When it comes to developing a truly willing mind from a horse there is a critical difference between training and schooling. Focused schooling for specific tasks as to exactly when, where and how the rider wants the horse to perform should only begin when the horse consistently chooses not to fuss, challenge or search to find a way out from between the legs and reins of the rider. Once the horse has had enough training to willingly choose the easy path of staying balanced with a rider and is no longer testing the boundaries of the “aids”, then and only then is the horse realistically ready, willing and able to go to school.

Too often people try to “school” a horse for a specific purpose such as a dressage test, a reining pattern, to jump or to navigate trail obstacles, while the horse still has obvious issues of resistance to maintaining consistent respect, trust and focus for the rider. Not to leave out the harness horses and driving enthusiasts, this could also be known as “putting the cart before the horse”.

For example, and perhaps most notably, this means that before a horse can realistically be expected to be straight and calm and collected it would first and foremost need to be calm without being straight or collected.

“Collection” in a horse is to focus and compress or coil up and thereby amplify the energy of the horse. So, if we straighten and collect a calm and supple horse he or she will develop greater athletic ability while remaining calm and willing. However, if we attempt to straighten and collect a stressed horse showing any signs of fear, anger, distraction or defiance, then we defeat our purpose in the long run because we inevitably find all the athletic ability of the horse working against us instead of for us.

So, where to begin?

We can begin by simplifying the potential for action by both human and horse during groundwork, riding or driving, into 3 fundamental categories or energies of pushing, blocking or drawing.

Pushing is to move forward or to be “impulsive”. To lunge, round pen, ride or drive, is to push the horse forward, tapping into its ‘herd or be herded” instinct for movement.

Blocking is a solid boundary energy. A wall, fence, or closed gate that does not allow forward or pushing energy to pass through it. A “red light” and the plug in your sink are examples of blocking energy.

Drawing is to remove the obstacle of the block or boundary and create an open space to allow forward energy to “pass through”. The “green light”, the “open the gate”, and to “pull the plug” are all examples of drawing energy.

Now, most importantly is to never forget that horses are physiologically hard wired so that their body, mind and spirit work together as One. Simply, the frame of the body of the horse is also the frame of the mind. So, the truest definition of training the horse to “give to the aids” would literally mean that we use our body language and our “aids” of pushing, blocking and drawing energies to shape or sculpt our horses into a frame of body that corresponds to their feeling good in the mind.

Some shapes of their bodies feel better then others for horses. In fact, some shapes feel heavenly because they create endorphins through the central nervous system of the horse while other shapes produce adrenaline and feel like hell. The idea is that a horse is supposed to be “aided” into feeling “better” with endorphins when “in good hands”.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of both good and bad, positive and negative behaviour and performance from a horse is a direct reflection of the body language or pushing, blocking and drawing energy emoting from the movements of the human.

With both our groundwork and riding we must always synchronize and communicate all three energies of push, block and draw, every moment we are with the horse so that our body language is understood by the horse and it aids the horse in feeling better with us then it does on its own.

However, on the other hand, problems flare up with our horses when the energies emoting from our body language becomes too confusing for the horse. For instance, when people don’t realize that they are pushing a part of the horse where they should be drawing this often translates into a “problem” horse full of adrenaline that people then label as defiant, lazy, or perhaps as nervous or lacking in confidence.

Or when we are inadvertently drawing with the reins and the bridle, when we truly needed to be blocking, that horses go “off track” and seem to take us everywhere except where we want them to go.

It’s when we don’t realize how we are pushing where we need to draw and then block that causes so many horses to have “head issues” with regards to difficulty when catching, haltering or bridling.

There are only 3 energies we can communicate with but there are infinite ways to clearly communicate or inadvertently mis-communicate with your horse.

