A teacher asks her student a question: what day is it today?
The student responds with confidence, “It’s Friday!”
Again the teacher asks what day it is, and this time the student hesitates before saying, “The 7th?”
Again the teacher poses the exact same question, and the confused student replies in frustration, “I don’t know!”
This little story is a helpful reminder for any educator, and applies perfectly to training horses. Through failure to acknowledge a correct response (while continuing to repeat a question in the same way) this teacher quickly lost the confidence and good will of her student.
As we work with our rescues, we have to be as clear as possible in every session. Huge praise when they try to answer our questions and a quick, clear correction for undesired behavior is what allows the training to progress. Initially, if a horse even thinks about trying to do what we ask then we immediately reward that effort. Once they understand that the release of pressure is a reward for desirable actions or behavior, horses will seek to find the comfort of that release again.
Likewise, if a horse is behaving in an undesirable way then we must make the correction, but follow up immediately with a clear contrast. It can be tricky not to get swept up in the heat of the moment, but it is crucial to reward, release all pressure, and carry on normally as soon as the horse responds to our request. We might have to make the correction a hundred times, but that’s just part of the process. As trainers, we must remember to always give a horse the chance to try again.
It’s a bit like giving directions to someone who is lost: they will want to know exactly when and where to turn so that they can reach their destination safely. If you say, ‘oh, just turn wherever you want…’ that’s not helpful. Everyone wants clarity, and as flight animals horses take real comfort from knowing exactly where they stand. By being as clear, consistent and encouraging as possible, we give ourselves the best chance of creating confident and willing ‘students’ in our rescues.