Thursday, October 8, 2009

Horse Training: How Horses Learn in Pasture

Horses train themselves while hanging around in the pasture. No really, I'm not kidding. I've seen it happen over and over again. A while back I rode one of my mustang mares in a beginner reining clinic. During the clinic, the instructor asked:

"How does an untrained horse reverse direction when at liberty?"

After we all volunteered various wrong answers, the instructor told us that the untrained horse will reverse direction by walking in a half-circle. Specifically, he pointed out if that if your throw a flake of hay behind the untrained horse, he will circle back to reach he hay. He will not pivot on his hind end.

Fascinated, I went home and watched the horses in my herd, and sure enough, all of them walked in half-circles to change direction.

Horse Training and How Horses Learn By Themselves
Having verified that the instructor's words were true, I returned to the next session of the reining clinic with the same mare (pictured above). In this session of the clinic, we taught our horses the basics of the turnaround or spin. My mare did not perform this maneuver well at all, despite a great deal of effort on her part. I was a bit disappointed, but the instructor pointed out that my mare did not have the correct conformation for the sport and that I should not expect much from her in terms of spinning.

After the clinic, I was not able to ride for several weeks because of rainy weather. However, I was fascinated to see that my mare began to pivot on her hind end in the pasture when she wanted to change direction. Instead of walking in a circle to reverse direction, she began planting her hind legs and moving her front legs around. Granted, it wasn't a totally correct half spin, but she doing the pivot maneuver, which she had never done before. Having learned a new movement at the clinic, she immediately incorporated it into her daily movements at liberty.

Weeks later, when I was able to get back to riding, I was surprised that this same mare was able to perform the spin better than she did at the clinic, despite the fact that I had not been able to ride her. She had, in fact, been practicing on her own in the pasture. She was engaged in horse training ... without me!

Why Is This So Important?
Of course, all of this begs the question, "Who cares?" Who cares, indeed? Well, the horse owner who does not have all the time in the world to spend riding might care. The person who gets easily frustrated when their horse doesn't seem able to learn a new maneuver quickly might care. The person who can only afford to have a trainer sit on their horse once every few months might care.

This phenomenon of horses being able to learn by themselves and integrate new moves into their physical vocabulary with ease is important for a number of reasons:

1. It lets us off the hook.
If the horse can learn by herself, we can just show her the moves and see how far she takes it. Then when she hits the end of her learning curve, we step in and do more work together.

2. It keeps us from pushing our horses too hard.
When performance horses start needing hock injections at age 4, we are training our horses too hard. But if we can simply bring our horses to a certain level of training and then let them wrap their minds and bodies around that knowledge by themselves, we won't push them as hard. Plus, we'll end up with healthier and happier horses.

3. It gives colts time to catch up with their knowledge.
Around here, most trainers bring 2-year-old colts to the point that they can walk, trot, and lope in both directions quietly. Then they turn them out for the winter and give them time off. This practice works well because it allows the colts to process what they have learned and integrate what they have learned into their knowledge base. It lets colts grow up a bit between periods of horse training, and they usually emerge in the spring of their 3-year-old year with clear minds and the ability to handle more knowledge.

Horse Training Does Happen in Pasture

If you don't believe that horse training does happen by itself in the pasture, teach your horse a new maneuver, and then observe carefully how he behaves in pasture over the next few weeks. I've seen it happen over and over, whether I teach a colt to trot with his neck stretched long and low, or I teach a colt to back. Within a day or so, I see these new moves being integrated into the horse's movements in pasture. The colts practice their newly learned physical movements so that I don't have to keep drilling on it. Way cool!

Is this your experience as well? Yes, no, maybe?

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1 comment:

  1. Great article - I've been around horses all my life, and this is the first I've heard of this. It explains so much! I've often wondered how/why my mare has improve so much between schooling sessions. I've gained a greater understanding of horses, here, thanks.

    Wonderful blog!