I adore working with young horses, and it’s a good thing too, because that’s more or less all that I do these days. Actually, let me refine that and say that I love the challenge of working with a green or un-schooled horse, because as of late I’ve been training quite a few horses that don’t technically qualify as young anymore, but are just as unlearned.
In general, we consider a horse green when it doesn’t have a consistent method of response to a given stimuli, whether that is our aids, an obstacle, or just an environment. Horses that are well schooled have a pretty set pattern of behavior for each situation that they find themselves in, and you can predict it well enough if you know them. This makes them easier to ride, and easier to teach others to ride.
I can confidently say that it takes a certain personality to look forward to a different and new challenge every day, and find small pieces of progress in each moment that sustain your hope in your training methods, and that personality might be described as “delusionally optimistic and doggedly determined”. This is a person who sees the long game, and embraces it, while sacrificing the idea of ease and visible progress on a daily basis.
It’s probably more often than not frustrating, because it is a rare horse that has a learning curve that only goes up in a linear fashion. More often than not, the learning curve looks something like what a toddler creates with a crayon and a scrap of paper. And that’s OK! Actually, it’s normal. It’s just a matter of having the right mindset to keep going and training your horse towards great things in the future.
Whenever I’m working with a green horse and they suddenly seem to rebel and go distinctly backwards with the progression of their training, I call it the “teenage tantrum” stage. As long as the problem is not fear or pain related, you can almost always assume that time and patience will help it cure out. After all, that’s how your parents got through your teenage years, right?
Horses are an extraordinarily cooperative species, and in general they enjoy working with us, and when trained in a fair and logical way, and very willing. That does not mean that they agree with us all the time, or even that they unblinkingly obey every day. Sometimes it means they go through phases where they toe the line of what is allowed and what is not, as a teenager would perhaps with his or her curfew.
While it is important to create and enforce rules for behavior to prevent bad habits in the future, it’s equally important to recognize and reward good behavior, and especially during times of frustration and seemingly little to no progress. If you are only ever the force that says “NO!” and never a source of guidance and reward, your horse will eventually lose interest in the game of learning. Training a horse, at its best, is creating situations where the horse wants to find the right answer and actively seeks it out.
To escape the teenage tantrum phase (or phases, because some horses re-visit it occasionally!), teach your horse that “No” is a firm but reasonable line, but also that “Yes!” is a far superior place to go, and it will always be a door available to open. That, and remember that time is the best tonic for teenage tantrums, and patience and a smile will get you further than anything else.