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You are who your friends are. That adage can apply to horses, too. How we treat them will often be reflected right back at us - for good or bad. Sometimes the difference between a harsh cue and an appropriate one can be subtle. Pressure can be effective, but intensity and timing can make all the difference.

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Most of us intend for our daily rides to improve our horse at some level, either by adding to his physical conditioning or progressing his training skills. But whether or not your horse actually makes these gains often comes down to the amount of time you spend on each phase of the ride. The format of your ride determines the outcome of physical improvement.

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Life for a 19th century cowboy was a steady routine of guarding cattle, moving them to grazing ranges, and driving them to market, often on long and difficult trails. But in those open range days, cattle belonging to one outfit would mingle and graze with cattle from other outfits. Twice a year in spring and fall, ranchers joined in a round-up of hundreds of cattle to sort out the different brands and reclaim their herds.

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Ph.D. candidate Lara Genik and Dr. C. Meghan McMurtry from the University of Guelph’s Department of Psychology conducted a survey at the 2015 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (RAWF) in Toronto, looking into the prevalence and impact of less studied painful incidents among children while handling and riding horses. Genik’s research survey set out to understand common painful incidents associated with riding and to gain insight that could potentially lead to intervention through safety and educational programming.

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What is it and how can it help horses and riders? Riders train horses to act in ways they deem positive, whether it’s jumping a jump, walking down a trail, or performing movements in an arena. But to train horses effectively and safely, riders, trainers, and coaches must understand how they learn and react. Over the past 15 years, equine scientists have researched the learning theory of horses — how horses process, retain knowledge, and learn. Equitation science applies this evidence-based learning theory of horses to horse training, and explains horse behaviour based on horses being horses – without attributing human emotions, ways of thinking, or behaviour, to them. It’s a burgeoning field that is changing the way many riders and trainers think and act.

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We’ve all had a horse that was hesitant to go forward with ease and willingness. I want to share the story of one such colt I started recently, and some of the strategies I employed to help him “free up.” These techniques work well for horses of all ages. This article is ultimately about rider self-awareness, timing, and avoiding the overuse of pressure, which unintentionally dulls the horse. Take special note of the tips for success, and the pitfalls many riders face when their horse is dull to their aids.

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Dragging a Log - Helping horses build their confidence in unique ways can prepare them for the unexpected. At any age or with any discipline, I encourage riders to find ways to challenge themselves and their horses by trying new things and teaching them that they can trust you when they feel worried. I see so many horses that are incredibly sheltered by their owners and, as a result, become so fragile that any little thing causes them too much anxiety.

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