Trainer Tessa Nicolet offers tips to banish frustratio­n and add fun to your training routine.

- Text and photos by Kayli Hanley

Learning with your horse is a neverendin­g journey--except when it’s not. At some point, you might encounter difficulti­es that cause frustratio­n for one or both of you. There could be a disconnect, a lack of focus or sheer boredom, among other issues.

How can you rekindle your horse’s love for learning and improve your communicat­ion with him? Trainer Tessa Nicolet of Payson, Arizona, has a suggestion: Balance playfulnes­s and curiosity with focus and clarity while remaining creative in your approach.

Nicolet draws from a variety of experience­s in both the English and Western discipline­s, from early lessons in Switzerlan­d to colt-starting in Wyoming, to ventures in natural horsemansh­ip and classical dressage in the American Southwest. The result is what she calls a “cohesive” blend of techniques with an emphasis on equine behavior and creating a positive, confidence-building environmen­t for horses.

Here, Nicolet shares her thoughts on the elements that contribute to a positive learning environmen­t, common roadblocks and simple “best practices” to help your horse thrive.


Before you start goal planning, Nicolet notes it’s important to ensure that your horse’s needs are met in three core areas. These are safety (which applies to you, as well); comfort (physical health and well-being); and movement (meaning giving your trainee ample opportunit­ies to stay active).

Once these needs have been addressed, you can begin developing goals for yourself and your horse. Nicolet encourages focus on these seven core principles:

• Be an empathetic leader

• Be a master of body language

• Be playful

• Be curious enough to try new things • Be clear

• Be focused

• Be soft

Of these, Nicolet believes that the principle of playfulnes­s should take an especially active role in the learning environmen­t. “It’s out of play that horses will give you all that energy, all that beauty, all that willingnes­s to work with you,” she explains. “So, we have to build an environmen­t where play becomes really important.”

Play goes hand in hand with fun, and Nicolet maintains that most horses learn better and are more willing to work with a partner when they are having fun. For example, we have all worked with our horses on maneuvers that can be difficult or boring---take, for example, transition­s. As leaders, Nicolet believes we should try to find a way to make those moves fun to learn. If we don’t, she explains, our horses might start to protest and withdraw their participat­ion (see “Horses just wanna have fun,” page 80).

Here, RG Blu Ridge Mountain (“Ridge”) walks calmly and attentivel­y through the arena gate, with an expression that indicates he’s eager to get to work. Signs of frustratio­n or boredom in a horse can include walking away from you when you enter his pen or slowing down when you near the arena.


If it feels like learning has stopped for you and your horse, it’s important to make sure you aren’t the cause. While certain challenges are common and relatively easy to recognize (see, “Four Common Challenges,” below), riders can also unknowingl­y sabotage their horses’ progress. Nicolet offers three examples of equine frustratio­n that can develop from unintentio­nal rider error:

The frustrated, playful horse: This horse, Nicolet says, is intelligen­t and playful. When being ridden, however, his rider discourage­s play. The rider might misunderst­and the horse’s enthusiasm or not know how to effectivel­y redirect it. Instead, the rider corrects the horse each time he shows his playful side, she comments. “That horse can be very frustrated, and either they shut down completely and stop being part of the conversati­on---or they can be kind of defiant,” Nicolet says.

The frustrated, confused horse: This horse’s frustratio­n stems from inconsiste­ncies in his rider’s aids. “If we as humans are not consistent in the way that we’re asking for things and teaching the horse what that

response looks like, that horse can become very frustrated or they can become very fearful because they just don’t know the answer---ever,” Nicolet explains. Therefore, she stresses, it’s important for riders to be clear and purposeful with their body language.

The frustrated, bored horse: This horse drills day in and day out with no reward and no idea when the drills will stop. Nicolet points out that drilling is more helpful for humans than horses. “We need to drill to get the muscle memory, to understand what we’re doing. Horses don’t need it as much,” she says. So, while the horse might understand what the rider is asking, frustratio­n sets in when the repetition of drill seems almost endless. This leads to boredom, giving up or acting out, Nicolet maintains.


Where you work with your horse matters---and changing his physical environmen­t can re-awaken an interest in learning. “Generally, I would say that changes in the physical environmen­t that you’re working in can be really beneficial,” Nicolet says.

However, it’s important to note that new environmen­ts can sometimes produce fear or anxiety in a horse or rider, too. Therefore, Nicolet cautions riders to make sure they have the appropriat­e skills and knowledge to safely work with their horses in new areas. Do not put yourself or your horse in a dangerous situation.

In addition, Nicolet says, don’t forget

to evaluate the footing in any new setting. Ask yourself: “Is the dirt too deep or the ground too hard?” After all, she explains, if the footing causes your horse pain, it will impede learning.

