I had the privilege to interview the famous French horse trainer Frédèric Pignon once. By then I was an accomplished rider and trainer myself. But that interview changed my perspective so much.
The key word was patience. Losing it means all the work you’ve done before has been useless, he said. And you might be even further back, as the horse will have lost his trust in you. I thought I was patient, until I spend some time with Pignon, who truly showed me the meaning of the word.
It’s not always easy to be patient in the times we live in. It takes quite a bit of self-control to leave all the daily troubles behind, before you approach your horse. But it is very important. Horses pick up on stress very easily and it makes them insecure. When you are in a mood like that, misunderstanding and frustration are around the corner. If you lose your patience with a horse, you break the bond of trust between you. If it happens more than once, chances are he won’t trust you ever again. So being patient around a horse should be a way of life.
When working with a horse, try to focus on him. Don’t think about other pressing matters, like your appointments for the rest of the day, shopping that needs to be done or otherwise. Your horse will know if you are with him in your mind. If you are distracted all the time, you are not open to signals he might give you. You won’t acknowledge what he’s trying to tell you.
‘Be prepared to wait longer’
Pignon told me that horses are happy to do what you ask them, if they understand you. But sometimes it takes a while before they do. You have got to have the inner peace to wait for it, to feel if your horse is ready to answer. If not, you’ll push him and you will try to make him do as he’s told. A horse will not understand that type of behavior and it will make him nervous. According to Pignon, the waiting might take longer than you think. He confessed as a younger man he wanted a response within seconds. Now he’s happy to wait for a day or even a week or longer, if necessary. He’s convinced it will happen at some point, if you are prepared to give the horse that time.
It is possible to force a horse to do what you ask. But he won’t like it and it will show. And if you ask the same in a difficult situation, he might not respond. If he trusts you, he’ll open up to you and he will seek comfort with you if tension arises. That bond of trust develops during the daily routine and the training. Teach your horse exercises step by step. Pignon lets his horses decide if they are ready for the next step. He also wants his horses to be in a good mood when they go training. If not, he’ll do something else with them. He wants it to be easy and fun for his horses to answer to what he asks.
It might sound a bit soft. Do you ever get results if you let your horse decide if he feels like training? Pignon says it’s okay to set your own boundaries. Be very clear and consistent about what you want from a horse. But don’t force them. Don’t make them obey. You can tell them that they are not allowed to run you over. Make sure they understand you, not fear you.
You can give boundaries to a horse. Between those imaginary lines, you can let the horse decide. For example, don’t let them go faster without you giving an aid. If they do, hold them back until there in the tempo you want them to be. And then let go. They will have to stay that way. Maybe you’ll have to repeat it a thousand times. If necessary, be prepared to do so, without any anger. Point out what you want and encourage them to do it. But don’t force solutions upon them. If they find out for themselves what it is you want and you praise them when they do, they will remember it far better.
Losing trust or losing the fun in the work might cost you more time then not working full out in a few training sessions. Overcome your pride and ego. It’s not the end of the world if an exercise doesn’t go well at some point. Stay calm, take it a step back, build it up again, and it will get better.
If it doesn’t happen, you’ll have to find another way to explain it.
Teach your horse step by step and give him time to process the new information. Don’t repeat yourself over and over. If it doesn’t happen, you’ll have to find another way to explain it. Ask yourself what it is he doesn’t understand. How can you adjust your question so he will? Be happy with small results. But make sure that you only reward the good stuff. Try to stop before something goes wrong. If you do a long side shoulder in, and he starts really good, but then it goes to pieces, he won’t know which half was good. So stop if you feel it slipping away. Reward the good stuff and do it again, maybe one step more. If he’s done some good steps for about three times, it will have settled in his brain. Go and do something else. Or give him a walk on a long rein, which is a reward for him as well. Don’t do the same exercise over and over again. If it doesn’t go well, it won’t improve from doing the same. Famous saying: if you keep doing what you did, you’ll keep getting what you got. Think about another exercise you can do to improve the one that needs more work. I’ll come back to this when we start discussing exercises in later episodes.
If you go too fast and you miss certain steps, you’ll never reach the top. You’ll have to go back.
Be carefull with goals. It’s not bad to work towards something, but if you are set on a date for a certain result, you are more likely to force him to reach it. If it doesn’t go as planned, is doesn’t mean your horse is stupid. It means you are not flexible enough to find other solutions. Your way of teaching him doesn’t appeal to him. Unfortunately, a lot of people doubt the quality of the horse before they think of the educational qualities of the rider.