Horses are creatures of habit. They quickly adopt patterns as a way of life.
Example: If they move to a pasture in the daytime and come back to their paddock at night, they will move from one place to the other without guidance if the gate is open. A more dramatic example would be a barrel racing horse. When he has been practised on the barrel pattern a few times, he will understand which way to go around each barrel and when to flatten out for the home stretch as well as when to end the run.
Patterning can be a two-edged sword. Once shown a pattern, a horse will anticipate the pattern and follow it to its conclusion. Harnessing the theory of anticipation and patterning, you can teach a horse where to go and when. However, if the barrel horse is always ridden in the same barrel pattern, he will learn the pattern, anticipate the next barrel, cut the corner, knock the barrel over, and lose the contest.
A positive example of patterning might be a horse who needs work on gaits and gait transitions. If you give him three barrels in the arena and ride him from barrel to barrel, stopping at each to rest, he will learn the pattern and anticipate his next rest stop.
This has a very positive benefit when perfecting gaits without worrying about direction changes. It also helps a horse transition to a canter. Most are reluctant to canter. It takes a lot of work. The barrel pattern gives them a goal and hurries their pace. In other words, they “go fast” to stop.
Example: If he walks or trots well, use one or both of those gaits to get to each barrel and rest. (See Pressure). When he is fixated on resting at a barrel and you know you can trust that he has learned the pattern, begin the canter exercise. Canter to the barrel and rest. Then canter to the next and rest.
Move the barrels further and further apart until he is cantering quite a distance and becoming smooth.
Don’t try to change the pattern unless he is too forward (moves too fast) to the barrel. (In that case, he might need a bit of circle turning when he gets to the barrel to lower its reward power. However, this is the exception with most of the warm blood horses I train)
Now you begin to shape his canter further by adding distance and then direction.
Once he is sure of the pattern and he takes his canter smoothly (or when he begins to get too fast), take the barrels away. Canter in the general direction of where the barrel used to be. Because you have made his gait consistent, now you can work on direction.
See more discussion of gaits here
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