Training the Green Horse: Back to Work
By Will Clinging
Getting back to work after having time off can be difficult. The holiday is never quite long enough, so it’s nice to be able to ease back into the job. The same is true of horses that have had some time off.
Several of the horses I am presently riding have had a month off work. They are mostly happy enough to go back to work, but in those first few days there is also some reluctance to perform. The amount of training the horse had before his time off plays a big role in how long it will take to get him back to the level he was at before the holiday. He has not forgotten what he learned, but it may not have become a habit yet either. Getting him back into form means putting him through a condensed version of the starting process again. Rather than weeks or months, it should take only a few days to reestablish the guidelines for the behaviour we were working on before the layoff.
When starting back to work, I want to give the horse credit for what he already knows, but will also expect him to challenge a few things. This challenge could simply be his way of reconfirming what he thinks I want. At this time I try to find out how much the horse really did learn, and how much of what I expected of him was work he was simply coping with. Often during a layoff the missing pieces of the various puzzles that we call training are found or assembled in the right order. This happens because of the horse’s reduced stress levels, and because our decreased expectations of him during his time off have allowed him to process all the information we threw at him before.
As part of the work, I specifically retouch on all the major points of training we have already focused on. My authority will almost certainly need to be reconfirmed, so I just put him back in the round pen for a few minutes and get reacquainted.
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Work in hand is important to make sure he is still comfortable with contact from the bit. Photo: Karly Fraser, Moment in Time Photography
Equipment shouldn’t really be an issue and I don’t make a lesson of it unless the horse tells me that I need to. His exaggerated difficulty with any particular lesson indicates that he may not have learned that lesson well enough in the first place, and I will spend extra time on it now. If there is no real difficulty, then I touch on it quickly and carry on.
A review of work in hand is important to make sure the horse is still comfortable with contact from the bit. He should be able to perform lateral work on the ground with relative ease. I help him remember to pay attention to the bit by moving forward with contact, bending to the inside, turning on the forehand, and turning on the haunches while staying relatively straight and soft.
We start lunging with the side reins loosened initially, to help the horse remember to go long and low with light contact, keeping in mind that his fitness level has changed for the worse. Muscle tone and strength need to be developed again, and it is important not to force him into the same frame that he may have been able to handle a month ago. Rhythm and balance won’t be as good as they were, and until his fitness level increases, he may not be able to perform for as long.
I want to make sure that he will park next to the mounting block with little or no help, and stand quietly.
When he has accepted my authority again, is comfortable in hand and on the lunge, and is willing to wait at the mounting block while I get on, I start to ride him again. I usually allow him a couple of days before I think about much work under saddle.
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The horse should park next to the mounting block with little help, and be able to stand quietly. Photo: Karly Fraser, Moment in Time Photography
The first few days will be dictated by his level of comfort and response. If he is apprehensive, I will ride him as if it is his first ride all over again. Things will quickly come back to him if he is not pushed. He may be in a fragile frame of mind for a few days as all the training comes rushing back to him. Keep the first few lessons short and sweet. Each day could be the equivalent of a week’s worth of sessions, so I won’t try to teach anything new until I am confident he is at least as good as he was before the break.
Once he’s had a chance to get back into the swing of things, he is ready to move on to the next level of training. The basics are all falling into place. It won’t be long until he is performing reliably. He shouldn’t need to be treated as a youngster unless his age dictates that he needs more time to mature.
The horse should decide when he is ready to go on to more advanced levels of training. This should be a long, slow process and the learning curve will not be nearly as steep as it was in his early fundamental training. If the horse is very young, I will just continue to build his confidence at the current level for another month or two, then give him another month or two off. An older, more mature horse should be able to handle longer periods of work before he gets an extended break.
As with everything in life, balance is essential. If we can balance work and rest the horse will be happier for it.
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Main photo: Karly Fraser, Moment in Time Photography - Lunging with the side reins loosened initially will help him remember to go long and low with light contact.