Foundation by Charles F. Wilhelm
What do we want to do with our horses? If we do anything more demanding than watching them graze in pasture, we have a goal.
The goal can be basic -- just going down the trail with a safe, responsive horse. The goal can be more complex -- think of roping,
reining, dressage or endurance. No matter our goal, all horses need the same foundation. Many people do not consider trail riding a
demanding goal, yet that activity might actually require a stronger foundation than other disciplines. A trail ride is a trip into the
unknown, where we are never sure what lurks out there to undo our horses. Foundation gives us the tools to teach our horses the skills they need to reach our goals.
What It Is:
So, what exactly is foundation? Foundation is the process of gaining control of your horse on three different levels: physical (where
and how the horse moves), emotional (the horse's fear level), and mental (what the horse is thinking). Think of it as a three-sided
pyramid: the base resting on the ground is the foundation you need for your horse. The three sides are the three parts of your horse:
the emotional, the physical, and the mental. The top of the pyramid is your goal. In between are the building blocks you must place on
the foundation to reach your goal. If you take away any of the sides, your pyramid is not stable and can topple. We build this solid
base using exercises that teach the horse to bring his emotional level down, focus his mind on what we ask, and perform in an efficient physical manner.
Why We Need It:
Usually we manage to gain some control of our horse physically. That is, until something causes his emotional level to rise. The horse's
fear can so distract him that we lose the physical control we thought we had. I see people before a ride lunging or round-penning their
horse for up to an hour, thinking the horse won't buck or run away on the trail. But all that physical exercise has not made a significant
impact on the emotional level of the horse. The horse can still get excited and run away. Even if the horse's emotional level is not
interfering, the horse cannot give his best performance until we get control of his mind--until we get him thinking about what we are
asking. Most horses, including highly trained ones, are not performing to their best ability because their minds are not engaged.
Foundation training is the way to bring the horse's emotional level down and capture his mind to achieve the physical performance we are looking for.
How We Get It:
Foundation development takes time and repetition. Foundation is a baseline to which we return time and again to tune up our horse in
the three areas of control. We must do basic maintenance, just like with a car. We often make the mistake of thinking once we have
the foundation we can keep building without going back to review the basics. In fact, we need to maintain all exercises taught in the
foundation. As with the car, if we don't do maintenance we will pay the price in performance. At first we have to review foundation
exercises frequently. However, the more often we go back to the foundation exercises, the less time it takes to get smooth
communication and response. Gradually we can reduce the frequency and duration of review. However infrequent the reviews become, though, we will always need to go back.
I have a series of foundation exercises, starting on the ground, then progressing to the saddle, that address the three areas of the horse
. Space constraints here prohibit describing them in detail, but I'll give a greatly simplified overview of the ground exercises. First we
have to get physical control by asking the horse to move forward to a cue, then, to move forward in a circle around us. We need the
horse responding consistently to our cue. If the horse's emotional level goes up, we do some of the same basic exercises, possibly
more aggressively, until the horse begins to turn his attention to us, lowering his emotional level. Once the horse is responding
consistently, we move on to exercises that ask the horse to move his hips in the direction we ask, disengaging the hindquarters. This
gives us the stop. When hip yielding is consistent, we ask for backing. When backing is consistent, we start to ask for bending and
softening of the jaw and neck while performing these basic tasks. As our exercises become more sophisticated, we start to engage the horse's mind.
How It Can Work For Us:
A proper foundation gives us a supple, emotionally sound, and mentally alert horse thinking about what we are asking of him. It
develops the horse physically. With repetition of the circling exercises, the horse begins stepping under himself with the hind legs. This
develops his hindquarters physically, but it also encourages the horse to use his hindquarters to move out. As we progress through the
exercises, the horse becomes supple through the jaw, neck and shoulders. This allows the horse to elevate which, in turn, allows the
horse to engage the hindquarters even more. All riding disciplines require this kind of physical movement for optimal performance.
Foundation also develops the horse mentally and emotionally. As the exercises become more demanding physically and mentally, the
horse gives us his full attention. When he is thinking about what we are asking, he can't focus his attention outward on distractions that
can elevate his emotional level. Only after we have control of physical, emotional and mental parts of the horse, can he perform to his
best ability. And, only when our horse is performing to his best ability can we properly achieve the goals we have set.
Conditioned Response In Horse Training
Conditioned response is the fundamental tool of the horse trainer. A psychology term,
conditioned response is the association of a natural behavior (say, a halt) with an artificial cue (pressure on the lead rope).
A natural behavior is something that the horse does naturally in response to a cue. For example, a dog
rustles through a hedge nearby, startling our horse. The horse shies and moves away. The rustling noise is
the cue, the shying is the horse’s natural response to that cue—no one had to teach the horse to respond in this way. It's just the nature of a horse.
What happens when we halter a horse that isn't halter-broken and put pressure on the lead rope? We will
likely get a head toss or an attempt to break away from the pressure. That’s the horse’s natural response
to halter pressure. However, what we want is the horse to stop moving its feet when it feels pressure from the lead rope. We must
train the horse to associate the cue we issue (lead rope pressure) with performing a certain natural behavior (stopping its feet).
And how does the horse begin to associate our cue with its behavior?
Reward. Reward is the key to this system. When the horse executes the behavior we want, we must tell the horse it
made the correct association of cue and behavior by rewarding it.
How do we reward the horse? We discontinue the cue. We leave the horse alone.
From a horse’s point of view, the best thing you can do for it is leave it alone.
Releasing the pressure of a cue is a very powerful reward for the horse.
This is how we say “YES, that was right!” to our horses. After a number of repetitions, the horse begins to associate the cue with the
behavior that got us to leave it alone. When we issue the cue again the horse will execute the behavior that got us to stop cueing.
To teach a horse the meaning of a cue, we start with a cue and behavior it can easily associate. We use the natural behaviors of
moving forward and stopping. Let’s say we want to teach a horse from the ground to go forward at the sound of a kiss. We kiss
while urging the horse to go forward with the wave of a hand or hat, the toss of a lariat towards the horse's rear, or the tap of a whip
on its butt. A kiss by itself will not usually motivate a horse to move, but the other actions usually will. When the horse responds with
even just one step at first, we reward by stopping the cue. After a number of repetitions of the cue, including the kiss, always followed
by the reward when it moves forward, the horse begins to associate our physical movement (the cue) with moving forward. As we
continue the lesson, eventually the horse will associate just the kiss with moving forward.
When the horse can do this 100% of the time, without thinking, the horse has developed a conditioned
response to the kiss.
Success of the cue/reward system (also referred to as pressure/release) depends on accurate timing and consistency of the trainer in delivering the reward, especially when teaching new cues. The behavior we reward
is the behavior we'll get. We must deliver the reward as soon as the horse makes an attempt at the behavior we are looking for. If we
let up on the pressure before the horse has moved, we told the horse that whatever it was doing when we stopped the cue was what
we wanted. It will repeat the wrong behavior when we cue it again. Conversely, if the horse moves and we didn't stop the cue--it
can’t make an association between the cue and the behavior we want. The horse doesn't know it has done what we wanted. We’ve missed an opportunity to reward the desired behavior.
To develop a conditioned response to a cue, we need to combine the cue, a natural behavior of the horse, and a reward delivered
with accurate timing and consistency. We have achieved a conditioned response when our horse gives us the desired behavior in response to our cue 100% of the time.