As you work with and ride your horse, you probably find yourself studying the principles of master horsemen you admire and trying to apply them. Thanks to modern media, along with clinic opportunities, finding Western horse training advice is as easy as it’s ever been.
Yet as I’ve learned in my own work with horses, as well as from working with other riders in clinics, it’s also easy to misunderstand and misapply certain principles. I’ve seen riders struggle to put concepts into practice, and seen their horses struggle to figure out what they were being asked to do.
Here, I’ll strip the myths from six commonly misunderstood training principles. My goal is to give you additional insights that you can apply to your own training efforts.
Myth #1: Rewarding the slightest try means rewarding any move.
Busted: “Try” means actually performing the task, repeatedly.
In our training of the horse, we’ve often heard that we’re to “reward the slightest try.” A clinic student summed up the problem with this myth when she said, “You know, I’ve been rewarding the slightest try for three years, and all I’ve gotten is three years of slight tries.”
Today’s riders sometimes misunderstand what the masters meant as they talked about rewarding effort. I had the pleasure of studying with natural horsemen Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. They were cowboys, and in the cowboy language, “try” means something incredibly different than what it does to possibly the rest of the world. When a cowboy says he’s going to try, it means he’s going to get it done. He’s not quitting until it’s over.
I do agree with rewarding the slightest attempt at times. But when you talk about “rewarding the try,” that means the horse actually knows he answered the request. He put some effort behind accomplishing the particular task. The horse didn’t almost do it—he got it done. Rewarding the slightest “try” means hanging in there a little bit longer until the horse accomplishes that particular move or releases the pressure or whatever it is that you are asking. And not only did he know that he did the move, but he also can do it again. He can duplicate that move.
It’s sometimes a mistake to reward the slightest attempt, because when you ask for it again, the horse doesn’t have any idea of what you’re asking. The horse didn’t intentionally obey your request the first time.
To trump this myth, you have to ask your horse to step up past slight attempts and into making a move that he can repeat on cue.
Myth #2: You should reward any response with an exaggerated release.
Busted: The reward is a very slight release.
Let’s say your goal is to teach your horse to be soft in the bridle and soft in your hands. When you pick up your hands and make contact with the bridle—whether it’s a bit or a bosal—you want to feel for the moment when the horse gives to your hands a little bit, then reward with the same degree of release. Don’t get carried away and release too much. When you pitch a horse inches of slack, you have to go fishing to reel it back in.
If you release at the right time, and don’t overdo it, your horse will get hooked to your contact and will stay in that zone. He’ll teach himself to get further release elsewhere in his body by collecting himself as he moves.
Myth #3: The rider determines when and where to release.
Busted: The horse determines the release.
You might be surprised, but I firmly believe that it’s never been my job to figure out when to give the horse a release. It is always the horse’s job. I like using a steady hand. I don’t like to bump and pull on the reins. A steady hand almost becomes like a post. A post has perfect timing. It knows when it can take a hold of the horse’s face and it knows when to let go—because the horse is the one making that decision.
So, if I can hold my hands really still and steady, the horse learns exactly where they are, and how to stay off them. He has to try other options to find release, and starts to figure it out. If he attempts to gain release in the wrong direction, my hands are instantly there without having to do anything, because I’m holding them steady.
If you release too much, all the time, this means you’re watching for the slightest attempt, not the try. You’re reinforcing the slight attempt only, and when you do so with complete release of any contact whatsoever, your horse learns to throw his head and be inconsistent with his nose. Not only that, but because your hands are always too busy, your horse also will get anxious about them.
Myth #4: Effective hands are always bumping the horse’s mouth.
Busted: Still hands are much more effective.
To me, good hands are still hands, because horses trust them. When your hands are still, your horse can learn to settle in and be comfortable with them. Back to the analogy of the post: The post knows when to take hold and the post knows then to turn loose. The post does nothing else. It’s just there, with perfect timing every time.
You’re not being harsh by holding your hands still. Just like with a post, you can decide how long or short you want to “tie” the horse. You don’t tie him up short the very first time, because he has no idea what that means.
When teaching your horse to give to your contact, you pick up slack until you feel contact, and then hold there to let him figure out where he needs to go with it in order to be comfortable. When he’s OK with that amount of contact, take another inch, and let him find his comfort within that. Then take another inch. Over time, your horse will trust your hands so much that he’ll adjust himself as needed—just like the horse that’s tied to a post.
Myth #5: A resistant horse must be stiff in his neck or nose.
Busted: Resistance can come from the feet.
When I’m teaching a horse to drive up in the bridle, I want him to be confident in my hands and able to search and find the release. If we’re moving forward and I feel the horse brace up, I recognize that the resistance is probably coming more from the feet than it is from the neck, nose, or poll. When I feel the horse brace up during forward motion, I’ll cluck and bump with my legs, driving forward more to break his feet loose. When the feet break loose, the face and the neck soften.
If you feel your horse pulling on you, or start to get tension on your hands, don’t move your hands. Instead, keep them still, cluck, drive forward, and watch him find that soft spot.
Myth #6: Put pressure on the wrong thing and reward the right thing.
Busted: Apply the right kind of pressure to encourage the right thing.
During the time I spent riding with the great Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, I really got to understand what they meant about this concept. When they’d speak of putting pressure on the wrong thing, they weren’t talking about pressure as a version of punishment. Yet that’s how some riders try to apply it.
Over years of competitive riding, I’ve discovered that if I use pressure to tell a horse he’s doing something wrong, it works against me when I ask for more effort in competition. I don’t want to punish and make the horse quit what he’s doing—I want to encourage him to step up his performance. To do that, I apply pressure, and that is the proper time to apply it. But the difference is your definition of pressure.
Some people think pressure is a disaster. It means things are going wrong, and it’s a tense situation. But someone else’s definition of pressure is great, it’s go-time, and now I get to be really good.
My definition of pressure is that it’s a positive thing, and not a negative. One example would be when I’m teaching a horse to spin. I want a nice, crisp step. At its highest levels, I want to have a good bit of speed to the turn. When the horse learns the proper step and focus for the turn, and is really committed to the turn mentally, physically, and emotionally—when he’s in the zone, and doing it right—that’s when I’ll put some pressure on to try harder. I’ll cluck, and add a little squeeze or a bump with my foot. Or, I might just use my energy and ask him to go just a little bit faster. I ask in stages.
Over time, my horses understand when I ask and add that pressure, they have a green light to put in the extra effort. I’ve applied pressure when they’re doing the job right, not when they’re doing it wrong.
To incorporate this concept with your own horse, keep something in mind: When you apply pressure, the horse will do whatever he’s doing at the time—only harder. If he’s already doing the wrong thing, why would you want to put pressure on it?
Instead, redirect his feet by disengaging his hip. But make the move into a maneuver you planned to ask him to do, not a correction that you’re riding away from. Act relaxed, like you would if the horse had been cooperating all along. Your horse will learn that he’s not in trouble, and that you just want him to keep doing what he already knows how to do. This is what gives him the confidence to try again for you later.
Craig Johnson is an NRHA Million Dollar Rider, a two-time NRHA Futurity champion, an NRHA Derby champion, a 14-time world champion, and an international reining gold medalist. The reining, Western dressage, and ranch pleasure trainer and clinician lives in Gainesville, Texas.