Riding the green horse – When is it time for a break?

As I write this article I am sitting in the lodge at Sun Peaks ski resort. I am on holidays. I have been looking forward to taking a break for a while. Quite a while actually, as the rigors of work at and away from home take their toll on me mentally and physically. I could list a variety of aches and pains that haven’t healed because I don’t get much chance to get away and enjoy some rest and relaxation. This leads me to think about the horses I ride for a living. When do they get a break from the training that we so often impose on them? In the series of articles I have been writing about starting and riding the green horse I have shared a lot of information. This information depending on who is using it has been taught over a few days, weeks or months. Since I started this series the horse has come from being just halter broke to now being ready to start canter work. The approaches I have offered have been a methodical introduction of skills that build on the skill previously taught and are important to have for the skills yet to teach. The end result at this level is to have a horse that understands all that has been taught. This understanding of authority, responsibility, and mechanical dexterity should help develop a confidant, reliable horse.

Much of what I teach is much more mentally and emotionally challenging than physically difficult. There comes a point that we all reach when we are just plain tired of working and or learning. It can be detrimental to continue training until this mental and physical fatigue has subsided. The difficult thing to know is when we are getting close to the horses threshold for work or learning. This is often just a matter of paying close attention to small things you horse is telling you. Things like he is getting more difficult to catch, he is having trouble concentrating, he is making mistakes when normally he would not, is there a diminished effort on his part, is there more evasion or unwillingness in areas where he once tried his best?
The learning curve when we start the training process was very steep. It seems every session that the horse learns and accepts a noticeable amount of information. If you think of your horses mind as a glass of water, when we started it was almost empty, every day we add more water, some of this will be absorbed by the horse leaving room for more. If we start pouring information in faster than it can be absorbed the glass will spill over. When this happens we are often unaware and just keep pouring but the horse is already saturated. This information that spills out is lost. Now think of the horse with too much information as a jig saw puzzle, the lost information are lost pieces, he can assemble much of the puzzle but there are holes in it that he can not fill in. This causes confusion and incorrectness. Continuing to teach will not help the confusion and will just add to it.

Older more schooled horses can usually handle more work than a young green horse. Even they need time off to allow the mind and body to have a break. Training at any level is stressful, the higher the fitness levels the higher the expectation for performance. This expectation can become unrealistic even in schooled horses. Prolonged mental fatigue can lead to increased evasive behavior. This evasiveness can escalate into real problems, and some times a break can help change the pattern of behavior from continuing to get worse. The Problem may need addressed any way but it can be easier to deal with if the horse is fresh of mind and body.

When I was a full time cowboy I used to have six horses in my string. A “string” for those not familiar with the term is the group of horses that are reserved for a cowboy for his sole use while working for a ranch. Every cowboy will have his own string of horses that are usually owned by the ranch he works for. I would keep two to four horses in at any given time to be used for work. The reason behind this was that with two horses in the horse would only have to work every other day. As the days were long and the miles were many, fatigue would set in quickly. As a horse got mentally and physically fatigued he would be turned out with the ranch remuda, or herd to rest and recuperate. A horse could easily spend six month turned out before his turn in the rotation came up. Any young horses that went to work were only expected to do light duty and that might only last a few weeks before being turned out again. This meant that I always had horses that were mentally and physically fresh, and if they weren’t it was time to change.

Training is not easy at any level. It is especially not easy if the horse or horses we are working are tired. A horse can be tired of work or learning in a single lesson and then be tired or fatigued from weeks or months of lessons. If we want to have a long successful life of training with our horse it is important to take breaks and let them absorb the lessons we have taught. When ever you start to think about having a holiday you are probably tired of the routines of work or school. Your horse should deserve the same holiday. Don’t be afraid to give him some time off, it will only do him good. Give him credit for knowing what he has been taught, horses have memories like elephants, they don’t forget anything. Yes you may lose some fitness but you will gain a horse that is happier in his work.
© 2008 Will Clinging