14 Tips that really Work When Training your Horse

Written by Beulah Martin

When training your horse, you have to be aware of how a horse thinks. If you are nervous or lack confidence, your horse will be ready to flee. If you are angry or upset, your horse will think you are about ready to attack. If you are afraid, your horse will think there must be something to be afraid of.

You want your horse to think of you as the “herd leader” and be willing to follow you in whatever you ask of him. These tips will help you accomplish that.

Your horse spends much of his time eating or trying to find something to eat. If distressed, either physically or mentally, horses often refuse food.

So your horse’s eating habits can tell you a lot about his state of mind or health. Pay attention to any sign that your horse might be off his feed, and try to discover the reason before you start a training session. Your horse will pay much more attention to you if he is not stressed out.

Horses have amazing memories. If the same result occurs two or three times (for example, if you release leg pressure when he takes a step sideways), your horse will make the connection.

The more a horse learns, the more he builds his confidence and his ability to learn even more. Horses can learn to give a series of responses to a single cue, and to master new responses in a single try. This information will be very effective for you as you work with your horse in the many days to come.

Whenever you spend time with your horse it should be considered a training session.  

So plan ahead before you start, what do you want to accomplish? Here are 14 fundamentals you should be aware of to make your training sessions more successful:

1. Know how your horse thinks

Know your horse’s basic nature and needs.  They want to be safe at all times. You can expect them to flee if they think there is danger, to resist any type of restraint which makes them feel trapped, and they hate having the feeling of being off balance.

You have to understand how and why a horse reacts as he does to different situations and be willing to be patient and not lose your temper at these times.

Horses are prey animals and ever alert to any danger that might threaten them.  Think like a horse thinks and make your training session one he will understand and enjoy.

2. Make sure your horse trusts you and feels safe

Take the time to bond with your horse and gain his trust.  You will get a lot more from a horse that knows you are safe and fair than from a horse that is afraid of you.

Touch is a great way to build trust.  Just spending time grooming your horse and being around him will build a strong bond between you.

And in all cases, Stay Cool. A horse knows that you can’t trust a handler that is quick to lose his temper and  flies off the handle easily.

3. Start with a plan in mind

Have a plan with a specific goal or purpose for each session. Once the horse has accomplished the day’s goal, don’t drill for the correct response over and over. This would make the horse think he has not been doing what you want. It could also cause your horse to become confused, frustrated, and bored which would end up with his resisting the very thing you were working on.

If you have not completely fulfilled your objective for this training session, but your horse has gotten tired or bored it’s best to go to something that you know he enjoys doing. Come back to this lesson another day when he is fresh and ready to try again.

4. Understand the facts of pressure and release

Whatever cues you are planning on using, start with so little pressure that it seems you are only thinking about cueing your horse.  

Horses are so sensitive to body language that they can actually pick up on cues that you are not even aware you are giving.

Increase the pressure you use to ask for any given response until the horse does as you ask. Always release the pressure the instant your horse does what you ask.

Release of pressure is the quickest, surest reward, and failing to do so just makes the horse confused and frustrated. Again, gradually reducing the pressure you apply to get a response over many repetitions until the response is given with the least pressure possible.

As you work together, the speed with which you release the aids is important. The shorter the delay between your horse’s actions and the reward, the more quickly your horse will comprehend what you want.

5. Use positive and negative reinforcement

You’ll have faster results when you reward the right behavior. The same is true for the wrong behavior, you must respond when he has not successfully accomplished the goal. Then he knows that was not what you were looking for.

Be sure that you never punish a horse when he gets the lesson wrong. Especially in anger. You can whack him if he deserves it, like stepping on your toes or biting. Just be sure that the punishment fits the crime and does not lead to further bad behavior.

6. Use rewards that let him know you are happy with him

Rewards communicate to your horse that you are taking care of him. That you like him and appreciate him, and that he is doing what you want him to do.

This is another way that you reinforce your position as his leader. Make your rewards worth working for by learning what your horse enjoys.

Praise, a stroke on the neck, a scratch on his chest, or a quick treat will let your horse know that he has done something good.

He will also see that something good will come to him if he does what you ask. Vary the rewards. For your horse to connect a punishment or reward to something he or she has done, the punishment or reward must follow within three seconds of the behavior.

That is the Three Second Rule.

Reducing pressure as soon as your horse responds correctly—is one way to reward behavior, but there are others.

Pauses, or stopping to rest, are always a great way to motivate your horse. Because he will learn that the sooner he does everything correctly, the sooner he will get a break. You can also use your voice to praise him when he does well.

Positive reinforcement such as food rewards can be very effective when training from the ground but are impractical from the saddle. Nonetheless, when starting a new exercise you may find treats useful in helping a horse learn more quickly or when he does something particularly well.  

One thing to note, the most important reward you can give him when he has done what you asked is to quit asking again in that session. Wait until the next time to work on it again.

