by Ron Meredith
Tools of the Training Trade: Lesson Plans
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Horses are not born knowing how to be reining horses or dressage horses or driving horses. We train horses to play the games we humans like to play. We start with the horse's inborn mental and physical abilities. Then we gradually apply pressures to shape his behavior so he uses his physical abilities in the specific ways we want. (need to condition his body along with his mind)
In order to reach your goal of playing a specific game with your horse, you need to have some kind of plan for how you're going to take the horse from raw material to finished partner. A lot of people search for a one-size-fits all lesson plan, kind of like a recipe for a cake, that will guarantee fairly standard results if they just add the right ingredients and follow all the steps. There is no single lesson plan or training recipe that fits every horse.
First of all, every horse has his own timetable. The horse's age and health, his temperament, his current physical condition, his genetic athletic potential, and his past experiences all figure in to how long it's going to take to train him to a certain level. The horse may progress faster or slower than you expected. If you plan to teach the horse specific things by specific deadlines, you're headed for problems.
Second, training lesson plans get complicated because the horse has to develop simultaneously on both physical and mental planes. Each and every day the trainer must decide where the horse is both physically and mentally. Then he or she can decide what today's lesson should be to keep the horse progressing so his development on both planes is more or less balanced.
On the physical plane, the horse needs to progress through several levels of general conditioning that develop his muscles, his cardio-vascular system, and his skeletal system. Once he's got that basic conditioning, then he's got to do conditioning specific to the game he's ultimately going to play. On the mental plane, the horse progresses through several realms of understanding and he needs to master one before he goes on to the next:
First realm: You get the horse's attention. We teach heeding to our students as a way of getting the horse's attention focused on them and teaching them to keep their attention on the horse. When you start your ground work, you know you have the horse's attention when he lines his primary line up with yours. When you're riding or driving him, his ears will tell you where his attention is.
Second realm: You earn the horse's trust. You have the horse's trust when he works without any tension in his body--no tight muscles, no holding his breath. He is able to work in rhythm with relaxation.
Third realm: You create an alphabet of physical pressures that the horse understands and responds to individually. These are the steps you will eventually put together to start dancing with your horse. Up to this point, every horse learns basically the same things.
Fourth realm: You put the individual pressures the horse understands together into corridors of pressure that create the shapes the horse needs to understand to play whatever game you want him to play. At this level and the next, you're going to take a fork in the training road depending on the game you ultimately plan to play with your horse.
Fifth realm: At this level, the horse anticipates the shape you want when you just begin to apply the full corridor of aids. The horse that picks up a canter when he just feels your outside leg move back is an example. This is a different kind of understanding on the horse's part than just teaching him to associate a cue or signal with the movement you want. At this point, the horse is fully trained. He's a "broke" horse.
In beginning, the whole lesson might be on attention or on trust. When you achieve those two levels, you'll always review the horse's understanding of them in each lesson but they may now consist of just the horse facing you when you enter his stall and staying relaxed while you saddle or harness him. There may some overlap as you move from one realm to the next so you may find yourself seesawing back and forth between two levels as training progresses. But you can never skip any of these realms.
The horse has to progress in horse-logical stages both physically and mentally. If he skips a step in his physically conditioning, we know he's likely come up with injuries or lameness down the line. At a minimum, he simply won't measure up in the game you've chosen to play. If he skips a step as he moves through the various realms in his mental conditioning, he'll eventually hit the wall or fail to meet the job requirements, too.
In a sense, we do have a one-size-fits all lesson plan for mentally conditioning the horses here at Meredith Manor. The application of the lesson plan to each horse each day ends up being at the point where his understanding or his compliance stops or at the point where you want to add to what he knows. Move the horse logically through each realm taking just one tiny bite of string at a time and pretty soon he'll have swallowed the whole ball.