THE UNALTERABLE PRINCIPLES
”The horse is God's gift to mankind."
(A rabian Proverb)
When you set out to build a house, you certainly would start with a solid foundation. The importance of such a solid base for your structure will increase with each storey you add.
When planting a tree from which you expect to harvest tasty and healthy fruits, you prune it down in its early years to make the trunk strong, stable and long-lived.
These are the images you should have in mind when training a young horse. Since you want your horse to stay in lasting good health, you need a solid foundation that enables your horse to perform successfully when matured. You must proceed with care, developing the mental and physical abilities of your horse systematically in a natural way.
Sounds logical? After all, there is no sense in having a 12-year-old child doing the same things adults are supposed to do. Agreed?
There are several stages a horse has to pass through before it starts with serious training. During the first six months of its life, the foal is well cared for by its mare. In addition, the breeder does his or her best to accustom the foal to humans. The next stage is kindergarten, where the yearling receives special care since there are new experiences and challenges, many of them potentially harmful.
A young horse spends the first three and a half years of its life among its comrades. The breeder has worked hard to produce an animal with excellent physical constitution and by this time, the green horse should be well on its way to domestication. It should be familiar with a lead rope, being tied, a bridle, a saddle, a lunge line, a trailer, and, of course, the farrier. A young horse that is sound and self-confident is ready for the next step – its training.
Now it is up to you, the trainer to take on this job. What a great feeling and challenge! But are you sure you know how to go about it? Let us talk about it first.
You are a knowledgeable horseperson and you have seen a lot of horses trained by good, not so good, and sometimes even bad trainers. You want to be a good trainer.
Let's assume your horse is a three-and-a-half-year old warmblood gelding. At this age the young horse is similar to a ten-year-old child and is expected to grow up to one more hand in height. Your horse might look big, strong and ready to go, but his bones, joints and ligaments are not yet fully developed. Improper handling (the first danger being the lunge line) can result in serious damage.
With constant care, you start establishing a close relationship with your young horse. He will learn how to behave and how to deal with the new environment you have brought him into. He will learn to understand you just by the sound of your voice and your hand movements. He will also become well aware of the carrot in your pocket. He will learn to distinguish when your voice indicates that you want him to come (your offering hand, Fig. 1), from when your voice indicates that you want him to go (your hand raising the stick).
Before long, your horse will learn to accept your authority just has he respects the leader of the herd. Some people do not understand this and confuse the horse rather than gain his confidence. Once the horse has found out that he is superior in strength (or intelligence), he may cause problems whenever he feels like it – a serious setback in training. Do not handle your horse like a pet dog or a person. Handle him like a horse. Study his character and mind. Horses are always horses. They think like horses and they act like horses.
Their original community is the herd. Their defence is flight. If they are afraid or spooky, it is because they are horses! Forgive them as they will forgive you.
Horses do not have a lot of brains, but they are not stupid. They just do not think the way humans think. Their actions are instant and spontaneous, not a result of various logical considerations.
Horses have amazing instincts and are capable of great sensitivity, beyond the human imagination. They can feel an earthquake hours in advance. They also have excellent memory. They do not forget frightening experiences. Instincts coupled with memory may explain why a frightened, nervous horse cannot be calmed down as quickly as one would wish. This aspect of a horse´s nature must always be of primary consideration, and must always be handled with a great deal of patience.
But it is not only the bad experiences they remember. Horses don't forget good experiences, either. For example, horses can always find their way back to the stable.
Horses are born good-natured. Bad characters are developed through human failures in training. A horse easily adopts bad manners if the human responsible for him is not consistent with the following of rules for handling horses.
The horse must trust you. Do not expect love. The more you understand your horse – his personality as well as his problems – the easier it will be to achieve friendship and collaboration.
Always aim for a partnership with your horse by creating harmony, confidence, and willingness. Always be honest and fair towards your horse. Never overreact! Discipline yourself before you discipline your horse.
When you ask your horse for a response, always use proper execution of the request. When the horse responds as expected, tell him he is a good boy. Never ask for more than the horse is able to give, for this may damage his confidence. Remember, we don't ask for perfection, we strive to it.
Sometimes it is wiser to give in a little in order to gain a lot. But if there is no other choice than breaking serious resistance by force in order to avoid disaster, you must be sure to master the situation. Otherwise, you´d better leave it up to a more effective and courageous rider.
Remember, the horse is stronger than you. Once he finds out that resistance may be a way to evade your control or even frighten you, you have lost a good part of your authority. You must convince the horse to co-operate. The horse must understand what you expect him to do. It´s easier to handle one pound of brain than a thousand pounds of horsepower.
Before starting serious training, take time to reflect on your goal and the way to achieve it. The goal has not changed since the days of the French master François Robichon de la Guérinière (1688–1751), who wrote:
The aim of this noble and useful art is solely to make the horse supple, relaxed, flexible, compliant, and obedient – and to lower the quarters, without all of which a horse whether he be meant for military service [eventing], hunting [jumping], or dressage will neither be comfortable in his movements nor pleasurable to ride.
The method has not changed either. It is the procedure of training that follows the principles of classical dressage, which according to the FEI, is:
the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse … which makes the horse calm … supple … confident, attentive, and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider … The horse thus gives the impression of doing of his own accord what is required of him. Confident and attentive he submits generously to the control of his rider.
Both definitions mention the essentials of classical dressage that one must deal with not only in the upper levels, but especially in basic training. There is no other way but honest work – no alternative, no modern or old- fashioned way, there is only the right way or the wrong way. The principles of classical dressage are unalterable. It is impossible to change these principles, for they are the foundation of equestrian sport. We must strive to understand and practise these principles correctly at all times.
The basic training, which is an all-around and comprehensive training, takes about two years. In the first year the horse learns to handle the rider's weight. He learns to move in a relaxed and rhythmic way, maintaining a steady contact with the rider´s hands. He learns to respond to the aids from the seat, legs and hands. Once the horse is on the aids, he can be worked towards First Level. Besides the flatwork, the horse should also be introduced to cross-country work, with small fences, ditches and water.
At the end of the first year, the horse should be confident with his rider. He should be familiar with hacking cross-country as well as in traffic. He should also be able to perform a First Level test as well as a clear round over small stadium fences in an adequate style.
Dressage prospects need only enough jumping to provide variation of the routine (Figs. 2–5).
In the second year the horse is on the way to the Second Level. Confirming the First Level movements, the trainer will improve the horse's straightness and start developing the carrying power of the quarters. Without...