Natural Horse World

Educating My Horses

by Cynthia Cooper

Cynthia, Tigga and Manny in 2005 after returning from South Africa.
Cynthia, Tigga and Manny in 2005 after returning from South Africa.

Over the many years of being a student of the horse, pony club, Parelli, horse psychology, clicker training and many other great horsemen and women, I have learned a lot. In fact I’m a ‘learn-a-holic’!
Learning is something I will continue to do until the day I die!

When it comes to educating my own horses, I now use many techniques and tools that are evolving as I find out what they are most effective for.
I call this my ‘toolbox’ because I can choose whatever the horse or situation needs at the time.
Every horse is an individual, and can change from moment to moment so having a range of experiences and ‘tools’ to draw upon is extremely valuable.

Here is what you will find in my ‘toolbox’:

My Roadmap: I generally follow the Parelli levels program, keeping in mind the ‘Comfort Zone’ principle for each horse/task/situation. Philip Nye instilled the comfort zone principles in my mind, while Jenny Pearce via her E-Book Bobby’s Diaries, expanded on that.

My Teaching Principles: I use positive reinforcement (clicker training). I find it’s such a great way to explain each new task to the horse and to inspire enthusiasm for learning/being with you. When properly combined with light pressure (negative reinforcement) it is far more effective than just pressure and release on its own.
As my horses go through the process of learning, reinforcing and refining, I reduce or phase out the food treats, or replace them with scratching their itchy spots.
There’s nothing like learning how to use ‘positive reinforcement’ for developing timing and reducing tasks to achievable steps.
I can highly recommend the book” You Can Train Your Horse To Do Anything – On Target Training: Clicker training and beyond by Shawna and Vinton Karrasch” along with Clicker Training: Colt Starting the Natural Horse by Leslie Pavlich” to start with.


My Communication Method: to start each session, to find answers and to let the horse know what I want, I use mind communication.
This means I need to listen to my intuition, be calm, centred and take the time to ask questions and listen for the answers. Studying books on animal communication and Jenny Pearce’s Zen Connection (book and CD) has helped a lot.
It never ceases to amaze me that often I just have to ‘think’ what I want to do, and my horse picks up on that – in fact it has become a very important part of the process.

When first starting to teach a horse to lead, I like to teach them to walk with me at liberty.

My Starting Point: When working with foals and very frightened horses, or horses I don’t have a relationship with yet, I start at liberty.
Liberty is the truth and it allows the horse to have a say and make choices. When you start in a halter, you immediately impose your ideas on the horse, rather than listening to their ideas too.

Liberty and positive reinforcement (clicker) work so well together because it gives the horse a reason to want to stay with you and focused on a task.
One of the horsewomen I truly admire is Carolyn Resnick. Her approach is unique and totally considerate of the horse – this question and answer entry in her blog explains some of the aspects of her Liberty Training.

My Understanding: I study horse psychology and body language to help me understand horse behaviour.
I take into account the horse’s personality type and tailor the education to suit their strengths. There are several resources for helping you determine your horse’s personality type that then gives you some ideas about what tasks may be easy or more difficult for your horse.

One I like is Klaus Ferdinand Hempflings 26 character groups in his book ‘What Horses Reveal’. We have to be careful that when we assign a character/type/profile we don’t only see that part of our horse – what our mind perceives, we see! Therefore, if we see a horse as ‘dumb’, then the horse will be, until we change our perception filter to ‘smart’ and then the horse will be smart.
If you’d like more info on how the law of attraction works then read a fantastic little book called “The Secret’.

My Equipment: is comfortable for the horse ie: soft rope or web halters with various lengths of rope – lighter for longer lengths, bitless bridles, treeless saddles, hoof boots if needed for their bare hooves and assessment of nutrition to be sure the physical needs of my horses are met.
Without full physical capabilities, a horse will struggle with what we ask – it may be too nervous and jumpy to learn because it lacks magnesium, or it may be too sore in the feet to be ridden – but the horse still tries and then associates the rider with feeling sore.
The same goes for saddle fit etc. etc. and that’s why I always look for a horse’s reaction to any equipment I use – and ask what are they trying to tell me?
When you disregard their opinion on any equipment, you are imposing an unpleasant experience upon them and that is not great for the relationship.

And for me, that’s what education is all about – developing a great relationship so my horse is a willing partner in the dance. I just love it when my horses seek me out for opportunities to play and learn. The youngsters are usually the keenest, because these are the horses that are benefiting the most from my ongoing learning.

Cynthia with a young colt, Koda and her stallion, Finn.

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