Starting a green horse over fences is a gradual process, and with my horses, I begin with cavalettis. Cavalettis, attributed to the Italian words for “trestle” and “little horse,” are a series of ground poles – four long fence poles laid flat to the ground in a ladder fashion. The first time over, we do it at a walk and I offer my horse all the rein – as much as he needs to stretch, feel out the experience, and pace the activity for himself. From there I gradually add more poles, then raise them up off the ground to proper cavalettis – three to six inches up and a little farther apart. And we move from a walk to a trot. As I add more fence poles, more height, and more speed, up on his back I am shortening my stirrups, shortening my reins, and collecting my horse so that he has less free rein and is more attuned to my hands, legs, and seat in the saddle. But this is not to confine him. Rather, he has learned the parameters of the task before him, and now needs me less to allow him to experiment on his own, and more to fine tune the skills he has already learned. With shorter stirrups and better rein contact, I can deliver the sophisticated feedback he needs as the tasks become more difficult and his movements become more advanced.
Training horses, as with training people… keep stakes low at the beginning and allow your learners to experiment. Let your learners look, walk jankily through the course, and kick a cavaletti or two. As the stakes become higher – more speed, more height, more distance – ensure your feedback mechanisms evolve equally appropriately. Make feedback meaningful by making it more immediate, subtle, and finely-tuned.