by DON JESSOP
Recently, in our Horse Mastery Group, we took a deep dive into the way horses remember things because as a master trainer I know you can never just assume a horse knows something. One of the biggest challenges horse owners face is the truth that horses, even if they've done it before, don't remember many of the details of what you want when you ask them. Here's a simple scale to determine where your horse is related to his/her level of understanding your suggestions.
Level Zero - the horse does not respond when you ask for what you want. Let's say you ask your horse to go into the trailer, but instead, he ignores your suggestion or reacts in a negative way. We call this level zero because it shows the horse is confused about what you want or... "why" you want it. The goal is always to advance beyond this level with patience, firmness if needed, big rewards, and understanding, no matter how long it takes.
LEVEL 1 UNDERSTANDING - The horse responds to signal but only with the support
Anybody can achieve this level in one session. But that doesn't mean your horse truly knows what you want. The reality, at this stage, is that your horse is responding to pressure, not communication. The next time you ask, he might do anything else, and not the thing you want because he's trying to figure out how to move away from the pressure. A good presenter can make it look like the horse understands because he or she is holding clear body language to guide that horse in the right direction, but a novice could never achieve the same task with that same horse at this level of understanding.
LEVEL 2 UNDERSTANDING - The horse responds within three seconds of signal and without any support.
Most trainers can achieve this level in one session but most people take 1-2 sessions to achieve this level simply because of their timing and body language, which often lack consistency. If you understand the training cycle, you can reach this level quickly and effectively, but don't be fooled... it doesn't mean your horse knows the task perfectly. Not yet.
LEVEL 3 UNDERSTANDING - The horse responds to the signal without support no less than three times in a row.
A master trainer can achieve this level in one session but most people take 3-5 sessions to achieve this level. Timing and signal consistency are paramount if you want to reach this level of understanding quickly. Cycling through the same signal over and over with rests and rewards will ultimately give you this level of communication with your horse. But patience and determination are key.
LEVEL 4 UNDERSTANDING - The horse responds to the signal without support after a ten-minute break.
A master trainer can achieve this level in one day but most people will take 3-5 days to get here. Like the previous level, timing, consistency, patience, and determination are all extremely important to reach this level. If you do reach this level, you've achieved something that most people don't even know exists. You've achieved a level of communication and harmony between you and your horse that very few people reach. And yet... there is still more.
LEVEL 5 UNDERSTANDING - The horse responds to the signal without support after 24 hours.
A master trainer can achieve this level within ten sessions, whereas most trainers will get here after about 6 months to a year. When a horse reaches this level of training, you know his memory is supporting your relationship. It means he went to bed that night thinking of what you did together. It means you did that thing so many times, with so many rewards, that he wants to do it again. You could force a horse through fear and intimidation not to make mistakes the next time you play but this level of understanding requires something else. Something special, that only people on the path to mastery will ever identify with. I hope one day, you reach this level with a handful of tasks with your horse.
LEVEL 6 UNDERSTANDING- The horse responds to the signal without support after 6 months of no practice.
A master trainer can achieve this level in about 30 days whereas most trainers will achieve this after several years. Again, because it's very difficult to reach this level. It takes enormous amounts of positive practice. But now you can say. "I've truly made it. My horse and I really do get each other even after a long time of not being together, it's like we are instantly in harmony." Now you've made it. You experience is faultless. Your horse knows exactly what you want. Yet there is still one more level.
LEVEL 7 UNDERSTANDING - The horse responds to the signal without support for any novice rider/trainer any time.
It's one thing to have your horse respond to your unique set of signals. It's a whole other thing to have your horse respond instantly to someone who's sending completely different signals. We call these horses schoolmasters. They know the task so well that you can put any novice rider on and they instantly respond in a perfect fashion to inconsistent aids. It's like they know what you want, even if you don't ask it right. A master trainer can achieve this level of understanding in about four to six years with advanced tasks whereas most trainers if they ever achieve this level, will take ten to twelve years. It's an exciting place to be, but to be honest, there are only a few trainers in the world who are generous enough to share this kind of horse with others. When you put that much time in, it's hard to watch others make mistakes with their signals, but if you are one of those generous people, you can rest assured, your horse is so good, it truly doesn't matter if the human gets it wrong.
My goal as a teacher, and presenter, is to help people, my students at the very least, reach level five understanding. I want you to experience the special connection and bond that occurs when you know your horse went to sleep thinking of the amazing things you do together.