Category Archives: Training

The Concept of Fairness

Being fair is an important concept in a training philosophy.  Fair is defined as being free from bias, dishonesty or injustice; marked by favoring conditions; and legitimately sought, pursued or done.  Relevant synonyms include:  just, impartial, rational, honest, and evenhanded.  These concepts are reflected in training in a variety of ways.  First, be fair by creating a situation where your horse can successfully perform the required task.  Second, be fair in the use of rewards and discipline.  Third, be fair by making an honest and rational analysis of what is happening during your training session.

Creating a situation where your horse can succeed in the task required:  When working your horse, ride with accuracy and pre-planning so your horse has every opportunity to perform correctly.  If you want your horse to do a 20 meter circle in a round frame with forward intent, you must ride a geometrically correct circle with the same amount of bend in the body the entire way around.  Each time you fix your circle’s geometry, effectively introducing straight lines and turns, you interrupt the flow and balance of the movement and your horse.  This makes it more difficult for your horse to maintain what you want and allows the naughty ones an opportunity to misbehave.  If you want to turn down the centerline and proceed straight on the centerline, making a sharp turn onto the centerline disrupts the rhythm, causes the haunches to swing out, and creates a wavering line for the first half of the arena.  Pre-planning the turn from the corner before the centerline, picturing a geometrically round half-circle onto a straight line, allows your horse to maintain his rhythm and frame through the turn and minimizes the number of adjustments required to transition from a curved to straight line in the horse’s body.

This concept of fairness includes being aware of your environment and other influences.  If you have a deep spot in the arena or a section that is not level, it is unfair to expect your horse to maintain his balance or conduct a difficult movement through these areas.  If it is cold and windy and your horse is fresh,  if your horse is tired or sore, or if you have had a bad day and are grumpy, do not set you and your horse up for failure by expecting to work on the newest or hardest movements that session.  Work on equitation, geometry, transitions, or just go for a trail ride.

Creating a situation for success is particularly important when training new and more difficult movements.  You want your horse to enjoy learning and not be afraid to make a mistake when trying to understand a new concept.  One of Matt’s favorite quotes from his mentor Chuck Grant, a USDF Hall of Fame member and recognized father of American dressage, is “ask often, receive little, reward generously.”  This is where the rider needs to manage their expectations and set realistic goals.  Start small, with a couple of steps of the new movement at first, gradually increasing the number of steps until you attain the required duration of the movement.  When the movement starts to fall apart, abort, reorganize and try again.  Better to reorganize and restart than attempt to fix something within the new movement itself.  Expect that your progress will follow the “two steps forward, one step back” philosophy.  Be patient, all horses (and people) learn at a different pace and with different methods.  If your tried and true training method for the movement is not working with a particular horse, be creative and try new approaches.  If the horse or rider are getting frustrated in a new movement, stop working on it and go back to something known, that can be achieved successfully and rewarded.  Once both horse and rider have returned to a calm and receptive state, begin working on the new movement again.

Fair use of rewards and discipline:  Positive re-enforcement is the key to a happy, willing horse.  Make sure to take every opportunity to let your horse know they have done the right thing.  There are a wide range of rewards for your horse during a training session.  Ending the session, taking a break, giving a quiet pat or rub, saying good boy, stroking their withers or neck with a finger, or just softening the reins for a moment are all ways to say good job, thank you for the effort.  It is also important to always end a session on a good note.  If you have had a difficult ride, make sure to make time at the end for something the horse can do successfully, even if it is just a transition, so they can receive a reward.  Pay attention to what the horse likes to do so you can use it for a happy ending.  For example, our Andalusian stallion, Enamorado, loves the extended trot and our paint, Rooster, thinks Spanish walk is the coolest thing ever.

Being just, evenhanded and rational are extremely important concepts when it comes to discipline.  Is discipline required, or was the behavior a miscommunication or mistake?  There is a big difference between a horse who crow-hopped and one that tripped, even though it may feel the same to the rider.  Does the punishment fit the crime?  Is the discipline crafted to address the issue or is it just an expression of frustration or anger?

Our mantra for training is “Ask, Tell, Demand.”  Ask with the initial cue, Tell with a stronger aid or correction, and Demand with a much stronger aid or correction.  When applying this to moving forward, Ask by squeezing with both legs, Tell with a spur and Demand with the whip.  Always give the horse a chance to respond to your aid before increasing the degree of a correction.  Allow the horse the opportunity to do the right thing.  If they make the wrong choice, then you can move on to the next stage of correction.  Over correcting often escalates a situation.  Instead of a spook corrected once and allowed to redirect back to work, over correcting turns the spook into a fight where each correction leads to worse behavior, such as running away, rearing or bucking.

Finally, timing is everything!  Whether it is a reward or a form of discipline, there is a 3 second window for your horse to correlate your action with their previous behavior.  So be generous with your praise in the moment of good behavior and be quick to correct, allow a response, and correct again when implementing discipline.

