Training by numbers – a quick guide

Can you do Division?  Divide a loaf by a knife - what's the answer to that?  ~Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to give one formula that will train every horse, let alone one based on mathematics, but the following includes some points to consider (and don’t worry, neither you nor your horse have to be good at maths).

The 5 lessons
If you have watched the “Nanny McPhee” films then you will know that each batch of children as five lessons to learn (such as saying please and thank you), and these are taught without forcing the children, hitting them etc. (Okay, it helped that Nanny McPhee could do magic but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve the same result). So, what 5 lessons do our horses need to learn?

  • To go forward when told
  • To slow down when told
  • To turn when told
  • To go where they are told
  • To stop when told

If you can already tick all five off, then there is no need to read further. If not, then your horse is still a work in progress.

There are four corners in the school, four legs on the horse, four limbs on a human, four different main paces performed by the horse, four etc. etc.

By working all four of everything properly, then everything will improve. For example, how often do you see someone cut the corner furthest from the gate? Could you say that both hands and both legs are equally subtle at giving aids? Is the horse providing power from all four quarters, or just the forequarters? And so on.
In symbolism, four is regarded as the number denoting predictability and completeness. Note that there is no science behind the number four, but it can make you think of a lot of factors that need to be worked on!

The 3-second rule
It doesn’t have to be exactly three seconds but this is the approximate time period within which you need to correct or reward your horse for it to make a clear association. It is also important that nothing else occurs between the behaviour you want to reward or correct and the actual correction.

For example, if the horse does a good trot and then a poor halt and then gets a reward it will think it is being rewarded for a poor halt (so will repeat it). If a horse bucks you off and then approaches you and then you tell it off it will be rewarded for the bucking (as your unwelcome pressure is gone) but punished for coming toward you on the ground, so next time it will buck you off and run away instead!

It takes two to tango
It is best if you aim for a partnership with your horse rather than trying to achieve things by force or letting you’re your horse take charge. If the ‘dance’ between you is not smooth and balanced, then consider if extra training (of you and/or horse) is required. For example, the horse won’t pull if you don’t pull but to control the horse without pulling it would be better to increase your own skills and the horse’s responsiveness, rather than tying its head down with a gadget or putting a harsher bit in its mouth.

The one golden rule
It is not the horse’s fault. Even if you think it is. Even if you really really think it is. Yes, really.

Counting the hours
Most people have spent many years when they were children going along to school, sitting for many hours listening to teachers (yes, including the maths teacher), and longing for the time that they finished the school day so that they can go and play with their friends. Many will also say that despite all that time spent, they are still ‘no good’ at some subjects, including maths. So, we know that it is not always the ‘amount’ of time spent, but also the quality. For example, you can ride a horse round in circles for hours but it is likely to get worse not better, or just switch off and not try. On the other hand though, if you never went to school at all then it would be hard to learn anything.

So, it is important to school a horse, but to do it in a way that it improves. Back to maths (but don’t worry, you don’t have to do any). Let’s say your teacher tells you that X + Y = 3, and they repeat this 10 times. So, by the end of the lesson (if you were paying attention) you think that X + Y = 3. Then, let’s say that the next day they say X + Y = 8 but they say it only once. If you were not paying attention then you may have missed it completely, but if you were paying attention then you would probably think that the teacher had made a mistake, because you have been taught that X + Y = 3, not 8.

So, when it comes to exam time and the exam questions says: ‘What is X + Y?’ you are probably going to put ‘3’ as the answer. Afterwards the teacher is annoyed with you because you got the answer wrong! (Yes the answer to X + Y was 8 after all).

Now let’s convert this to something the horse does e.g. a halt. When you are riding around the arena or out on a hack you let your horse stop a number of times (e.g. to adjust the girth, open a gate, chat to someone, or just to do a halt). The horse stops when asked so you don’t worry about how it does it (head up, not square, crooked etc.). The horse learns that so long as it stands still then this is what the teacher wants and is the ‘correct’ answer.

