Overcoming Training Problems

This article is excerpted, with permission, from Advanced Techniques of Dressage: An Official Instruction Handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation, published by Half Halt Press.

Training a horse does not always proceed according to plan. So many diverse problems can arise that it is impossible to mention them all. It takes years of experience to be able to obtain the desired results and to avoid upsetting the horse and losing its good will.

NOTE: The better the rider is at empathizing and thinking with the horse, the more skillful his riding and training, the less likely he is to get himself and his horse into problematical situations.

The purpose of this chapter is not to go over possible training problems and ways of tackling them-these have been dealt with in The Principles of Riding and in the individual sections of this volume. Instead, the aim here is to give the rider or trainer some ‘pointers’ and things to think about:

Sometimes it happens that horses which are basically good to ride, willing and reliable suddenly develop temperament problems.

The first thing the trainer should ask himself is whether the horse has sufficient and regular exercise, and also whether it has perhaps been asked for too much too soon. He should also check that it is receiving the right amount of food and a balanced diet (e.g. not too much protein). The horse should also be checked by a veterinary surgeon to ensure that there is no physical reason (e.g. in the horse’s back or mouth) for the behavior change or resistance.

If these points have been checked and eliminated as possible causes, the rider will need to think carefully about his training methods:

Has the horse’s training been too one-sided recently? During the training sessions is there more time devoted to strenuous work that to loosening and relaxation? Is the horse ready for and able to cope with the advanced work? Has it been ‘gymnasticized’ equally on both reins, and so is it sufficiently connected and ‘through’?

If rhythm faults occur in a basic gait during training, the rider should question his training methods and procedures. Rhythm is the most important quality of all, and must never be forgotten for a moment.

If physical problems have been eliminated as the cause of the loss of rhythm, the fault can usually be traced back to insufficient looseness. Horses that are ridden too much with the hand and not made to swing through from behind by use of the driving aids will tend to stiffen in their backs and take irregular steps. Either this or they become ‘bride lame’. Bridle lameness can also be due to the contact not being the same on both reins and the rider not working enough on the straightness.

Usually the problem can be solved by riding the horse more forward for a few days and avoiding any exercises that entail a high degree of collection. Frequently getting the horse to take the rein forward and down is also helpful, as is repeatedly testing the self-carriage by ‘giving away the reins’.

In stubborn cases, or with horses that have long-standing rhythm faults, the horse needs to be taken back almost to the beginning of its training, and the whole process repeated, albeit in an abbreviated form. Correct lungeing, basic ridden work and a broadly based plan of training are usually required. Although this may seem to be a retrograde step, it is the only way to start going forward again.

Some horses that have so far worked willingly, develop a resistance or ‘block‘ to one exercise in particular which seems impossible to overcome.

Often the trainer then makes the mistake of practicing this exercise over and over again, which only serves to confirm the horse in its resistance. Instead, an experienced trainer will concentrate on getting the horse to meet the basic preconditions for the exercise and put off practicing the exercise itself until much later. With patience, he will succeed in rebuilding the horse’s confidence, and with better preparation, the problems with the exercise usually disappear.

Tension or stiffness in the back usually goes hand in hand with a whole range of other problems. Here again, the rider needs to ensure that the horse goes with looseness (Losgelassenheit) and swings through its back in its basic work, and ‘allows the rider to sit to it’. It may be possible gradually to loosen the horse through its back, again by correct lunge work. The horse will always need time, which will depend or the seriousness of the problem, before it is ready to ’round’ its back again and ‘release’ the affected muscles. Only when the musculature has been loosened in this way can it then be strengthened and developed.

NOTE: The horse can never be made to work through its back by methods based on the use of force. Draw reins, other training reins, or severe bits usually bring about only an illusion of success, and do not tackle the problem at the source.

Another common problem is incorrect contact, or not going into the contact correctly. If the horse is short in its neck, or behind the contact, or goes with its nose behind the vertical, or with a false bend (from behind the poll instead of at the poll), the problem can only be cured through sensitive use and coordination of the aids, and by giving more with the hands. Frequently getting the horse to take the reins forward and down will further improve its ability and readiness to stretch and to go in a longer outline. Here again, as well as time and patience, the trainer will always need to go back to the basics.

If the horse leans on the bit, often goes against the hand or has a rigid “dead” mouth, it needs to be made to ‘come through’ more, again through systematic basic training. Many riders tend to use the reins even more strongly in an attempt to solve this problem. Alternatively, they try to counteract it by changing the bit, i.e. by using more severe bits. People also attempt to make the horse lighter in hand again by tightening the noseband, or even by riding it in a double bridle.

These practices are typical of the kind of training which is aimed at getting rid of the symptoms rather than the causes. Even if a certain temporary improvement of the situation can be brought about ‘by mechanical means’, the cause of the problem has not been addressed, and it will reappear soon or later in an even more extreme form.

Advanced Techniques of Dressageis available from Half Halt Press, Box 67, Boonsboro, MD 21713, (800) 822-9635. It is also available from The Equine Collection (800) 952-5813 or visit the Web site theequinecollection.com.

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