You've seen them on TV and in person, during the Olympics and other times—young Thoroughbreds winning the Breeder's cup, grand prix show jumpers jumping huge fences flanked by giant beer bottles or killer whales, eventers bouncing into water and up onto a bank, back into the water and out again, dressage horses piaffing to show tunes before a huge crowd. And you wonder in amazement at how these horses can do such fantastic things when you can't even get your horse into a trailer, across a stream or past a "horse eating" garbage can.
While there are many ingredients that go into the making of a successful performance horse, two of the most essential are; the horse's trust in his rider and his confidence in himself.
A horse's early handling has the greatest effect on his trust and confidence. Young horses are very impressionable and also, curious. It is wise to take advantage of their curiosity at this age to expose them to a wide variety of situations. But since horses rarely forget frightening experiences, and just one such experience can affect a horse's behavior for the rest of his life, any handling must be done with great care, sensitivity and patience. One must also keep in mind that just because one horse responded well to one method does not mean another will.
A good trainer must always be ready to adapt his methods to suit each individual. And must always keep in mind the number one most important concept—NEVER OVER FACE THE HORSE! Always strive to make the horse successful! Anytime you encounter significant resistance, you must take a step backward to what the horse does well, before going on. Always strive to show the horse what he CAN do, not what he CAN'T.
This involves what TTEAM founder, Linda Tellington-Jones calls, "chunking" down. That is, breaking a lesson down into small parts that the horse can do easily, then gradually putting them together into the finished exercise. Nowhere is this type of training demonstrated more clearly than in teaching horses to jump.
Whether it is for the grand prix show jumping arena or the three-day event cross-country course, only the desire of the horse, trust in his rider and confidence in his own abilities makes the horse able to complete a difficult course. You simply cannot force a horse to jump difficult fences if he does not want to. And if the horse does lose confidence, this is clearly demonstrated to the rider in the horse's refusal to jump.
One is well advised to look at any training session from the viewpoint of a good jumping trainer. A good trainer does not teach a horse to jump for the first time by setting up a three foot high fence and then repeatedly running him at it or hitting him until he jumps it. If he did, he would ruin the horse completely. A good trainer begins by first asking the horse to simply step over a single pole on the ground.
It is this kind of process that needs to be applied to everything you teach a horse to do. But when is the last time you saw someone approach trailer loading with this kind of thinking? If you have ever asked your horse to step into a trailer and had him refuse—you have over faced your horse. Horses who load easily are simply confident in their ability to handle being in a box that moves. They have learned that, while strange and initially frightening, there is little to actually fear because their handler has never let them down by allowing them to be hurt or frightened.
In fact, if you make a habit of handling your horse in such a way that he never (or let's be real, almost never) has a bad or frightening experience, his trust in you will become so great that he will willingly take your direction even if he is shaking with fear this, because he trusts you, because you have never let him down. And because you have built up his confidence by never letting him fail or realize what he cannot do, he can then rely on his own self-confidence to get him through a situation where you are the one who is doing the shaking. This is the kind of relationship with a horse that is truly rewarding, inherently safe and is what I strive for with my horses.