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Progress Checkpoint

Panorama, horse looking straight forward, on a blurred background of sky and grass. Portrait of a bay gelding. Thoroughbred chestnut stallion. Horse head close up in the summer field.

A few months ago, I described my first discovery ride with my three-year-old Warmblood True in his new home.

He was comfy with tack, led well, and longed obediently but without voice commands. He stood patiently at the mounting block, knew how to stop and go under saddle, and “kinda” steered.

Now, eight months after True’s arrival, let’s review his progress. It’s really common to skip these checkpoints and just keep pressing the horse to learn more, more, more. But I like to assess every now and then to give the horse credit for what he has learned. This way, I can also identify weaknesses that still need work and decide which maneuvers are next on our agenda.

So, let’s assess Trouper to see what he has learned.

I enter his six-acre pasture and call his name. He comes to me reliably from all locations except the farthest corner. Since teaching him to catch, he has never evaded me when I approach with a halter. Not even when adjacent horses are galloping around!

We go to outdoor cross-ties to groom and tack up, where he stands quietly. He is still nervous inside the barn because we stopped using it for covid precautions, so he’s not experienced in there. He knows not to urinate in the barn aisles, wash rack, arenas, or cross-tie areas.

True now knows “walk, trot, canter, faster, easy, reverse, and whoa” on a longe line or in a round pen. He has also transferred these voice commands to a small arena where there’s more space to ignore my voice or misbehave.

Under saddle, he moves forward off my leg at the first request about 90% of the time. His steering, balance, and pace are consistent at every gait, and he knows various speeds at a trot. He bends well, especially after he’s warmed up.

I’m still teaching True to round his body so that he reaches with his shoulders and pushes forward with the engine of his hindquarters—rather than dragging his body along by pulling it with his forehand. “All strung out,” in other words. This is a common problem with young horses. It takes them a long time to build the muscle to work in even a loose frame, and a long time to realize that roundness and impulsion are desired. And that roundness doesn’t mean “buck,” and impulsion doesn’t mean “run.”  

Along with frame, True’s head and neck position need work, although he’s getting the idea that I prefer a medium-low head and extended neck. The smooth framed mechanics of forehand, hindquarters, back, neck, and head is all of a piece. It goes together. So, I wait until pace, consistency, and basic flatwork are solid before expecting much roundness. I’ll explain why in a future article. Promise!

Baby True rocks his corners now. I rarely have to bend his body or apply aids to maintain a rounded curve. He’s learned how to carry himself around corners in balance both laterally and vertically. Nice to see and lovely to ride! At a walk, he remains relaxed when I adopt a two-point position. We haven’t tried it at a trot except for a few steps so far.

He has also learned a smooth halt with all four legs under him and his front feet positioned squarely across from each other. This is a huge achievement for a horse who used to straggle himself to a rough stop, with feet pointing in all directions and a body like a noodle! He still has to shuffle his feet a bit to get them square, but that’s OK for this stage. Seventy-five percent of the time, he reverses nicely and has worked up to four or five steps in a straight line. Occasionally, he gives me some guff about yielding to my hand in reverse gear.

True’s canter departs were hard won. Lessons on moving forward were very helpful with this. Most of the time now, he picks up a canter after two or three steps of slow sitting trot with pressure from my outside calf, just as he should. He always takes the correct lead. Leads were never a problem for True. Most horses learn them easily with very clear (even exaggerated) aids and a rider who can instantly feel the wrong lead and correct it.  

As you know from my “Killer Birds” article, we still have a long way to go before True accepts new or sudden smells, sights, and sounds. This, too, is normal for a young horse. It takes the typical Warmblood years of experience to begin to accept a lot of the potential hazards in his environment. Some hotbloods never get it. After all, True’s prey-survival brain is telling him to run away right now from such events.

But he’s making headway. He’s no longer worried about bicycles, angled mounting blocks, or the gaping maws of open doors on cars. He can even accommodate white plastic trash bags piled on top of a car to take to the garbage can at the end of the driveway… a former “run-and-hide” event.

But True is still jumpy around birds, ATVs, children, dogs, wind, deer, a chair beside the arena… anything strange or new or sudden. And don’t even THINK about cows!

Looking at True’s progress over eight months, I’m awfully proud of my little buddy. He’s learned a lot, he trusts me to teach him more, and his basics are sound enough now to continue our journey toward more complicated maneuvers. His current weaknesses fall firmly within the typical for a horse of his age, breed, and experience.

Teaching clearly and consistently by baby steps every day is the key to unlocking a horse’s brain. From there, work on choosing the right rewards (usually non-edible for the most effective dopamine release) and offering them at the right moments to cement new associations among the horse’s neural networks.

Next time, with progress report in hand, we’ll talk about what’s next for True’s training.

Related reading:

Brain-Based Horsemanship is a weekly column that chronicles Janet Jones, PhD, and her journey with True, a Dutch Warmblood she trained from age three using neuroscience best practices. Read more about brain-based training in Jones’ award winning book Horse Brain, Human Brain.

A version of this story originally appeared on It is reprinted here with permission.

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