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You’ll find few challenges in the world that come with as great of rewards as horse training.
Whether you love to ride or simply feel a connection to the animals, training your horse will provide hours of enjoyment for both of you. As you and your horse work together to learn something new your relationship will blossom into a lifelong friendship.
Horses have a great deal of intelligence, but they think differently than humans do — you must exercise patience with your horse and be consistent with how you show it what you want. If you change a cue or command or alter your technique, the horse may not understand what it should do in that situation. Take your time, practice consistently and have patience with your horse. In time, you will both come to enjoy the training sessions you spend together.
Horse Training Always Starts with Safety
The most important thing to remember when training your horse is that you should always look out for your safety as well as the safety of your horse. These precautions will help ensure that the experience stays positive for both of you. Remember, even a calm and well-trained horse can hurt you if something frightens it.
Effective training requires trust. To develop that trust, you must always ensure that your horse is as safe as possible. You also need to make sure that you’re safe too. Proper training always starts with safety in mind.
By emphasizing safety, you can avoid kicks, bites, drags and trampled feet while also protecting your horse. Make sure to follow these safety rules.
– Always wear sturdy boots or shoes. You want to protect your feet and toes in case the horse steps on them. Never wear sandals, athletic shoes, or flip-flops near horses.
– Always get your horse’s attention before you approach it. You never want to make physical contact before the horse knows you’re there.
– Always approach the horse calmly from the front. Sudden movement or unexpected loud noises can frighten a horse, making them kick out or jump sideways.
– Never stand directly behind your horse.
– It’s safest to stand beside the horse’s shoulder — you can both see one another from this position — or 10 feet or more away.
– Never loop reins, lead ropes or lunge lines around your hands. If your horse gets frightened and runs away, it may drag you with it.
– Never lead your horse by hooking your fingers through the halter straps or rings. Instead, lead your horse safely with a halter and lead rope.
– If you are a beginner at horse training, you will want to work with calmer horses before moving on to younger or more challenging horses.
Now that you understand the safety precautions that will protect you and your horse, let’s move on to the first step in training your horse, learning how to properly lead.
How to Safely Lead Your Horse
Every horse needs to know how to safely follow a lead. On the surface it seems simple — they just need to walk alongside you without pulling or resisting — but you want to ensure that you successfully teach this basic skill. It provides the basis for much of the work you’ll do with your horse, like lunging, and is essential to safely load your horse onto a trailer.
Follow these steps to ensure that your horse learns to properly follow your lead.
1. Halter your horse and then attach a lead rope to the ring on the underside of the halter.
2. Stand on the horse’s left side holding the lead rope in your right hand, roughly eight inches from the snap.
3. Fold the lead rope in your left hand — remember not to loop the rope. In fact, make sure that you hold the rope in the middle of the folds, so that no loops are near your hand.
4. With a small forward motion with your right hand on the lead rope, cue your horse to walk. Give the command, “walk,” or use another word if you prefer — just stay consistent. Begin walking forward yourself.
5. If your horse doesn’t respond, it may not understand that you want it to walk on cue. In that case, you may want to carry a long whip — such as a dressage whip — to help clarify what you expect. Holding the whip with the rope in your left hand, administer a gentle tap on the top of the horse’s croup and give the cue to walk.
6. To stop your horse, give the “whoa” cue and stop yourself while simultaneously pulling lightly on the lead rope. Your horse should stop as well and stand beside you.
Once you have the basics down, you can add a little more challenge to leading by asking your horse to trot alongside you, and to back up on command.
1. Before you cue your horse to trot, you’ll want more distance between your hand and the halter — at least a foot of lead rope. This will ensure that you don’t affect your horse’s gait by restricting head movement.
2. Just as when you cued walking, give a small forward motion with the lead rope, tap the croup gently with the whip and give the “trot” cue. At the same time, begin to jog forward.
3. Stop your horse just as you would when walking.
4. To cue your horse to back up, turn and face it. Hold the lead rope with your left hand and use your right to press the horse’s left shoulder. While you do this cue, “back,” pull downward and back with the lead and step forward — staying with the horse as it steps back.
The steps to safely leading your horse shouldn’t challenge you too much, Many horses take to walking with a lead very quickly, while others require a bit more work. Regardless, make sure that your horse walks safely and reliably on a lead before progressing to more challenging training. Time spent on this aspect of training will pay off in the long run!
