What is the goal of training?

Roxie doing her best ‘Passage’

If you hang around the classical Dressage crowd for any length of time, you will hear someone say something to this effect: “Horses already know how to do the movements, in the field; training only consists of teaching them to do them with a rider added.”  It might also be slightly modified to include “on cue” or “on request”.  But is it really that simple?  And, if they are able to do the movements, what is it they need to learn, besides the cues, to do it with a rider?  Here is my take.

The statement, or some variation, is often found in old texts on training.  In my opinion, the purpose was to emphasize keeping the natural state of the horse’s gaits.  It is too easy to create a lateral walk or canter, or to reduce a trot to a shuffle, through rushed or inconsiderate training.  So, the statement, in my mind, seems geared to keep the human focused on the fact that we are not trying to improve upon nature, but only to enjoy what it has to offer.  A worthy sentiment!  However, I find it also limiting – including to how we view the training of the horse.

Talent may be inborn, but such grace is developed through long work and training.

For me, the statement is equivalent to saying that humans are all born to dance the ballet.  After all, humans can do all of the movements of the ballet – but not all humans, and not all with the same quality.  More importantly, it is a rare human that can do a correct grand jeté without a lot of coaching and practice – if one even exists.  Cliché though it may be, for me the height of Dressage training is the equivalent to ballet for the horse.  In both cases, you are taking natural talent and developing it in such as way as to create greater grace and beauty.  Done right, both should provide the individual with posture and fitness that would reduce injuries suffered by untrained individuals.

On a recent reread of the wonderful old work, The Rider Forms the Horse (Burger and Zietzschmann), I found this passage that clearly expresses my own view:

“If you watch people doing gymnastics, it is not difficult to notice enormous differences in the way they move.  They all want to make the same movements; some appear natural, graceful, harmonious, the others clumsy, angular and grotesque.  The first are supple (unforced), the others tense….

We have described these observations in respect of people in such detail because it is inexplicable why the suppleness of the horse is mostly judged differently from that of the human being.  The much quoted “horse which is turned out on grass” can be supple or not.  If one chases grazing horses about, on can observe that some of them canter away with beautiful, energetic and harmonious movements, the others with tense backs and jarring, short canter strides.” (pg 80-81)

Certainly many of the movements we train the Dressage horse to do can be found performed by the universal “horse”.  Most excited horses will do something resembling Passage – though the carriage and suppleness will vary significantly between individual horses.  But I can honestly say that I have only seen something resembling Piaffe either in a stallion being handled at breeding time, or confined behind a fence when over excited.  Some horse extend their trot while free, but others rarely do more than jog before they would break into canter.  The lateral work I’ve seen in loose horses rarely resembles any of the bend and balance we demand in training.

A young Noble showing Levade in the making.

It is true that some horses are so naturally gifted that you can watch them move across the pasture and imagine that all you need to is sit up there and steer.  Noble is one such horse.  He is naturally balanced, supple, and carries himself in the kind of uphill arc we all strive for.  However, many like me will wait a lifetime for such a horse – if we are ever even that fortunate.  The continuation of the quote above is relevant here:

“From this one cannot, however, draw any conclusions as to how these horses will become supple under the rider, because the temperament and sensitivity toward the rider play at least as great a role in a horse’s readiness to relax as its physical predisposition.” (pg. 81)

Will Noble’s temperament and sensitivity be such that his full talent will be realized?  That remains to be seen.  But my experience has supported the idea that a horse with an outstanding and willing temperament can certainly achieve results that go beyond what their apparent talent might predict.  In such a case, the trainer is not just returning the mounted horse to his original unmounted state, but is actually teaching the horse things he has never attempted.

Ricky had a long career jumping, once I got him to leave the ground

It is that very factor that makes horse training such a joy for me.  There was Ricky who literally did not have a jump in him.  No matter the height I set, his answer was always to literally run right through it.  When I finally found the key to getting his feet off of the ground, he became a solid jumper and had years of eventing and show jumping with several different riders.

There was Ben, who never did a clean change for the first five years I had him – even when galloping loose.  One long hard session finally resulted in one change, and he soon had the easiest and most consistently clean changes – under saddle and loose.

Dani had never lengthened her trot stride past a flat “hunter” style easy stride.  Pushed beyond that, she would pick up an easy canter.  Yet, as she developed collection under saddle, and began to find the power for trot extensions, she would play at them in pasture.

I have many such stories with the otherwise ordinary horses that I have trained over the years.  For me, it not only short changes the effort of the trainer to say that all they are doing is restoring the mounted horse their unmounted skills, but it also takes away from the accomplishments of the horses.  For many it requires overcoming either mental or physical obstacles to accommodate what is being asked of them.  Hopefully it is asked of them by a skilled, patient, and empathetic trainer.  When that is the case, I like to believe that they, like my human students, experience the joy of discovering a new ability.

Many would find that sentiment a stretch, since we cannot actually be sure of what the horse feels.  But experience has shown me that once they discover a new ability (if not under duress) they become quite willing to offer it when asked again.  The fact that many will also do it when at play, as I described above, further reinforces my stance on the subject.

So, for me, the role of trainer is akin to that of a coach or dance instructor.  You must approach each student with an open mind, understanding that willingness, drive, and mental aptitude may be able to counter a certain lack of innate talent.  You guide the student toward better use of their body – posture, balance, range of motion, etc.  There are exercises, as well as “finished” movements that you use in this endeavor.  You should also be supporting the building of character, confidence, and even independence of thought in the student.

The great Stroller, jumping a fence he probably could not see over! How many would have faith in a pony becoming an Olympic medalist?

Along the way, the trainer/coach/dance instructor have to evaluate the ability of the student.  Balancing encouragement with a realistic assessment of the student’s limitations is a vital and challenging aspect of training.  It is to no one’s advantage to push a student forward who lacks the physical ability for the more demanding work; but too precipitously dismissing a less than “ideal” individual can miss an amazing opportunity.  The horse world would have been much poorer without the likes of Exterminator, Stroller, or Snowman!

While I agree with the goal of a sentiment that seems aimed at keeping respect for the natural ability and gaits of the horse, like Burger and Zietzschmann I find it inexplicable that so many miss the parallels with the human athlete or dancer.  Even when we call a human athlete or dancer a “natural”, we all accept that the coach has a role in developing that talent beyond what can be shown naturally.

Be good to your horses!




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