How do you know if you’re making progress with a horse, reverting back, stalled out, on the wrong track entirely?
This is a really good question, and one that does not have a simple answer. Horses work on their own time, and the path to progress is not a straight line, but more of a squiggly roller coaster loop. It can have a steep rise with an even steeper drop off, some twists and turns and even twistier emotions.
Sometimes it can take a long time and waiting is necessary, and sometimes if it’s taking a long time it’s because something essential was missed in the beginning. And sometimes a horse can make progress, but revert backwards for a little bit before making their breakthrough. So how can you know if you’re on the right path?
First it’s important to know if we’re asking the appropriate question in the first place. If we’re not getting progress, we might be asking for the wrong thing at the wrong time. Here’s an article on the subject to get you started:
As for progress, I tend to think that if you start things off in the right direction, get the horses mind shaped up toward what you are striving for, the rest is a matter of time. How much time? Sometimes it’s predictable, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes. Others a matter of years. But if you set it up right, the rest is just time.
A few things are helpful for knowing:
-reading posture and expression. Is the horse thinking in the direction you’re hoping for them to go? For example, at the trailer, we tend to read the horse physically going in as progress, but if his ear or eye are turned that way; that is progress. The whole horse getting in is just a matter of time and asking in the right way- but if the horse is avoidant, backward, anxious, or not even in the same planet mentally as us, we can spend hours without getting anywhere.
A word about posture and muscle: muscle takes time to build. The rate depends a lot on the horses age, condition, type/intensity of riding and frequency, physical limiting conditions and much more. But posture can improve immediately. If I see a high headed, hollow backed horse, their posture can change in minutes or certainly within an hour lesson dramatically. But, they will take time to develop the postural muscles to maintain that posture easily.
-experience and experimentation: I always say you find the line by accidentally going over it. I have a pretty good idea about what pressures to not put on a horse when trailer loading and such because I have lots of experience accidentally pushing horses over their threshold. Obviously I’m not advising anyone to put too much pressure on a horse, but I am advising folks to relax a little enough to experiment, especially if you have some good guidance, and find the line you want to stay under, and the one to stay over. Just enough pressure to change thought and motivate, then wait. How do you find that line? You might have to play around with it, using posture and expression as your guide.
-not getting so hung up on progress is the key to progress. I know this sounds counter intuitive. But if we desire progress and get kind of stressed about it, we tend to get kind of tense, hard on ourselves and can get rigid about plans. It’s best to have some key things you want to see, such as relaxation and better posture, keep the timeline flexible, and enjoy the ride. The best breakthroughs I’ve had with difficult horses were when I just about gave up entirely- they didn’t turn around because I was giving up, but because I wasn’t so uptight about what we needed to get done anymore.
How do you know your horse is headed in the right direction? Your horse should overall be working toward relaxation, understanding and better posture. If you have that, or even small snippets of that, the rest is just a waiting game.
If you are having Groundhog Day each session, repeating the same rigmarole just to get through it, and your horse is staying tense, you might be missing something small or large, but either way important to the horse.