7. Help your horse want to cooperate

Begin the next lesson by asking your horse to do things that you know he will do willingly and well. Each time your horse obeys you, he reinforces his own opinion of your status as herd leader. Building up cooperation at the beginning of a lesson sets the stage for a successful training session.

8. Introduce new things in small steps

Expect to teach new maneuvers in steps or stages. Be as sure as possible that your horse is physically and emotionally ready for each new step in your training program.

Don’t skip a step. Break down each new lesson into the smallest possible components, then ask your horse to master these one step at a time.  

Once your horse learns that the faster he masters the lesson, the faster he gets your approval, a rest, or a reward, the faster he will learn to learn. Also, take advantage of his natural tendencies.

Wait until your horse has worked the kinks out in one skill before introducing a new concept.

9. Keep lessons short

Especially with young horses, you will see much more improvement in several 10- to 20- minute lessons a day than in a 2- to 3- hour training session.

A horse’s attention span is short especially at the beginning of training, but can be built up over time. Know when to stop. When you’re teaching your horse a new skill, there are a thousand things he can do wrong but only one that he can do right. Do not punish him when he gets it wrong.

10. Don’t rush

Be sure your horse is comfortable with each stage of the lesson before moving on.  Set your horse up for success.

Don’t expect too much too soon. Take it slow, start with exercises your horse can understand and master easily, and build upon his training in a logical way. Proceed to the next exercise only when your horse is ready.

11. Establish that you are the leader

Everything you do, such as your posture, your voice to your touch, should express confidence and leadership.

Body language is especially effective. Direct his movements by walking in front of your horse’s shoulder to make him step back away from you. Behind his shoulder, to make him step forward and away from you. Toward his flank, to make him swing his hip away and turn his head toward you. Straight behind his tail to move him straight forward or in front of his head to make him step backwards.

Make sure that he will follow where you lead with confidence and respect and that he will not crowd you.

12. Training your horse is physical work

Teach your horse to move away from pressure. He should respond predictably, depending on where you apply pressure.

He should move his front end away and to the side from pressure ahead of the girth. His hind end away laterally from pressure behind the girth on one side, and his whole body forward with pressure at the girth on both sides. This starts with early ground training and continues under saddle.

13. Remember that your horse won’t forget

Horses have amazing memories. Good or bad, whatever your horse learns is indelibly imprinted in his brain. This is why it is so important to avoid negative learning experiences and to capitalize on the positive. This is also a very good thing, because as you continue with your training, you will be able to build upon the lessons that he learned earlier.

14. Always quit on a good note

You will proceed much faster in each new lesson if you always end on a positive note.

Go back to something your horse does well and reward him when he succeeds.  

The biggest secret in horse training is to end each encounter on a good note, with the horse relaxed and receptive. And to know when to quit. Know when your horse has had enough. He will thank you by becoming a very well trained, and delightful companion that you will enjoy for years.

Some signs that your training session has been successful

Of course if he can perform the skills that you were working him on perfectly whenever you ask him to, you would have to admit that your training was successful. But there are some other ways that you can know that your horse has been paying attention and that he has accepted your leadership. Look for:

Head Carriage. A calm horse is a learning/listening horse. He holds his head at normal height, roughly level with his withers. A tense horse holds his head high, possibly using that great vision to look for a way to escape.

A Respectful posture. During groundwork, a horse that is paying attention to you and ready to do as you ask will face you. A disrespectful, unhappy, or frightened horse will turn away.

Licking and chewing. A tense horse is not listening or learning. Tension in the jaws is a sure sign that a horse is upset. When he relaxes emotionally enough to relax the muscles in his jaw, he will lick his lips and chew.  This probably goes back to the laws of survival on the plains; when all is well, we can relax and eat; when danger is near, we stop eating and prepare to flee.

Treats as a Reward in your Training Sessions

Some caution is advised using treats as a reward.  Horses learn quickly about human candy dispensers and some can become aggressive in seeking out the goodies. Here are some tips for success:

  • Handle the horse firmly but gently from the start.
  • Insist on proper respect. Don’t allow the horse to step on you, crowd you, or sniff around for treat.
  • Give the treat only right after the horse has earned it – not when he asks for it or as a bribe to get him to do something.
  • A brief rest before you ask for the next maneuver allows the horse to remember his actions and their consequences and to connect the dots.

Bite-sized hand-held treats such as a “horse cookie” and “horse candy” work best during training sessions. They are quick for you to deliver and for the horse to finish. A treat a horse can devour in one bite is best because he will not be distracted by hunting for a feed bucket or chewing for so long he forgets what he did to earn it.

Conclusion

The more educated a horse is, the easier it becomes for him to learn new behaviors. Throughout their evolution, horses that learned the quickest survived the longest. Thus horses are capable of understanding and learning a new responses. Your understanding and use of positive feedback will guide your horse toward the desired response each time, and your training sessions will be as effective as possible.