I remember, when I first started Straightness Training, commenting to one of the instructors how good their eye was, never thinking I would be able to see what they saw just by looking at a horse move, or even just a picture. But then one day, a few years later, I suddenly realised - I absolutely could! I could see as clear as day when a horse is falling through their inside shoulder or outside shoulder, when the inside or outside hind leg is not finding the centre of mass, when there is diagonal, horizontal or vertical imbalance. Essentially my eye can track the centre of mass so I can see what I need to do as a trainer to help the horse to find a better physical (and, as it follows naturally, mental) balance.
This is no happy accident. The only way this came about was by watching clinics and videos. I watched every clinic I possibly could when Marijke de Jong came to the UK. By intently watching and listening to the lessons, was I gradually able to understand what I was looking at, bit by bit absorbing the information like a sponge. Through watching all those lessons with individual horses, each one unique, I was able to see how the smallest shift of the centre of mass affects the horse in such a dramatic way. I learned how to address the different challenges that each individual horse threw up. And most importantly I learned what I needed to change in myself to be the trainer my horse needs me to be.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a lifetime study and the more you get attuned to the nuances of what you can see, feel, learn, the more you realise you don’t know. I love to re-watch the videos of my lessons, and the videos in the Mastery course. I love to approach them again with a beginner’s mind, and discover the nuances that I missed before. Because over time, as our knowledge develops we see more details than we did before.
And you know what, I always felt that I learned the most at the clinics that I attended without my horse! I could settle down, wrapped up in a blanket, and just relax and absorb the lessons – each one of which I found quite fascinating. I went on my own, but never felt lonely. I always found myself in good company.
So I can’t recommend highly enough, if you have the opportunity, go and watch as many workshops with ST Instructors as you possibly can. Go on your own if you have nobody to go with! Allow yourself to be fully absorbed by each fascinating horse and trainer combination. You may not need the lessons now with your own horse but as you develop as a trainer you will certainly draw on the knowledge in future.
There is a Mastery Clinic next weekend, 12-13 May 2018, which will be a brilliant learning opportunity in great company. This clinic is limited to Mastery or Home Study Course students, but you can join the course at any time if you would like to come along. All 4 of the UK instructors will be there, with the wonderful Rebecca teaching, and myself, Roz and Elaine with our horses. There will be a pub meal on the Saturday and lunch provided both days. https://www.facebook.com/events/1725340404192198/
Check out the Facebook ST Events Page to find Straightness Training workshops near you! https://www.facebook.com/groups/867629676620282/events/
Do you see the horse of your dreams? A magnificent war horse suitable for a king? A pure, innocent, beautiful spirit? Your best friend? Your partner?
Or do you see a machine that eats money and spits out dirt? A scheming, naughty creature? An ugly, fat, misshapen thing? A mean, lazy spirit? A daily chore?
What’s your horse’s nick name? Lovely lady? Mr Magnificent? Handsome boy? Superstar? Gorgeous?
Or - Old bag? Fatty? Hop-along? Tart? Lazy boy? Dimwit? Trouble? (Believe me, these are the repeatable ones, I have heard far worse!)
You might think it doesn’t matter because horses don’t understand English after all. But actually your horse does feel your intention, he picks up your inner picture and resonates on the language you use.
Horses are naturally masters of the subtlest body language and energy.
He will respond to your words and become the image you project onto him.
Positive, uplifting words will raise your horse’s self-esteem and give him self-respect.
Speaking about our horses with respect and treating them with dignity is fundamental to creating a relationship of mutual respect and enjoyment.
Treat me like a fool and I will behave like a fool. Treat me like a king and I will behave like a king.
Do you have a great nickname for your horse? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.
In my family we have a tendency to talk too quietly, too fast, or in a monotonous tone, or all three at once. Most of what is said is probably quite interesting or funny – at least it would be if anyone could decipher it! So we end up having to repeat what we are saying several times because we simply can’t be understood, and end up shouting and everyone gets annoyed!
This is a pattern that repeats itself and doesn’t seem to improve.
If only we could learn to speak clearly the first time around!
With horses we strive to use the lightest and subtlest of aids, but we also need to avoid going from a whisper that is too subtle to getting annoyed and shouting, like in my family!
If he can’t figure out what we are trying to say our horse is going to be confused and might seem uncooperative.
Instead we should take the time to explain more clearly in language the horse can understand. Teach him in simple baby steps the language we want to use and how we would like him to respond. Once he understands the meaning, the aid can become gradually quieter and he will be able to respond to that whisper with certainty.
Having defined our language, we need to stick with it. Being consistent in the language we offer can be challenging! Just attempting to apply a single meaning to each of the vast array of verbal cues that we use illustrates just how complex and confusing the communication we have with our horses can get.
A common mistake to send the horse out on the lunge using whip and hand aids, but at the same time folding one's upper body over and drawing the stomach in. This gives conflicting messages, because the body language is saying come in towards me while the arms are saying go away.
