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Training Tips

STANDING STILL AT THE MOUNTING BLOCK

Training a horse to stand at the block is best taught in stages so he understands fully what you are asking for, after which consistent reinforcement is needed to keep it in place. It’s easier for the horse to cooperate if he understands the concept of “parking” in the first place. The ability to stand to command without fidgeting or being restrained is an important part of a horse’s education; we notice a lack even in those with the “well schooled” label.

A portable block is best as you can bring it to the horse rather than the other way round. It’s a pretty advanced manoeuvre for the horse to line himself up with the rider waiting on the top. We make a series of impromptu aerobic movements stepping up and down quietly until the horse is happy to stand absolutely still. A helper can be useful in difficult cases. We ask them to hold the cavesson rather than the bit as horses don’t like being hung on to via the mouth.

The decision to mount needs to be done in a relaxed manner. Any tension, anxiety, or anticipation about the quality of the ride will generate movement in the horse. Gathering up the reins too tightly will make him move backwards, while climbing up awkwardly or bumping down into the seat will make him move forwards or even away.

Being mounted is often a less than pleasant experience and small wonder that most horses try to evade the discomfort they know is coming by wanting to walk off. Smoothness and a degree of agility are needed to help the horse remain in one place. One of the reasons horses don’t stand at the block is because they don’t know how to stand with patience in other areas either. To get the result we want, we make sure our horses know how to stand square and parallel with any defining line nearby, like a wall or fence etc. When a horse stands other than four square, he is primed to move in whichever direction his shoulder is angled to. Teaching your horse true straightness without restraint, both on the ground and mounted will transform your riding and handling experience.

Before we leave the subject of mounting from a block and move on to mounting from anywhere else, it’s worth mentioning the position of the block can impact on whether or not the horse moves. If it is placed in front of the girth line, more towards the shoulder, it will encourage some horses to walk backwards and others to swing away. The optimum place is beside the saddle. This may seem a small point, but experience tells us that it isn’t, and even how we mount the block can have an impact. Stepping from the ground to the top beside the shoulder makes most horses reverse or move away to the right because this is how they interpret body language. Think about it. If they were in the field facing another horse who suddenly half rears at their shoulder, what would they do? They would do exactly the same as when you are trying to mount; move backwards and/or away.

It’s up to us to be aware of the way we move around the horse. Our every step and gesture sends a signal, only we are mostly too tuned out to realise we are in fact getting what we’ve asked for. When the horse understands correct positioning (parking), and stays immobile at the block as we step up and down, remaining stationary during the mounting process is no big deal. Only then is the horse ready to mount.

We can transfer these techniques to other situations like mounting from a fence, a bank, or a lorry ramp. To do this we simply run through the parking routine until it is firmly established before getting on. A final point to emphasise; the horse must stand because he has made the decision himself rather than being held into position. A noisy and distracting environment isn’t going to be conducive to teaching the horse anything other than to join in the excitement. Better to wait for a peaceful moment or choose a quieter location. Happy mounting!


