BREAK IT TO FIX IT - BY DON JESSOP - Mastery Horsemanship


August 20, 2019 2 Comments


Don Jessop

Let's talk about how to teach a horse to lie down. There are dozens of techniques, but we'll start with my favorite 7 step strategy. We'll use this as an illustration and guide to multi-layered conversations.

Step 1: teach your horse to stand next to a fence (this helps prevent wandering feet as you progress, eventually you pull them away from the fence)

Step 2: teach your horse to put his head down

Step 3: teach your horse to walk his hind feet up closer to his front feet without moving the front feet (cause feet to stand close together)

Step 4: teach your horse to lift legs softly in the same way he does just before lying down naturally

Step 5: If your horse shows signs of wanting to lie down, allow the horse to explore the lie-down (perhaps away from the fence) and reward him/her when it happens (it might take weeks or months before all the pieces come together)

Step 6: repeat the process and teach your horse to lie down without the support of the fence

Step 7: repeat and refine your signals over time

Each step, by itself, is quite easy, but together, they turn into a multi-layered conversation where things can fall apart. For instance. Step 1: "teach your horse to stand next to a fence," is as simple as leading the horse up, parallel to the fence and rewarding him. But when you add in step 2: "teaching your horse to put his head down" (pulling down on the halter and rewarding each effort) he will often misinterpret the game and move away from the fence instead. This is what I mean by "break it to fix it."

One idea breaks down to implement the other. The simple fix is to wait until the head goes down and reward it, then revert back to the first idea (step 1), then start asking for head down again while standing at the fence. At first, the horse can only do one thing because all the signals look the same to him, but over time he can do both things... simply because you persisted and continuously reverted to the first idea after succeeding with the second idea.

What happens next is obvious. Once he can clearly accomplish step 1 and step 2 at the same time, it's time to start asking for step 3. But guess what happens when you start asking your horse to walk up with his hind legs while leaving his front legs still? You got it... Step 2 breaks down and the head pops up. You literally have to break step 2 to make step 3 happen, then go back to step 2 and fix it. With persistence, both step 2 and step 3 will work and your horse will understand not just one idea but three ideas altogether. 

This process continues all the way up the ladder, through all the steps. This is why simple tasks often take weeks or months to master. Flying lead changes, for instance, can take a long time because there are multiple parts that must be organized together to get it right. One part breaks down to make another work, so you go back and fix the broken pieces only to have another piece fall apart. It's important to know that there is no way around this phenomenon. It's a part of horse training all master trainers know well and work with on a daily basis when it comes to multi-layered conversations.

The point to this simple mastery principle is this: Don't get frustrated when one thing works but another thing falls apart as a result. Nothing is wrong with you or your horse when this happens. Many novice trainers and riders who fail to understand this principle, give up early rather than persist to the desired, multi-layered result. 

Don't get frustrated when one thing works but another thing falls apart as a result. 

The horse can not understand our words (at least not well), but they can understand our intention through our persistent signals and rewards. It's ok if you have to break one thing to fix another, just go back and fix that broken thing again. Go back and forth between your two ideas and before long your horse will see your intention. He, or she, will understand you want more than just one thing, and all will be better again!

I believe in you. I believe you can do anything you choose to do with a horse! Believe in yourself too! Don't give up too early!

Take yourself to the next level of mastery by tackling multi-layered conversations, such as lying down, cantering on the correct lead, vertical flexion in the walk, trot, canter, flying lead changes, and more.

I'm always here for you too. Take a look at the Mastery Group, You'll love it!


2 Responses

Cols Nye
Cols Nye

August 22, 2019

I cannot visualize asking a horse to move his hind while online or liberty and keeping his front feet quiet. How does one start this? Love these articles.

Marilee Donovan
Marilee Donovan

August 21, 2019

Thank you, Don, I always enjoy and learn from your blog posts. I have always wanted to teach my horse to lay down and have never felt comfortable doing it. I need a project right now and you given me the tools to focus on this with Annie.

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