With verbal cues horses will often respond more to the tone – high or low, loud or quiet, harsh or soft - than to the actual word used. They read our facial expression and the energy that we project, for example whether we feel happy or sad.
Verbal cues with tonal variation, facial expressions, energy and body language, along with a clear inner picture and inner feeling, combine to create a powerful set of tools to communicate clearly with the horse.
So for example your jackpot cue might be the word ‘excellent!’ said with great enthusiasm, a big smile, buckets of appreciation and warm loving energy, open body language and repeated rewards, so there is no doubt in my horse’s mind that he has pleased me and he is a most awesome being.
It all comes back again to being self-aware, and consistent.
Next time something is not working, ask yourself:
Our brains are constantly developing, even into old age. It only takes a few repetitions of a certain behaviour to create a neural pathway of nerve calls in our brain. Every time that behaviour is repeated those pathways become stronger and wider and gradually they become superhighways and a habit or addiction is formed. It is just the same for horses.
The definition in the Oxford dictionary for ‘Habit’ is:
1. A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
‘he has an annoying habit of interrupting me’
‘good eating habits’
‘we stayed together out of habit’
1.1 Informal An addictive practice, especially one of taking drugs.
1.2 Psychology An automatic reaction to a specific situation
A behaviour repeated just 3 times can form a habit.
Habits and routines can be very beneficial. A large proportion of our everyday actions are habits and 95% of our brain activity is unconscious. In animal training we strive to create good habits by using operant or classical conditioning to teach desirable behaviours in response to controlled stimulus.
As horse trainers we aim to bring ourselves, and our horses, to a level of unconscious competence, a state where we have developed a high level of skill that has become second nature; good habits we can do without even thinking. A lot of practice and many many repetitions will form the mental superhighways we need.
Bad habits are formed in the same way as good ones. These could be our own, or our horse could have developed a bad habit, even though the original stimulus that caused the behaviour in the first place has long gone.
Deeply ingrained habits can be difficult to change but being aware of the way neural pathways are formed can help.
Ignoring an undesirable behaviour often just makes it worse because the horse continues to practice the behaviour which in turn strengthens the neural pathway.
The trick is not so much to stop a bad habit but to replace it with a good one.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” - Henry Ford
A change in routine will help to change the circumstances that lead up to a bad habit. That means noticing what happens before what happens happens - and changing your response to it. Interrupting the chain or pattern of behaviour.
Bad habits in horses are almost always inadvertently created by the handler or trainer. The causes can be obvious, or very subtle: too much pressure, constant pressure, lack of release of pressure, poorly timed aids, lack of leadership, misjudged timing or dosing of food rewards or otherwise somehow unintentionally reinforcing an undesirable behaviour, and all of these can be due to a lack of self-awareness.
The best prevention is to stop bad habits from forming in the first place.
To avoid unintentionally reinforcing undesired behaviour we need to be self-aware; to notice our own habits - all the time. Not only what we are doing but what we are thinking; how we think and when; our attitude to ourselves, our horse and to others; our physical way of moving; what our inner voice is telling us. All these things can be habitual and they massively affect our horse when we come to train him.
Finding self-awareness is about constantly observing ourselves and our actions. But it must be done without judgement, and without beating ourselves up or making ourselves feel bad or wrong. This includes noticing things like:
Let’s help our horses out by making it a habit to notice our own habits, and be proactive to change them into habits that will empower us and improve our training as well as our lives.
There is a mine of valuable information about training horses and dealing with undesired behaviours, easily accessible within the Straightness Training Mastery course. More information here. The list of Straightness Training Instructors worldwide is here.
Boy oh boy it can be tough training horses at this time of year! The dark evenings, the cold, the wet and the mud. If it’s not raining and blowing it’s freezing. It can be hard to get motivated, sometimes leading to feelings of failure. As if we need to add negative thinking to our struggles!
If this rings true for you, read on!
When things are difficult, instead of focusing on the problems look instead for what can be done – today - however small.
A wet or windy day will often make our usual training routine difficult or even impossible. But, because we know this, we should change our expectations and set a new, more realistic goal. It's a fantastic opportunity! We can teach a horse how to relax, how to behave when he is stressed. We can set up a "safe spot" in the arena that we can gradually expand. And this will improve the trust in our relationship. How wonderful will it be when we can go out and train without even having to think about how the weather will affect our horse!
And if time is short it is perfectly possible to make progress with just 3 x 15-minute training sessions in a week. Successful, short training sessions can be hugely rewarding for both you and your horse.
Here are 3 simple things to help you keep momentum:
Achieving our goals, however small, makes us feel successfuland allows us to make progress, and that, in turn, brings motivation in difficult circumstances.
