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14Jul 15

Humans and school, horses and training

The first years of a human being basically exist of being cared for and an enormous amount of enthusiasm when the first step on two legs is made or the first 'mama' or 'papa' is said. One can compare this to the first few years of a young horse where all it needs to learn is following its owner on a halter and lifting its feet for the farrier.

Being backed and hacking is nursery school, learning to accept the basics of dressage, jumping and some x-country schooling primary school moving on to GCSE's or A-levels, which is followed by a specialization, which one can compare to an apprenticeship, a college, or uni. After that it's time for a proper job with a pay cheque as reward.

Why these comparisons? Because we can use it in our training as it can help us to understand how to use our rein aids.


When the horse is backed and starts hacking it needs lots of encouragement and pets in order to feel safe and remain positive in this new and strange environment, just as the child in nursery, which generally also involves little outings.

This leads to learning to accept the rider's forward aids in many different situations, even when it is not entirely happy and possibly a little scared. So a little more discipline and respect is going hand in hand with the previously built trust.

Primary school: when schooling the basics in walk trot and canter on the flat we establish what is the horse's stiffer side. Once decided we now always pet the horse with the hand on the stiffer side of the horse's neck. This combines a  'thank you' with a relaxation of the rein on the side where the muscles are stiffer and shorter, however, through this aid/pet the horse is at the same time invited to relax and stretch the stiffer side. This will gradually turn into a softer bend in the more difficult direction, which helps the horse to come on the bit softer in both directions, rather than becoming more one sided.

GCSE's or A-levels: the horse is now progressing through Novice into Elementary, Medium, and the exercises are becoming more difficult, adding counter canters and lateral work. We want to help our horse to carry itself a little higher, remaining soft. If we would now continue to pet lower on the neck, not only would we invite our horse to bring its neck lower than wanted, we also would lose too much of the connection we need for that level of work.

The pet on the neck still on the slightly stiffer side turns into a gentle stroke forward and back on top of the mane.

Next step, college: The gentle stroke on top of the mane turns into the lift. Still the same hand and rein go up and forward at the same time, creating a diagonal movement toward the horse's ear. This helps the horse to free up on it's stiffer side at the same time as it is invited to collect more in a higher frame. As it is learning to be happy in a higher frame we have to adjust our rein length and ride with both hands higher than we were used to, in order to support the horse in its newly found frame.

At every level in the school system for human beings there are breaks during the day in order to not become overwhelmed with information. Of course at all stages we also give our horse regular breaks in walk on a long rein during the training sessions in order to relax both the muscular system and its brain . This is the time when we can thank our horse for it's achievements and pet it every way we feel like.

A job with a pay cheque: we will feel that the horse is understanding its job and hopefully, because we have done a good job, does its job full of enthusiasm. A small lift here or there is sufficient for the horse to feel happy and appreciated. We are more or less equals now, feel the partnership, feel as one. We have grown up together and the pay cheque is within sight: our first 60% or more at Advanced or Prix St. George with hopefully even more to come! 





Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

About Liz Barclay

Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.


My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.