Mindset strategies and training a young horse
Written by Dr Tracey Cole | Accredited NLP & Hypnosis Trainer | Applied Sports Psychology
Riding a young horse is so rewarding; there are so many ‘firsts’ to encounter, and you have the knowledge that mostly, you’re working with a blank canvas. Having a training plan and a skilled instructor is paramount if you’ve never worked with youngsters before. This saves a lot of time when they get older, as you’ll have already dealt with their anxieties and physical imbalances.
As we know, horses are extremely good at mirroring their riders and handlers. Whilst most horses definitely pick up on a person’s fear – detecting your heart rate up to 4 feet away – not all will respond negatively. Some are simply curious to know why your heart is beating faster; when they notice nothing of a threatening nature, they relax again. However, like humans, some horses react to increased anxiety levels in a person.
This is where mindset brain training comes in. The first step to keeping calm and having control of the situation is awareness.
Three first steps
1. Be aware that all riders’ heart rates, when tested, actually increased whilst mounting. It’s a natural spike, whether you’re a seasoned and confident rider or not.
2. Take things even more slowly when getting on. If your horse shifts position walks away from the mounting block, calmly think to yourself, “If all I achieve today is to get on, my horse having stood completely still, that’s fine”.
3. Be aware that patience will be required with a youngster; whenever you do ground work or ridden exercises, you may feel that you go two steps forwards and three steps back, then a step forward and so on. Horses (and humans) don’t learn in an entirely linear fashion. They are doing their best at all times. They are learning at least one, possibly two, new languages – your aids and your spoken language. It’s quite a lot for them to absorb all at the same time! Start to record all the positives and record the rest as lessons to cover next time or later.
The first step to keeping calm and having control of the situation is awareness.
Once you’re more aware that everything takes more time and patience than usual, and it may require you doing what seems like very little in a training session, or covering the same things over and over, then you can think about your planning your sessions.
1. Safety first – always wear a hat, gloves and possibly a body protector. Not only are they protecting you physically, some riders find they have much more confidence when they handle or ride horses when wearing them.
2. Ride or handle your horse somewhere you feel most confident. There may be a time of day you feel more confident, e.g., when others are around or when it’s quietest at the yard.
3. Plan for short rides/ground work sessions. Take regular baby steps. There is no rush to have longer sessions.
4. Plan rest days too! Great for you and your horse, to consolidate what you’ve both learnt.
5. Have a plan in your head, or even written on a piece of paper in your pocket of the movements and transitions, change of pace within a gait etc. that you want to achieve. This creates a focus for you. Think about 1 aspect at a time. Is it to bend better? Is it to even up a natural imbalance on one side? Is it to achieve control through changing the pace? What shapes are you creating around the school – circles, squares, diamonds, figures of 8 etc.? Have your plan ready. Having a plan helps you to know in advance which turns and where you are going to make and to lessen your indecision or weak/late aids.
6. Make sure your plan has lots of changes of direction. These types of movements are good for human and horse brains, plus if repeated often enough, but not too much, you can keep the horse’s attention. When riders are nervous, they often forget to change the shapes and movements around the school.
Plan for short rides/ground work sessions. Take regular baby steps. There is no rush to have longer sessions.
Now that you have awareness and plans in place, let’s think about a strong mental attitude.
1. Have a positive outlook and minimise the thought of the odd spook. In real-time, as a proportion of the whole riding session, it will be very short. Think: “If my horse spooks, bucks or rears, I only need 10-30 seconds of bravery to get over it!” Convince yourself that 10-30 seconds of bravery is entirely doable!
2. Use your voice to calm yourself. Consider that in any one moment, a tiny millisecond, you are actually alright. Your mind may be racing ahead with what-if scenarios, but actually, in the moment, you’re fine. So say to yourself, “I’m alright now,” in a low soothing voice as this gives your mind something to do – a distraction – and also helps you to breathe!
3. You’ll be aware already that your default riding may need more leg or less hands. Jelly legs and heavy hands are part of the mind-body connections anxiety response. Once you’re aware, you can override it. The sharper the horse, the more leg you may need to put on. A steady contact keeps the horse feeling more confident; loose reins and no legs may make some horses feel less secure. Plan sessions to practise legs and hands!
4. Keep in peripheral vision. This lowers your anxiety and allows you to relax. With the added benefit of having better 3D awareness! Focused vision, particularly on the horse’s neck or ears or on the ground, promote the anxiety response.
5. Keep a journal or diary of each session. What went well, what’s to improve. Look back periodically to see how far you have come! And it’s not a race with youngsters, because who wants an unruly 7 or 8-year-old? Simply celebrate your wins! Enjoy the rewards of bringing on a young horse and establishing a calm and harmonious relationship!