Along with training horses, I’ve also spent many years teaching others how to train them. Students and apprentices are always eager to find out the secret to success.
And here it is: You have to know when to quit. The biggest secret in horse training is to end each encounter on a good note, with the horse relaxed and receptive. To do that, you have to learn how far you can push, how much you can ask, and for how long, before it becomes too much. There’s a line between asking so little of a horse that he stops learning and tunes you out, and asking so much of him that he gets overwhelmed.
The line is different with every horse. This is where ability to read a horse comes in, because horses give signals when they’ve had too much. The more horses a person works with, the easier it becomes to see differences between individual temperaments and their capacity to handle the mental and physical pressure of training. Experience counts in this area.
Still, you don’t have to be a pro with a barn full of horses to ride to get better in the know-when-to-quit department. I’ll share some of the same pointers I give to riders who train with me or for me.
Like a Kid in School
Just like young children, young horses can retain only so much from any one teaching session. The younger the pupil, the shorter the lessons and longer the breaks need to be. This is why kindergarten kids have shorter days and more recess periods than fourth graders do. It’s also why good teachers focus on daily small improvements; they don’t expect a young student to learn the whole alphabet in one sitting.
With any horse, regardless of his age, the time to quit for a day is when he gives you at least part of a right answer to the latest question you’ve been asking. It might be only one or two correct steps, but that’s the fine line you have to recognize and reward. Pat him on the butt, tell him “good job,” and either do something different and easier for him, or call it a day and unsaddle him. But don’t make him repeat the steps over and over and over; he’s already given you a right answer, so continuing to drill him on it is a form of punishment, not reward.
Horses and kids are alike in another way: They learn best when they aren’t being forced. Force creates fear and resentment, and some individuals will take it only so long before they quit and fight back. When that happens, you, as the teacher or trainer, really have a problem on your hands. Not only could you be headed for a wreck, but you also have to find a way to undo the damage to the horse’s mind.
Signs: Pushed Too Hard
As you learn to read your horse and his rate of learning, these are other indicators you can use. They’re signs that say you’ve been pushing too hard.
Attitude: Watch your horse like a hawk before you get him out and saddle him up; this is the first thing I do with each horse, each and every day. Is he perky, or dull and lethargic? Is he accepting, or is he crankier than usual? If the latter, he could be trying to say, “I’m going through burnout and need a rest.”
Exhaustion: Any time a horse is worn out before you finish a training ride, he’s been pushed too hard. Remind yourself that you’re training for the long term, not toward an artificial deadline, such as a futurity or other show date.
Combativeness: When a horse argues or fights back, he’s saying that he feels attacked by the pressure you’ve put on him.
Soreness: Some horses are more emotionally stoic than others and will allow themselves to be pushed until they’re sore. If your horse is stiff or “ouchy” as he leaves his stall or pen, that’s a warning signal.
When you see any of these signs, the best thing to do is to back off and slow down. It can’t hurt anything to reduce the intensity of your training. If your horse needs some extra days off, or if it takes longer to teach something than you intended, so what? Learn when to quit, and you’ll preserve your horse while allowing him to get better at the rate that’s right for him.
A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.