Writing a column like this, where one article follows another in perfect lockstep, suggests that horse training is a serial process.
It’s as if my green Warmblood True learns one maneuver at a time, then the next, and so on—without interruptions or sessions spent working on multiple tasks. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
We’ve been talking about starting True over ground poles recently. The nature of writing serial articles implies that he is now NOT working on roundness, consistency, pace, manners, gait transitions, catching, clipping, or any of the thousands of other lessons he needs to learn. But in fact, we work on all those tasks and more every day.
So, while 15 minutes might be spent on poles in a given session, we also spend 45 minutes under saddle on everything else, plus half a hour on the ground grooming and tacking up.
Even the 15 minutes on poles involves additional maneuvers: I teach him to approach poles in a rounded frame with a soft mouth, low head, and relaxed neck. I teach him to go through the poles at the same consistent pace he uses to trot or canter an arena or field. I teach him to circle back to the poles by bending his body around my leg, to pass other horses without playing, to halt with both front feet square right when I ask. In other words, horse training is graded for difficulty, but it’s not serial at all!
Then there are unexpected interruptions.
I ignore these when writing about a training session on a given topic, so you might think they don’t occur. They do!
One day recently True and I were working on riding with other horses. He thinks whenever another horse comes into the ring it’s PLAYTIME. Time to snort, wag his head, slap the ground with his front paws—oops, I mean hooves!—and invite the other horses for an instant Fun Fest. Woo-hoo!
So there we were trotting along, he with at least one eye on potential playmates, and me trying to remind him of my existence. My friend was giving a pony lesson to a child, while the child’s parents and grandmother were watching from behind their car just outside the arena. True and I were approaching the car down the long side of the arena, calm and quiet.
Then Grandma decided to snap her giant umbrella closed.
Now, we horse folk all know that umbrellas—”bumbershoots” in the UK—should be outlawed. But evidently, Grandma hadn’t gotten the word.
She had the brolly open and still when we began our work—yes, I noticed it and considered offering a word, but they weren’t my clients and seemed quiet enough leaving the stupid thing open. True seemed to assume it was part of the SUV’s open hatch and followed my lead in getting to work despite its existence.
But neither of us expected it to snap shut just as we were approaching the nearest point. True busted a move that shocked even my friend the riding instructor. He dropped into a four-foot splay position, with his hips and shoulders down as close to the ground as a horse can crouch.
At that point, my 1,400-pound ballerina spun 180 degrees on his left hind toe. Simultaneously, he leaped sideways off the other three hooves and landed, post-spin, some 30 feet away and facing the opposite direction.
OK, so maybe it was 20 feet. My point is that it was a huge unexpected move. My friend and I were stunned that I was still aboard. At this point, True began to run from the bumbershoot, but stopped when asked.
Now, imagine my mood at this point. An umbrella. At a horse ranch. Next to an arena. Snapped shut all of a sudden for no good reason.
I cast a piercing eye at Grandma. She was horrified, as were the student’s parents sitting nearby. They had no idea horses can move that far in less than the blink of an eye.
What to say? The stream of obscene four-letter words uppermost in my mind were probably not best. A scathing lecture wouldn’t suit, either. Everyone was dead quiet, and their faces were ghostly white. The lesson in the arena was at a temporary standstill.
My next thought was a remark along the lines of, “I’ll try not to play with umbrellas in front of the pony your 5-year-old grandchild is learning to ride… if you’ll put yours away now.” But… how unkind!
In the end, I only said, “No umbrellas.” Grandma nodded in terror. She held it next to her leg while I walked True around the ring a couple of times, trying to regain my breath. He was transfixed on the nuclear bumbershoot, waiting for it to suddenly come to life again. I tried not to look at it either, for his sake, but failed.
I wanted to say—“Don’t just hold it on your lap, lady, PUT IT AWAY!” Maybe by then, she was just afraid to move.
In the end we all had a decent chuckle, but my smile was a little less than sincere. At any rate, interruptions happen all the time.
Umbrellas, bicycles, baby strollers, squealing baby pigs, the fox that trots through the arena, loose dogs, children hopping up and down in dinosaur pajamas, ninja cows, horses galloping in adjacent pastures, balloons, fast cars, piercing human screams, a chair out in the field, butterflies, killer birds, pitchforks bouncing on top of speeding ATVs, the dark shadow of a hawk flying high over the arena sand.
Young horses find all these sights and sounds and smells to be new and different, scary risks their brains tell them to run from. Do they have to get used to these events? Pretty much. But all at once, when they’re three and you’re sitting up top like a cork? No.
So, if you’re reading this blog, rest assured that True’s training sessions aren’t nearly as sedate, methodical, or focused as written posts make them sound. We’re bumbling through the day, too!
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 janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.