Training Your Horse to Stand Still When Tied
Having a horse that won’t stand still when tied can become dangerous to you when grooming, the farrier while working on the hooves and the veterinarian while treating any medical issues. Once your horse understands how leading works, it will have enough of an understanding of how rope pressure works to begin working on standing still while tied.
1. Start by leading your horse to a safe enclosed area and give the cue to stop. With the lead rope still in your hand step away from your horse. If it doesn’t follow you, lighten your hold on the rope. If the horse takes a step in any direction, give a verbal correction and increase contact with the lead rope.
2. When you can step away without any reaction, drop the lead rope in front of the horse and step farther away. You should also increase the amount of time you expect your horse to stand still. Continue to give verbal cues as needed and reward with verbal praise and treats.
3. When your horse has become successful at this, begin tying the lead rope to a post in a safe area. You should tie the rope above the horse’s withers to prevent entanglement. You can go about doing other things in the vicinity, but always stay close enough to supervise the horse’s behavior. Start with short periods of time, but only untie the horse when it stands quietly.
4. Slowly increase the amount of time you leave the horse tied to the post. Continue to only untie the horse when it stands quietly without pawing or digging.
5. Once your horse has mastered standing still while tied, you can begin to introduce grooming, picking up legs, and touching sensitive areas to get your horse used to these things. Move very slowly and cautiously as you do so, and don’t overwhelm your horse. This will take time, but with patience you will have a horse that will stand calmly and quietly no matter what.
Lunging Your Horse
Once you’ve taught your horse to walk on a lead, you can also move on to lunging. While this may seem like just running in circles, when you lunge your horse you help it develop fitness and acquire balance in all gaits. This also helps assert a pattern of control — simply put, the more your horse obeys your cues and commands, the more likely it is to reliably follow them in the future.
Ideally, you will lunge your horse in a round pen or ring, with as few distractions as possible — especially when first starting. You’ll want a proper lunge line, lunge whip and a sturdy lunging cavesson or halter. Once you have the location and all the equipment, here’s what you do.
1. Once you have the halter or cavesson on your horse, lead it to the pen or ring. When you have it where you would like it to circle, walk to the center.
2. When you work your horse to the left, you will hold the lunge line with your left hand while holding the whip in the right. When the horse circles to the right, you will reverse that — the whip in the left hand and the line in the right.
3. You want to create a triangle with the line, whip and horse. Your horse makes the base of the triangle, you are the apex, and the line and whip make up the sides. Relax your stance and bend both arms at the elbow.
4. Give your horse the verbal cue to walk. As the horse begins walking in the circle, keep the lunge line off the ground. Maintain the bend in your elbows and keep the whip pointed toward the horse’s hocks. You want to maintain the triangle as your horse circles.
5. When you want the horse to transition to a quicker pace, you may need to reinforce the cue with the whip. Many horses will react to just a wave of the whip while some may need to hear the lash pop. Remember that at no time should the whip ever make contact with the horse. When transitioning to a slower pace you may find it helpful to lower the tip of the whip toward the ground.
6. When you give the cue to halt, your horse should stay in position on the circle while you approach.
7. With your horse halted, step backwards and cue the horse to turn while swapping the line and whip to the opposite hands. It takes a lot of practice for most trainers to master this transition, and for the horse to understand exactly what you want it to do. With time and practice however, you won’t even need to ask the horse to halt — instead changing direction in one smooth transition without stopping.
Teach Your Horse Direct Reining
When you begin riding, you will quickly learn to use the reins to control the direction your horse moves. Direct reining is the most basic way to turn your horse, using a rein in each hand to cue turns.
If your horse has learned the basics of walking on a lead and lunging, then it will probably pick up direct reining pretty quickly. Here’s how to get started.
1. Once your horse is saddled and bridled and you have mounted, hold a rein in each of your hands. Position your hands several inches above the saddle, and one or two inches forward. Hold your fists at a 30 degree angle with your thumbs up and the bight of the rein coming out of the top of your hands.
2. Cue your horse to walk forward, while maintaining a gentle tension on the reins. You shouldn’t pull on them — they shouldn’t be tight but they shouldn’t droop either. You should have just enough tension on them that they form a straight line to the bit.
3. Turn left by gently pulling back with the rein in your left hand. Don’t jerk or tug at the reins. Don’t hold the right rein too tightly, but don’t let it go slack either. Maintain the same gentle contact. At the same time, use your left leg to apply pressure on the horse’s side. Think of it as the horse making the turn around your leg. Remain upright in the saddle as opposed to leaning into the turn.
4. As your horse turns on cue, release the pressure on the rein and on the horse’s side. Maintain gentle contact — keeping the reins straight — until the next turn or stop.
