BY GIGI NUTTER
The title is a quotation from musician Jimi Hendrix. It captures a training concept that took me almost four decades to truly understand.
Growing up in the Pocono Mountains of rural Pennsylvania, I was surrounded by animals. Wild or domestic, healthy or sick, our house served as home to dogs, cats, rabbits, goats, deer, squirrels and of course, horses. The languages were different but I spent as much time communicating with my four-legged, furry loved ones as I did friends and family.
This understanding of non-verbal communication between animals and humans was praised as “having a natural feel” with horses as I trained with local riding instructors. My riding education focused on correct aides, training scales and equine conditioning. No one had to teach me how to feel a horse’s response to an aid since that form of two-way, tactile communication was second nature. You would think that such a history would result in a rider who “listens” to her horses. Not necessarily.
My career began as many do in the United States. I rode the horses available to me and had to achieve results in competition in order to build a professional reputation. To succeed as an instructor, my students had to succeed with their horses in the show ring. Starting young horses and training the rogues that came my way led to other professionals acknowledging that I was a “tough rider” who wasn’t afraid to address problems in difficult horses.
In no way does this imply that I was abusive. I have always been a compassionate trainer who loved her horses. But for many years when I gave an aid I expected a response…NOW! In other words, when I spoke with my aids, I expected the horse to obey. I felt the physical response and evaluated it but I wasn’t really listening to what the horse was saying. This type of “I speak – You obey” training is not really two-way communication. It’s a lecture.
I am not exactly sure when or why the change occurred. Maybe it was my marriage, subsequent move to Georgia and change to a private farm versus a public training facility. Maybe it was the birth of my daughter at age 41 and learning to be a Mother. Maybe it’s just age and experience. Regardless, in the last 10 years I have become more of an “Asking and Listening” trainer rather than a “Telling and Demanding” lecturer.
In general, this means that I give an aide and then actively listen for the answer through the horse’s body and evaluate it. If the response is not as expected, then I analyze what may have gone wrong in the communication. Did I give a clear aid? Was it appropriate for this stage of the horses training? Did I correctly prepare the horse for the movement? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then I consider if there was an outside influence? This could be physical discomfort, mental confusion or some distraction from the environment. It is my job as trainer to decide what the reason is and select an appropriate response to help the horse perform better the next time.
As a professional trainer this complete process occurs in a split-second. Amateurs should allow themselves more time to sort out the information and respond appropriately. Truly listening to your horse and looking for any barriers to effective communication is hard work. It is much more difficult than just giving more forceful aides a second time, but the rewards are great.
This more effective way of communicating with my horse led to a more “playful” approach to training. Instead of giving instructions to a horse and pressuring them into a correct response, I try to keep the introduction of a new movement amusing and fun. So what if they don’t do it very well at first. I just keep encouraging good efforts with praise and concentrate on clear aids. It’s a lot like teaching child geometry. You can lecture on the subject and keep repeating the information until the student can give correct answers OR you can give the child a set of blocks of various shapes and play with them. Which method do you think students enjoy more? Which approach will yield better results?
Effective communication includes listening and then providing feedback. That feedback tells the “sender” if a message was received and understood. Therefore, if your horse gives a correct response to the aids in an unconfirmed movement, let them know they responded correctly with sincere praise. Some trainers are against it but I use my voice all the time when I train. It’s part of the feedback I give a horse when they perform well.
One particular student had a little horse that was stuck in the training of one-tempi changes. He was rock solid at 1-2 but just didn’t understand that the rider wanted change 3 or 4. We focused on this issue during a lesson and spent a great deal of time confirming basic contact, throughness and responses to aids before approaching the subject of one-tempis. When the time was right, the rider asked for the one-time changes and received 1-2-3 on the first attempt. I cheered in approval and told the rider to get off the horse, praise him lavishly and walk him out. After she put the horse back in his stall she asked if I honestly believed that the horse really understood our response to his performance. I explained a rider must do all they can to ensure that horses understand when they have responded correctly to a rider’s request. That horse quickly confirmed the 1-2-3 and continued adding changes to the one-tempi series.
Listening to your horse also means differentiating between poor performance due to mental confusion versus physical distress. A client’s new Hanoverian mare suddenly lost her wonderful, soft suppleness and “locked up” to the point that it felt like riding a cinderblock. With no evidence of lameness, I continued to ride but listened even more attentively during our work. In the end, a veterinarian confirmed that the mare had an acutely painful heat cycle and I adjusted our training regimen to accommodate that fact.
We all experienced the one-way, lecture style of instruction in school. Our favorite teachers were usually the ones that were the best communicators and carried on productive conversations with the class. It made learning any subject easier and more fun. Knowing what I know now, I wish that every rider would listen to their horse more and make training sessions more like friendly conversations instead of boring lectures.
READ MORE ABOUT BY GIGI NUTTER