Your horse’s environment can have a large impact on her ability to learn. Here’s how to create a training space that sets her up for success.
Wondering how to create an environment that encourages your horse to learn? If, as Shakespeare says, all the world’s a stage and we are merely players, then we have to set up a helpful stage, and be pleasant players. You, as the teacher, must create a pleasing atmosphere that helps your student, the horse, relax — a stage that sets the mood for learning. Any time you interact with your horse there are three main variables to consider — her mental and physical state, your mental and physical state, and the physical environment you are in. It’s not possible to control every one of these variables, but it is possible to enhance learning by becoming more aware of how your horse perceives her world, and what you can do to help her learn. Here are five steps to staging a positive classroom.
1. CHOOSE THE BEST WORKSPACE
All the world may be a stage, but you don’t want the whole world in the initial training sessions. Pick a location that is small, quiet, and neutral. It should be a calming space with just you and your horse. Horses see differently than humans, and their hearing is much keener. They even “feel” ground vibrations before we do. Finding a private space free of as many distractions as possible makes it easier for you (the teacher) to become your horse’s main focus.
If the space is too large, it is also easier for the horse to find an escape. A funny viral video shows a mini dragging its handler all over a large outdoor arena. Teaching that little guy to lead and lunge in a small stall-sized enclosure first would have led to a better end result.
Indoors is best if you have that opportunity. Move away from pasture buddies and any space that your horse associates with food, rest, or play. If your indoor space is sometimes used for turnout, then you may need to block off a smaller “classroom”. My young gelding was born at our farm, and at times was turned out in the arena with his mom. He used to nap and roll in one corner of the ring, so during his first year of training, he always gravitated to that corner. To this day he will, at times, try to convince his rider that this would be a good place to lie down. Our arena has never been a neutral space to him, one that has no other agenda attached to it.
Positive reinforcement techniques your horse will appreciate
TREATS — When used as a reward, not a bribe, treats are a wonderful way to positively reinforce your equine companion. Be sure to discourage begging, which can lead to biting, and learn how to defer gratification by not offering treats every time he does something right.
VERBAL PRAISE — You can say the word “good”, for example, any time you feed grain or hay to help your horse build association with something pleasant.
PHYSICAL TOUCH — Not many horses dislike pats, rubs, and wither scratches! Observe your horse with her buddies to learn where she likes to be scratched.
REST — Rewarding your horse with rest offers the perfect opportunity for him to process your session and unwind physically.
LEISURE TIME — Congratulate your horse on a job well done by going for a walk with her or giving her some free time to graze.
What does your horse enjoy? Up the reward at times so he doesn’t get bored with the reinforcement techniques you’re using. Let him see your enthusiasm, reward small progress, and always reward immediately after he does something right!
2. PREPARE YOURSELF AS THE TEACHER
As the horse’s main focus of attention, it is important that you, as the trainer, be perceived in a positive way. Before you even enter the arena, make sure you are in the correct mental and physical state to be constructive.
Have you spent time developing trust between yourself and your horse? If not, then it might be helpful to spend time either in the workspace or outside, grooming your horse and getting to know him. Equines are great readers of mood and body language. It is almost impossible to lie to them, and they will quickly mirror a bad mood. Sometimes just grooming or grazing them is the best lesson for a sour mood day.
Consider the tools necessary for the lesson. What type of tack will be needed? Will a crop be used? Are there props such as balls, mounting blocks, or poles? Introduce your horse to the tools first, and make sure he can adjust to them.
3. ASSESS THE STUDENT
The pupil needs to be a willing partner, not a victim. Listen to your horse. If she balks on the way to the arena, that should tell you something. It’s your job to figure out if
she has a negative association with the workspace, if she’s experiencing physical discomfort that day, or if something in the area is creating fear. Listen to the cues. Balking might not mean you need to change the location of your sessions, but it may mean you need to change what you are doing within those sessions. It might even mean you need to have the horse vetted.
Relaxation is the first element in a student’s ability to absorb information — it is the beginning of all training. The horse has to be relaxed mentally and physically to accept input of any kind. The best thing you can do for your student is to help her relax every minute you spend with her. Relaxation begins with mutual trust.