Making an honest and rational analysis of the training session:  It is important to make an objective assessment of each instance of a training session that acknowledges both the good and bad.  What was correct?  What was incorrect?  What can be done differently to make that movement better next time?  If something went wrong, what did the rider do to contribute to the issue?  It is easy to blame the horse for mistakes and bad behavior.  However, many times the rider either caused the issue or made the issue worse than it needed to be as discussed previously.  For example, a rider was unable to pick up the left lead canter at a show.  She left the arena angry with her horse, put him away with no cookies and held a grudge against him for the rest of the show.  A review of the video showed that she bent his head right and positioned her leg biometrically incorrectly each time she asked for the canter.  The horse did exactly what she asked him to do, canter right.  He was being obedient, not belligerent, and deserved cookies for performing a more difficult task of picking up the counter canter, instead of punishment.

Final thought:  While this article has touched on three facets of the concept of fairness as it relates to training, the concept applies to all areas of horsemanship and is an integral part of building a positive and productive relationship with your horse.

Using Inner Calm to Influence Equine Behavior

Your example can often dictate a horse’s behavior.  This included both your physical and emotional example.  If your movements are sudden, jerky and abrupt, do not be surprised to see the same type of behavior from your horse.  If you, their leader, is frightened, startled, hyper or even distracted by too many thoughts going through your head while working with the horse, the horse will notice and act accordingly.  Focus on your work with the horse.  Make your mind and body calm with easy flowing movements.  Make sure you consciously breathe in and out, especially when your instinct is to hold your breath from nerves or other factors.  Even if you are not calm, this will help project calm to your horse.  When something occurs that is frightening or abrupt it is your obligation to keep calm and act as a guide to your horse in how to react to the situation.  From the horse’s perspective, if the rider is afraid, the world must be ending and the horse is justified in taking evasive action.  If the rider is calm, maybe the situation is not so bad and by following the rider’s example everything will be okay.  Be the leader, the authority figure, the answer for your horse by maintaining calm inside and out.

Positive Repetition in Training

Just like humans, horses learn through repetition in training.  Repeat, repeat, repeat and repeat again until whatever movement or skill you are training becomes automatic, like a habit.  According to sports psychologists, it takes 300-500 good repetitions for a person to make a physical movement a habit.  It takes 3,000-5,000 repetitions for a person to break a bad habit of movement.  This is an important concept when training your horse.  If your horse is not doing the movement correctly and you cannot correct it within a few steps, stop what you are doing, regroup, and begin again.  The more you practice a movement incorrectly, the more you are teaching the horse, through repetition, that the incorrect movement is what you want.  It is better to have two steps of a correct movement followed by an immediate reward and regrouping, then ten steps of a movement done incorrectly.

Lessons Learned in Quest for USDF Gold

This article written by Heather Black was published in the 2014 Winter edition of Florida Sporthorse Magazine produced by Christie Gold:

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) has a series of awards called the USDF Rider Awards.  Riders must earn two scores of 60% or higher from two different judges at certain levels to obtain the awards.  A bronze medal is awarded to a rider who earns the required scores at 1st, 2nd and 3rd level.  A silver medal is awarded to a rider who earns the required scores at 4th level and Prix St. Georges.  A rider who earns the required scores at Intermediare and Grand Prix receives a gold medal.  Grand Prix is the highest level in dressage competition and represents the ultimate in collection, strength and precision from a horse and rider.  Seen in the Olympics, the test includes movements such as a canter half pass zigzag, canter pirouettes, one and two tempi flying changes, piaffe, and passage.  A Grand Prix horse needs to have a certain amount of natural talent and receives years of training.  They are a rare find and I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to ride Danish warmblood Cooper V to earn my silver medal in 2011 and my gold medal in 2014.

During my first Grand Prix competition, I just barely scored a 60% toward my USDF gold rider medal.  I was worried I would go off course.  I was afraid I would make mistakes in the dreaded canter half pass zigzag, the one tempi changes, the piaffe, and the passage.  I over-schooled on the Friday before the show, determined to figure out my timing issues I’d been working on for months, in one session.  The session ended with a tired horse, a frustrated rider and no improvement on my timing issues.  During the test itself, I was so distracted by my focus on what was coming up, whether it was where to go or how I could possibly pull off 15 one tempi changes, I gave insufficient attention to the simple details of my ride:  riding a square halt, centering a movement on the centerline, or even preparing for a movement, instead of rushing to get it over as quickly as possible.  The test felt hurried and panicked, one movement followed by the next and the next with no time to think or breathe in between.  My thoughts as I exited the arena were grim.  My only positive thought was that it was over!  This feeling was not why I had dedicated myself to dressage, pursuing my childhood dream and life-long passion for horses.  Here I was, riding at the highest level, earning a respectable score, and I was relieved it was over.  Clearly I was doing something wrong.

