In your life you come across people who cause a breakthrough. I thought I already knew a lot about horses. I had already competed internationally and trained many horses. Then the question arose if I wanted to interview the famous French Horse Trainer Frédèric Pignon. I had to admit that I had never heard of him.
I am old-fashioned, so I researched and started reading everything about the man before I spoke to him. It was a special interview and certainly a turning point for me.
Frédèric Pignon (the brother of that other famous liberty trainer Jean-François) is a special person. He is friendly, humble, has “something” and you immediately feel it. I had seen videos of his liberty dressage beforehand in which the love between him and his horses was obvious. I have seen such performances before and have also seen that some of those idyllic shows are less loving behind the scenes. In the ring they have to perform with a grandstand full of paying spectators. So I wasn’t immediately impressed. With him I was able to watch from the sidelines for a few days and also behind the scenes. I was so touched and moved. The love between him and his horses is real. We had some intense conversations and I am eternally grateful to him for what he shared. The key word in his story was… patience.
Losing your patience with a horse means that all the work you have done with him before has become useless in one instant. The damage may even be greater because he will have lost confidence in you. I must admit that patience with people is not my forte, but I always thought I was endlessly patient with a horse. After spending some time with Frédèric Pignon I learned the true meaning of that word.
A horse has not changed
It is not easy to be truly patient in the hurried times we live in. All things around us go fast, faster and even faster. Communication and achieving results … everything has to be done quickly. The horse is still the same animal it was centuries ago.
It takes quite a bit of self-control to leave the daily troubles behind you before you approach your horse. It is necessary though. A horse is a herd animal and is fully adapted to picking up signals, moods and atmosphere. He is all about non-verbal communication. If you come bouncing in, full of impressions and rushing from your day, he will feel your stress and that alone is enough to make him insecure. You risk creating a situation that can easily turn into misunderstandings, miscommunication and frustration.
If you lose your temper with a horse there will be a crack in the bond of trust that you should have carefully built up with him. If this happens too often, chances are that he will no longer trust you at all. You have become that scary, incalculable predator with who he certainly does not want to cooperate with, let alone that he will do his best to understand what you want from him. Therefore, being patient with your horse should be a way of life.
When working with your horse try to have your attention fully on him. That sounds logical, but countless people are still busy with their phone, the appointments they have later that day or the messages they should not forget. It’s not that you shouldn’t be chatting with anyone at all, but be in your head “with” your horse. He knows if you are not. If you are too distracted you are not open to signals that he may be trying to give you. Many horses try to tell you something in their own way.
Do you listen to that?
The penny drops at some point
According to Frédèric Pignon almost all horses are willing enough to do what you ask of them. Provided they understand you. Sometimes it takes a while before they do. You must have the inner peace to wait for that. To sense when he is ready to give the correct answer. If not, most riders try to force the horse to comply. Horses don’t understand that kind of behaviour. It makes them nervous and it affects their confidence in people.
What Frederic made clear like no other was that waiting sometimes takes much longer than you think. He confessed that he was much more impatient in his early years and wanted a horse’s response in seconds. Nowadays he quietly waits a day, a week or more. The penny will drop at some point. If a horse is allowed the time he needs to find the answer for himself, it stays in his mind and the bond of trust will grow.
Especially if you know a little more about horses and you know how they work, it is quite possible to force things and to make a horse do what you want. But then he will not do it with pleasure and it will show. If you ask the horse the question again in a difficult or exciting situation, there is a high risk that you will not receive the outcome you are seeking.
If you do not damage the bond with your horse and he trusts you, he will open up to you and turn to you for the solution in exciting situations. Such a bond of trust can gradually emerge daily while handling your horse and during training, if care is taken.
Do not rush
It is important to teach new exercises step by step. Frederic would let his horses decide whether they were ready for the next step. That seemed a bit too non-committal to me. You have types that are rather lazy and if they can decide for themselves, you will not get any further than the field. He laughed loudly when I said that and concluded that I still did not get the true meaning of the word patience. In his opinion that easy going horse also wants to play, if you introduce it in the right way. What is inextricably linked to this is that you ensure that they are in a good mood if you want to train. If you feel that this is not the case, then do something else. Take him on a hack, go for a walk or just groom him. Don’t let yourself be rushed by an agenda, expectations or an upcoming show. He wanted it to be easy and fun for his horses to give the right answer to a question when he asked them.