However, then you enter a dressage test and all of a sudden you want a different answer – instead of just stopping you want the horse to do a square balanced halt, remaining on the bit with a relaxed jaw and attentive to the rider. You want an ‘8’ for the answer, not the ‘3’ which the horse has learnt. Firstly, it is unlikely that you will get the ‘correct’ answer, and secondly you should not get annoyed if the horse is the horse doesn’t get it ‘right’.

The same thing happens with every movement in a dressage test and every action asked for in a showjumping test or cross-country course e.g. if for most of the time a horse goes around pulling or not bending properly or with its head in the air, then it will also do this in a test/arena/course, regardless of what you taught it a few days before or on occasional attempts. So, don’t expect your horse to give you the ‘correct’ responses if most of the time it is learning the incorrect ones!

How long is your horse spending ‘at school’? I have often watched people say they have just schooled their horse for 40 minutes or more, yet at the end of it the horse is going the same as it was at the beginning. Therefore, quality of learning can be far more important that the time spent in the school. Remember too that once the muscles get tired then the horse will get grumpy or injured if you push it, so too much time in the school can be just as bad as too little.

You can work on a lot in 20 minutes e.g. a young horse learning about contact (going forward into the contact from the leg) can work on circles, transitions, turns, straight lines, the beginnings of lateral work, tempo changes (changes of speed within the pace), stretching. All of the exercises can improve its knowledge of contact and what it means. Note that this doesn’t refer to teaching all of these within 20 minutes, but using other things it has learnt previously in order to improve the way it goes in an interesting way.

Question- do you know anyone that says it takes ½ hour (or 1 or even more hours) before their horse will ‘behave’? Ever been told to lunge your horse until it was really tired so that it would listen to you? Rather than riding round and round waiting for your horse to do as you want, or making the horse too tired to do anything else, could these just be signs of the horse not having been trained to respond to the aids properly, so it doesn’t?

In contrast, there is the horse that responds as soon as the rider gets on and is a well-mannered ride. It is interesting that horses that have to work for a living don’t need to be worn out before they start.

NB; this doesn’t mean to imply that a horse won’t need a ‘warm-up’ before doing its best – the point here is about whether the horse has learnt the correct responses to the aids and displays manners, not whether or not it is supple when it first starts work for the day.

Keeping a diary (okay, this is English not maths)
Teachers write lesson plans for their students, with exercises that will help them develop new skills and with outlines for the time they will spend on each activity. Write down how long you spent schooling your horse today and what you taught it. Did you really do 5 minutes of canter (or was it only 1-2 minutes) and had the horse improved by the end of it?

What is your lesson plan for tomorrow/ this week?

Remember too that teachers will adjust the lesson plan based on the students results (e.g. they will spend longer teaching topics that the student finds hard) so be flexible. And remember to make your lessons interesting for the horse. Would you rather go to a maths class where the teacher repeats over and over again for 20 minutes that A + B = 4, or would you rather go to one where the teacher gives you lots of interesting examples e.g. you get 2 presents and then get 2 more presents, then how many presents will you have altogether? If you got a really nice ‘well done’ every time you got it right, then you would also be more likely to pay attention and listen for the next example i.e. remember to reward the horse lots too!

Rewards for just trying
What did I like best about maths at school? You could actually get the answer wrong but still get marks for the working i.e. you got marks for trying! (This is in contrast to subjects like history, where they don’t give you half marks for a date that is ‘almost right’).

And the same thing happens with your horse – give it a reward for trying i.e. if it makes a good attempt at getting it right, and don’t expect perfection from the beginning (wait until you are at the Olympics and remember that even in a dressage test a “10” is “excellent”, not “perfect”).

Okay, that’s enough maths for now, but remember that from the horse’s point of view having to learn a difficult subject is not something it does by choice, and that it relies a lot on the teacher to get the numbers right!

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