Good horse training involves not only identifying training goals, but also where to begin. After all, if you don't know where the horse is starting from, how can you make a plan to train them?
You might want your horse to load in the trailer, or to consistently change leads when cued. Maybe you want to canter bareback and bridleless. Or you just want to halter break your filly. It's relatively easy to identify end goals when training horses, and it's important to do so - but it's just as critical to be able to identify where to begin.
What's the closest thing your horse can already do towards the end goal, today?
If your goal is for your horse to load in the trailer, what's the closest thing he can do, today? Can your horse simply be led? Perfect! 'Able to be led' is a great place to begin when teaching a horse to load in the trailer. If he doesn't yet lead, you still have somewhere to begin on this training journey, and that might be 'Can be haltered'. While there may be more steps between the starting point and end goal if your horse can't yet be led, you're still on track. You can still achieve your goal. Don't focus on what your horse can't yet do, think of where you want to go, and what he can already do, and plan your training between those points.
Fortune Cookies Can Make You A Better Trainer
You now have a starting point, and an end goal. You are that much closer to making it all a reality. There's just one more piece of the puzzle you need for training success - what I like to call 'The Fortune Cookie Game, for horse trainers'.
When I go out with friends for Chinese food, our meal usually ends with a fortune cookie. Maybe you play the same game we do when reading our fortunes: we add the words 'in bed' to the end of the fortune. Hilarity ensues. 'You will do well to advance your career, in bed.' 'Try everything once, even the things you don't think you will like, in bed.' 'Pursue your work with all due seriousness, in bed.'
All joking aside, when training horses our starting points and goals should end with two words: with confidence. 'My horse loads in the trailer, with confidence.' 'My horse executes a flying lead change at X, with confidence.' 'My horse lifts his hoof to be held, with confidence.'
As horse trainers, we should strive for confidence, every training step of the way - not just at the end.
There is always a starting point
But what if your end goal is something your horse is already anxious or frightened about? For example, some horses become anxious at the mere sight of a trailer. The trainer may have a hard time getting the horse to even approach the trailer because the horse is anxious, and is trying to escape. That's OK. There is still a place to start within this scenario where the horse retains his confidence. Finding that place isn't hard; it just requires we be a little a little less direct line, and think outside the box.
If our scenario horse becomes anxious when led to within 40 ft of the trailer, that's fine. How is he at 60 ft? Still anxious? 80 ft? 100ft?! That's still OK, because as observant trainers we noticed that the horse was confident walking towards the trailer at a distance of 200 ft. We have a starting point! At that distance he was aware of the trailer, but his fear had not been triggered, priming his body to flee or fight us to escape. Fear is counter-productive to both learning AND developing confidence. Now we can formulate our training plan, which begins with 'approaches the trailer at a distance of 200 ft', and ends with the 'horse loading in the trailer, with confidence'.
When we approach training in this manner the horse retains his confidence, and trust in us, and we still achieve our goals. Things don't get much more win-win than that.
It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin
Happy horse training,