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Trust in Training

By Carol Kurtz Darlington, Art2Ride Associate Trainer

I love reading old riding books. I find the masters knew much more about the partnership between horse and rider than I often see today. I do have a few current books in my library that I love as well. One of my favorites is Tug of War: Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage: Why Classical Training Works and How Incorrect “Modern” Riding Negatively Affects Horses’ Health by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann. He talks about how training a young horse and retraining an older horse are very similar. Here is an excerpt:

“The first years of training should emphasize calm and unspectacular work. These years influence the future development of the sport or pleasure horse. During the first two years of training, a trainer should focus mainly on the horse’s mental relaxation and trust toward the human being as well as its systematic physical development. Practicing movements and tests is unimportant.”

To me, this means relaxation and trust are the most crucial ingredients to good training. Nothing done with tension has any value whatsoever. I like the training scale according to Reiner Klimke:

Looseness/Relaxation, Rhythm, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness, and then finally Collection. I believe if we are willing to put in the time to properly develop a horse with these priorities, any horse can develop some degree of collection by the flexion of the joints in the hindquarters.

The first two years of training focus on relaxation/looseness, rhythm, and contact. This is necessary for horses in every discipline, not just dressage. Any horse can develop everything it needs for straightness and collection once this foundation has been established and it has been given enough time for the correct muscles to develop. I never like to see training rushed, as there will be gaps in the development. And I don’t just mean physical gaps. There can be huge gaps in the mental development—in the trust between horse and rider—when a horse is forced to do things it is not ready to do. When a horse trusts its rider, he is more likely to “take the fence” and keep you safe when something goes wrong.

Look around your barn sometime. Do the riders look happy? What do the horses’ eyes tell you? Perhaps this most important element of trust got left behind in the training. The horse performs, but he is missing that bond that connects him with the rider he knows is looking out for his best interest. Good training results in a horse who is confident, eager to work, and knows he will be treated fairly. It cannot be rushed. The rewards for taking the time to allow a horse to develop correctly last for decades.