Training Theory: Relationship

Like the proverbial Nuns in parochial schools of old, whose educational approach was based on intimidation, repetition, and rules, a trainer can demand a perfect performance from a horse. But as surely as form follows function, emancipaed performance follows Relationship.

Relationship is NOT Training.

Relationship (with a capital R) is based on mutual respect and understanding as well as the delicate strings of your heart to his heart. It cannot be forced. It cannot be hurried. It can only be coaxed and then nurtured. While you can experience a magical moment of instant connection with a horse you do not yet know, the time it takes to develop a real relationship cannot be compressed.

Having an intellectual understanding of Relationship is not the same as having Relationship.

To your horse, Relationship is trust. Relationship is security. Because a horse is a prey animal who is reactive and fearful, security is even more important than food. A horse who has a Relationship with you will trust your judgement over his own. He will be relaxed or seek your counsel when he encounters things that cause him stress or anxiety.

To you, Relationship is listening to your horse. It is a responsibility to take his opinion into account. It is a responsibility to provide safe haven when something makes him tense or anxious. The reward for a Relationship is, of course, emotional gratification. But it is also the way to Training with a capital T. A relaxed horse GIVES himself to training. A relaxed horse learns more quickly and thoroughly. A relaxed horse performs with remarkable elegance and grace.

Not every horse and every human are suited in temperament. In my earliest days as a trainer, if I could not develop a connection with a horse fairly quickly, I gave up and went on to the next horse, wasting the potential but spending little time and avoiding frustration. I packed a lot of horse experience into a relatively short time.

Since then I have trained many horses – each one better than the one before. I have grown in skill. My timing is fine-tuned. My intuition is sure. I understand the instincts of a horse in his most primitive state. I have respect for the fact that this huge creature is capable of great strength and therefore capable of doing damage to a human body. My experience has given me the ability to anticipate (or know that I cannot always anticipate) an unintended consequence of some action.

I get better every day at “reading” a horse. It is an unconscious thing born of experience. Most of the time I am unaware that I am using it until I try to show someone else how to do something and realize that they have not developed that skill. Without it you are crippled, even in danger. Without it, your horse cannot communicate with you. I can “see” what is happening faster and react faster because I have internalized the tools of my trade. I don’t have to think about HOW to do something. I can work with my intuition.

Looking back, I see that with each one I got better and better and more and more natural at developing a Relationship. It wasn’t just training skill that made each horse better. It was the breaking down of barriers and the building of communication. It was flexibility born of understanding why something was happening, so that a new approach could be implemented when an old method was failing. It was the loss of ego. It was the confidence to experiment whether my audience agreed or not. It was the advantage of age-born patience.

Relationship means that during times of stress, you will endeavor to provide safe haven for your horse. Understand, however, that it does not take the place of caution in the face of misunderstandings or fears. Horses, however trusting, still retain basic instincts, and you must be alert to your horse’s every signal, however subtle.

Understand that Relationship does not take the place of an intellectual understanding of how to “train” a horse to perform a certain maneuver. But there is a place in the mind of both man and beast that leaves logic and formula behind and melds into shared intuition where your mind and his are synchronized. That only happens through Relationship.

Along my journey, I have absorbed every training method I could find and loved a horse or two. Book knowledge and experience have taught me a few things.

Not every horse is suited to every job. Finding his preferred job is part of respecting his personality and needs.
It takes patience to slow down, feel your horse’s confusions, anxieties, enthusiasms and goals.
It takes control to cede control. Pushing too hard, asking too much, working too long, kills and damages your Relationship.
It takes humility and flexibility to change your strategy if your horse needs something other than what you are offering or asking at the moment.

Play (in the sense of activity that is pleasurable to both the horse and the handler) is important.
Curiosity is important. A horse who is not curious is dull and not easy to train.
Imagination is important to keep a horse interested in learning.
Openness is important.
A sense of humor is important. A sense of wonder is important.
All of these are the attributes of a child. Movies like The Black Stallion and Flicka nurture the dream of being one with a horse. Then we grow up and forget how.

The conundrum is that it takes maturity for an adult to be immature.

Kristull High Water Mark was my special boy. We taught each other.

Relationship allows you to follow the suggestions of a horse as you work together toward a goal. It helps your goal become his idea. Use your heart and gut as well as your intellect. It is not a mathematical formula but a gossamer thread of common communication.

