Training Mythunderstandings:
Pattern Building

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Pattern-istic pressures build horse logically on what a horse already knows. The trainer puts a mental or physical pressure on the horse and releases that pressure when the horse takes the shape that the trainer wants. The horse associates the feeling of a particular shape with relief from a particular pressure. When the trainer asks for something new using a similar pressure, the horse doesn’t get excited. He says, “I know the answer to that.”

It’s the trainer’s job to make sure that each new thing is just one step, just a small nuance, away from what the horse already understands so it never raises the horse’s excitement level. Any pressure that raises the horse’s excitement level is either too far away from what he already knows or is being applied with too much force. The trainer wants the horse to perceive him as the safest, most comfortable place to be, not as a predator to be obeyed out of fear of consequences (that’s human logic, not horse logic).

Let’s take a look at one example of how horse logic works. At one point in our ground work with a baby horse, we’re going to find ourselves standing facing the horse’s shoulder and scratching. We’re imitating the grooming that horses do for one another in a herd. In a herd situation, some horses are only allowed to groom certain other horses or they are expected to groom other ones. So depending on where this particular horse perceives his herd status he may be more or less anxious to be groomed and more or less anxious to return the favor.

Now if the trainer was smart, before she started working with this baby, she put on a dropped noseband to stabilize his jaw so that the most he can groom with is his lips. And she’s not afraid of being injured by his lips. However, she doesn’t want the horse to get in the habit of reaching around and nibbling his handler anytime he’s being groomed or saddled or otherwise handled.

She also doesn’t want to make the baby horse afraid of her. She wants him to feel completely safe and comfortable with her. So when he reaches around to offer some mutual grooming, she does not slap his nose or shove it or make a startling gesture with her hand or elbow or anything else. Instead, she just takes the hand closest to his head, scratches her way up his neck and puts her fingers in the groove where his jowl meets his throatlatch. That makes it uncomfortable to turn his head toward her so he eventually gives up on the idea of mutual grooming.

Later when she has the baby on a lead line, he may be so convinced she’s the best place to be that he starts to crowd her. She can just scratch her way up his neck, put her fingers behind the jowl again and hold some pressure there until he moves away. When she wants to cross his primary line and turn him away from her, he may not understand what she is showing him at first. Rather than pushing or pulling his head over with the lead rope, she can use that finger pressure behind the jowl again. This time, she’ll increase the pressure just enough that the horse has to turn his head off his primary line in the direction she wants him to go before getting relief from it.

Now our baby horse is learning that moving his head off his primary line and taking a particular shape (the turn) relieves pressure. He also finds out that when he moves his head off his primary line, he has to do something to readjust his balance. So he learns to move the foot on that side over just a little each time he picks it up and puts it back down.

When the trainer puts the horse under saddle, she’s going to build on what the horse learned on the ground. Initially, she’s just going to ask the horse for forward motion and take what she gets as he learns to carry her weight on his back. As he gets comfortable with that, she can start asking for turns by putting just a little more weight on her inside seat bone. Now the horse gets the feeling of a shape similar to the one he took when he turned on the ground. He moves his inside foot over just a little each time he picks it up and puts it back down and he’s now moving on a circle. As he gets comfortable with this step, she’ll gradually add more nuances of leg and rein pressures until the horse has a full vocabulary of pressures that enable them to play any game they want.

Each new thing she shows the horse will just be one tiny step away from something he already knows. Easy for him to figure out. No big surprises. No increase in excitement level. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. Good training is awfully boring to watch.

A cue is a signal that the horse associates with a particular response. Whenever the trainer signals “A,” the horse responds with “B” and the pressure goes away. The problem with cues is that they cannot be modified. Doing more or less of “A” does not get more or less of “B” from the horse. An example is the rider who bumps her horse’s inside shoulder to cue the canter. The horse associates the bump with a canter of a particular shape (lead) at a particular speed in the direction they are already going. But bumping a little harder or a little softer does not modify the horse’s shape or speed or direction.

For example, a horse might stand quietly next to the mounting block at the barn but go to pieces if the rider tries to mount from a big rock alongside the trail. The mounting block back at the barn is part of a routine he’s comfortable with but his rider has not developed patterns of rhythm and relaxation and camaraderie that enable him to stand comfortably alongside whatever rock or log or stump she would like to stand on to mount.

A cue is a signal that the horse associates with a particular response. Whenever the trainer does A, the horse responds with B and the pressure goes away. The problem with cues is that they cannot be modified. Doing more or less of A does not get more or less of B from the horse. An example is the rider who bumps her horse’s inside shoulder to cue the canter. The horse associates the bump with a canter of a particular shape (lead) at a particular speed in the direction they are already going. But bumping a little harder or a little softer does not modify the horse’s shape or speed or direction.

A pattern of pressures that build horse logically can be modified to use under any circumstances or for any riding discipline. When the horse understands them, they can be enforced without raising the horse’s excitement level. They form the basis of a communication system between the horse and rider that enables them to do and enjoy whatever they want.


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