Experience teaches lessons that nothing else can accomplish. This is true for horses and for the people trying to train the horse. One of our goals is for every trail horse graduating the two-year program to rapidly de-escalate from high anxiety levels back to calm. We want horses who may be initially surprised by unexpected circumstances to move through the initial emotions of fear and panic to the trained state of quietly waiting to see what will happen next.
Just like horses, we also learn from experience and develop new thoughts, ideas, and training methods. In years past, if a horse became excited or wanted to run, the thought was to let him get it out of his system. Run him till he wore out. It often worked and wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. But, we noticed it didn’t work as well with some horses as it did others. Our present view takes into account the personality of the horse more than we used to do. Some horses like excitement and adrenalin, just like some people thrive upon it. A horse that wants a little drama will look for ways to create it. Unfortunately, the search for adventure and desire for excitement doesn’t fit well with our goal of calm and quiet. It is exactly the opposite of what we want.
Bear in mind that some horses just aren’t suited mentally to make a good trail horse. We aren’t discussing those right now and cull the ones that are simply too high-strung. The horses we are addressing are the ones that have the mind and emotional stability, but just like a child or a teenager go looking for thrill and excitement. Once you get past the juvenile phase, the horse often makes a wonderful trail companion. These horses by nature tend to be less afraid and actually enjoy exploring new trails and seeing new sights.
Our approach to these fun-loving personality types has changed considerably. We no longer let them run until tired and worn out as was the practice in the past. Unfortunately, it prolongs the behavior and takes longer to overcome what becomes a habit or a pattern. Just like a teenager, the horse is growing and developing stamina which means the horse can run farther and go longer. So the silliness continues for a longer than what is really necessary.
Now when a horse finds something to “get excited” about, the approach is decrease the elevated level as quickly as reasonable. The concept is for the horse to be bored with his new-found adventure, therefore no longer fun. So far, it seems to be reducing the time it takes to teach a horse to go “back to calm“. This is the term we use to describe when a horse has reached a heightened level of anxiety and returns to a relaxed and quiet state. The faster the horse will go “back to calm”, the more control the rider has when the unexpected happens. With the new approach, the adrenalin doesn’t reach as high a level because we aren’t pushing the horse past his own natural excitement by encouraging him to run. The resulting physiology of running creates an increase in heart rate that means it takes longer to get “back to calm”.
In summary, it takes two-years to develop a sound, quality trail horse and a life-time to develop the two-year training program. Maybe we’re just slow learners!