There are almost as many techniques and methods for training horses as there are people who try to train them. Sometimes it can be mind numbing to listen to the flood of advice that seems to come from every angle. Choosing a style that is right for you is important if you are to have success teaching your horse, but more important is finding the style that fits your horse. Each horse has its own quirks and characteristics that a good trainer will utilize to the best advantage for their relationship and will tailor training procedures to each individual horse, using methods that make the most sense to each particular horse. My horse Yoshi drove this point home to me recently. Along the way I learned some unflattering things about myself.
I have been trying for years to teach Yoshi to lay down at my request. Time and again I would spend days or weeks working on this goal only to give up for months at a time when we both became frustrated with the activity. I have taught several horses to lie down on command, always using the same method, and never had I run into such resistance before. Later, I realized the resistance was really coming from me, I was resisting a new concept of teaching.
The routine I used was always the same. First I would teach the horse to shift its weight backward when I applied a little finger pressure to the chest. Then, I would ask for the backwards shift while holding up one leg, until eventually the horse could touch its knee to the ground. After the horse learned to kneel on one leg and hold it for a few seconds I would ask them then to tuck the other front leg under themselves and wait. All of the horses before Yoshi, would topple their rumps over almost immediately and TA-DAH! I had taught the horse to lay down on command. Then I would congratulate myself on what a genius horse trainer I am.
Unfortunately, Yoshi just wouldn't topple over! He could stay kneeling on his front legs for an impressive amount of time and just wouldn't go down the rest of the way. When I started asking him to tuck his hind legs further under himself, he gladly complied and would hold that ridiculously uncomfortable position as long as he could before he had to stand up again. The biggest frustration for me was that I knew he was trying as hard as he could to do what I wanted, but we were still making absolutely no progress towards my final aim.
During this time, I observed that when Yoshi lies down on his own he tucks his hind end under himself first before dropping to his knees. Asking him to go down front end first was the opposite of what his habit was and so made no sense to him. Pache, Yoshi's father is one horse that I had taught to lie down by kneeling first. When Pache goes down for a nap he tucks his front first, so I knew that somehow I needed to accommodate Yoshi's natural preferences.
I tried a second approach I had heard about, but hadn't tried before. It was so stupidly simple, I decided before giving it a chance that it couldn't work. Step one is give your horse a bath. Step two, take them to their favourite place to roll in the dirt. Step three(the hard part) wait until your horse lays down to roll in the dirt. Step four, give them a reward when they lay down. As simple as that is, I rejected it after only a couple tries and went back to tucking Yoshi's knees under him. When I really examined why I didn't want to use this method I discovered several things about my training style that I need to adjust.
First, I am a control freak. I didn't like the fact that I wasn't the direct influence on what caused Yoshi to lie down. He was laying down because he was wet, not because I told him to, and I found my internal bossy voice screaming that I needed to be in charge for this to be "real training". The next thing I learned was that I am not as patient as I thought I was. Waiting for him to make the decision on his own to lie down drove me crazy! After examining my own reluctance to use this process I gave it a second try. With only a short lesson each day I could see Yoshi making the connection after only a week. Soon, I could just spritz him with a spray bottle and he would lay down. Now he will lay down completely dry if I swipe the ground with my hand as his cue. He still likes to be in his one of his favourite rolling spots, but eventually he should learn to lie down anywhere I ask him to.
You can really only accomplish your dreams with your horse if you are willing to take the time to learn what it is your horse needs from you to be successful.