Incremental Training

I have talked before that training is about changing a horse’s ideas or thoughts. The only way training truly teaches a horse what we want it to learn is if we cause it to believe our idea is a better idea than the one we don’t want it to think. Without changing a horse’s view on this a horse can never see any benefit to working with us and simply goes along with our idea to minimize the trouble in its life. It becomes a reluctant employee instead of an invested partner.


We can force obedience and submission, but we can’t ever force willingness if changing a horse’s idea about what is its best option is not the most important part of the training process. This is the single most important principle I have tried to impart on this page and at my clinics.


The reason a horse makes the choices it does is that in its thinking those choices are the ones that will lead to the greatest comfort and safety. It doesn’t matter if the reality is different. It only matters that a horse believes doing the things it does are its best options.


If you accept this hypothesis, then it seems self-evident that if we want a horse to change its ideas, and therefore its behaviour, we should present an idea that is closest to the idea a horse already has while still asking for a progression in the training. It is easier for a horse to find the new answer if we are asking for a change that is close to what it already thinks is the best option.


Making a new idea as close as possible to an old idea, while still progressing towards the idea we eventually want, makes it easier to convince a horse to change it’s thought. It is much harder to convince a horse to change its thought by asking for a 180 deg turn around in behaviour and thought. Incremental changes are more doable and powerful in training if possible. The greater the gap between the thought a horse has and the thought we want it to have, the harder we make it for a horse to choose our idea.


This is not always possible. But this inevitably puts a strain on a horse’s ability to feel okay about the training and has a strong potential to hinder having a better relationship.


Sometimes safety requires we need to insist on a 180-degree change in a horse’s response and ideas, but for the vast majority of times this is not necessary. Yet people still do it. A good example of people not caring too much about adding incremental layer upon layer is when horses are started under saddle in a few days, such as during colt starting clinics. This form of starting horses is fundamentally the antithesis of what every good horse person understands to be in the best interest of the horse and its relationship with the rider. Yet, people still do it and people still teach it. But the nature of the training means there is no time for a horse to become comfortable and confident with each step. It is training from the school of “get by” horsemanship.


This is just one example where we don’t give enough thought to how to make the learning easiest for our horse. We are guilty of doing this in every discipline. As soon as we believe a horse is on the right path, we don’t linger there trying to consolidate the new lesson just learned. Instead, we introduce the next lesson as soon as we think it is safe.


For instance, it is so common to see a horse just starting to get the picture that we then start asking it to repeat it with more effort. I remember learning as a kid that once my horse could hop over a caveletti with ease, it was time to ask it to jump barrel height and then combination jumps soon followed. Within a few weeks, I was competing the horse at events way beyond what he was comfortable doing. The result was that we won several competitions, but the level of control was always in question. It took too long for me to learn the lesson of going back to square one and repeating the basic training one layer at a time and letting the horse tell me when he was ready for the next piece of the puzzle.


If we don’t take the time to ensure our horse understands and feels okay at each step of the training, we are doomed at best to mediocrity and at worst to failure. Leaping from one important lesson to another is purely a mechanical approach to training because true learning and understanding only come in thin layers. We should try to make each new idea as close as possible to the horse’s old idea in order to speed up the learning. It has been said by numerous people, “the slower I go, the fast I get there.” This is no less true in the training of horses.


Video: I don’t know enough about traditional Mongolian training methods to know if this is common or not. But in any case, there is not a lot of incremental learning for the horse going on here.


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