The Sport Horse Problem Solver: What Works, What Doesn’t, and How to Make It All Better

By Eric Smiley, FBHS

Reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books

Book excerpt from the magazine


Finding a Place to Start

When I teach, people seldom say to me, “I have a lovely trot, can you help me make it better?” The focus is usually on their problems: “Why does my horse knock rails?” “Why is my horse’s neck so short?” “Why can’t I score higher than a ‘6’ on my canter?” And on it goes.

The unfortunate fact is, solutions are not easy to come by. Why? In part, because everything having to do with horses and riding is so complex. Problems cannot be viewed in isolation—they are by nature inter-related, and thus, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start.

Some problems have physical origins. In order to develop a keen sense of what is “normal” and “abnormal” behavior from our horses (so we can pinpoint when injury or a conformational flaw may be in play), we must cultivate the crucial skills of looking at and watching our horses (the topic I cover in chapter 1).

More frequent, however—and sometimes trickier to solve—are problems originating from errors in training. In many of the cases I encounter in my teaching and training, the baggage that follows a horse on his journey through life isn’t his fault through his breeding or nature; it is actually something he picked up along the way in his training. Often, these little problems that occupy much of our time have been there for a while and were never identified or resolved when a young horse was being started. Of course, sometimes we create our own problems, rather than inheriting them from others.

Either way, this book focuses on how to diagnose and address these types of training problems. But before we get into the business of solutions, I want to talk a little bit more about where problems come from and why they are often so difficult to fix. In my experience, it comes down to a lack of understanding—on the rider’s part, the horse’s, the coach’s, or all of the above.

The Growing Divide Between Horses and Humans

The advent of the technological age has totally changed our lives. It has changed everything about us: the way we live, the way we think, how we interact with people and expect people to interact with us. There is nothing we do today that isn’t affected by technology. And this includes when we go and visit our horse. Because our way of thinking and doing has been so changed, it has become harder for us to understand horses and adapt ourselves to their way of receiving information and learning tasks. The gulf between us and them has been growing as technology has become more a part of our lives. This trend, coupled with the education system, has made people more dependent on being fed information than finding it out for themselves.

At the push of a button, we have easy access to information, but this can fool us into the belief that we know more than we do. Our perceived knowledge is way above our actual knowledge—we are instant experts. As a result, we have become less curious.

Yet the horse remains the same, largely unchanged by the evolution of the human species.

We have invented many methods of explanation to try and bridge the gap between horse and rider, including books, videos, articles, clinics, lessons, and technological gizmos. Each of these is used in an effort to make things more clear and to improve our understanding of what we should be doing to make our riding experience more rewarding. But if we don’t grasp how learning happens, how to use these sources, and how the overall picture should look, we will never succeed in fixing what is wrong.

WHEN TRAINING GOES WRONG: The Problem of Overfacing

The development of the mind and body, either human or equine, to perform at its optimum goes through many stages before it reaches its peak. Along the way, it encounters mental and physical barriers, which must be overcome if it is to be the best it can be. Some of these challenges improve the resolve to succeed, while others leave scars that impede progress or even threaten the realization of the ultimate goal. How do we keep our horses and our partnership with them on the right track?

Education should be an enlightening experience full of understanding, but the success of all forms of education depends on adhering to a progressive system: one step at a time, layer upon layer of information, you build a solid foundation, progress to the next level, and so on. This applies to both physical and psychological challenges, especially in the early years of development. To move from one stage to the next requires a confidence in where you are and a belief that where you are going is within your capabilities. Without this solid base, progress is uncertain. This is true of humans in their education but is even more true of horses whose education is guided by humans.

How often have we heard of parents entering their children for a competition that is above their level with reasoning such as, “It’ll be good for them,” “They will see what the standard is,” “It will show them what to work on” … only for the child to be knocked out at the first metaphoric hurdle and come home deflated. On the way home the parent then says, “Don’t worry, it’ll be better next time.”

But the chances are that it won’t be. A marker of failure and for failure has been put inplace and that is very difficult to overcome.

Draw the same analogy with a young horse. Move him up in level to gain experience, only to find that he knocks fences or has run outs. The marker of failure has been laid down. Or he tries so hard to please and jumps clear, but the next time out here members the experience as being unpleasant and performs badly. Now that marker of failure has had a confirmation. Bad news.

This is what’s known as overfacing, a term that is defined as: to intimidate, especially by presenting too great a task or obstacle. Although the word is typically associated with asking a horse to jump something beyond his ability, it can be equally useful when applied to other aspects of training, including groundwork and riding on the flat. It’s crucial, in fact, that we embrace this broader understanding so we don’t become architects of our own problems by pushing a horse too far, too fast. For just one example of the perils of overfacing, consider Thoroughbreds that begin a racing career at age two—those that go on to retire sound in mind and body are in the minority.

Horses are generous animals, constantly curious, and willing to take an interest in most things that are asked of them. Very few are disingenuous, which makes them good students. The key is to stimulate their interest, understand their limitations, and be cautious not to take advantage of their desire to please. In stimulating their interest we must set achievable goals. This is how we create a pathway to learning: with clear, well-planned steps, direction, and plentiful rewards as we go. With interest and achievement much can be done.

These are the fundamentals of Progressive Training.

A Year-by-Year Breakdown

Ultimately, the goal of any horse’s journey should be for longevity, in his sport or just in his life as a nice riding horse. Horses that are still competing at the highest level when they are well into their teens tend to have been brought up the correct way.

In simple terms:

• A four- to five-year-old is starting.

• A six- to seven-year-old is learning the mechanics and skills of his trade.

• An eight- to nine-year-old is developing and improving these skills.

• A ten- to fourteen-year-old is in his prime.

• Fifteen years old plus is bonus time.

The most critical years are between four and five and then again when a horse is seven.

At seven there is a temptation to think of them as mature and adult. But that would be foolish. This time of life is fragile, as horses are beginning to show what they can do (their potential) but are not yet secure, either physically or mentally. To make a mistake in either physical or mental development can leave scars they may never recover from. However, using this time to consolidate experience, skill, and confidence at the appropriate level will allow horses to learn to believe in themselves and the future.

To purchase your copy of The Sport Horse Problem Solver, visit

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