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Thoughts on training

'We have to make the horse our friend.'
                                           Reiner Klimke 1936-1999

Horses are made to be horses - not to carry humans!
How can we keep our horses healthy and happy? One big part of the answer lies in letting them live as naturally as possible (see 'Natural living').
Another big part of the answer lies in correct training.

Even the smallest pony is stronger than the biggest man (as anybody who has ever been dragged around by a Shetland pony can confirm!). We cannot force a horse to carry us, work for us or even to walk with us. We can only ask, and hope we will get the answer we want.
Luckily the species horse is usually very friendly and cooperative. It is extremely important not to destroy that cooperation. And that is our responsibility, as the human - not the responsibility of the horse!
Therefore all training should be adapted to the horse's mental state and physical capabilities.

Nature designed horses to be horses - not to carry humans on their back. 
If we want to ride our horses and keep them healthy, we have to put extra effort into strengthening them in such a way they can carry us without damaging their health (especially their backs). This is why it is so important that a riding horse is trained the correct way.

What is the correct way?
What is the correct way? As in everything, there is more than one answer to that. There are probably as many training methods as there are trainers. But all the methods that have proven their value through the decennia (and even through the centuries) seem to have similar guidelines:

  • Remember that the horse has to want to work for you
  • Adapt to the horse, do not expect the horse to adapt to you
  • Use positive reinforcement (rewards) instead of punishment
  • Strenghten the back of the horse
  • Do not use force
  • The long-term result is more important than the 'quick fix'

The above seems so easy and logical - yet every day we see examples of how easy it is to forget these guidelines. When we see a ballerina doing incredible stretches, we know that it has taken her years of daily training. But in our own horses we often expect 'perfection' in just a few weeks or days...

Calm, forwards and straight
When people ask me 'What kind of training do you do?' I probably should give the same answer as when asked about hoof trimming: 'It depends!'
The correct answer would probably be 'Classical dressage training'. Which means the kind of training advocated by people like Podhajsky (former director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna), Müseler, Waldemar Seunig, Nuno Oliveira, Rolf Becher and Steinbrecht; and in more modern days Reiner Klimke and Sylvia Loch. With a sprinkling of Sally Swift!

My whole training philosophy can probably best be summed up by the centuries-old saying: 'calm, forwards and straight'.

  • Calm means not just that the horse is calm enough to ride! Only a horse that is mentally relaxed, without pain and willing to work will develop physically in the correct way. (Just as you cannot whip a ballerina into stretching her legs further - or tie her leg to her head to teach her 'how to stretch'.)
  • Forwards means not just that the horse moves. It means of course that the horse is willing to go forwards, but mostly it means that the horse is obedient to all the aids. Also those for slowing down, bending, turning etcetera. A horse cannot be truly forward without being calm.
  • Straight means that the horse moves straight and develops his body evenly. To do that a horse needs lots of bending and stretching (just like most humans). So a horse cannot be straight without being on the aids and without being forward.

Any horse where these three things are the way they should be, will be a true pleasure to ride!


In memoriam Lia van Roeden 1957 - 2005

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there - I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

                                                               Mary Frye, 1932


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Hoof trimmer education
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'Oh! If people knew what a comfort to horses a light hand is, and how it keeps a good mouth and a good temper, they surely would not chuck, and drag, and pull at the rein as they often do. Our mouths are so tender, that where they have not been spoiled or hardened with bad or ignorant treatment, they feel the slightest movement of the driver’s hand, and we know in an instant what is required of us.'
nna Sewell
Black Beauty'