When I was about 14, people often sent ponies to us to be “broken in”. I got the job done on weekends and after school, with my father’s help. Looking back, we took a pretty crude approach. For the first few days, we put the girth and mouthing gear on and left the pony in a yard for an hour or two. Next, I was legged up into the saddle to “see what the pony would do”. There was often a bit of a rodeo before the pony “settled down”. When I was able to ride around the yard a couple of times, I was told to ride out in the open paddock to “get the pony going”.
I remember hitting and chasing those poor ponies to make them go. I know now that they had absolutely no idea they were supposed to move forward when I kicked them or hit them. They didn’t know how to take one step.
When the ponies eventually got the idea, my father invariably said, “Go and find something he doesn’t want to do and make him do it. See if you can step him over that log.”
I remember trying to force ponies over logs, into water and up creek banks. The idea was that I mustn’t give up; I had to stay there until I “won”.
I realise now that all I did was create a fight. Those ponies weren’t confident enough to take on the tasks that I asked them to do. They were frightened and worried and it was far too much to expect them to step over anything at such an early stage.
Fast forward forty five years and I’ve just finished filming for videos that will be out soon. I handled and weaned a six-month-old filly foal, taught her to lead, handled her legs, taught her to lunge and to move in a circle at the walk and trot. During the eight days of filming, I worked with her two or three times each day and she became very confident.
On the last day, we set up some obstacles for her to step over. There were rails, plastic pipes and different mats to step onto. The foal was so confident and relaxed that she walked over all the obstacles without hesitation, the very first time I asked her. She walked over rails, pipes and matting as if they weren’t there. No fight. No confrontation.
It was hard to believe that it was the first time she’d seen the obstacles. There’s no point using the footage we have, because no-one will believe it.
The filly was taught one step at a time and each task was a small step from the previous task. She was taught without fight or confrontation. By building up in small steps, I actually taught her to step over all the obstacles without ever taking her near any of them. Sounds odd but it’s true.
I have a saying –“Never ask your horse to do something until you’ve taught him to do it.” In other words, make sure that one training step always leads to the next. Make sure that your horse fully understands the previous step before you push on. Never confront your horse with situations that he doesn’t understand. And never find things he can’t do and try to force him to do them. Simply work on things that you know you can do and build from there –one step at a time.