Everyone who sits on a horse becomes the trainer. Professional trainers accelerate learning for horse and rider. But, the secrets to being a great horse trainer aren’t super secret. Great horse trainers have qualities in common that maximize results. When the owner keeps them in mind, they will maximize their potential with the horse they ride.
Really good horse trainers are greedy. This means to ask for a little bit more every day. Don’t settle or become content with the status quo. Horses are born testers and will do a little bit less each time. This is a good mechanism for survival in the wild, but we humans tend not to notice until a lot of respect and reaction is gone. This is commonly seen when a horse will give the trainer a super transition or a nice flying change but will not do the same for the owner. Sometimes the owner is unable to get the horse on the bit because they do not get enough reaction to the basic aids. The rider should always want a little bit more for a little bit less.
Great trainers accept any little progress and reward it. Rewards for horses come in several forms. One is the release of pressure, which can be sitting tall and letting the horse move without constant aiding, or it can be easing the rein forward in uberstreichen. Taking the leg off and allowing it to drape off the sides without any tension is another form of release. Positive reinforcements such as a pet, a “good-boy”, and a treat are also forms of reward that can emphasize behaviors we wish to keep.
Finally super trainers, play with the horse. They catalogue the reactions of the horse recreating the ones they wish to keep while simply ignoring the ones they don’t. Horses are trained by rewarding good behavior, not punishing wrong. So, when the young horse accidentally offers piaffe-like steps, the trainer is quick to praise it and plant a seed for the future.
Many dressage riders struggle to get the horse on the bit, yet the trainer can do this without a problem. The rider should check that the horse moves off the leg, stops and steers. Go is accomplished by squeezing both legs. A single pulse of both calves should incite the horse to promptly trot off, or even canter off. Start by asking for a trot with what would be used for a walk. When the horse walks, repeat with a firm quick leg pulse and a tap with the whip behind the leg to get more than a walk. Reward any try even if it was one trot step or the horse cantered off.
Whoa is achieved by sitting taller, resisting the forward motion through your hips then applying resistant rein pressure. If you have only ever come to the halt from the walk, try it from the trot. When that works, do it from the canter. Halt four times around a circle. Ride a serpentine and halt every time you cross the centerline. Ask for them anywhere at anytime in odd places and get the horse to wonder where the next one will show up.
A supple bending horse feels like it bows away from the leg. Its body arcs to the circle. Improve this by riding spirals. Trot a spiral down to smaller circles using a very active inside leg. Flex the horse from the inside rein until you feel him yield his body. Then spiral away. Offer pets with the inside rein and after another circle repeat. Then ride bending lines all over the ring staying on a circle for another lap when the bend is less than what your horse is capable of. Make it happen in one lap, then move on to another loop in the other direction. Always follow a short burst of intense work with a walk break on a long rein.
This type of warm-up will tune the horse to the aids making it easy to get the horse on the bit so long as the rider is balanced in their seat. Dressage horse owners will become trainers by asking for more, challenging what they are capable of, and accepting new reactions while rewarding often. Training horses is about conditioned reactions and consistent expectations. In essence, the secret to being a trainer is to think and ride like one.