first step.

You build dura­tion or fre­quen­cy lat­er. First your horse has to under­stand what you mean, then you look for more steps, longer hold, or increased enthu­si­asm. For exam­ple, let’s say you are teach­ing your horse can­ter. At first you just want the horse to get the idea. You release and reward often when they offer it to your cue. As time goes on, you want them to keep can­ter­ing. In more time, you have them cir­cling. In more time, col­lect­ing and extend­ing. In even more time, pirou­et­ting and fly­ing changes. How­ev­er, you wouldn’t expect a horse new to can­ter to per­form com­pli­cat­ed move­ments. Remem­ber this in baby lessons like walk­ing, back­ing up, or load­ing on a trail­er. It’s not that you set­tle for less. It’s that you slow­ly build. You can only build by releas­ing and reward­ing often. As the horse becomes com­fort­able with the move­ment you can always ask for a lit­tle bit more. The key is a lit­tle bit. Chris­tine Betz has a great say­ing. She says “look for 1% improve­ment a day because that will be 30% improve­ment in a month.” That’s a lot.

Heads up.  This is more than one way to ruin your train­ing…

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