RELATIONSHIP is hard. I can lose the thread of it in an instant of unguarded relapse. Without constant vigilance, it can be damaged or lost.

Start the Journey

While all of this is very ethereal, there are some concrete steps you can take to get the journey started.
We will assume that the horse you are working with has some training as far as being halter-trained and manageable on a lead through daily housekeeping chores. He can be touched, rubbed, groomed and shod.

Phase 1:

Whether you are starting a Relationship path with your current horse or a new one, you must start by observing, listening, studying him at rest and at play. Watch how he interacts with pasture mates and alone in his stall. Maybe you will sit in the paddock. You will graze together. You will communicate with him using your eyes and body. If he is particularly skittish, add him to a small herd of trained and calm horses. Walk among them, talking and touching each of the other horses, giving him the confidence of observing their reactions to you like a mother shows a foal.

If you are lucky enough that he approaches or does not run away at your approach, walk away from him. Give him a chance to see your retreat. His confidence in your passivity will grow. After doing this a few times, he may be curious enough to follow you. Reward him with soothing language and a relaxed body.

Phase 2:
Keep His Attention Without Touching Him.

If your horse is kept in confinement such as a stall, his pent up energy wants release. If you have the advantage of turning him loose into an arena, you are lucky. There is little to distract him from your presence. When first turned loose, he may want to run and buck and kick. Run with him. Run at him and veer off. Let your inner child play. Take care that he does not mow you down in his adrenaline-induced enthusiasm or in an invitation to play the same game. But if he invites, it is a VERY good sign.

When he has played his game and turns to exploring, get his attention. Make small strange noises. Kick the dirt. Run away. Bang a board. Whistle. Make your body small or large. Squat down and “find” things in the dirt. Anything that keeps his attention on you is good. (This might be a good time to start using a word or signal for “come here” as in “play with me”).

horse joining up Horses are innately very curious. For your purposes, the more curious the better, as that is a hallmark of intelligence and willingness to learn. It gives you ways to get him to perform maneuvers that would be hard to teach without inducing the action as a challenge he takes up on his own.

As he returns to you to see what is so interesting, use your encouraging voice and encourage him to follow you by passing parallel to him from his rear to his head and then keep moving. Make it his idea to go with you like Joining. Denim (left) enjoyed a quick roll in the sand, then followed Louis. He had a connection with her that I never achieved. I did not have the patience to cultivate a relationship with her – not even a relationship with small r)

If you turn him into a grassy pasture, you may get the same 3-4 minutes of play. But allow at least 30 minutes of grazing afterward. Join him during the grazing, but don’t expect his full attention. If he’s calm enough you can sit next to his head while he grazes. Use your safety judgement about how small to be next to him, but try to engage with your voice up close. Talk nonsense or tell him a slow, sweet story. Adore him in your mind and tell him through your thoughts. This may sound a little goofy, but what is in your mind translates all through your body. You would be very surprised at what he perceives.

Phase 3:
Get his Opinion.

Stand next to him and touch his body all over with a gentle, whole-hand. First just resting and then softly rubbing or massaging. Find the spots on his body where your touch relaxes him, rewards him (frequently his withers or the top of his fanny just above the root of his tail). Notice the places that agitate him. Do this without restraints or with a very loose lead so that if he has had enough he can just change position or move off.
If he is a high-strung horse, use your breathing, body and voice to soothe and calm him (see Pressure).

It will be very obvious where he likes to be touched and where he does not.
All of this might seem like common sense for a person who loves his horse, but it is the tempo and progression that is important as well as the goal. Here, the HORSE speaks and YOU listen, learning his quirks and needs and learning to respond to him. This can be fun.

Do you feel that you are not making “Training” progress and want to shorten the time this takes? Push that thought away. Compressing or hurrying this process can corrupt the Relationship before it gets started. Later, in the Training Exercises portion of this manual, you may follow him when he moves away, asking him to understand requests that make him anxious or fearful. (see Desensitizing Exercises). For now, you want his unvarnished opinion of your actions.

Phase 4:
Speak to him.

Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado sing the praises of spoken language. Coupled with rubbing or massaging him and breathing slowly and deeply, a horse can feel your calm attitude and gentle confidence. I will remind you throughout the training exercises that it is not so much the words as the tone that has the effect. (see Cues) In an anxiety-producing moment, your inflection can calm him much as a mother comforts her child. He will be induced to mirror you. If these words/tones become understood during your ground work, they become an invaluable tool while riding as well.

As you proceed through actual training, your words will become more meaningful and more subtle. Quick staccato bursts such as Whoa or ,”No, no, no, no” (usually accompanied by some body language that speaks admonishment) can be very important cues, while “Goooood Boy” spoken like a caress and accompanied by a loving hand on his withers is a fine reward for a job well done.

foal biting his motherPhase 5:
Set some limits.

While giving and compromising is the basis for Relationship, horses are, of course, large and dangerous if not given limits. Certain behaviors cannot be tolerated – even by the most loving owner. Biting is forbidden and coming into your personal space can be dangerous for you if it is unexpected or uninvited. In the herd, the leaders “teach” the babies or newcomers what is good behavior by threatening and then following through if the threat is not heeded. (see Pasture Etiquette) (Of course, this dam with her Friesian foal is making a liar out of me and not setting any limits at all as he bites her.)

To this end, Relationship allows justified reprimands. Trust is earned. Trust is given. A reprimand must be justified and portioned to fit the sensitivity of the horse at the time of the transgression. A reprimand need be no stronger than needed to stop the behavior, and it must be administered the moment the problem arises. Given those parameters, you can set the boundaries necessary for safe and comfortable work.

Every trainer knows that this is not an easy task. If you misjudge and administer a reprimand that is not strong enough, raise the urgency of the reprimand until the behavior stops. If you misjudge the situation and react too strongly, you will need to repair some damage done to the relationship. You must build the trust to a level that can weather a justified correction, and you must hone your own observational skills to know how intense it should be by understanding your horse’s mind at the moment.

Phase 6:
Slow going

horse pawing the air
At every opportunity, take advantage and build on actions that are spontaneous and predictable. They can be shaped into more complicated, desirable maneuvers with much less conflict. If he raises his foreleg while objecting to the cross ties (as High Water did), try gently tapping the underside of his foreleg with your crop and cuing him to perform that lift (which he is already doing). Given a touch and a word every time he raises the leg, he may begin to associate the lift with your action and perform it on request.

Be flexible. Be flexible with your training “Method”. Most people do not have the background nor the horses that Magali Delgado and Frederic Pignon have. People must start somewhere to learn to train a horse, and most learn to train using some systematic method whose rules are fairly concrete. Natural Horsemanship lends itself best to Relationship. But new trainers still use it as a formula instead of honing the Relationship first.

Not every horse reacts the same way to the same pressures. If you are perceptive and “know” your horse, you will know when he is not “getting it”. If you have to keep repeating a lesson ad infinitum, he either does not understand, he is fearful, or both. Try a new approach.

horse halter playDon’t push too hard. Don’t be too insistent. Don’t work into boredom.

Reward with pleasurable activities (fun). While teaching High Water to let me halter him without a fuss, he loved to take the halter into his mouth first. He grabbed it, swung it, played tug-of-war with it. While I was afraid that this game might lead to some bad habits, I, myself, enjoyed it. It was fun to play. It was fun to show off. It added a little time to the tacking process, and I had to set some limits after he accidentally grabbed my hand while reaching for the halter, but all-in-all it was worth it. (Watch how very easy he is to catch and haler at the end of the video above.)

Whenever possible, teach during pleasurable activities to associate the lesson with the pleasure. For instance, if your horse is more relaxed on a trail ride than in the arena, try teaching an exercise during the trail ride.

Phase 7:
Are we there yet?

When you have a Relationship you will know! If you are not sure, you don’t have it.
How long will all of this take? Perhaps a very long time. If you raised your horse from a newborn, the time is usually shorter. If he was imprinted at birth, the time is usually shorter. If you live with your horse the time is usually shorter. But shorter is a relative term.
If you have to have a more precise answer, you probably don’t have the time.

Thank you to Magali Delgado and Frederic Pignon for the inspiration for this discussion. Most of us will never reach the pinnacle of performance that their amazing horses display. But a meaningful Relationship with your horse is invaluable. And if they influence other trainers to become more perceptive, more flexible, and better communicators horses will be the better for it.

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