Maybe this scenario sounds familiar:
Susan has loved horses her whole life, and now that her children are grown, she’s been treating herself to a riding lesson every week. Imagine her joy when her husband surprises her with a horse for their anniversary! The six-year-old mare is beautiful and gentle, and the seller promises that “Anyone can ride this horse.”
Imagine Susan’s dismay when six months later, she’s on her way to the emergency room after her most recent fall. Things were great when she brought the horse home — but now every trip to the barn results in her getting stepped on, knocked into, or bucked off. The mare is spooky and balky, despite thousands of dollars worth of veterinary diagnostics and a custom-fitted saddle.
Even worse, the horse is perfectly behaved for Susan’s instructor, and everyone else that rides her! Susan doesn’t want to sell her beloved mare, but she’s getting panic attacks at the thought of getting back in the saddle.
Or this one:
Thirteen-year-old Lucy has been mucking stalls and saving her allowance so she can buy a horse of her own. When the day finally comes, her instructor helps her find her dream horse, a talented Connemara with plenty of experience in the jumper ring. Lucy moves the horse home with the intention of hauling to her instructor’s barn every weekend for a lesson.
She didn’t expect that the horse would refuse to enter her wash stall — or go anywhere near a hose — or that he would start dragging her toward the gate during her midweek rides. She didn’t think she’d have a problem with him rushing jumps or running out at fences, but that regularly happens now!
She definitely didn’t think her veteran show pony would stop getting on the trailer. Now it takes three people, two hours and a big whip to get the horse to load, and the whole experience is so frustrating that Lucy isn’t sure she wants to keep showing, owning a horse or even riding.
May we be so bold as to say that it’s not enough to learn how to ride horses?
Riding and training are often viewed as one equine activity, but each process actually requires a whole different tool box of skills. Some riders compete and win at a very high level without learning much about tactful training, while some truly excellent trainers have no riding resume to speak of or work primarily from the ground.
Training a horse ethically and effectively requires empathy, creativity, and the ability to plan — and to let go of the plan whenever necessary. It requires an understanding of the animal’s psychology, learning theory, and behavior shaping, along with enough horse savvy to recognize when physical or environmental dysfunction needs to be addressed first.
The good news: becoming a good horse trainer doesn’t depend on natural talent. All of this knowledge can be learned, practiced and taught.
The bad news: every time we interact with a horse, we’re training that horse. This means that a student who is short on training skills can quickly find herself in a pickle when handling horses independently. She’s training, all right — just not the lessons she intended to teach!
An equestrian’s happiness and success is determined by how well he studies all three aspects of horsemanship: riding, horse care, and training
Knowledge requires application, and skills require practice. Are your students practicing training skills as part of their regular lessons?
We created our mounted Horsemanship Levels with the idea that our students would be learning the objectives on our well-schooled horses first. After a safe, successful introduction to each skill, students could practice applying it to a greener lesson horse or a personal project horse.
We still believe this is the safest way to teach potentially high-risk riding skills, such as cantering, galloping and jumping. You already know that “green on green makes black and blue,” and that pairing a beginner rider with an unqualified mount is a great way to spoil your student’s confidence — to say nothing of the liability risk!
But over the years, we’ve observed that learning to ride on trustworthy veteran horses can be both a blessing and a curse. Students often form unrealistic expectations for horse behavior, failing to see the thousands of hours of carefully-considered training that came before them, and they struggle to problem-solve with their own horses.
Goal-oriented students can also become fixated on visible achievement, such as earning a Teal ribbon or competing at a certain level, losing sight of their partnership with the horse.
That makes our goal clear: to teach students how to become thoughtful trainers, and to help them find joy in the process
For a long time, we practiced this through one of our favorite winter traditions: Ground Games Camp.
Sometimes this was a weekend extravaganza with out-of-town guests.
Sometimes it was a one-day clinic.
Despite the unpredictability of the weather, it was always well-attended — by teenagers and adults, by children barely tall enough to put on a halter, and by families spending a horsey weekend together.
All horses civilized enough to work in a group were welcome, so the arena filled with draft horses, mini horses, and every school horse on our farm.
Classroom lessons and indoor group activities were blended with as much hands-on practice as weather would allow. Campers learned how to use body language effectively; to position and direct their horse’s bodies; to refine cues and teach new skills. They led, they backed, they circled, they established training goals and conquered obstacles.
At the end of the weekend, campers performed 2-minute musical freestyles on the ground with their horses. Although the skills were basic and the choreography minimal, we often found ourselves moved to tears by the performances. The campers’ love for their horses shone through, and the horses — revitalized by a weekend of mentally stimulating playtime — rose to the occasion.
We hoped that this one exciting weekend would motivate students to incorporate groundwork into their horsey routines, and to put training theory to use in the saddle.
But eventually we realized that when riding remains the highest priority, it takes more than one annual event to inspire students to Level Up their training skills.
And what a shame if we offered just that one-time opportunity! There are so many ways we can help our students experience connection and joy with a horse, in AND out of the saddle.
When we commit to understanding the horse’s mind and Leveling Up our communication, we unlock doors to a deeper partnership. When we teach a student how to train compassionately, we give them the keys to those doors — helping them achieve success no matter what they choose to do with horses in the future.
Enter the HorseCentered Levels
Our new three-step ground training curriculum is inspired by our years of experience with natural horsemanship and positive reinforcement training.
That said, it’s designed to allow you to bring your own training philosophy. Your students can train in a rope halter, bridle, or cavesson, with or without food rewards, using the techniques that you find most effective — as long as they come equipped with an open mind and a willingness to let the horse be the final judge of their methods!
The HorseCentered Levels can be integrated into a lesson program in several different ways, including:
No matter how you teach these Levels, you might find that they require a bit of a mindset shift — for you and your students — especially if you haven’t emphasized ground training in the past
But once you find your groove, get ready for some benefits:
And don’t be surprised if you find your own teaching revitalized
Truly listening to our horses, and prioritizing connection and play, can rekindle the magic that draws us to horses in the first place.
Let the ground games begin!