Training in the Right Way: Knowing When It’s Time To Stop

When training, how do you know when it’s too little, or too much, or enough? It’s important to differentiate between doing too much and doing too little, as well as considering how each end of the spectrum can appear in — and affect the — training.

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier it is to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

* * *

I was always taught that there are two ways to ruin a horse: doing too much and doing too little.

To be a successful trainer, or student of dressage, it is absolutely necessary to recognize when to push for more and repeat an exercise one more time, just as it is equally important to know when to end a training session or stop repeating an exercise. Doing too much and doing too little are both damaging to the training process. Knowing when the horse has done enough requires both empathy and determination, and of course knowledge and experience.

Gwyneth McPherson riding Eskandar during a training session. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Everyone who has ever tried to improve their own riding and training of horses has been faced with trying to decide whether they need to press on and repeat an exercise or if they should call it and end the lesson. As with so many other aspects in riding and training, knowing when to stop doing something is not based on hard and fast rules. Most riders tend to trend towards one end of the spectrum or the other. That is, they either habitually do too much or too little. Occasionally they they go from one to the other.

One overarching aspect to consider in the conversation regarding doing too much and too little is that of ride duration.  Most riders focus on working a horse for one hour per day without realizing when or where they learned that that was an appropriate amount of time to spend riding said horse. Generally speaking, the idea of riding for an hour at a time comes from riding schools and instructors needing to structure their teaching time. Most riders have ridden in a program with an instructor who taught in one-hour allotments, and many then assume this is the correct—or at least an appropriate—amount of time for a training session. In reality, there are many reasons why a horse might need to work for a longer or shorter amount of time each day. This depends greatly on what the horse is being asked to do in the work, how fit the horse is, how educated the horse is, and what the purpose of the exercise is. The examples range from racehorses running a 2-minute race to cow horses being out working cattle all day. Both are work. Both require preparation and stamina, but the amount of time spent working varies and is closely linked to the type of work being done.

Gwyneth and Flair taking a break during the warm up. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson

In dressage training, there is a wide range of how much work should be done and how long a horse should be asked to do it. The amount of time spent in work each day has to be tailored to the horse’s level of education and understanding as well as his fitness and energy levels. In order to have optimal development, some horses may even need to be worked more than once a day. This is a case where the “one hour” rule is not applicable. Some horses learn best if they come out and work two, or three, or four times a day, but NOT FOR AN HOUR EACH TIME. In these instances, each session would be maybe 20 minutes or less, with the goal being to prepare the horse for better results in each subsequent session. Often this is particularly helpful with in-hand work.

Piaffe in-hand. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson

While some horses may thrive on 20 minutes multiple times per day, on the other end of the spectrum, other horses may need a full hour of work once per day to best develop them. Additionally, just because the horse does best with one schedule right now does not mean that he won’t need a different schedule at another time. Some horses really thrive with a mixture of short and long training sessions within a single week or do better getting out twice a day for a half an hour each time. What specifically works best for your horse is less important than your ability to discern what exactly that is and continue to modify it as needed for consistent success.

Young horses in particular may need many adjustments to their training schedule in order to meet their changing developmental needs. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt

The duration of the ride itself isn’t the only thing to be considered when discussing doing too much or too little. In practice, one of the areas this most frequently comes up is while performing specific exercises and attempting to discern if the results are ‘good enough’ to end on or if you should try again. This is a particularly nuanced area that doesn’t always have a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. The challenge in deciding between whether one has done enough or not is that often the results of doing too much and doing too little look very much alike, in that they both can show up looking like disobedience to the aids. i.e. “He’s not listening to me!” This is one reason knowledgeable eyes on the ground are so vital for riders of all levels. Having an excellent instructor can help the rider discern when to accept the results or ask for a bit more.

In the interest of foundational knowledge, let’s look at what both ends of this spectrum may manifest as.

Too much:

There are at least two forms of too much. There is repeating something too many times and there is expecting something to be maintained too long. This applies to riding too many of the same exercise over and over, sustaining a specific exercise or way of going too long, working the horse without enough breaks, or just simply continuing the training session so long that the horse is too fatigued to perform the exercises. Muscle fatigue is an enemy to good training.

Any time you are asking your horse to do something hard or new, remind yourself what it would be like if you were asked (forced) to stand with both your arms straight out to the side, at shoulder height, and you are not allowed to wiggle, drop your arms to your sides or change your positioning without being reprimanded. Now imagine being asked to hold your arms out at shoulder height and jog in place at the same time. Try this sometime and see how quickly you have to start being “disobedient.” You can stay working longer, however, if you alternate these exercises and, if you are allowed to rest between each one, you can stay working even longer. Eventually you will be too fatigued to continue, but you can do it again later that day, or the next day without a problem. This is a very good way to think about how to gauge being too repetitive— working an exercise or group of exercises too long or too hard— for your horse.

Many riders, often unintentionally, go way past their horse’s point of muscle fatigue trying to perfect an exercise or movement and then keep on going because once the horse is fatigued, he does it worse and worse and they don’t want to end the ride “on a bad note.” Once you have hit this point you have clearly done too much.

Too little:

Too little can occur in the same two ways. Not repeating an exercise enough or expecting the horse to maintain something for too little time. When a horse is not worked for a long enough time or isn’t asked to repeat an exercise or sustain it long enough, the point of the exercise or the training session is lost, and the desired result isn’t achieved. Doing too little will result in a horse that is not supple enough. Or maybe too excitable because it hasn’t used up enough energy to be able to be supple and on the aids.

An example of too little work can be likened to whether you are supple enough to touch your toes. If you never try to bend at your hips and touch your toes with your fingers while keeping your legs straight, you will, over time, become stiffer and stiffer and will continually not be able to touch your toes. No matter how much someone pressures you to “touch your toes right now!” you can’t do it. However, if you try to touch your toes 4-5 times in a row, for a few minutes at a time, 2-3 times a day, it will get easier for you to touch toes as the day progresses and over many days, you will see an improvement. Reproducing touching your toes becomes easy and you can do it more often and sustain it longer because of the repetition.

Many times, riders shy away from doing the things a horse has trouble with because it’s hard, it feels uncomfortable, or the horse reacts unpleasantly, and by doing too little of that work, or those exercises, the horse never gets better at them. This is also a training dead-end.

Meeting your training goals requires thoughtful attention to details and a systematic approach. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Ultimately, to successfully train, the rider must be able to differentiate between doing too little with their horse and doing too much. Both in the length of the required work and in the repetition of it. Gaining this knowledge will require time in the saddle and likely the help of a proficient trainer, but being able to meet your training goals and correctly develop your horse is well worth it.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.