What to expect when you send your horse for training

Many horse owners have thought about sending their beloved and sometimes not so beloved horse to a professional trainer. This can be a difficult decision for some but it should be a rewarding experience for horse and owner. Unfortunately this is not always the case. The reasons that things do not always work out are as individual as the horse himself but sometimes people do not know what to expect. Problem horses, green horses, abused or neglected horses, the age and breed of the horse, inexperienced owners and trainers and the length of time the trainer has the horse are all major factors. Before you send your horse out for training, prepare yourself for a realistic result.
For the scope of this article I will focus on the green or problem horse and not one at intermediate or advanced stages of training. I also want to qualify that all of these observations are generalizations and each horse should be considered an individual that may not fit these scenarios.
What is a realistic amount of training to expect from a green or problem horse? This is a bit of a loaded question, and one that I am frequently asked. My answer is usually “it depends on your horse”. I might also add “it depends on how much training I need to undo and replace”.
“It depends on your horse” is referring to the individual personality of your horse. The age, breed and sex of the horse are also considerations. Personality of the horse determines how teachable the horse is. A confident relaxed horse will usually learn faster than a scared nervous horse or the bold resistant horse.
The older the horse the slower they are to accept new or different ideas and methods. If they are very young they can easily be overwhelmed by information. This limits the sessions in duration and content before the horse stops learning. But young horses will generally learn or accept things more quickly than older horses so long it is in limited quantities.
The breed can help determine how sensitive a horse is and can help establish guidelines about how much pressure they can handle. For example a Thoroughbred or an Arab are generally very sensitive and reactive, on the other hand a Canadian is more stubborn and needs more time to accept things.
The sex of the horse might be a factor in the length of their attention span. It can also be a factor in establishing teachability. Geldings, mares and stallions in that order from easiest to most difficult to teach.
“How much training I need to undo and replace” refers mostly to problem horses but it also touches on the green or un-started horse. Problem behavior is all too often taught to horses from inexperienced owners. In most cases this is unintentional so I am not pointing fingers, but it does not change things. In these cases I need to find the problem areas and help the horse re learn how to behave appropriately. In the case of the green or un-started horse the training process is usually initiated by the owner with the help of unlimited sources of horse training information. This is often a big help in the early stages but sometimes things get lost in interpretation and imperfect technique can confuse a young horse into making mistakes the handler does not notice until the damage is done.
The length of time you are prepared to send a horse for will directly impact on the outcome. As a horse owner I know how expensive it is to board and train a horse. I appreciate that economics play a role in the length of time that I have to train a horse. I also know that when I have a horse in to be trained that there needs to be progress. I adjust my program for the horse based on many of the things I have already mentioned, personalities of the horse and owner, breed, age, sex, level of existing training, and time commitment from the owner. The longer I have a horse the slower I teach the horse. This is not because I am getting paid by the hour but because I want to develop good behavior patterns that will become habits given enough time. The slower I teach the more confident the horse becomes and the more reliable he will be when he does go home. A horse that I have for training for 2 months will essentially be taught the same things as a horse in for 1 month, all things being equal. The difference is that after 2 month that horse will be confident performing the movements I have taught him. He will be more reliable than the horse with only one month of training. The horse with only a month on him has been taught faster with less time to get comfortable with what he has learned. He has not yet transferred the lessons into habits. The slower and less stressful the first month of training is the faster the horse will learn in subsequent months.
The experience of the owner is also something I consider before I take a horse for training. If the owner is an accomplished rider they will be safer with a greener horse. This can help dictate how long the horse is sent out for. That same horse could be a time bomb for a less confident handler that is not able to compensate for the horses inability to deal with mistakes. If I know that a horse has to go home to a less experienced rider I will alter the program the horse is on. I will introduce less to a horse in this situation hoping that he will become confident in the things he does learn so he can deal with the inexperience of the handler. For example I will maybe spend more time de sensitizing the horse so it is less apt to spook and less time working on leg cues or lateral work. I want these horses a little dull and less responsive so they do not put their owners into situations that the owner can not deal with. Unfortunately these horses may be put into situations by their owners that they must deal with.
The experience of the trainer you send your horse too is something else to consider when setting realistic goals for your horses training. There are many young trainers that can do a wonderful job given the chance. Do not discount them as trainers on the grounds that they are young or inexperienced but you may need to give them more time to do a good job. All experienced trainers were inexperienced at one time. The trainer is only one factor in the education of your horse.