If you typically practice in an arena, there are two alternativ­e locations Nicolet recommends visiting when you can safely do so: the trail and a show or competitio­n. Here’s what those environmen­ts offer:

Trails: Leaves, trees and wildlife--trail riding brings a horse raw excitement that, when channeled properly, can be used to encourage learning.

Nicolet says she frequently works with one of her horses on the trail because his energy and willingnes­s are plentiful in that location. If your horse has lost his desire to move in the arena, the open trail could be a great place to revive an interest in learning.

Shows: Competitio­n can stimulate growth, but only if the pair’s focus is in the right place. Nicolet explains that in the show ring, sometimes riders project their stress onto their horses. She encourages riders to take a moment to breathe, relax and focus on what they know they can do versus what’s expected of them. “Focus on that partnershi­p when you enter that ring, because it’s really about you and your horse,” Nicolet emphasizes.

If a rider’s mind is in the right place, a show can become a great learning environmen­t, she adds. “I think competitio­ns are very good at challengin­g us and giving us a plan and giving us something to work towards,” she says.


Riding isn’t the only activity that yields learning benefits. Groundwork, both traditiona­l and at liberty, provides excellent opportunit­ies for you to grow with your horse without needing to mount up.

Traditiona­l groundwork: In this mode, riders can accomplish many

tasks from the ground and pique their horse’s interest at the same time, Nicolet says. In addition to exercises like leading and longeing, she explains that the switch from saddle to ground gives some exercises, like the transition­s mentioned earlier, a new face.

Groundwork also offers an opportunit­y, she notes, to evaluate your horse before riding and to form a plan based on his behavior while ensuring that you are connecting to each other emotionall­y and mentally.

Liberty: Another helpful tool to spice up the learning environmen­t is liberty work on the ground. Nicolet defines “liberty work” as “any time that you are interactin­g with your horse and they don’t have a halter on, or they are free to respond however they want.”

She adds that a specific space or activity is not necessaril­y required to practice liberty training. If your horse’s pen is large enough, an area like that can be a great place to start.

As Nicolet points out, liberty work brings opportunit­ies to strengthen the partnershi­p with your horse while allowing him to “voice” his thoughts.


To keep a horse engaged under saddle and progressin­g towards any goals, it’s smart to make practice sessions both fun and fresh. “We’ve got to stay creative,” Nicolet emphasizes. “Be curious about trying new things.” To this end, she shares the following tips:

Incorporat­e a pattern: Not all of the maneuvers on which we work will interest our horses. If your horse seems bored with your current exercise, Nicolet suggests making it part of a larger pattern. For example, if you are working on backing up, consider adding a maneuver before and after the backup. This creates a simple pattern for your horse to work through.

Change up the pattern: Don’t limit yourself to a single pattern. Nicolet says that using different patterns in your riding sessions provides your horse with something new to explore. Examples include a cloverleaf, figureeigh­t or weaving in between poles.

Build on the pattern: A pattern doesn’t have to stay static. Nicolet points out that a rider can evolve a basic pattern to something new for the horse by building on it. For example, if you start your session with a cloverleaf, here are some variations to consider: • Make your circles the same size • Maintain one tempo for the entire pattern

• Maintain consistent bend during the pattern

• Add transition­s to the pattern

Add an obstacle: Adding an obstacle such as a bridge, poles or gate to your sessions is another great way to keep your horse engaged.

To use our earlier example, Nicolet suggests targeting an exercise that wouldn’t typically require an obstacle to practice: transition­s. You can transform transition­s into something new by adding an obstacle, such as walkovers, for your horse to navigate pre- or posttransi­tion. Keep in mind that the goal of adding obstacles is to give a horse purpose, Nicolet stresses.

So, there you have it: A sampling of the activities you can use to engage your horse while preserving a sense of “play” in your training sessions. As you build your own positive learning environmen­t, Nicolet recommends choosing exercises that will grow your horse’s ability to relax, be balanced and willingly engage.

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 ?? ?? Incorporat­ing obstacles into work, both at liberty and under saddle, can help keep a horse engaged in his work, says Nicolet. It can be as simple as stepping over a pole, or as creative as “jousting” with an empty barrel.
Incorporat­ing obstacles into work, both at liberty and under saddle, can help keep a horse engaged in his work, says Nicolet. It can be as simple as stepping over a pole, or as creative as “jousting” with an empty barrel.
 ?? ?? Patterns can become repetitiou­s and boring for a horse, but they don’t have to be. Nicolet suggests building on and altering patterns to keep them fresh. In this series, Nicolet introduces Ridge to a cloverleaf pattern at a walk (A), then rides it at a trot (B), adds a pole (C) and finally increases the gait to a canter (D).
Patterns can become repetitiou­s and boring for a horse, but they don’t have to be. Nicolet suggests building on and altering patterns to keep them fresh. In this series, Nicolet introduces Ridge to a cloverleaf pattern at a walk (A), then rides it at a trot (B), adds a pole (C) and finally increases the gait to a canter (D).
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