I like to categorize training horses in three main brackets, mostly because each one requires a different approach.
First is Training.
The horse you can train is a fresh slate, likely raised in a positive environment, with positive reinforcement on all ground work, sacking out, ect. So far, of all the horses I have trained, the only ones I can say fit this category are horses I bred and raised, and one exception, who I got as a weanling and had never seen people before the day he was dropped off at my house. I also think that horses with minimal human interaction fall into this category. They have no previous human experience, and so are literally blank pages.
Next category is Retraining.
This word fits horses that have already had a career. Races horses, jumpers, roping horses, cutting horses, trail horses… you name it, if there is a job a horse can have and they have already done it, but need to learn new skills for a new job, that is ‘Retraining.’
And last, but not least, and certainly the most common, is Untraining.
Why the most common? Because the majority of the horses I see have already been messed with toward being put under saddle. Which, is fine, most of the time. People do things right, or close enough, by following the vast resource of ‘how to train your horse’ that is available now days. Sometimes though, something goes wrong, for whatever reason, and the horse ends up at a trainer.
So what I am going to talk about is Untraining, and how to avoid paying for more work. Because that is what happens. It takes way longer to undo something, and then put good and correct habits in, than to just do the needed things anyways. Here is a story I am going to tell, and I do not have to be specific, because it has happened so many times:
Get a call from owner, or owners wife. That goes one of two ways: Up front “This happened, Cousin Joe now has a broken leg, can you help?” or “The kids mess with him.” Followed by a tight-lipped smile to any further questions.
I prefer the first one, because at least I know what they did. The second makes my job harder. (NB: Always be 100% honest with your trainer.)
The next thing I do, because I value my life, is verify what was said (or not said) about the horse. I just start at the bottom, with the simplest things, and work up until I find the fault. Usually I find big holes in groundwork that need to be fixed, or in round pen handling, but I always find it when the saddle comes out.
In round pen problems I often find that once you let go of the horse they do one thing very, very well: Run until exhausted. Which sometimes they have been worked in such a manner so much that it takes a while for them to stop. They are good at it, that is what they have been taught and they are incapable of anything else.
The other, when the saddle comes out, is probably the easiest thing in the world to avoid. So here is what happens: The horse starts out calm and cool, and somewhere between bringing the saddle to the pen and cinching it up the horse gets nervous, head comes up, sweat starts appearing, back rounds… sometimes they bust when you set the blanket or saddle on, but most of them make it past that. Get the saddle on, cinch it up, and ease into movement. But you know what is going to happen, you can see it written all over the horse’s body.
Said horse explodes. Its not a little slide hop done thing. No its head between the knees, legs locked, mouth open grunting kind of explosion. Fence, rope, body… doesn’t matter what is in the way, they are going to buck and run. And they are good at it.
The most unnerving part is when you get on to them for it, finally get their attention, and they are surprised. Usually so surprised that they are done. You are angry at them for bucking and running in circles (we have running in circles down good, remember?) and they are shocked. That horse is surprised for one reason: He was doing what he was trained to do.
I know, the argument is going to be “horses buck naturally”, and yes, they do. They have that instinct to unload a predator from their back. So why is he bucking with a saddle on? There should never be a reason for that fear instinct to kick in when starting a colt, and if it does as an experimental behavior (they are opportunists after all) it should always be handled with negative reinforcement: that is to say make bucking far less fun than not bucking.
How do these horses get in these situations? Usually they are easy going, kind horses with a lot of trust in their people that pretty much take everything given to them like naturals. So, that leads from one thing to another and the horse gets crammed into a situation that it is not ready for. It has no skill set to understand when Cousin Joe gets on and starts yanking, kicking and yelling. Its scary, overwhelming and suddenly that saddle and that rider have become the predator. Once the deed is done, somebody catches the horse and pulls the saddle off, takes it back to its stall and makes sure it has food and water.
A week or two goes buy and it happens again.
After about three or four rounds the horse has it figured out. Now it bucks as soon as you lay a saddle on it. It seems to cut down on the running around time and increases the standing around time in the horse’s mind.
So then all this has to be… Untrained.
What happens next is usually long, tedious and results in some very tense first rides. Its fixable, but would be so much easier if it did not need to be fixed. Easiest way to avoid the need for Untraining? Do not ever put yourself in a position to loose. Always, always, be in a situation to win, with a positive effect. Sometimes this might mean your day is short, sometimes it might mean you spend eight times as long out there as you planned, or really had time for, but you do it. Sometimes it means you gotta get help from a trainer.
Untraining can be needed elsewhere too, not just on green colts. Barrel horses that drift, trail horses that run away, jumpers that surge or balk… any number of things can happen that reinforce a bad behavior into a bad habit. But the best way to avoid it is a good foundation, logical thinking and always, always setting yourself and the horse up to win. Positive experiences + positive reinforcement = positive results.
I know this is not something that everyone does. Please do not miss-understand, but I also know it is totally avoidable. By the time my colts buck with me, they have been ridden for years sometimes, and there is no ‘I am going to unload you’ to it. They are horses, they feel good and they hump up and kick out. There are no crazy head-between-knees bronc moves. I show some mild displeasure at the event and we go on. It does not become a regular thing.
So the best advice I have for you, or your horse owner friends that are thinking of starting your own horse: Please do your research, and make things easier for you, and any trainer you may end up going to. Spending more time on getting them started is way easier than spending more money on fixing it. I do wholeheartedly believe that people can start their own horses – this is, after all, how trainers get into the business, they start their own horses first – but I also believe that there is plenty of information out there to make it a positive.
Horses will always give you back what you put into them.