Ask Al: Advice from a Master Horseman: The 5 Basics Every Horse Should Know

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The 5 Basics Every Horse Should Know

by Al Dunning


Question: When training a horse to do a particular task, how long will you continue to use a certain approach if it doesn’t appear to be working?

Answer: Horses learn from repetition—good or bad. If you are using proven techniques, many times you should stick to them until the horse catches on rather than changing or adding more pressure. If you add additional approaches to supplement your current direction, you can get further confusion and/or actually increase the learning curve. Horses all learn at different rates so patience is key to positive training.

Al dunning sliding stop
A good stop is one of the 5 Basics every horse should know. Advanced horses may progress to the sliding stop, shown here. Photo Courtesy Al Dunning.

Question: What fundamental basics do you train all your horses? What are the first things you train?

Answer: The first thing I teach is to go forward. From there I can continue to progress into the 5 Basics that all well trained horses should have. These are: Go forward readily; turn freely right and left; stop; back easily and collect by listening to leg cues, rounding up and being light.

Question: How long should it take, approximately, for the average horse to learn the 5 Basics?

Answer: The 5 Basics are important components for any horse to learn, know and also maintain.  With this in mind, I am always working on them as there are many degrees to each component, from beginner to advanced.  I think about each one when I warm-up/tune-up my horse.  So, I guess my answer is that I am always teaching or maintaining all or one of the 5. Insert al basics

Question: Do you believe that it is easier to successfully train a lazier, slower horse or a more sensitive, faster horse?

Answer: A horse with feel and sensitivity is much easier to train than a dull, lethargic animal. They respect you more, learn quicker and will perform more maneuvers than one that is lazy. Not unlike humans!

Question: Do you spend a lot of time desensitizing a young horse? Conversely, how easy is it to sensitize one that is dull or lazy?

Answer: Again, it is easier to train a light, sensitive, horse that has “feel” than a dull, lethargic individual.  It is easier to train a horse that is willing to learn, than a horse that has been taught to have defense mechanisms due to wrong/improper handling. In the case of the latter, you must start over with the basics and get the horse’s trust and proper respect before moving forward again.

A dull, pushy horse must first regain a sense of who is running the show. Doing some ground work and creating a safe space between you and your horse is critical in this situation.  Getting the horse to approach you and go away, at your command, is the goal. This process will include developing trust, respect, attention to commands and understanding personal space.

When you are talking about sensitizing a dull horse, it goes back to the overall attitude of compliance to requests.  Work on the basics and go at a pace that suits your particular horse.  I like using the end of my reins or a crop rather than a spur to encourage proper performance.  With all horses, logical, methodical training, tailored to the individual, will always produce the best results.


Published in April 2016 Issue

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