Merely causing a horse to do something does not mean that you are in control of the horse. Think about the times you have seen someone put a chain lead shank under a horse's chin or over its nose. They may have been successful in leading that horse from Point A to Point B but the use of that shank is a dead giveaway that they were not really in control. If they were, coercive equipment would not be necessary.
Trailer loading is another activity where you see a lot of out of control horses. You may use a longe line or a buggy whip or some form of bribery to get your horse into that trailer. Most horses eventually give in to the pressure if you nag them long enough or coerce them hard enough and they go on that trailer. But that is not training. Even though you succeeded in causing the horse to do what you wanted him to do, you were not really in control.
At Meredith Manor, the beginning step for students learning how to control and teach horses is ground work we call "heeding." We call it that because, to an observer, it looks like a combination of leading a horse and getting a dog to heel. The trainer first uses body language to establish himself or herself as the lead mare in a little herd of two. Once the horse tunes in to the trainer's body language and acknowledges the trainer is leading the dance, the trainer then uses body language to create shapes that the horse can successfully mirror.
The trainer starts by mirroring the horse's natural shapes (such as the animal's normal walking stride) until the horse learns that matching shapes is the name of the game. Then the trainer can gradually take greater control by asking the horse to mirror new shapes introduced by the trainer.
This is a greatly oversimplified description of basic heeding. But it is enough to help you understand that as both horse and trainer progress in this relationship, "advanced heeding" gives the trainer control to lead that horse wherever the trainer wants it to go, to get the horse to stand quietly for a farrier or vet, to march on that trailer without blinking an eye, to stand to be caught in the pasture, and to respond to cues under saddle. The trainer is in control. Not guessing, not hoping, not praying, but actually in control without coercion, without nagging, and without any special gadgets, gimmicks or drugs.
There's a catch, though (isn't there always a catch?). To succeed at teaching a horse to heed or anything else for that matter, students must first be in control of themselves. That's the catch. If you want to be successful at teaching things to your horse, you must first be in control of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally. You must be calm, mentally focused, and self disciplined before you can to control any horse.
Being in control mentally means that your entire attention is focused on your horse at all times. Every moment, every stride, even when you are just leading your horse. Your attention to your horse must be the greatest when something startles it or when something goes wrong such as another horse kicking out as you trot past. When you take your attention off your horse, even for a second, you have just told your horse that you won't always be there when something goes wrong.
Your ability to concentrate on what you're doing, to be mentally with your horse at all times, has to be unquestionable. The horse should be so used to you always being there that it never surprises him when you are. A lot of people ride along like they're in the back seat of a taxi cab and all at once they want to lean forward and beat on the glass and yell at the driver about where he should have turned. Working with horses shouldn't be like that.
Being in control physically means that you are always aware that you are always creating physical shapes that your horse will mirror. Every stride. On the ground, your horse will walk the way you walk, in the direction you walk, and at the speed that you walk. That's how you just walk him onto that trailer. Under saddle, your horse will mirror your breathing patterns and the shapes you make with your own body. That's how you get him to speed up, slow down, collect, extend, turn, and stop.
Being in control physically does not mean physically dominating the horse. When you look at pictograms of how to apply the aids, you might get the impression that you are supposed to put one leg back, the other on the girth and squeeze so hard that you push the horse's hindquarters over. Give me a break. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not strong enough to push a horse over. Nothing about horse training or riding is about physical force.
Finally, to train horses well, you must be in control emotionally. A real chess master makes his moves calmly without showing any emotion that might reveal his real motives to his opponent. Good riding, good training, calls for the same kind of emotional control.
There's a paradox here for riders and amateur trainers. A totally effective rider or trainer must be so emotionally committed to getting the job done correctly that they will do almost anything, including waiting a year or more, to get the job done exactly right. But someone with that sort of emotional personality, that intensity of commitment, usually hates waiting. So there is a conflict.
To succeed as a trainer, you have to develop the discipline to control your emotions and your ego. You cannot get greedy or impatient and force your horse faster than it is physically and mentally able to master something. You have to stay calm, stay in control, and not let anyone influence you to alter a sound training plan.
It does not require strength to train horses to the highest levels. Horse training is a mental game played in a physical medium. As your ability to manipulate and control the horse increases, your judgment about what to do and when to do it has to increase along with that ability. Otherwise, you may cause the horse to hurt itself and you don't want to do that.
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Updated: October 2005.