I own an 11-year-old Arabian gelding that spooks easily and bolts on the trail. I'm considering going to a horse-training clinic for help with this problem. What type of clinic should I attend, and what should I expect to get out of it?
It sounds as though you need to go back to basics to teach your horse how to better respond to your training cues - including the "whoa." Good for you for considering attending a training clinic, which is a great way to increase your horse knowledge.
First, find a clinician who focuses on safely applying horsemanship skills to your trail-riding needs. You need to gently and patiently teach your horse to allow you to become his leader. To find a good clinician, ask reputable trainers and other trail riders in your area whom they might recommend, and research clinicians online. If you can, attend a horse expo in your area that features a lineup of well-known clinicians, and see which one you like the best.
Once you find a clinician, decide whether you'd like to attend with your horse or as an auditor (spectator). You'll likely get more out of a clinic if you attend with your horse; however, you'll have more freedom to travel to your chosen clinician if you leave your horse at home.
Either way, here's how to get the most out of your clinic experience:
Go with an open mind. Toss out everything you think you know about horses and horsemanship, and focus instead on the clinician's own perspective. Absorb everything he or she says and does; engage in critical thinking a few days later, after you've had a chance to fully process what was said and demonstrated.
Stress safety. That said, be alert to measures the clinician takes to help ensure the safety of horse and rider, both on the ground and in the saddle. Is a safety protocol outlined before the clinic gets underway? Are riders required to wear certified riding helmets? Are novices given the extra attention they need? If at any time you feel unsafe, leave the clinic immediately, and respectfully ask for your money back, explaining exactly what happened.
Focus on your own skills. Often, what we think of as an equine behavioral problem actually has its roots in the rider's horsemanship skills. Therefore, first focus on improving your riding skills, then your horse's unwanted behavior. A bonus: As you improve your horsemanship - and see that the clinician's methods really do work - your self-confidence will increase, which will help your horse see you as his trusted leader.
Bring up your specific problem. A good clinician will be able to help everyone attending (including auditors) with his or her specific problems and training challenges. Raise your hand, and tell the clinician your horse spooks and bolts on the trail. Explain exactly what your horse does and what you do in response. The clinician should be happy to help you address and correct your problem. (Tip: Also ask the clinician to help you check tack fit; your horse may simply be suffering from saddle or bit pain.)
Ask for clarification. If there's anything that you don't quite understand, raise your hand, and tell the clinician you need that point explained to you more thoroughly. Don't worry - you won't hurt the clinician's feelings by asking him or her to be clearer. Clinicians use a lot of "industry" terms, and some even make up cute terms to describe training methods.
Record the clinic. Bring an audio or video recorder so you can review the clinic at home. If you attend as an auditor, you'll be able to easily videotape the clinic; if you're in the pen, see whether you can set up a tape recorder on the arena rail. Afterward, ask the clinician if he or she has books and videos available that would reinforce what you've learned.
Expect to come away from a clinic with a deeper understanding of what you need to do to correct your horse's problem. You should also better understand the importance of being safe and patient when working with your horse.
Trainer/clinician J.F. Sheppard specializes in responsible training for trail horses, and safe horsemanship for trail riders. He's certified under top Paint Horse trainer William T. Lawrence. In his 50s and afflicted with osteoarthritis, he continues to actively ride and train. The southern Oregon resident can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For clinic information, visit www.horsecreekoutfitters.com