Toolbox Over Technique

There are many uses for the word ‘technique’ in the context of horse training.  The way that I was taught, technique was a specific thing that you did.  For example, an opening rein on a turn may be a technique to guide a young horse around a corner, or to encourage a horse to lengthen their outline on the outside of a circle.  However, I have also heard those who use ‘technique’ to refer to a style or method of training – often regarding a specific trainer or ‘school’.  It is in that context that I refer to it here.

As stated in the opening paragraph, I have seen many who adopt a technique/method/school at the exclusion of other ways of accomplishing the same thing.  That may work if you deal with horses of a particular type, or if you are lucky enough to have horses all started from the ground up with the same method.  In my experience, with a broad range of horses of varying levels of training (or even ruin, in some cases), it is more important to have a broad range of tools in your box.

I have known those who focus on getting the horse to reach well forward with the neck in the early stages of training. Their goal is to get the back to ‘swing’ and the horse to move in a fluid way. From there they build up the balance and strength to eventually gain a more upright and collected frame. Others focus on starting with an ‘up and open’ way of going, starting with balance, and eventually getting to more reach and swing. Those are highly shorthand versions of these two training techniques – but the point is that I have seen lovely results with both. Yet, I frequently see followers of one criticizing the approach of the other.

I approach each horse knowing what I want to accomplish –  fluid movement, easily carrying the rider and responding to light aids.  What tools I use to get there will vary with the horse, their temperament, and whatever training baggage they may be carrying. 

For example, Coffee was trained Western Pleasure, with a slow shuffling gait and a low curled-up head carriage.  So ingrained was his early training that he actually traveled that way, even when loose. He is the first horse that I actually had to chase, getting him to go well beyond the speed I’d want, just so we could find his normal stride length again.  I also had to work on getting his head well up and open before he found find his natural carriage again.

By contrast, Tally has a high head carriage, often disconnected from her back and haunches.  Due to a horrid start, she returned home panicked and always rushing.  With her I had to focus on getting something slower than ideal, just to get her to focus.  I also spent much more time getting her to reach down, to the point of being on her forehand, just to get her to swing in almost a lazy way.  From there I could work on ‘forward’ without getting to the panicked rush we’d had before.

Had I started both of those horses as ‘blank slates’ I would likely have approached their training in much the same way.  There are, of course, always physical, mental, and emotional differences in horses that necessitate some adaptation on our part.  Tally, with her Friesian heritage, would need to be encouraged to reach more forward in her neck under the best of conditions – it is too easy for her to develop what looks like a good head carriage with no effect on the rest of her anatomy.  Coffee, with his high level of Quarter Horse blood, would need more encouragement to get his head and neck up and out of the way of his front end.  But, given the same start, those differences would have been minimal. 

The reality for many of us is that we are working with horses that are carrying someone else’s training baggage.  Particularly if you are trying to move toward a Classical Dressage path, you will find it hard to locate a horse who is already under saddle that does not go behind the bit.  You cannot simply begin to apply a specific technique or training method to those horses without first correcting their issues.  Having a deep well-stocked toolkit will serve you better than a prescribed ‘map’.