One month later, I was back in the show ring for my second attempt at Grand Prix and my final score to earn my gold medal.  This time I scored a 69% and had a fantastic ride during the test.  While the additional month of practice helped, I also changed a few things during the competition that transformed my experience.  The Friday before the show, my schooling session was designed to get familiar with the show grounds and make sure all of my aides were in place.  I walked around my competition and schooling arenas.  While my competitors were drilling their horses on movements as their trainers bellowed instructions across the showground, I did big circles at walk, trot and canter.  I made sure my horse was listening to my legs and seat and was light in the bridle.  I tested a little bit of lateral work and a couple of changes.  Then we took a 30 minute stroll around the show grounds.  Later I returned to the arena alone and visualized riding the test in the arena.  Not just the movements, but every step, the quality of the gaits I wanted, how I would prepare for the entry and exit of each movement, and reminded myself how to actively ride the challenging parts of the test.  During the month before the show, while I practiced improving the individual pieces of the test on my competition horse, I practice the test pattern on every horse I rode.  Whether they could actually do the movements or not was not important.  What was important was that the test pattern became automatic and part of my muscle memory.  Last but not least, I made myself focus on the smallest elements of the test.  Concentrating on each step, rather than fixating on the bigger picture of a complete movement or the test itself.

These changes had a dramatic impact on my test experience.  Focusing on each step and breaking the movements down into their smallest elements created a slow motion effect for the entire test.  I was no longer fixated on getting a movement finished.  Instead, I was focusing and actually enjoying the level of collection in the gait as we went through the movements.  I remember thinking that the short side was taking forever.  I had so much time to prepare because consciously placing every stride allowed me to use the arena more effectively.  I only thought about what I was doing in that moment, allowing total concentration on one thing at a time, like each of the eight strides in my canter pirouette, instead of being distracted by future events.  I felt relaxed and confident and had moments of awe in the beauty and grace of the horse beneath me.  I rode the dreaded canter half pass zigzag with a smile and laughed during my one tempi changes.  My thoughts as I exited the arena were jubilant.  Regardless of my score or the things I could have done better, I had fun during the test and was re-energized in my passion for horses and the sport of dressage.  This feeling was why I had worked so hard!

So, for my next show, regardless of the level I plan to compete, I will keep three things in mind:

1)      The day before the show is not the time to fix or change things.  If a riding pair is still having issues with parts of the test, it will not be solved the day before a competition.  The level of proficiency achieved in the week before the competition is what a pair will have for the show.  Better to focus on making sure all aides are in working order and that the movements already mastered are at their best so those scores can be maximized.  Figure out how to minimize the damage to scores from challenging issues, but be cautious not to focus so much on what a pair cannot do well.  You want a positive attitude going into a competition so build confidence in the rider and horse by having a positive schooling session.

2)      Know the test.  Whether you have a reader or not, the rider must know the test thoroughly so it becomes second nature.  The effort that goes toward trying to hear a reader or straining to remember the next movement takes away from the rider’s ability to focus on the ride.  Instead of riding in the present, moment by moment, the rider is fixated on what is coming next.  That division of focus diminishes the quality of the test and adds another level of anxiety to an event that is already stressful enough.  Practice the test as much as possible on horseback and use detailed visualization exercises to cement not only the test pattern, but the rider’s aides as well.

3)      Ride each step.  A test is not just about each score or each movement.  It is the journey of each step that creates harmony and fluidity, transforming what is a series of tasks into a ballet between horse and rider.  Concentrating on the steps or small elements, allows the rider to build a strong foundation for each movement.  Without quality and accuracy in the building blocks, there cannot be success in the final product.  This focus on the steps also provides additional occasions for the pair to have successful moments, building confidence and a positive outlook on the ride.

These are the lessons I learned on the final phase of my quest for a USDF gold medal award.  I could not have done it without the support of the training team at Matt McLaughlin Dressage and Cooper V’s owners, Matt McLaughlin and Ronald Wright.  Most importantly, Cooper V’s generosity, willingness to forgive my errors for a cookie, and insistence that I get it right before he would perform, made him an excellent instructor and companion throughout the experience.  Horses like him are a rare find indeed!


When working with a horse, the rider must be the leader in the relationship and earn the horse’s respect.  Compared to a rider, horses are stronger, faster and heavier with much larger teeth.  Instinctively they have a flight response and a need for hierarchy.  While love and affection have their place, the underlying core of the relationship must appreciate these traits for a safe and harmonious relationship.  Earning respect and being a leader does not mean breaking a horse’s spirit or being abusive.  A rider must be fair, confident, focused, and strong.  Boundaries of acceptable behavior must be defined and re-enforced every time they are tested.  If there is a question in the horse’s mind, he must trust in the rider enough to look to the rider for guidance.  Guidance, not a cookie!

Ride Your Horse Like An Athlete

Left to his own devises, your horse would have a day of walking, eating, drinking and sleeping with the possibility of a gallop if danger appears.  When we ask them to go to work and use their muscles for jumping, dressage or any other discipline, it is not a natural state and care must be taken to train them as an athlete to avoid injury and obtain the best result.  Think of your riding as sessions in the gym with a personal trainer.  You warm-up, work out, and cool down.  You do repetitions with different exercises, using different muscles and taking small breaks between sets.  You are careful not to overly fatigue muscles with a single exercise, but focus on building muscle and overall strength with a variety of movements targeting both sides of the body equally.  If something needs additional work, you alternate the exercise with others to avoid injury.  You also plan to work out a few times a week with one or two days off to rest.  Applying this philosophy to your riding will help you structure your time and bring out the best in your horse athlete.