I was reading an article the other day about some scientists that were figuring out whether horses learned through watching or not and I found it fascinating that they came up with the idea that horses do not learn by watching other horses. It’s just so silly that they don’t know that they do!
When I went to Verde Valley School, aged 14 years, I took my three year old Arab horse with me so I would have a horse to ride. I wanted to show her but there weren’t any horse shows in that part of Arizona. However, there was a rodeo coming to town and I realized that I could compete at the rodeo on her doing barrel racing. My mare had never actually done anything like that and, in fact, she’d only been under saddle a short while. As I said, she was three years old, so I had maybe only ridden her about 30 times but I wanted to compete with her all the same.
What I did therefore was to ride her over to the arena at our school and just sit on her and let her watch the other horses running the barrels because she’d never seen anything like that before. I did this for about a week and then the next week we went down there and walked the pattern until she could walk the pattern of the barrels without guidance. Then the following week we trotted, then we cantered and so on. This was probably only about six weeks before the rodeo but we ended up winning the event.
I think that the main reason for this was my approach and also the week that she had watched. From there, I took that information and I’ve used it in my training programs ever since. If I need to teach a horse to do anything, especially something like a Spanish walk, I get another horse to do a Spanish walk in front of him. Then I give a treat to both of them and if I wait long enough, the horse that was watching will start doing the Spanish walk on his own. That’s the way I have taught every single one of my horses to do the Spanish walk, as well as rearing, lying down and any number of other tricks and moves.
So the moral of the story, for me at least, is to learn from my own experience and judgment.