Navigating the Labyrinth: 10 Ways to Tell if Your Horse’s Training is Going in the Right Direction
The road to a well-trained horse is not a single, clearly marked path. It’s a maze, paved for the most part with good intentions, but nonetheless confusing. Signs contradict each other. Turns look promising but lead to dead ends or long detours. There’s so much information from so many sources that it can be hard to decide which way to go. But if you listen, your horse will tell you whether you are on the right track. Here are ten ways to tell whether your training is going in a good direction. I hope they help you navigate the labyrinth:
1. Your horse becomes more beautiful.
This doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but when a horse carries his rider on a relaxed, swinging back, his topline develops. His neck muscles fill out right in front of the withers, not right behind his ears. His muscles ripple under his skin, which helps his coat shine. Even if his conformation is less than ideal to begin with, correct training will make him look handsome over time.
2. Your horse is willing to stretch forward and down in all three gaits.
This is the best way to check whether you are riding your horse back to front. If your horse stretches over his back into soft contact, you should be able to let the horse chew the reins out of your hands anytime, at the walk, trot, and canter. If you lighten your seat and lengthen the reins, he should lower his neck, lift his back and stretch his entire spine. If he instead curls behind the bit, hurries off, yanks the reins out of your hands, or drops his neck without keeping his back engaged, you know what you need to work on.
3. You can ride your horse on contact, but you don’t have to.
Good dressage riders soften often. Without changing anything else, they give one or both reins for a few strides, to check whether their horses relies on the reins for balance or not. A well-trained horse will not lose his rhythm or steady tempo. A well-trained dressage horse is also capable of going on a loose rein, e.g. on a relaxed trail ride. On the other side of the spectrum, a well-trained western or endurance horse who gets ridden without contact much of the time should be able to go on soft, elastic contact part of the time. Without some understanding of contact, it’s not possible to ride a horse correctly back to front, to turn him into a happy athlete with a well-developed topline and a strong, supple back.
4. Transitions become smoother and more effortless.
A green horse will feel wobbly and unbalanced in transitions. That’s natural. As time goes by, as your horse learns to understand your way of talking to him, as he gets stronger, your horse will not have to run into the canter anymore, or hollow his back when he comes back from a trot to the walk. Effortless transitions are a sign of correct training. A horse can look like he is “on the bit” while trotting around the arena, but any lack of throughness will shows in his transitions.
5. Your horse’s fitness increases.
After a few months of consistent training, he has enough endurance to canter around the arena at a brisk pace for a few minutes without his flanks heaving. He is strong enough to trot up a long hill. He can work for an hour, then still go on a trail ride. Endurance riders are well aware of this training component, while many dressage riders or recreational riders neglect it. Horses are athletes. An hour or more of steady work should not feel like an all-out effort.
6. You are not physically tired every time you get off your horse.
It is true that good riders need to be athletic, but riding horses should not be a strength workout. If your arms are tired after your ride, it means your contact was too strong. If your legs are tired, you are squeezing or nagging too much instead of teaching your horse to respond ot a light leg aid. If your core muscles get tired, you might be constantly pushing or driving, instead of using your seat in a meaningful way. You should also not suffer from emotional fatigue from spending most of your rides arguing or fighting. Training a horse means building a partnership. As your horse learns to understand the language of your back and vice versa, he will become more responsive - to the rein, to the leg, to the seat, to your voice. Riding should become less of a physical effort for you as your horse progresses.
7. Your horse’s gaits become more beautiful to look at and easier to sit.
As the horse learns to balance himself under his rider, his movement becomes more cadenced, more rhythmic. His topline develops. His back starts to swing, inviting your back to engage with it, to start talking to each other. If his trot feels like it will rattle the fillings from your teeth, his back is too tense for meaningful conversation.
8. Your horse looks happy most of the time.
He does not habitually swish his tail, pin his ears, or grind his teeth. His eyes are soft, his facial muscles relaxed. His breathing is regular and deep. Any moments of disagreement or tension are just that - moments. They don’t last an entire ride, or most of your rides.
9. You don’t feel like you are riding two completely different horses depending on which way you are going.
With correct training, your horse’s left and right side will feel more similar. His stiff side becomes easier to bend, and his hollow side becomes straighter and stronger. When what used to be the stiff side becomes the hollow side, I know my horse is on his way to becoming a true athlete. When I can’t remember which side was hollow to begin with, I know I’ve done my job right.
10. Your horse’s comfort zone becomes larger.
It’s easier (and safer) to work with green or troubled horses in a controlled, consistent, confined environment. I use a round pen at first, then a small arena. But once your horse has learned basic skills, this comfort zone needs to expand. As your training progresses, your horse learns to focus on his work. Distractions like barking dogs, plastic bags, or yellow tractors become less of an issue. New situations become more manageable. You can trail ride your horse. You can take your horse to another arena, or a show, or clinic. You can play around with obstacles or cavalletti. Your horse is game for trying new things because his comfort zone is wherever you are.
If your training is going in the right direction, congratulations! If you’ve got work to do in a few of these areas, welcome to the club. Building a partnership with a horse is a long process, a wandering, meandering journey through a jungle of methods and approaches. There are many ways to train a horse. I hope these guideposts help you find the common ground between them.
Ride Happy, and (hopefully) in the right direction,