Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.
Having a Plan
We have all come across problems with our horses now and then that we know we can fix, but it will just take time and consistency.
I have found that having a written training plan for what I'm going to do each day to keep me on track and working toward my goal is a big help. The thing about training plans is that sometimes things don't go as planned with our horses and we end up with having to work on something different. This is why I find it just as important to have a journal to record your progress as well.
What to Write in a Training Plan
What are you trying to accomplish? That is the first thing that you will write. You can label it as "goal" or "objective," whatever you want.
First, you need to come up with an honest idea of the number of days a week that you plan on being able to get out to work with your horse. So, you will decide which days you will be working your horse. Despite knowing that things could change at any time, you are going to come up with an exercise to help break the bigger problem down into larger steps to make it easier to fix. Writing the plan is like writing down the problem and your specific riding plan and exercises to fix it, or at least improve on it.
What to Write in a Training Journal
Write all about the ride and every little detail that affected either you or your horse. Was it windy? Were there a lot of other distractions going on? Were you tired from work? Was your horse hyper from lack of turn out? These are all important factors in determining how things went during the ride, so documenting them is important. Make sure you make notes of all the things that went well and all the things that didn't. If you had a problem you need further help with, write that down too so you can address it with the appropriate person.
I like to write out my training plans for the month. That way, it gives you enough time to create new habits and make changes, and it also allows for changes in plans, like if you don't get to the farm one day, or the horse throws a shoe and you can't ride it. You always have to account for these weird little things happening with horses because they always seem to occur.
Nothing Is Written in Stone
You will know as soon as you get on your horse whether or not he is having a good day or a bad day and if you are going to be able to go on with your original plans. If it turns out it just isn't happening today, evaluate what is going on, bail on the original plan, and come up with an exercise to work through whatever issue is going on today.
Be sure to make note of this in your training journal. Write about what worked and what didn't, or maybe what you think was the reason for your horse not acting his normal self. Having all these notes to look back on will not only be an easy way for you to see the progress you have made in a short time period, but it will also be a reference in the future for what exercises seem to work well for your horse for certain types of issues.
If you keep journals on all the horses you work with, you will have an amazing reference to pull from in the future. Not to mention, you will be able to see your own progress as a rider on paper. Not that you can't feel it or your instructor doesn't encourage you, but sometimes seeing it on paper can really help it to sink in—especially since you can compare the dates of how long it's been and how long it took you to work through something the first time. Hopefully, you will see that next time it is a little easier.
I'm going to give you part of an example training plan for an imaginary horse that needs work on his trot to canter transitions.
Since this is the beginning of September, we will make a plan for September. His rider is able to commit to three days a week of riding him, starting today on Monday, September 3.
The first page of our notebook should say our goal for the month, which with this imaginary horse, is to improve the transitions from trot to canter.
In our notebook, we make a page for each of the days we plan on training. Write the date at the top of the page.
So you will have pages for the following dates:
Now that we have the dates written down, we are going to make a training plan for each day. Remember, this isn't set in stone, so if for some reason you can't ride that day, just make a note of the new date and continue on as planned.
Break It Up Into Small Steps and Write Your Daily Plan
9/3: Today I'm going to ride at a walk trot and canter in the ring like I normally would and try to identify what it is that we are both doing that is causing us to have so much trouble with the trot to canter transition. I will pick one of those things and work on it until I feel I have got to a good stopping point for the day.
Example: You determine your transitions aren't good because your horse is not responsive to your leg cues on moving forward, so you practice pushing him for a more forward trot and then half halting for a smaller trot. Your goal is to have the horse be more responsive and also realize that he has more than one walk, trot, canter pace. He should go as slowly or as quickly as you ask him too. Don't be afraid to use your crop if necessary.
9/5: I will warm up and then start with working on what I did on Monday when I was identifying the cause of the problem. If the horse seems to be responding better then I will look at another aspect of the problem and add another exercise.
Example: Last time we worked on his responsiveness moving off of your leg going forward. Hopefully getting him a lot more responsive to your cues. The next thing you need to work on to improve your canter transitions is keeping your horse from being too much on the forehand (too much weight on the front end). This is important since as he goes from trot to canter we want him to push with his hind end which should make his front end lift up and be lighter.
