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Riding and horse memory

From: Robbin

Hi Jessica,

I had taken a clinic in natural horsemanship in April (4 days) with my Appy mare, 13 yrs old. We had a great time-she learned a lot, I learned a LOT. I have never had a horse before and was quite nervous about but feel more comfortable since taking the clinic. I have had her since Nov. and she seems to be much more trusting of me. She doesn't pin her ears as much and comes to me more readily. My problem is we have 2 turnout sheds 12x12 for both the Appy, our pony and a nubian goat in a pretty large paddock. The paddock still has small tree stumps which they don't have a problem with when they are on their own but I don't want to work/play with her in case of injury. I have nowhere else to do this. I tried on the side of my house I have a large area but its grass and I get too frustrated when she tries to graze all the time, so I don't do it there either. However we are now building a barn for them 32x40 and should be ready by late fall (I hope). I also am having a round pen put near by to work/play with her, hoping this can be done in a few weeks.

So now that its all been said, my question is will she remember what she has learned or will I have to start all over again? I continue to study the books so I don't forget. This includes riding her also. Again never had a horse and the time I was on her she took off with me. I am afraid, actually chicken, to get on her without have worked her since its been 2 1/2 months. I was waiting for the pen so I have a controlled area to ride before going to the street and trails. Any words of wisdom would be appreciated!

Keeping it natural, but feeling soooo guilty, Robbin

Hi Robbin! First, stop feeling guilty. It sounds as though your horse has a good situation - turnout, grass, and a companion! She's not going to be at all upset if she isn't ridden. She's probably not going to forget anything, either. Horses have incredibly good memories. I've known horses that recognized individuals after twenty years - and horses that remembered tricks they'd learned, ten years after they were last asked to perform them.

The answers to your questions are first, NO, she won't forget, and, second, YES, you should start all over again.

What often causes problems when someone doesn't ride for a long time is a combination of horse and rider issues. If the horse is confined and/or overfed, it can become difficult to manage. You aren't confining your horse, and I hope you're not overfeeding her, so you shouldn't have a problem there. If the rider isn't riding and isn't doing any other exercise that helps with riding, then after a few months, there can be a big loss of coordination and balance and strength. If you can't ride, be sure to do other exercises, even if it's just walking, yoga, and light weight-lifting. These will help you stay in shape so that you won't be all over your horse when you finally get back to riding, and they'll make it much easier for you to become comfortable in the saddle.

A round pen is a nice addition to any farm - just be sure that you make the diameter large enough if you plan to use the pen for riding. 70' will do nicely - 75' or larger will be even better.

While you're waiting for your barn and round pen to be built, and you aren't riding your own horse, it's a perfect time for you to take a series of lessons with a good instructor. The more you understand about your horse's body, your own body, and the balance and coordination that you need to use your own body to influence your horse, the better off you and your horse will be when you start riding her again. You'll find, as riders invariably do, that anything you do to improve your own riding will produce a matching improvement in your horse. Some riders have found that the biggest "leap" in the improvement of their riding skills has happened after they had to take a few months off for whatever reason, provided that they did other things during that time. A summer spent swimming and bicycling, a winter spend skating and skiing - or anything else along those lines - can improve your riding dramatically. If you do that AND add riding lessons with a good instructor, you'll find that when you do get on your, she will "magically" have improved enormously, even if she's spent the last six months in the field with her pal.

Starting all over again is something that all good riders and trainers do every time they begin working with a horse that has had some time off. Starting from the beginning each time isn't a bad thing, it's a very good one. Make it your permanent practice, and you won't regret it. By starting over, you identify any weak areas in your own training, in your horse's understanding, and in your horse's physical ability to perform. Time off for the horse shouldn't be "time out" for you - and in your case, it obviously is not, as you are reading the books to be sure that YOU don't forget what you've learned. That's a good idea and a good start. If you'll add some physical exercise and some riding lessons, you'll be able to help your horse more, every single time you work with her or ride her. Keep on learning - the better your own education as a rider, the better your horse will be. The more time and effort you put into improving yourself, the easier it will be for you to ride and train your horse.

Starting all over again is something that good trainers do every day. A good trainer never tries to pick up exactly where s/he left off at the end of the last session. Instead, s/he will do a quick run-through of everything that the horse has been taught, starting at the beginning. In riding terms, we call this a 'warm-up' - in addition to physically warming the muscles and increasing the circulation, the first part of your ride should take your horse, gently and gradually, through everything it's been taught to do. This reinforces the horse's responses to your aids, it helps build the horse physically so that it can meet increased demands later, and it gives you a chance to notice how your horse is feeling that day, physically and mentally. In other words, you find out whether your horse is energetic or sluggish, supple or stiff, and also whether it is interested or bored, happy or worried. These are all things that the rider should be very clear about during ANY riding session, and these are things that you need to know before you even think of introducing anything new.

Starting all over again also protects your horse's health - you'll be very quick to notice any change in behaviour or movement, and if your horse is becoming sore, you'll find out before any more damage occurs.

Remember that horses are like humans - if you want them to learn something new, or to learn to do something in a different way, you need to give them very clear explanations and short practice sessions, and praise them for any effort that shows they're heading in the right direction. Once they've learned the new or revised skill, you need to do many CORRECT repetitions over a long period - and by "long" I mean over the course of weeks or months, not over a marathon two-hour session! - so that the muscles can rebuild in a way that facilitates the work. Finally, you need to continue the correct work so that the new skill or the new way of performing the old skill will become a HABIT. All of that takes time. You can go as slowly as you like - as long as you're making a little bit of progress, and as long as neither you nor your horse becomes bored. Riders who cause injuries in their horses rarely do this by training slowly and carefully - it's impatience and hurry that create problems.

If you have to take time off at some point, don't worry about your horse forgetting anything. When you begin again, even after months, even after years, you WILL need to begin from the beginning, but that's for your horse's benefit and your own, so that both of you can rebuild and reinforce your strength, balance, coordination, and trust. A horse that is asked to perform some action it hasn't performed in years will usually try its best - it DOES remember what those signals mean, it DOES remember what you want, but it may not be physically capable of performing the action, or of performing it well, until it's had a chance to develop those muscles again.

You sound as if you plan to keep your mare for a long time. Relax, take your time and enjoy correct, slow training - and be sure to get good help with your riding, so that you can continue to improve your riding skills. The more competent you feel, the more confident you'll feel - and the more your horse will be able to relax and trust in your leadership. The great paradox of horse-training is that the greater your hurry, the less you achieve, and the greater your patience, the more quickly and effectively you will get where you want to go. ;-)


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