5. To turn right, follow the same steps as you would to turn left, but using the right rein and your right leg to cue the turn.
6. As you practice, try different turns, circles, loops and serpentine patterns. Make wider turns, and then narrower ones. Get your horse acquainted with the different sensations associated with the reins and turning.
Teach Your Horse Neck Reining
Once you and your horse have mastered direct reining, you may want to consider teaching your horse to respond to neck reining. If you enjoy trail riding or working on horseback, this skill will save you time and energy in the long run. Most horses don’t have any trouble picking up this skill, but it does take time for them to become consistently reliable using only neck reining. Here’s how to teach your horse how to neck rein.
1. Start riding as you would with direct reining. Once at a comfortable walk, give the reins a slight amount of slack.
2. After walking in a straight line, make a sharp 90 degree turn. Cue with the rein and your leg as you would in direct reining, but as you do so lay the outside rein against the mid-section of the horse’s neck. You may need to lift your hand to ensure that the rein makes ample contact.
3. As your horse comes out of the turn, return your hands to a direct reining position, taking care not to pull on the outside rein that you had lain against the horse’s neck. Pulling on that rein can confuse your horse.
4. Practice making several turns and frequent direction changes, but don’t overdo it. Try 15 minute sessions every day — training in several short sessions works more effectively than one long session. Mix up the pattern of turns every time you ride so that your horse doesn’t learn the pattern and ignore the cue.
5. After you’ve practiced for a few days, change the cue order. Cue by making rein contact with the neck before you put tension on the bit. Once your horse begins turning, release contact with the bit while leaving the rein in contact with the neck until the horse completes the turn. If your horse begins leaving the turn, give a slight squeeze to the inside rein as a reminder of where to go. Practice this for several sessions.
6. Once you can rely on your horse to consistently respond to the neck cue, you can cease cuing with the inside rein. At this point you can begin holding the reins in one hand — traditionally the reins were held in the non-dominant hand. Continue practicing to ensure your horse remembers the appropriate cues.
Teaching Your Horse to Load Onto a Horse Trailer
Even if you don’t plan on showing or traveling with your horse, you never know when you might have an emergency requiring you to get them on a trailer. You don’t ever want loading to become a confrontation, so take the time to teach your horse to load calmly.
1. Ideally your horse should know how to follow a lead and to lunge in a circle. This will teach your horse to move forward to deal with pressure, as opposed to backing up.
2. Find some small obstacles — think poles, gutters, lumber or other items — and lead your horse to step over them. Start with very small obstacles and slowly build up to more difficult ones. Spend a few days practicing this and building up to more challenging obstacles to step over.
3. Once your horse has become comfortable stepping over obstacles, lead it to step on things like rubber mats or lumber. You want to encourage your horse to not freak out when it steps on something that doesn’t feel like natural ground. This may take several days of practice, so remember to be patient.
4. After your horse has mastered the obstacles, take it to the trailer and ask it to step onto the loading ramp. Once your horse has stepped onto the loading ramp, offer a reward and praise. Wait for a minute or two and then lead it off the ramp.
5. Lead your horse away from the trailer to relax. Then come back again, leading around the trailer and then back onto the ramp. If the horse responds well, ask for a few more steps. If it seems skittish, lead the horse off the ramp and call it quits for the day.
6. On every approach, your horse will likely return to the farthest spot it had advanced. You only have to encourage another step or two each time to help build confidence. Always lead the horse away before it becomes upset, and lead it away from the trailer for a break before you try again.
7. Break loading into as many approaches as necessary, and offer ample rewards for progress. Remember, your horse hesitates to load onto the trailer because it fears the trailer. By slowing building up confidence, your horse will overcome that fear and will calmly walk onto the trailer.
8. Continue advancing your horse one or two steps farther into the trailer until your horse becomes comfortable walking all the way in.
What Else Can Your Horse Learn
We didn’t domesticate horses simply because they can run fast. They are incredibly intelligent creatures with a great capacity for learning. The more you practice with your horse, the more it will become capable of doing. You can teach your horse to stand and wait for you, to come when called and to follow you without a lead. You can even teach your horse to hug and kiss you! Just remember that as you train your horse, you will deepen the trust you share. Keep the training positive and you will be amazed at what your horse can do.
Whether you plan to ride your horse on nearby trails or simply have a companion on your pasture, horses benefit greatly from training. Likewise, knowing that you can trust your horse to behave as you request will improve your peace of mind and strengthen the relationship between you.