Whether you want to improve your horse’s performance or your own as a rider, the following are key points to consider:
1.) Exercise has been proven to improve overall health, long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, and muscular memory. A horse is meant to cover miles and miles each day, a human only slightly less. So if your horse spends 23 hours a day in a stall and you spent 10 hours a day sitting, the one single thing you can do to improve your performance as a team is exercise.
2.) Rest–both sleep and basically doing nothing (with no screen in sight)–have both been proven to improve mental, emotional, and physical well-being. If you aren’t sleeping enough every day, you will find your reaction time lags, and since riding and horse training is ALL about timing, you will not see the results you could if you simply get the right amount of shut-eye.
Sleep is not just important for you, though. Your horse needs proper sleep and the only way she can get it is to live in a stress-free environment (including 24/7 access to free choice food) and to have a place to lie down without being disturbed. Horses do rest standing up, but they need to lie down to get deep REM sleep. Most horses also require a sleep buddy–another horse who stands “watch” while he sleeps. Horses who live on their own rarely get enough sleep because they need to stay vigilant.
3.) Set up your training so that you focus on only one thing. If you’re teaching your horse, control the other horses so that they’re not racing back and forth causing a ruckus or, even worse, leaving the area when your horse is trying to concentrate. As for yourself, your riding and your training will suffer if you are talking to someone else or keeping an eye on another rider or a child. (Sorry, Moms…it’s a fact that the best thing you can do to have a productive riding session is to get a babysitter.)
4.) Start with a ritual. Even something as simple as picking your horse’s feet out before each ride can signal to the both of you what’s coming. Warming up in the arena can make all the difference for some horses, not just because you loosen up, too. Rituals allow both of you to mentally come to the session in the same positive frame of mind.
5.) Break down the most difficult parts of your task and practice those parts until you are proficient. Amateur musicians practice their music over and over, making the same mistakes each time. Professional musicians focus on the difficult parts and engage in exercises meant to improve their performance on the hard techniques they need to master. In horse training you can start with the end in mind. You can teach the beginnings of a sliding stop (reining) or a sidepass (dressage) or a jump take-off (eventing) before you even begin the basics if you know how to break down the key moment into simple pieces.
6.) Keep a positive mindset and help your horse stay positive, too. You are responsible for any mistakes, no one else. But learning can’t happen without mistakes, so embrace them. Your horse can’t learn what to do without trying out what doesn’t work.
7.) Get proper feedback. You as a rider need either a coach and/or someone who can video you so that you can see what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. Give your horse even more feedback. In order to be helpful, feedback should be positive and as immediate as possible.
8.) Know what level you’re at. Taking on tasks which are too simple doesn’t help you improve. Taking on tasks which are too complicated simply overwhelms you. Find the spot which is just at the upper edge of ability and work on that.
9.) Match your task with your energy. There are days…when nothing is going to get done. Recognize them and don’t waste your time trying to change them. Do something else. Then, when the good moments, hours, or days come, you’ll be ready to maximize them.
10.) There are many times when the best thing you can do is go for a walk, either with or without your horse. For some reason, walking can change everything. It functions as a “reset” button in the human brain and doesn’t hurt a horse, either.