California Riding Magazine • July, 2014

Ask Charles Wilhelm
On course for a "super horse."

Last issue, I began my answer to a reader's good question about what goals to set for her horse. I reviewed my four aspects of training; mental, emotional, physical and health and now I'll show how those can apply to what I consider the best goal for any horse: "super horse."

I used to tell people to think about these four aspects and picture the bottom of the pyramid as basic building blocks of training or the basic foundation. Each block represents an exercise and the goal was to build until the top was reached. For example, I might begin working on the ground and teaching the horse to work in a round pen. Another block would be teaching the horse to go forward in the round pen on cue. The next would be to teach the horse to make an inside turn. Each block builds on the knowledge gained from the previous block or exercise.

The exercises lay the foundation for additional learning, but if the building is not on solid ground, the structure will crumble. Each block or exercise must be well learned before you progress. Also, as I progress in the levels of the groundwork, I am establishing a relationship with the horse. The horse starts to trust me and look to me for direction. I have made a connection with the horse and established mutual respect. Most important, the horse has accepted me as the leader.

From groundwork I progress onto riding. Another block would be for the horse to go forward consistently under saddle. With a large percentage of horses, when the groundwork has been done properly, that work will carry over into riding. The training should progress to work on directional control and looking for the horse to be relaxed at the walk, trot and canter. The next level of training is more sophisticated and entails suppling and control of the hips and shoulders. There are specific exercises that we use for each aspect of the training and you can see that as I continue to build on what the horse has learned, the training gets more specific.

I used to conclude that whatever your discipline is, your final goal is the peak performance for the horse in that discipline. However, in the last few years I have been working with the idea of the super horse and my ideas on the ultimate goal have changed. I think being a super horse can be a goal for all horses. While not every horse can do everything, the more you work with your horse, the more well rounded the horse will become.

Ready for Anything

Working with a horse is a life long experience, learning the language of the horse, learning how to communicate, and finding out what works and what doesn't. Working to make your horse a super horse is the ultimate goal I recommend. It allows you room to grow in your relationship with your horse, your riding skills and your horsemanship. I see no reason why a horse can't do reining cow work, walk in a parade, enter a hunter pleasure show, and do a little jumping.

Not everything has to be in done at a competitive level, but every horse can be versatile enough to do a variety of activities. I bring this up because you never know what will happen when you ride a horse. You may not like to jump your horse, but out on the trail some day, you may have to go over a log or wind fall. Also, jumping is a great gymnastic exercise for any horse. You may not think you will ever work cows, but you may need to ride by a pasture full of cows who are right beside the trail and bawling up a storm. You may not usually ride an extreme trail, but some time you may find that you must go down a very steep area. You and your horse will handle this better and be safer if you have had some experience with extreme trail work.

Each of these activities is an exercise and a building block in the education of both you and your horse. This is working with your horse at a higher level of training and having a higher expectation of what your horse can accomplish. This does not happen over night; it is a continuous process. It involves learning the language of the horse and improving communication with the horse. It means learning the cues and how to execute them properly and learning how to do the exercises correctly. As Lynn Palm says, "Practice makes perfect is not true but practicing perfect makes perfect." Learning to do the exercises correctly makes for a great horse.

Having a super horse as your ultimate goal means you can just keep working in that direction forever. At the same time, we don't want to work our horses so hard that we break their spirit. We have received many compliments, and we pride ourselves here at the barn, on having well trained and very light horses. We want a horse that is safe, responsive and really fun to ride. I recently had some horses come in because they were bucking. Now they drag tarps, do some reining maneuvers, do a little jumping, go out on the trail and play with the cows. They are responsive and much safer.

The super horse represents a long term goal, a life time goal. It can be a lot of work, but as the horse progresses, it is a great deal of fun. So, my goal for the horses I work with has changed along with my understanding of horses and how I relate to them. Building a relationship with the long term goal of making a super horse is now what I aim for. It allows for endless possibilities, unlimited areas of learning, expanded goals and use of the imagination.

Charles Wilhelm