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Lessons learned from Steve Halfpenny

May 03, 2019

Equestrians. Dressage riders. Showjumpers. Eventers. Endurance riders. Reining or Western pleasure riders. Trail riders. We all have one thing in common: we love riding horses, being around horses and training them in our preferred discipline.

Personally, I love training dressage, occasionally trying a small jump and going out on a trail ride. I have huge respect for showjumpers and eventers but I am not so brave! I must admit I don’t know too much about endurance riding or reining and western riding. There are so many disciplines in our sport, one day I’d love to try all different styles. The biggest thing I’ve learned in my last clinic while listening to Steve Halfpenny, one of the best horsemanship trainers in the world, is that all horses are the same. They think the same, react in the same way and all have one main thing in common: they want to make their life as easy as possible for them.

This is a very important lesson to remember so I must say it again. Horses are never purposefully difficult, mean or stubborn. The reason we have worked with horses for thousands of years is that horses are so willing to work with us. It is our job to listen to them, communicate clearly and be consistent. If our horse understands what we ask of him he will comply to make his life easy and comfortable.

So why are so many horses labeled as difficult or even mean? A lot of aggressive behavior comes from pain or discomfort. How can we expect our horse to comply and go over a jump if his back is sore every time he jumps? How can we expect our horses to be soft in the mouth if the bit hurts his mouth? Before labeling your horse as stubborn or difficult, have you checked the fit of your saddle or called the vet to give your horse a dental treatment?

Secondly, we must look at ourselves and evaluate our own skills. How are we training our horses? What are we subconsciously teaching them? Are we rewarding good behavior and consistently blocking unwanted behavior? Or are we sending mixed signals? Is your horse respectful of your space or does he walk right over you at feeding time? Do you correct his behavior every single time or do you sometimes find it ‘cute’?

Let me tell you about the biggest lesson I learned. I told Steve: ‘I’d like to learn how to manage my horse when he gets nervous and stressed. I want to control him better to avoid dangerous situations.’ We worked on personal space, back up when I ask, move the front feet or hindquarters when I ask and did pretty good. If he didn’t listen, be firm, tap with the whip, pay attention to me Finn. I was so proud because he quickly realized he cannot walk where I am standing or push me aside.

So of course, there was a moment he spooked, reared up a bit and jumped sideways. First thing I do? I step aside to get out of his way and pat his neck saying ‘It’s all right, calm down’ trying to sooth my horse. Noooooo! Steve grabbed my lead rope. Yes, he is allowed to spook but he can never jump on me. Be consistent. Use your whip, tell him to move away from you. Your space is what keeps you safe. Did I just teach my horse that sometimes it is okay to jump on me because he got scared? Is this helping him in the long run? Consistency is hard work, training your horse is hard work. But it is so important to understand your horse, think more like a horse and less like a human. How do horses treat each other in a herd? The leader of the herd demands space; he walks towards a pile of hay and others move aside. So, let’s all be leaders of the herd. Our horses need us to be firm but kind. Consistency is key to developing a calm and relaxed horse, who knows what to expect from you.

Thank you Steve, for your valuable lessons. I am a fan. Check out his Light Hands Equitation movie if you can.

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