Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Rules of Engagement: More Horse Training Tips

Rules of Engagement

More Horse Training Tips

When we think of the term ‘rules of engagement’ we usually think of warfare.  In years gone by, in some countries, officers would actually sit down with their enemies and formalize the terms of their battles. They would decide on acceptable weapons, locations, dealing with wounded and more. I am thinking of a totally different reference for ‘rules of engagement.’                  

Successful, efficient, yet gentle horse training has it’s own, special set of ‘rules of engagement.’ It is the engagement of the horse’s mind that I am referring to. Many humans do not realize how important it is to effectively engage the horse’s mind during training and how to do that. Actually effective horse training is all about engaging the horse’s mind. Many humans think horses have such a limited attention span that they overlook whether or not they have actually connected with the horse’s mind during their sessions. Some folks think the horse is so stupid that their minds can only be engaged for a very short period of time. They think that if an hour has gone by that their horse has been taxed mentally to its limit.  This is an erroneous and unfair judgment of the horse’s mental capacities and capabilities.

Horses are very smart actually and have the ability to learn things quickly and lastingly. Abuse a horse just one time and they can immediately learn how to avoid that abuse in the future and perhaps the person who abused them as well. If a human makes a horse fearful that horse will immediately learn to avoid the source of the fear. Feelings of safety are the most important feelings a horse can have.  Being a prey animal (eaten by various predators), trusting it is safe in the moment allows the horse to have a fuller life. That trusting that it is safe, gives the horse the confidence to eat, drink and sleep. It is the leader(s) of the herd and their effective leadership and guidance that give the other members of the herd that confidence and those feelings of safety (safety exists only as a feeling and is not part of the ‘outside’ world).

To do this they actively engage the other members of the herd. They engage the minds of these other horses through their guidance of the direction, speed and actions of the herd. Additionally, their body language (posturing), the sounds they make, as well as passing information to the herd through non-physical means (empathetic, which is shared emotion and telepathic, which is shared mental images) cues the other herd members to respond. We humans need to develop our methods and rules of engagement to effectively communicate our wishes and desires to our horses.  We need to become the great herd leaders for our horses. It is not solely about being ‘alpha’ or dominant. There must be an ‘appropriateness’ to the communication.

Some of these Rules of Engagement should be: Knowing exactly what you want the horse to do before you ask. Having a clear mental image of the action you want the horse to perform is extremely important to have successful interaction with your horse. These things help your requests to be clear for the horse. If you confuse a horse by not being precise in your desires and requests, don’t expect the horse to be able to understand and be able to try to do as asked. Having a very good understanding of when a horse is trying to comply with a request, and then, when and how to reward that animal’s effort is also vital to the success of the training.  Rewarding a horse for it’s trying to comply with a request should come immediately when the horse makes a good effort. A suitable and appropriate reward is a brief rest and break from the pressure of the request. Accompanied by a bit of praise like a “Good boy,” a short rest is all that is required for a horse to know it is being rewarded for it’s effort. Additionally, understanding how much ‘pressure’ to put into a request is vital. Being ‘over the top’ with pressure produces fear in the horse and, therefore, resistance. Not having enough pressure in a request prompts the horse to ignore the request or not take the request seriously enough to try.

A few additional Rules of Engagement could be: Clarity in the human’s mind helps create clarity in the mind of the horse.  If we confuse a horse we make it afraid. If we frustrate a horse, that makes it fearful as well. If we blame a horse and judge it as bad because it makes a mistake or ‘acts out’ (unwanted behavior because we have produced fear within the horse), this makes any situation with a horse worse. If we get angry at our horses and take their behavior(s) personally, this makes us tend to want to punish them. Punishment should never be an option. Neither should a human ever take a horse’s behavior personally. It is never doing anything to us. It is just being a horse. Reprimands and providing consequences for unwanted behavior is very acceptable as it sets up a learning situation for the horse and helps the horse understand it can take responsibility for the outcomes of its behavior.  Through the practical application of these ‘rules’ we can become more effective leaders for our horses and have more successful training happen for our horses. With horses, appropriate reprimands and consequences can be in the form of movement. Any movement is work for a horse. Horses are naturally lazy, preferring to move about as peacefully as possible. This is not a bad thing as it needs to conserve energy so it has enough to run from a predator when need be.  Physical or mental abuse should never an option.

Take every problem that arises with a horse as an opportunity to teach something.  Teaching the horse it can trust the human is the most important lesson it can learn. This is accomplished through the human’s ability to be skillful, patient, precise and, most of all, kind and compassionate.