One of the greatest principles of horse training that makes the job vastly easier for both the horse and the trainer is that of breaking tasks down into tiny parts. The smaller the thing the horse has to learn, the faster he will learn it. Some manoeuvres can be broken down into many tiny parts, and some into only a few. The horse is taught each one separately, and then when they are all put together the horse is able to do a very difficult task with no exasperation.
The warning signs that some prerequisite has been missed are subtle at first. The horse simply gives no response to the aid being given. It’s like a ‘blank look’ that a human could give you when they don’t understand what you are asking. When being taught something new that the horse has all the tools he needs to learn, he will at least give a ‘try,’ attempting to figure out what the trainer wants this time by piecing together his knowledge of the aids being given. Often, though, when a horse really has no idea what a given aid means, he will give up trying very quickly. Young horses are especially prone to giving up.
If the handler did not notice the horse’s first subtle communication, then the horse escalates. He begins to trial avoidance behaviour, getting more and more frustrated. In my case, I was riding Noella and her show of frustration is to speed up. I spent a lot of time trying to slow her down, but her stop response is fairly new and was beginning to be overshadowed by her attempts to avoid what I was asking. She didn’t know, and I couldn’t help her because she couldn’t know—she hadn’t been taught the prerequisite.
The task we were working on was haunches-in. The horse essentially walks straight but with their hindquarters positioned slightly towards the inside of the arena so that, when standing behind the horse, three ‘tracks’ are visible. When a horse is walking normally, two ‘tracks’ are visible from the back.
Breaking down manoeuvres has always been difficult for me and has never been explained to me with an example, so I will go through how this task breaks down. We’ve seen in my above description that the horse is walking forward, and that he moves his haunches towards the inside of the ring:
- The horse must walk forward on the ground and under saddle.
- The horse must bend to the inside from an inside aid on the ground and under saddle (in other words, he must be able to complete a proper circle).
- At a halt, the horse must yield his haunches from an outside aid on the ground and under saddle (in other words, he must be able to complete a proper turn on the forehand).
- While not absolutely necessary, other lateral movements such as side passing, turning on the haunches, and leg yielding will accelerate learning, because they are of the same nature as the haunches-in.
Noella knew 1. and 2. quite well, as we had just been working on circles before attempting the haunches-in. Her yield is very rusty, however, and I still have to help her a lot when I ask for a turn on the forehand. Because that one prerequisite was missing, Noella could not understand what I needed from her and became frustrated with my continued asking.
So if you are making no headway with that new task you are trying to teach your horse, go through it and think carefully about what individual steps you are asking your horse to perform at once and practice each one separately. Think also about tasks like the ones I listed in 4. above, that are similar but easier to learn and could help accelerate the horse’s learning. When you put them together, you will have a happy, relaxed horse who looks like he’s been doing it for years.