Mark Twain wrote that “If a cat sits on a hot stove, that cat won’t sit on a hot stove again. That cat won’t sit on a cold stove either. That cat just won’t like stoves.”
The logic behind his wisdom makes perfect sense: if a cat associates a stove with getting burned, he will avoid stoves at all costs. The same can be said of horses—and humans, for that matter. Our job as riders and trainers is to never put our horses or students in a “hot stove” situation. The heat on the stove is analogous to the difficulty of the task. If we throw our horses or riders unprepared into a hot stove situation, they may get scared and refuse to try it again. Untraining fear is one of the hardest things to do.
Horses have amazing memories. If they have a bad experience at a certain type of jump, they will remember it. Sometimes they over-learn their lessons, and like the cat who decides to avoid stoves at all costs, they fear certain obstacles because of an associated bad memory. That’s not to say that you cannot rebuild a horse’s confidence, but it is far easier not to break their confidence in the first place.
Ema Klugman and Bronte Beach in 2019. Christine Quinn photo.
When young horses are finding their jobs easy, it is tempting to move them up and see if they can continue to succeed. However, I think it’s important not to throw them in the deep end without properly preparing them. Even if a horse has the ability and the scope for 1.30m, for example, he may not have the fitness or experience to be ready for it. The best way to build horses’ confidence is by over-preparing them in training so that at the show nothing is hard or new. More often than not, the slow way is the fast way with horses. If you rush them up the levels, you might end up having to move them back down and have to rebuild their confidence. If you put them in a “hot stove” situation, you may end up spending a huge amount of time convincing them to let go of their fear.
It is also possible for trainers and riders to go to the opposite extreme: to be so concerned about over-facing their horses that they never challenge them. It is impossible to improve without putting students and horses in challenging situations. There is a first time for everything: a first triple bar, a first liverpool, a first junior jumper class. You have to get through the “first” in order to be able to do the tasks required. The key is to make sure the horse is set up for success when approaching a new situation. In Twain’s metaphor, the idea would be not throw the horse on a hot stove, but rather slowly turn up the heat, and let him get comfortable with the increased difficulty without scaring him.