The engagement zone.

If you ever thought there must be a better and easier way to train your horse, this training series by Kate Fenner is designed for you! Get the tools and confidence you need to educate your own horse.  The articles will walk you through specific lessons and how to teach them.

Let’s start preparing your horse for learning. 

How your horse learns

Preparing your horse for learning is one of the most important things you can do. Think back to your school days and remember a favourite teacher you had. That’s the teacher that enters the classroom, quietly and politely asks the children to sit down, explains the day’s lesson and then goes on to break it down so the children understand it, find it interesting, want to learn more and can answer questions about the subject at the end of the lesson.

Do you remember that teacher and how confident that learning environment made you feel?

Notice that lesson didn’t start with the teacher shouting at the children to sit down, or chasing the children around and around the playground with a stick. Nor did the teacher come in and wander aimlessly about the classroom, ignoring the children.

Lessons with our horses shouldn’t begin like this either. A bored horse with an uninterested handler is not thinking about the lesson. A frightened or tired horse is not learning. A horse that practices running (and possibly bucking) on a lunge line or in a round pen is likely to repeat that (now learned) behaviour under saddle.

To optimise learning, we need to increase the horse’s arousal or emotional level a little. We are trying to ‘engage’ the brain – make the horse interested in the lesson, but not scare, frighten or tire the horse.

Assessing arousal 

The arousal or emotional level will control how successful (or not) your training is. In a scientific setting, arousal can be measured by checking heart rate and variability, cortisol levels and so on but, of course, in a daily training situation these wouldn’t be practical, so you need to get really good at assessing your own horse’s emotional level by simply watching them.

I like to use a scale of 1 to 100 – 1 being a really quiet horse; 100 being a very reactive horse. You don’t do this to ‘pigeon hole’ the horse and simply say “This horse is a 75” because their emotional level varies, depending on the situation they are in. A horse may be 50 in the paddock and, as soon as someone gets close, he may raise to a 75.

In a similar way, if you have three horses in the paddock at any one time, it is likely they will each have a slightly different arousal level from each other.

For training to be successful, we aim to manipulate or control that emotional level, never bringing it up too high where the horse is frightened, but not having it too low either, at a point where the horse is not engaged.

You can learn a lot more about how to find that Engagement Zone, the optimal arousal level for training, start with this free video series.

The lesson plan

Before you start to teach your horse anything, it’s best to have it very clear in your mind, so you can break it down for the horse.

Let’s take the example of trailer loading. Obviously, the goal here is to get the whole horse on to the trailer and standing quietly. However, this can be completely overwhelming to the owner of a 16.2hh ‘kite’ that likes to run backwards.

We can simplify this by breaking it down and working out exactly what we want the horse to do.

We need to find four things:

  1. The SPOT on the horse that we want to move. Here, if we look only at moving the left front foot, the lesson is simplified.
  2. The DIRECTION we want that spot to go. We want to move the left front foot forwards and backwards, so that we can teach loading and unloading at the same time.
  3. The MOTIVATOR or thing we use to encourage the horse to move. I always use pressure of some kind. A dressage whip tapping the hip is useful for ‘go forward’ and a touch on the chest will work well for ‘go backwards’. (See the text box on this page for more on different motivators and rewards).
  4. The REWARD we give the horse for making the correct movement. In addition to removing any pressure from the whip (go forwards), or the touch on the chest (go backwards), you praise and stroke the horse.

If we can get the left front foot to the front of the trailer ramp and off again, quietly, calmly and when cued, then we will have the whole horse on the trailer and waiting for us to fasten the back. Now we have a plan!


Horses are great pattern learners.

Have you ever noticed how your horse will repeat certain behaviours in particular places or appear to anticipate your next cue? This is most likely because you have set up a good pattern.

Of course, it’s only a ‘good’ pattern if it encourages the horse to perform a behaviour that you want at the time that you want it!

A common example of a ‘bad’ pattern your horse has learned is when he breaks the walk in a dressage test.

Here the horse has learned the pattern:  We trot at C, and begins the trot, helpfully, earlier than C or even while crossing the diagonal.

So, could we turn this around to make it a ‘good’ pattern?

With this particular example, I suggest you practice the walk three times and you add a circle at C in the walk before returning to practicing the actual test.

This way, when the horse walks it is not just across the diagonal and then into trot, but the walk is repeated three times (leaving you going in the same direction), and a circle is added. This should be sufficient time for the new pattern – a long walk – to be learned.

There are a number of advantages to this solution:

  1. The pattern now becomes ‘walk for a long time’ and trot when cued.
  2. You get to practice the collected and extended walks.
  3. You can practice the transitions between the different walks.
  4. Because the horse has now learned to walk until cued to trot, you can ask for more activity in the walk.
  5. Once the walk is more active, you can add the cue to lower the head and stretch out while crossing the diagonal.

Wow, all of those things AND a much better score because you didn’t break the walk!

Check out other lessons in this series where Kate walks you through how to teach them. Or jump over to the Free Videos by clicking here.

Check out Dr Kate Fenner’s podcast for more step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.