One of the first things I ever tried as far as training Mira was just a couple days after I got her. It was August, a very hot time of the year around here. I was taking her on short walks up the road every day, with me on foot. (Not riding her yet as we were still figuring out the right saddle and tack for her) I couldn’t go very far without stopping to rest in the shade, and Mira was always more than happy to stop and rest too. So, almost without thinking of it, I started to do a certain order of cues at each stop. First, I would sigh, “Aaahh,” then I would say “Whoa,” and then I would stop both of us. After maybe as many as 4 of these stops, she began to stop right away at the sighing stage! I was pretty tickled at how quick she picked that up! I admit, I'm a born trainer.
I once rode a reining horse who was trained to back up when you put your feet forward toward his shoulders. He was very smooth and quick with it, and you never had to pull on the reins at all during the back up. So, back in January I decided to start trying to teach this to Mira. I figured it would be an especially good idea as she has lots of totally novice kids that ride her (at least once a week), and this would work as a great emergency stop cue for them, and anything to help with safety is good!
Here is my cue sequence:
1. Put feet forward and lean back slightly.
2. Say “Back.”
3. Pull back on reins.
I only go to the next cue if she does not respond to the first one. As soon as she starts to obey I release all cues. This is the key principle when training horses. The better and more precise you are with releasing pressure (cues) the quicker and easier they learn.
I don’t do a lot of drilling with her; instead I like to practice new things with her either right before we leave on a ride or right before I dismount. That way she associates the new thing with something else that’s fun for her. It took a couple of weeks for me to be able to tell that she was starting to anticipate. She was shifting her weight a bit with the first cue, but I still needed to go all the way to number 3 to get her to step back. By about the 4th week she actually started backing with just the first cue.
Since then, we have been refining it and working on getting bigger steps and more speed. I believe she could have learned a lot faster if I had practiced more than 4-5 steps per ride, but in this case I wasn’t in a big hurry. Also, as an older horse she does seem to have some aches and pains every now and then, so I try not to push her too much athletically, and doing a lot of backing at once probably would be too much for her. Slow and steady! A younger horse would be able to learn this a lot faster.
By the way, never fall for the “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks” saying. It ain’t true with dogs, people, or horses!
Sometime I will have to write about Mira’s story (as much of it as I know). She is a rescue horse that was starved before the vet took her. I bought her from the vet after she was all rehabbed - well, she’s still missing teeth, but other than that she’s fine! Since I’ve gotten her, she has really blossomed from all the attention and consistent exercise and training – It’s so fun to show horses new things and see how much they like it! Horses do enjoy being educated and having a part in decisions and accomplishing things, rather than being "robots" that have a limited set of activities to perform and that's all we expect from them.
Oc course, the one that is learning the most in this partnership is ME! And so far every minute has been a blast… horses are so generous about letting you make mistakes, and that's how we learn! I intend to be involved with horses the rest of my life if possible, and I am so glad I've finally had the chance to start learning from one first-hand, not just in books, articles, and occasional rides on friends' horses. She is turning out to be a great schoolmaster for me too. God really did a great job matching our personalities. :-D