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There is no coming to consciousness without pain.
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The First of the Four Ps




Much talk is made of the "magic pill" – often I accuse equine trainers of offering a "magic pill", or of equine owners for looking for the "quick fix" – the "magic pill", the cure-all solution, and I'm very quick to state there is no "magic pill"; there is no one fix for all problems; if there were, how fantastic that might be.  However, all over the years that I have been working with equines, there are a number of tools that I've come to believe are the essential elements of working and training with equines.  The more I work and study these concepts, the more I realise that they are extremely simple and in essence, when these simple concepts are learnt and practised, they can, in effect produce incredible results and success – not a "magic pill" but certainly, an incredible recipe for success.  Often, I consider the different elements, ideas or concepts that I might practise and teach – it would be like letters of the alphabet – without learning the alphabet, words, sentences and communication cannot take place.  I believe it is the same with the concepts and ideas that I practise and teach – many of them are extremely simple and individually, they have meaning on their own, but when practised and learnt, they can allow the equine trainer much better communication with their animal and also a great deal more success and enjoyment in equine training.  I believe one of the most important concepts in equine training are "The four p's: planning, practise, patience and persistence.  It is these four p's which I would like to take a look at.



Planning is the crucial starting point for any equine training; in fact, it is the crucial starting point for most goals, objectives, journeys.  It would be hard to imagine an aeroplane taking off without a plan on how to get to the destination, or a ship leaving port without plotting its route on a chart.  Yet, many of us set off for destinations with our equines, whether it be to be better with the farrier; to load easily; to be better ridden work, without detailed plans on how we are going to reach our destination.  Planning is certainly seen as one of the most boring elements of horse training – who wants to sit down with a piece of paper and write about what they are going to do?  What we want to do is get out there and start working; to start training; to see the results; to do things, yet time spent planning our training processes will pay huge rewards in our training with equines.  By clearly defining our goals we will know where we are going: "if you don't know where you're going, how do you know when you get there?". 


Setting our goals accurately and completely allows us to break down the process of training into small manageable steps to ensure that every area of our goal has been prepared.  This is, as I call it a "cup of tea exercise"!  One should sit down with a cup of tea, a piece of paper, and write out our training goal at the bottom of a piece of paper.  You should work on ensuring our goal is all-encompassing.  To say, "I would like my equine to be farriered" is too vague and does not allow us to build a correct training programme.  What we really want to say is: "I would like my equine to calmly accept a farrier in any location, at any time of the day, in any weather conditions and to be able to accept any treatments that they may require to their feet".  This more detailed goal already begins to inspire ideas of training that may be required to reach it.  A goal for loading might be to load in any location, at any time of the day or night, in any weather conditions, when in a rush and under pressure, on your own or with other equines.


Having stated our goal, we should return to the top of the page and write the words: "Where are we now?".  One of the problems people have when creating a plan of training is to know where to start.  The key to success is always to start with as small as possible – it is far more successful to start very small with tasks that the equine can succeed at and build up to more difficult aspects of the training programme than to start too high on the training programme and cause the horse to lose confidence, to become fearful or even lose trust.  Then, between "Where are we now" and the goals, write as many small steps as you possibly can.  The smaller you can make the steps, the better.  Steps may be in time increments, such as holding their foot up for 10 seconds or 30 seconds; or standing in the trailer for 10 seconds or for a minute.  There might be a number of repetitions: take 5 steps, take 10 steps, but make each step of the shaping programme small enough for the animal and trainer to succeed.  Far better to have steps that are too small and successfully complete them rapidly than have steps that are too big and miss out vital elements of training and over-reach the equine's ability.  This training plan does not have to be set in stone and inevitable it will need to be changed during the training process to incorporate new information gained during training. A shaping plan does however, provide focus, direction and consistency of training, all of which will benefit the equine's learning process.


Having created an overall training plan, the trainer should then plan and visualise how the next training session will occur.  This does not necessarily have to be an extremely detailed plan but before beginning work the trainer should at least visualise their initial courses of action during the training session and how they might respond to possible outcomes.  By taking as little as 30 seconds at the beginning of a training session, the trainer can visualise and create a training session plan in their minds.  This allows the trainer to be consistent and to be one step ahead of the equine.


One more element of planning is to ensure that I have a couple of extra options on how to achieve the desired results should my chosen method of training fail.  This may be as simple as considering moving the equine to a different location; tying them up or untying them; using a positive piece of equipment; increasing the number of rewards or simply resting and coming back to it at a different time.  By considering these options and planning ahead, should any difficulties arise during the training session the trainer will already be prepared for solving the problems that the animal's behaviour may pose during the session.  By planning different options means the trainer can remain calm when things do not go according to plan; it also means that the trainer can relax because he knows he can deal with any situation that may arise.


Planning is one of the crucial elements in the success of training equines.  With practise, this can become a habit and with experience, the necessity to write formal training plans may diminish, but one of the keys to success of training equines is to plan ahead – both written for an overall direction and at the beginning of each training session or in short breaks during the training session.  By introducing the habit of planning, most trainers accelerate their success and decrease the amount of time it takes the equine to learn the required task.  As a final benefit, having written plans allows you to take breaks from your training and because you can come back to the right step or level following the break, but also it allows the trainer to positively reinforce themselves by ticking the completed tasks so that a visual reminder of success and achievement will aid him on bad days or over a long period of training.


© Ben Hart 2005

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