Consider the horse’s five senses within the environment you are creating. Some are more reactive to outside sound than others. Horses can hear and smell better than we can. They also see differently — we probably see “better”, but their perception of the surroundings is different from ours. Trainers joke that a horse has two brains, one for each eye. Due to how the equine brain transmits information, your horse will react when something is seen from the left eye even if she’s already seen and reacted to it from the right eye. Introduce new things in the environment from both directions. Take this into consideration when you start moving things around within the stage. Studies have shown that a stallion can smell a mare in heat up to five miles away. The more you know about your student, the easier it is to validate him and help him relax.
Prerequisites to all learning
- Basic needs of exercise and food have been met
- The student must feel well, mentally and physically
- Safety both within the learning space and the living environment
- Trust between teacher and student
- The teacher has observed the things that create a nervous reaction in the student
4. CONSIDER THE LESSON PLAN
Come to your training session with a plan, not an agenda. Have a vision, but no expectations that might cause frustration. Listen to your student and work with what is presented to you in the moment, with no time limits.
The variables within the learning environment are just that — variables. Neither the student, teacher, or space will be exactly the same each day. Take a good look at all the variables and decide if this is a good day for the original plan. It may be a day to shorten the session, or really vary it and do something playful, like letting the horse loose to investigate his space while you observe. That might be all that should happen that day — developing trust. Your horse will usually show you where his mind is. One of my minis came into my planned work session with his own agenda — instead of sitting in his “chair”, he rolled it. He loves to “roll out his red carpet” which was not in the arena that day. He showed me that was where his mind was, so I went and got the red carpet. He rolled it out, was praised, and then proceeded to be attentive enough to listen to my plan.
Many short sessions are better than one long session. Even fun can become tiring, and sometimes the best reward is to end a session. It is also important to end on a positive note, so ask for something simple that you are sure your horse will answer correctly, then take him back to his favorite place to rest.
Your horse’s senses make sense!
Spend time learning how equine perception differs from ours.
- Horses are wired to be on high alert for possible predators.
- They have a fairly wide range of vision but cannot see directly in front or behind them. It is important to allow a horse to move his head to assess something that might be in these locations.
- Things moving from behind to the front may frighten him, so be sure to give him some warning.
- We don’t know how horses see color, but we do know they are very aware of distinct shade changes, such as a black box in the center of a white jump panel. To a horse, this looks like a hole where an animal could be hiding.
- Horses have the ability to hear quite well, which helps them perceive possible danger from enough distance away to allow for a quick getaway.
- Horses can also smell changes in their environment that might signal danger. This is especially true on a windy day.
- The horse’s sense of smell is linked to her taste. This might influence the treats you choose. Trust when your horse turns her nose up or away, and find a different treat.
- Horses learn about their surroundings and each other by using their muzzles to touch. Pay attention to this.
- If you have spent time associating your voice with positive reward, than you can use it to calm your horse in frightening situations.
- Never punish a spooky horse, trust his keen instincts, and take the time to help him become secure.
5. ESTABLISH CLEAR INTENT
As the teacher, you must be well educated on the subject you will be presenting so you can give clear information. Have a distinct picture in your mind at all times of the desired answer you are looking for from your student. It is important not to put a time limit on learning. Break your lessons down into small steps and acknowledge the slightest sign of progress. Reward immediately.
It is also important to recognize signs of confusion. This too is a response to your question. Respect this two-way conversation and give a clear marker of approval if the answer is correct. Redirect your horse if she is not correct. Sometimes the best thing you can do in a moment of confusion is to be silent. This gives your horse time to process. Then proceed with praise, step by step, to the appropriate answer.
Consistency will aid in solidifying the lesson and get you closer to being able to take your horse’s learning to a new stage. In order to be consistent, you must be very aware of your cues, and ask in the same manner every time. Clarity from you builds trust, and through that trust you become a safe space for your horse within any environment.
The benefit of taking the time to understand your equine student and show her you are a safe space means you can take her anywhere and she will continue to want to learn from you. The environment can change, but you have a relaxed and trusting partnership for any stage. Go out and meet the world with relaxation and trust.