Back to Kindergarten...For Your Horse!

Kindergarten For Your Horse

By Clare Long


Do You Remember Your Favorite Kindergarten Teacher? 

The one you loved the most and still remember 40 years later?
That is how it should be when training your horse. Your horse will always remember their "kindergarten" training, for the rest of their lives.
I remember my Kindergarten teacher, his name was Mr. Vanian.
That was 45 years ago, and I still adore memories of him and his fantastic class and approach. For all of us to relate, even if you don't have a child, how do you train your dog? Not with force and punishment, but with encouragement, praise, and clear corrections. You explain rather then demand.  You are kind, consistent, clear and calm.  Assertive and confident, not aggressive or passive. This is also how to best train your horse. If you train your horses this way, they will:  love, worship, respect and adore you, and be polite as well.

Variety in your training program:

"Variety" is the equivalent of cross training for a horse. Very few horses do well with drilling, they also need diversity and variety to keep things interesting and fun. And there is the keyword... FUN! If you make your schooling sessions fun, rewarding, interesting, exciting and varied, your horse will love their schooling sessions and look forward to them each day. That is how you build a mentally and physically happy horse.

Session Time: 30 to 45 minutes per day, five days a week, is plenty for most horses. Longer than that, and you start breaking down their bodies physically, and exhausting their minds mentally.  Just because your horse does not work physically hard, in each 30 minute session, does not mean they are not working hard mentally. They need a lot of mental breaks as well, just like a child.


A horse can concentrate about as long as a kindergarten child, that is your rule of thumb. How long can your five-year-old child concentrate? How long can your six month old puppy concentrate? That gives you a baseline for your horse. If you demand that they concentrate for too long a period of time in each session, you will burn them out. They will become frustrated, angry and irritated. They will become defensive and no longer want to work for you. Please keep this in mind! This is a very important point! All of my horses look forward to their schooling sessions each day. There is a definitive reason for that.  I get no ears back, no teeth grinding, no angry or frustrated horses. There is a reason for that as well.


Even if it is just for the littlest thing... give your horse lots of praise. It will build your horse's confidence, and make them proud of themselves. The goal is to build a solid education with a solid foundation.

Be compassionate, Praise often (when needed) heartily and with conviction. Really pat them, regularly, on the ground and under saddle. You horse will response with joy and pleasure. They will try harder to make you happy, and to do what is asked of them. I can not stress enough, how important this is for your horse's positive sense of self worth and self esteem.

I find it very upsetting, to watch trainers, and riders, go through their entire ride, with just a stroke on the neck at the end of the session for reward. Horse's thrive and learn from instant positive reinforcement. Praise each and every thing that your horse does right, throughout the training session. I promise, your horse will try harder, learn more, and be happier.

Your voice is also an excellent aid: cooing for praise, growling for correction. Cooing, like you do with a baby human or animal, is something that horses love and respond to. Talking to your horse, is a great way to strengthen your relationship, and to keep your horse relaxed and willing. Singing works extremely well to alleviate tension and/or fear, in both the horse and rider. I teach my students to get a song going, that they like, and simply keep repeating it in a loop. You will be amazed how hard it it to stay tense or fearful, when you are singing. This technique works especially well out on the trails, or at horse shows.


Like children, and adults for that matter, horses should not be rude or bossy. Bossy, to a point, within limitations. But never rude. Rudeness is unacceptable. Most horses are very smart. They know when they are being rude or obnoxious or naughty. It is perfectly OK to correct a horse that is being rude or naughty. Make the correction, and Move On. No reason to dwell. Always follow a correction with a pat, and never hold grudges. Your horses don't think like that. They don't understand grudges.


Keep in mind that your horse hangs out and relaxes 23 hours a day. One hour a day, they can go to school, concentrate, and learn. It is good for their minds and good for their bodies. Always teach with praise, consistency, and with positive reinforcement. Try to stay as objective as possible, try not to let your emotions get the best of you, and try not to take things personally. Your horse still loves you, even if he does something naughty. Just like your child, she still loves you even if she crayons on the wall.


However, also keep in mind that a horse is a prey animal, ruled by fight or flight instincts. And they are 20 times larger than your child. Therefore, there is always the danger element. If your horse gets scared, they may run you over by accident, or they may kick you by accident. If cornered or frightened, they will fight back. You might not understand that they feel cornered and are frightened in that moment, but a strike may be imminent. So definitely stay safe.


It is very important to treat and figure each horse out independently and individually. Each horse is it's own person. Just like every child is different, every horse is different, and deserves and requires a different training and schooling plan. Change the program for the horse.
Ask yourself:  What does each horse need, to be able to excel to the best of their individual abilities? Some horses need to warm up in a stretch, some need to warm up in an "up" frame. Some horses do better warming up in the trot, others in the canter. Some horses do better being ridden every other day. Some horses do better being hacked out before they enter the arena, Etc., etc., etc.

Advanced Education:

As your horse becomes more trained and more sophisticated, they become more like a first, second, third,and fourth grade student. At the very top levels of training, they are like college grads. At that point of course, you get into specialties: like Doctors, Lawyers, Psychiatrists, Architects. The equivalent, for the horse world: Reiners, Cutters, Eventers, Jumpers, FEI Dressage, Endurance, etc. You get the picture!