Clinton Anderson writes, "I often get asked how long a training session should last." That’s a difficult question to answer because a training session shouldn’t be about a set length of time as much as it should be about how your horse is reacting and listening to you. Instead the question should be, ‘How do I know when to end a training session?’ I hope the tips below help.
1 Your horse has made an improvement from yesterday When you first teach a horse something, it’s a concept lesson. In the concept lesson your goal is to get the general idea of the lesson across to the horse. When you first ask a horse to do something, he won’t automatically know what to do. In fact, he’s probably going to do everything but what you want him to do. For example, when you ask the horse to back up on the ground, he’ll probably stick his head up in the air and ignore you. He might turn left, he might turn right, but the very last thing he’ll try is taking a step back. If you release the pressure when he takes a step back he’ll look for that answer again. However, if he takes a step back and you don’t release the pressure, he’ll go through that whole cycle of options (rearing, ignoring you, turning left, turning right, etc.) again. Then he’ll come back to taking a step backwards. If you miss releasing the pressure the second time, it’ll get even worse.
Every time a horse does what you want, or even acts like he’s going to do it, you’ve got to release the pressure so that he knows what the answer is. I’m so obsessed about it that when first teaching a horse something, if he even gives the impression that he’s thinking about doing what I want, I’ll release the pressure. Remember that a thought will soon turn into an action.
When the horse finally does figure out that you want him to back up, more than likely he’s going to back up with his head up in the air and his feet are going to be stiff and bracey. He’s not going to back up smoothly. That’s completely normal. You can’t expect him to understand the concept of the lesson and to back up with energy in his feet with his head and neck level all at the same time. First he has to understand the concept, and then you can build from there. You have to establish a starting point. Once the horse understands what he’s supposed to do then you can work on perfecting the lesson. But if you try to perfect the lesson before the horse understands the concept you’ll run into trouble.
After the first lesson you’ll work on perfecting the exercise. Each time you work with the horse you’ll look for a little more improvement. From that point on you won’t end a training session before the horse has shown some improvement from the day before. On the second day of practising backing up you’d expect him to back up four steps with energy in his feet. When you’d accomplished that you’d quit and move on to something else.
What you don’t want to do is get your horse softer and responding better and then keep drilling on him. If you do, you’ll just discourage him
What you don’t want to do is get your horse softer and responding better and then keep drilling on him. If you do, you’ll just discourage him. That’s hard for human beings not to do. We’re greedy creatures. When the horse is doing well, we want more. If he takes three energetic steps backwards we want to see six, and then we end up frustrating the horse because he doesn’t feel like he gets to win. So always be conscious of rewarding the horse when he’s doing well. Remember, a little try today turns into a big try tomorrow.
2 Your horse has a good attitude Only stop working your horse when he has a good attitude and is respecting you as the leader, or at the very least has a better attitude then when you started your training session. When horses first come to the ranch for training, especially if they’ve been disrespectful for a while, they get worked more than a horse that is respectful and has a good attitude. So it really comes down to this – the worse the horse’s attitude, the more he’s worked. The better his attitude, and the more he tries, the less he’s worked.
You’re telling the horse, ‘If you come out with a good attitude and try everything I ask of you, you won’t have to work as long. However, if you come out with a sorry attitude, you’ll work much harder.’ If you’re consistent with this philosophy your horse will catch on that if he has a good attitude and tries he won’t have to work as long.
Don’t take what I just said out of context or to the extreme though. When you’re working your horse you don’t want to run him out of air to the point of exhaustion, no matter how he’s behaving. If a horse runs out of air, he’ll only be concentrating on one thing – finding air. He won’t be able to think about what you’re asking him to do. So it would be pointless to keep drilling on the exercise and making his feet move. You have to let him stop and give him a chance to get his air back. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t train on him at the same time. When you’re letting him air up, desensitise him. He’s already wanting to stand still, so use it to your advantage.
The most important thing to remember is to not quit the horse before he’s using the thinking side of his brain and has a good attitude. If you quit him when he’s snarly or using the reactive side of his brain, you’ll only reinforce that behaviour in him.
3 Your horse is working well Always end a training session on a good note. If you finish when the horse is frustrated or misbehaving, that’s what he’s going to remember the next day and getting him over his problem will take twice as long. If you find that you’re in a time crunch and your horse isn’t performing well at a particular exercise, stop what you’re doing and practise an exercise you know the horse can do well. That way you’re finishing on a good note, doing something the horse knows how to do so he is relaxed and is listening to you.
Sometimes of course you’re going to have to quit your horse on a note you’re not pleased with. That will happen from time to time. To avoid that problem, before a training session ask yourself, ‘How much time do I have to train this horse today?’ Then plan the session accordingly. If you have a limited amount of time, don’t pick a subject you know your horse struggles with and you can’t get accomplished in that timeframe. Always set yourself up for success, not failure.