Help a Horse Feel Good to Make Training Stick
The summer I was 12 my father took my sister and me on a six-week long trip around the Western U.S. We hiked slot-canyons and the Grand Canyon, camped under the stars in Zion, and got soaked by thunderstorms in the Rockies. We backpacked a lot, and my older sister and father had longer legs and more stamina than I did. I hated hiking. I pouted, whined, and dragged my feet.
Finally, we arrived at Aspen and set up in a campground on a lake under the Maroon Bells, but before the dust had even settled my father wanted to head out on a day hike up into the mountains. I resisted, big time. He couldn’t move me off the picnic table where I sat reading comic books, so he relented, told me to stay there, and said they’d be back before dark.
Once they left it didn’t take me long to get bored. I noticed a sheer, rock-and-flower covered mountain that rose above the lake, put my shoes on, and hiked all the way up that mountain. There was no trail to follow; I bushwhacked and clung to lupine and when I arrived at the top, I watched the sun set pink and gold around the Rocky Mountains, leaving as it got dark. I learned a few things about myself that day—not all good. I’m stubborn, independent, and don’t like to be forced to do things. I also desperately want to be heard.
Remembering this has influenced my horse training. If we listen to what our horse wants to do, let them find their own reward, and then let them do it without force, our training sticks forever. Bonus points if we make them feel good while they’re doing it.
Example: My gelding Gus has tight muscles and sometimes gets cranky when asked to stretch through his back by bending or yielding to the leg. Before I ride him, I do some in-hand stretches and a little body work. I tell him how clever he is, and he’s learning it feels good. One of the stretches involves standing on the side of the bridge and lowering his neck while I do some Masterson Method on him. Soon I noticed when he’s turned out in the arena, he’ll go to the bridge, put his front feet up, stretch his neck down, then look at me for approval. It feels good, so he offers it.
Nothing forced is beautiful. Finding ways to make our horses feel good, both mentally and physically, makes training joyful for horse and human.
Kim Roe grew up riding on the family ranch and competed in Western rail classes, trail horse, reining, working cow, and hunter/jumper. She trained her first horse for money at 12 years old, starting a pony for a neighbor.
Kim has been a professional dressage instructor in Washington state for over 30 years, training hundreds of horses and students through the levels. In recent years Kim has become involved in Working Equitation and is a small ‘r’ Working Equitation judge with WE United.
Kim is the editor of the Northwest Horse Source Magazine, and also a writer, photographer, and poet. She owns and manages Blue Gate Farm in Deming, Washington where she continues to be passionate about helping horses and riders in many disciplines.