To practice this you will warm up and then do the same exercise where you are working on having your horse be more responsive to your cues to go forward. Now, while doing so, you are going to try and be aware of how he feels? Is he heavy or light on the front end? This is where today's exercise of practicing the half halt comes in handy. As you are pushing your horse more forward you are going to try and be aware of if he feels like he is heavy on your hands. This is when you half halt, sit up close your leg ( squeeze) lift your hands ever so slightly until you feel his head come back up then immediately soften.
This softening is how he will find the place where he should carry himself. So you practice the change in pace and direction at the trot, while half halting, making sure that he is nice and light on the front end and if he isn't that you are comfortable with how to fix it.
9/7: Today I want you to think of as an easy ride for your horse and you. Since you should have worked pretty hard at the trotting and half halting exercise on Monday and Wednesday, today will be easier. I want you to continue to practice your half halts while sending your horse more forward at both the walk and the trot. Practice the timing of softening your hands when your horse lifts his front end. Don't forget you need to lift your upper body up and your hands up as you squeeze your legs to encourage the horse to lighten the front end. As soon as you get some good responses to your half halts, call it a day, go for a walk around the farm or get off and give your horse a bath. We are ending our work week on a positive note.
9/10: Monday is our refresher day, we will warm up and ride at the walk and trot doing figures and changes of direction and working on our half halts. Remember we need a light front end for a good trot to canter transition. Hopefully, he picks up pretty well where he left off and you can move on to today's project, which is going to be to differentiate to your horse the cue for trot and canter.
A lot of times people don't ask very differently which just causes the horse to run in the trot instead of picking up the canter. Hopefully, it will be easier now because of your work on half halts. You push the horse into a more forward trot, sit up and half halt. Then you hold the inside leg at the girth and the outside leg will be slightly back asking him for the canter. If he doesn't go, tap him on the outside haunch with the whip. So your steps are forward trot, half halt to lift the front end, lift your body up, position your legs for the canter cue, half halt to lift and then ask for the canter. If you don't get it promptly us the whip.
I don't expect you to get perfect transitions today, it's mostly about reinforcing your half halts with your horse and training yourself to do the steps automatically. End by doing some figure eights and going back to the changes in stride at the trot. Always end on something familiar, something you know you can get him to do well. Remember we are working on the trot to canter transition, so once you get him into a canter, go ahead let him canter on a few strides and then back to trot so you can set up to try again.
9/12: Just like Monday, you are going to do the same exact thing, basically reinforcing what your cue is for canter, and making sure you are differentiating it from the cue for the trot. You will know you and your horse are getting it when he doesn't have to run in the trot to go into canter.
By now, we should have the basic idea that you control his trot speed to whatever speed you want it to be and that the cue for canter is different. When he feels the lift of your hands and upper body and shifting of your outside leg, he will know you mean canter instead of trot. Again, let him canter on a few strides, then back to organized trot and try it again. If he is needing work on transitions he will probably also need work on balancing while cantering which will come later on. So we practice the half halt, canter cue, couple strides of canter, then back to trot.
9/14: Today will depend on how well things went earlier in the week. If you feel really good about what you did Monday and Wednesday, today should just be a fun no pressure day for both of you. Ride bareback, go on a trail ride, fun stuff! If you feel like you need to continue to work on the steps we mentioned on Monday and Wednesday, do so until you get a really good response to something. A good half halt, a good transition into a canter, just one of the things you have been working on—get that to feel really good, just one time. The give your horse a big pat and tell him he is good and you can both relax for the rest of your ride.
Remember to Have Flexibility in Your Plan
Remember that if something goes wrong and you have to change the plan or it takes him longer than one session to learn the skill you are working on, it's no big deal. All horses learn at a different pace depending on the skill of their rider.
There is no shame in changing your plans, as long as you keep working towards your goal.
When you train really methodically and progressively like this, it will show you all the little holes that you missed in both you and your horse's training, but that is a good thing. Now you can work into your program how to fix them.
Your Goals Need to Be Realistic
Make sure you are looking at you and your horse's ability honestly and setting reasonable goals. That way, as you reach them, you will feel encouraged.
Journal About Your Ride
Making notes on your rides will be a great reference and help you come up with ideas and plans. Not to mention if you ride with a trainer, you will be able to tell them exactly how things have been going and then you have a place to take notes on your lessons as well.
It may seem like school work or monotonous or no fun to do all this writing and documenting, but as I mentioned before, it is a great way to learn and also to see the progress you have made over time.