Asking a horse to understand your question is different than forcing him to answer
Too soft for you? Afraid you never get results like that? According to the Frenchman being patient does not mean that you don’t set limits. You have to be very clear and above all, you have to be consistent. You can tell them to not walk over you. They still have to respect your space. Make sure they understand you, but don’t frighten them so they don’t dare come near you. Asking them a question is different than forcing them to answer. Do not force them to obey.
A quote from the famous Greek philosopher Xenophon: “Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful”
Indicate limits. Leave space between those two imaginary lines, so that the horse can decide for himself within that limit. An example: never let your horse go faster on his own without giving an aid. If he does, then take more pressure on the reins and hold until you’re in the speed you want. Then you reduce the pressure again. The horse must remain in that tempo. You may have to repeat this a thousand times if he goes faster every time you reduce the pressure. Be prepared to do that without anger. Do not keep that pressure on when in the right tempo just as a precaution. Indicate what you want from him, encourage him to do that, then leave him alone. Don’t force him.
It is all about your timing. There really does come a time when he stays in that desired tempo when you let go. If you reward him then (removing the pressure already is the reward) he will remember this.
Regaining lost confidence is a daunting task. In many cases you will never get it back completely. So the few times that a workout doesn’t quite go the way you had in mind, it’s not too bad if you look at it in that light. Step over your pride and your ego. It is not the end of the world if an exercise or a test does not go so well. Stay calm, take a step back, rebuild it and you’ll be fine.
The concept of right and wrong
Give your horse time to process information mentally. How fast he can do this differs per horse. Don’t get stuck in it. Do not repeat the same thing thirty times during one training session. If something doesn’t work, then find another way to get there by maybe explaining it differently? Ask yourself “What doesn’t he understand?”. Can you adjust your question, so that he does understand you. Or can you just pick a new piece to work on? Be satisfied with small results.
What is important is that you only reward the good stuff. This requires further explanation. Stop before it goes wrong. Suppose you are doing a shoulder in and he starts super, but halfway through it goes to pieces. Maybe he loses momentum, balance, bend or whatever. Your horse has no idea what is right or wrong. Shoulder in is something that we as humans have invented. The whole concept of doing something right or wrong in terms of exercise means nothing to a horse. So, if you continue a shoulder in to the point where things go wrong, then he doesn’t understand that the first part was what you meant. Stop before things go wrong and reward the good. Repeat and try to add one more correct step. I once heard of a behavioural scientist that something anchors in the brain after three repetitions, so don’t repeat more often than that and start doing something else instead or give him a long rein which also works as a reward.
If something goes wrong, it will not improve if you keep repeating it the same way. You probably know the saying (by Henry Ford), “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Be creative in your head. Come up with another exercise that you can do that will help improve the problem you are experiencing. There are more ways to make a hind leg stronger, improve impulsion or to make your horse more flexible.
There are no shortcuts
If you go too fast, you risk skipping steps. That is going to avenge itself somewhere. Training a horse takes time and there is no such thing as a “quick fix” or a “shortcut”. Some horses have more talent than others, but basically it’s the same animal. Not only does it take a certain amount of time for muscles and tendons to become strong enough, but his head must also be able to process the information. You can’t tell from the outside if that has happened. In my old days you were top notch if you rode advanced with a ten year old horse. Nowadays they ask what went wrong…
Be careful when setting goals. It is not wrong to work towards something and I strongly support the idea of making a plan to get somewhere. If you want to have a result on a certain date, there is always a risk that you will “force your horse” to achieve it. If something doesn’t go as planned it doesn’t mean your horse is stupid. It means that you are not flexible enough to find other solutions. Apparently your way of training does not stimulate him. Unfortunately, many people are more likely to question a horse’s ability before thinking about the rider’s training skills.
• Put your phone away when you are training your horse
• Setting your limits is different from forcing him into obedience
• If something doesn’t work find another way to solve the problem
• Stop before things go wrong