And if it is all impossible, as long as your horse has adequate turnout on dry ground and good equine company to keep him stimulated it is perfectly fine to give him a break from training. After a 4-6 week break he (and you) might even come back better than before!
Check out Marijke de Jong's 4 part Facebook post for some really awesome advise about goal setting in 2018 below.
Five days of total immersion at the Straightness Training instructors’ clinic the first week in September 2017 was an AMAZING learning experience. The clinic was held by Marijke de Jong at her private yard in Amsterdam and it was attended by a fabulous group of ST instructors from all over the world – Holland, Germany, Brazil, USA, South Africa and UK.
The main theme for the week was liberty. It is all too easy to get caught up using tools too much in our training but our horses need us to be more than that for them to be motivated to offer us their best performance.
So if you are on a plateau with your training and don’t feel like you are progressing, then liberty training is the way to go to get you out of it, create a bond with your horse and build up credit in your relationship bank account. It brings the horse into a much more open mental state so that they are ready and willing to work with us rather than for us.
It was a real treat to see the awesome Marijke working with her 5 amazing horses Maestro, Romanesque, Prince Elmelund, Toronto and El Blanco, at liberty, and explaining how it all works. Yes, all totally different characters – all at once!
I picked up loads of insights and inspiration. Some main points that come to mind are:
There was also a lot of focus on the riding pillar. Lots of insights about connection and collection, and one main point that resonated with me:
The liberty and riding combined with the introduction of stick riding, which enables us to communicate with the horse without the use of the reins. So valuable because most of us tend to rely on the reins too much which can cause the horse to become closed mentally, to go against us and to stop thinking.
Watching a clinic is so powerful, and can give you so many lightbulb moments. My own training has instantly improved!
I had a great time and came back full of big ideas after a week of intensive learning with good friends.
The 2017 May ST Instructor's clinic, with Marijke de Jong, Marc Marsman and 14 ST instructors from around the world, was a totally unique and inspirational 5 days of fabulous learning. Instructors travelled in from all over the world - South Africa, USA, Australia, Holland, Germany and Austria. The 5 UK (trainee) instructors teamed up with 5 visiting instructors and we shared valuable tips - and tops - from each other during lessons and free 'laboratory' sessions with our horses. We all had lessons with the wonderful Marijke de Jong and she brought us fantastic new insights and details to our training.
The 5 horses belonging to the UK instructors were all superb - relaxed, willing and ready to learn and to offer their very best.
I took Marley along and he was a superstar, I am so delighted with his progress. He even showed himself to be a super professor horse.
I compiled some snippets from our videos to show our a little bit of longing and work in hand.
The first winter study group was a really great opportunity for local Straightness Training students to meet up and to take on some theory. 11 super, positive and enthusiast people came along and they created a warm and friendly atmosphere, sharing the process of figuring out the natural asymmetry in their own horses.
So thank you everyone for making the evening such a joy, and I am very much looking forward to the next one!
We have booked the same venue for the next meeting, on 16 February.
Check out the event on Facebook here and contact me direct to book a place. https://www.facebook.com/events/1386911958017310/
We had a super workshop at Welland today. Thanks to the dedicated attendees who put up with the cold and still managed to stay cheerful and enthusiastic. Sam Pettigrew baked the most wonderful lemon drizzle cake and she and Jo Lewington hosted beautifully – so thank you for making it a great day again!
After the theory session Jo and Sherman had a first lesson in liberty training together. The objective of the session was really to have a look at where they are today, with a view to preparing for her grade 1 evaluation – to observe what is working and what needs improvement.
We then had a look at Des’ liberty training, which Jo has already done more work on, and his transitions were very lovely and sharp and he offered some lovely LFS circles and a spontaneous half pass! His work in hand is much improved since last time, he is getting more accustomed to Jo using two reins and when she asked for a little more connection Des shaped himself up into an absolutely super shoulder fore. A tantalising glimpse of what is to come – a sensitive, talented horse with a lot to offer.
Lu Luan Crawford Crawford brought her gorgeous Icelandic mare, Bjort, for their first ever ST lesson. Bjort took it all very much in her stride, and Lu’s previous good experience with working with horses from the ground was obvious, as well as her good feel on the rein and timing in the release. Bjort is very supple and keeping her very fluid point of mass back and evenly distributed over both front legs was the challenge for Lu in the standstill exercises. They made fast progress with the LFS circles, and with just a little practise Bjort will be showing some nice self-carriage. It will be fascinating to see how this responsive young horse progresses with Straightness Training and it will be super to see her perform the tölt with the 6 keys in place.
On 5 November Jenny Comish brought her mare Stella, and Clare Daniels brought her mare Leia, for private lessons with me at Jo Lewington's yard at Welland in Worcestershire.
It was a fun and relaxed morning, and they both did really well and made very good progress, working on standstill exercises, LFS and introducing haunches in.
Jo took some super photographs and I have shared a few of them here.
Jenny and Stella
Clare and Leia