In the coming weeks I will focus on this theme of training before schooling. We’ll begin next with interpreting the “tell tail” signs of the many gestures that horses use to communicate with their body language. We’ll then move on to the fundamentals of equine psychology before beginning to deconstruct the cause and effect of how training before schooling relates to basic groundwork such as leading, work on the lunge line and long lines, and stall manners, before defining how training before schooling relates to work in the saddle. All focused on what it takes to train a horse to discover a willingness to learn how to learn so that eventually true “schooling” can begin.

Meanwhile, all the best to you and yours for happy and healthy trails and remember; ask not what your horse can do for you – ask what you can do for your horse.

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Comment by Bernie Sibley on September 15, 2009 at 1:16pm
Hi Chris, I will be reading your book Horses don't Lie once again. Each time I read it I find a new connection between the feelings I have myself and the responce I get from the horses I am around. I have always loved horses and I know that I am truly happy when I am around them. I don't own a horse but I am now part boarding at a new small stable. My past experiences working and riding horses at different stables have not been the best. I often left because I felt inadequate and not good enough which transferred to the horse. All those years and nearly giving up. Now in my 50's I know I have to fulfill my dreams of enjoying the ride. The stable I am at now allow me the time and patience to gradually regain my confidence while working and riding. I am more relaxed and loving everything I do around the barn. Tessa the horse I am boarding is 16.1 and the head of the herd, and she lets everyone know that. I know she is testing me a lot and she is not happy working while the horses play. One thing I find going around the arena is she stops at the gate and refuses to move at all. She is not bad if another horses is in front of her. I have been working on the problem by riding around one end of the arena or by praising her when she moves even a little. What do you think I should do. By the way I am from Hamilton Ontario and lived in St. Catharines for a period of time.
Comment by Janet B on June 11, 2009 at 4:09pm
Hi Chris, I know really understand what you are saying about training before schooling!! My very patient coach and i have been working on my mare's training, and she is finally accepting our aids with a calm, relaxed and focused manner. Her lovely big ears are floppy and relaxed as we ride her. You put it so well; as she is choosing to stay balanced and between our aids. It is sooo easy to ride her now with lovely light aids, and just asking her! I love the feel of harmony between us now. We are now working on some basic exercises, and as you say, she is ready and WILLING!! Thanks for putting it into words. I look forward to your future articles!! Janet
Comment by Jennifer Lamm on June 11, 2009 at 3:53pm
Dear Chris. I am a brand new student and I'm so so grateful I found your book, then everything else that led me to this place. :) I am also so glad I get what you are saying... I can't wait to just keep trying with my horse, Oliver.. :) This is something I'll just read over and over.
Comment by Lee Kelly on June 11, 2009 at 10:31am
Enjoyed this blog and I am looking forward to upcoming posts on this subject. Always enjoy learning how I can help out my equine partner. Thanks
Comment by Geoffrey Pannell on June 9, 2009 at 6:20pm
Hi Chris, this is an interesting blog and I'm looking forward to the next installment. I completely understand and agree with the concept of training before schooling. I do a lot of re-training here, and most of the hard work is done on the ground first as you say. At the moment I have an Arab endurance horse with major trust issues( I am sure the horse has been bashed by previous owners, the current owner can barely catch it, and when you do it is all a quiver), and a mule that is just testing the boundries with his owner. So life is interesting trying to figure out these problems. Cheers Geoffrey
Comment by Chris Irwin on June 9, 2009 at 4:57pm
Penny, Greetings from Vancouver and you are most welcome. And thanks back to you in return. Keep up the good work with your mare and all the best! Cheers, Chris
Comment by Penny Siml on June 9, 2009 at 4:47pm
Chris, thank you for all your wonderful information! I was very happy to see your most recent blog as this has been on my mind recently. At this point, my mare has become very level headed and relaxed during our groundwork session (to the point of falling asleep in a stand!). Riding still needs some work but I've been taking lessons on a "schooled" horse so I know I am riding appropriately before applying training tactics to a less experienced horse. As we move along, it will be really interesting to read how this theme unfolds. Chris, thanks again!

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