IN RESPONSE TO REQUESTS FOR TIPS ON TRAINING HORSES TO BE NON-COMPETITIVE IN COMPANY

It’s so much easier to establish non competitive behaviour than to overcome established competitiveness. Understanding the reasons why horses become like this in the first place is a great help in preventing it. As I’ve said before, it is learned behaviour, and it’s up to us to make sure we are not encouraging habits to form which we won’t like once they’re established.
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So called competitiveness is often born out of anxiety rather a lust for speed. Horses worry about being at the back and being left behind, especially in canter. Your horse doesn’t necessarily see a fast canter in an open field as a relaxing activity. In his mind there is only one reason why the lead horse has cantered off; there must be danger somewhere, which means it’s a bad idea to take things slowly, and far better to catch up or over take as quickly as possible. Some horses develop a taste for the adrenaline rush they get from speed, but insecurity is the most common root cause.
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Because horses are natural followers, they will automatically try to keep up with the herd. They don’t want to be left behind; they feel more vulnerable to attack if the gap between them is too large, and normally strive to catch up. The most dangerous place from the horse’s perspective is to be the one at the back. Horses are immensely sensitive to movement and sounds behind them, and they are hard wired to be on the alert for predators if taken away from their friends in the field, or the group when ridden.
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If we are lucky enough to have an unspoilt horse who doesn’t harbour competitive thoughts, what should we be doing? One of the benefits of extensive hacking alone is that the horse learns independent behaviour without being reliant on a friend for security. We start anti competitiveness training by not riding with another horse, and in this way establish independence as well as acceptance/reliance on us as alpha leaders.
We work with our horses to be happy and relaxed in our company before riding with others. We choose our riding partner very carefully as it is unrealistic to expect a horse not to react to wild or erratic behaviour in his riding companion.
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Horses instinctively rely on each other, and are inclined to be dependent on them to safely lead the way and set the pace past unknown hazards. From the horse’s perspective, they simply want to ensure their survival by making sure they keep close together. Understanding the motivations behind competitiveness allows us to train our way through herd mentality.
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We have all experienced the unpleasant feeling of being a total passenger because our horse seems fully preoccupied with what the others are doing rather than listening to anything we ask for. To rearrange the horse’s response to what others are doing (within reason), we like to begin riding with another along miles of quiet lanes, preferably hilly.
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You want your horse to switch off as much as possible, which is more difficult in open fields or enclosed woods. Try to find a truly reliable friend to lead the way, one who isn’t itching to have a blast on the grass while slowly dying of boredom at the seeming monotony of it all. It’s best to ride with just one other, two or more is distracting and potentially too exciting at this stage.
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The distance between horses is important, about two to four horse lengths is ideal. Less means building dependency and more can create worry. Then we trot, trot, trot, and more trot. Not too hurried, balance and rhythm are as always, essential. It doesn’t take long for horses to realise that this is hard work, which is what we want them to think, rather than this is exciting stuff. Horses are energy efficient creatures, and like to conserve as much of it as they can. They do this naturally because expending needless energy means there is little left for a genuine emergency. Once they see something as work, they tend to switch off to the excitement factor.
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We have a pre-arranged signal for coming back to walk, so the rider who is behind can ask for walk before the one in front. This helps with the idea of slowing down or walking on command with less worry about what the one in front is up to. For some reason, riders who are behind are keen for their horse to match what’s happening with the one in front. The minute the lead horse trots, the horse behind is asked to copy, often with too strong an aid, which encourages horses to anticipate what you want in advance. It only takes a few goes for them to associate the sequence of events, and before you know it your horse is trotting away whether you want to or not.
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The key is to create a widening gap, which is done firstly in walk, but not too big to cause worry. A really useful exercise, and a mini challenge, is provided when the lead horse finds a drive to hide in; he suddenly disappears! But before the follower can get too upset, he arrives at the drive and miraculously they are back together again. It’s an equally good discipline for the lead horse to stand quietly while hearing hoof beats without being able to see anything. We do this in trot as well once everyone is comfortable with the routine. A simple thing like this helps separation anxiety as well as competitiveness, helping to prevent it occurring in the first place.
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We expand the moments spent apart gradually, always making sure we join up again sequentially, meaning there’s a set pattern of movements, and the horses soon realise they can depend on the rider to bring them back together. In this way we remove the need for the horse to be up the backside of the one in front to feel safe or rushing to the front to avoid being left behind. Changing the mindset of a consistently competitive horse takes a long time, so it’s definitely worth reinforcing those steps to avoid it happening.
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Cantering in company requires prudent preparation to avoid a drama. Our first canters in company are carefully choreographed, with the less experienced horse leading in canter initially. The reasons for this have already been explained from the horse’s perspective. Next step is to canter side by side without being too close. Horses that need to rub shoulders with each other in canter are essentially insecure following their own path, and we want to avoid that. The learning horse will take canter while the other remains in trot for the first strides until we are sure there is no excitement or worry going on.
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Finally, when we have been through all the combinations in both trot and canter, we introduce cantering behind. This is the big one! It goes without saying that we start in trot, making sure the horses aren’t too fresh and looking for trouble, and keep everything steady. When all the steps are well trodden and fully accepted, we do it all over again in big open fields at a slightly increased pace, but still keeping everything relaxed. We never gallop or get over excited as all our hard work can easily be undone. The road to lack of competitiveness is long, requiring structure, repetition, and a common sense approach, but so much easier to travel than the twisted path of constantly jockeying for position.
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