California Riding Magazine • June, 2014

Ask Charles Wilhelm
Setting goals for horses.

Question: What goals should I set for my horses? I have several horses and I don't know what goals I should have for them. I don't ride a specific discipline but I do go out on the trail. Can you help me with this?

Answer: This is a great question and something that all owners should think about. Over the years I have changed my thoughts on many things as I have worked with a variety of horses and people. How I trained 30 years ago, how I trained 10 years ago, and how I trained last year has altered as my knowledge of horses has grown. I've had some great mentors and people who have shown me how to work with horses and the mechanics of working with horses. I would not be here today without these individuals.

But, as I have progressed in my ability to work with horses, I have found that the horses are really my best teachers. This is especially true of problem horses. Most of the time, a problem horse is not a forgiving horse and you have to find out what works and what doesn't. This can be a real learning experience. While everything I am about to describe is still true, I have learned there is more to consider and this has changed my goals.

Several years ago I thought of training in terms of a three-sided pyramid. Each side of the base was one aspect of training: mental, emotional and physical.

The mental aspect refers to what a horse is thinking about. Is the horse paying attention and waiting for a cue from me or is the horse's mind somewhere else? Over the years I have seen many exceptionally talented horses do very well but they were not focused on their riders and could have performed better. I find that if I get the horse focused on me, looking for my direction and cues, the performance is better.

The emotional aspect of training is the amount of stress a given horse can take. For example, out on the trail the horse is fine until the wind comes up or a bike rider comes along. Then the horse rears, bucks or swings around and bolts for home. If we can bring the emotional level of the horse down while in a safe environment, when we are out on the trail and something happens, the horse will not over react. The reaction is totally normal as horses are prey animals and go naturally into flight mode when startled or frightened. However, for the rider, this abrupt change in behavior can be dangerous. Through exercises we de-spook the horse and reduce the natural resistance, giving us a safer horse and a more enjoyable ride.

The physical part of the training focuses on control. I find that the better a horse is trained, and the more the horse understands my physical signals, the more enjoyable and better the performance will be. I must use my body correctly to communicate my expectations. In other words, the physical aids, the cues I give the horse, must be clear and consistent. I cannot use my legs and seat to tell the horse to go forward and yet pull back on the reins to balance myself. All this will do is confuse the horse and make it dull to commands.

Another part of the physical aspect is the physical shape of the horse. Probably 99 percent of the horses that come into the barn for training do not know how to carry themselves. We start teaching them to come from the rear and drive from behind, instead of pulling themselves along from the front.

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the health of a horse plays a major part in training and this health and nutrition aspect has become the fourth side of the pyramid.

A healthy diet along with proper medical, dental, chiropractic and hoof care is important to the physical condition of the horse. The type of feed affects the emotional level of a horse. The hotter the feed, the higher the emotional level.

This is important because you are not going to have good performance unless the emotions are under control. A horse with a sore back can't perform well and could buck or balk. A horse who cannot chew its food does not have proper nutrition. A horse that is shod improperly will have lameness problems that may impact ligaments and tendons.

These aspects make up the fourth side of the pyramid and contribute significantly to the performance of a horse. The physical aspect also includes the conformation of the horse and any past injuries and we need to take this into consideration for the well-being of the horse.

My column in next month's issue explains how my thinking has evolved to focus on the goal of creating a "super horse," willing and able to do just about anything. This continuous process starts with treating these four aspects explained above as blocks in a training pyramid.

Charles Wilhelm