You must have some form of guidelines, a framework, or foundation of training principles to consistently advance with your horse(s). When we look around at horse owners/riders today we see a tremendous amount of diversification in skill levels and horsemanship of riders. Generally speaking, equestrians tend to fall into two categories, recreational and competitive.
Recreational riders are more concerned with safety than performance, while competitive riders tend to take more risks to win. In this part of the world (Southwestern Ontario) equestrians are broadly divided between English and Western riders. However, when one looks more closely, at the how, the most distinguishing feature is not the application of sets of principles but rather the gear they use.
As we drill down further to what the riders are trying to accomplish with their horses, we find further divisions based on competitive disciplines. In the English world the most common practice appears to be Hunter Jumper, with Dressage following closely behind. The western arena seems to lean heavily towards Barrel Racing and Western Pleasure along with their respective derivatives – Pole Bending, Western Trail and the like.
Some trail riders have found solace in the newer sports of Extreme Cowboy and Working Equitation. For those unfamiliar with Working Equitation, it is basically a mix of Dressage and Western Trail (on steroids). Extreme Cowboy events are therefore far simpler, complicated only by some strange rules. I attended one local XC event and was instructed by the promoter to only make one attempt at each obstacle then move on, I also found that the National governing body was unable to explain its own rules regarding permissible tack, and the top judge from the USA, was equally unable to rationally explain what was permissible.
Dealing with obstacles is not very difficult, but dealing with the other elements of arena sports does require that your horse gets exposed, on a regular basis, to crowds, noises and other distractions. However, each discipline, regardless of what it is, has very narrow expectations. For a horse and rider to be successful they must be able to do a few things with competence, in line with the rules of the sport, and with such regularity that they can repeat the same patterns ad nauseum.
There are many marvelous instances of horses cutting cows, jumping obstacles or running barrel patternswithout a rider. Folks like to anthropomorphize the horse and suggest how intelligent it is, which is utter nonsense. Horses are great at remembering patterns, after all patterns have a lot to do with survival (I’ll hang that there for your own research). These horses have repeated patterns so many times they know that when they are finished, they will be left alone.
The point I am trying to make is that success in the arena does not denote success as a horseman, it in no way suggests the competence, or even the principles, of the rider/trainer. Horses, innately, like to please, not because they feel warm and fuzzy towards their humans, but because at the end of the day, they just want to be left alone.
Over 300 years ago the great French Dressage Master François Robichon de La Guérinière set out principles for training, these ideas were later expanded upon by the Portuguese Master Nuno Oliviera. Western riders can look to the Vaquero (Cowboys) for principles and guidance. For the Vaqueros their horses were more than tools, they were partners, the Vaqueros would not ride a simple pattern over and over until the horse memorized every step, they would work with their partners all day long.
When we look west, we see a very divergent style of “Western Riding” than is common in SWO. We see less pulling, spurring, and cropping of horses. We see looser reins, softer communication, and a whole less abusive training. We might read texts such as Ed Connell’s series of books on using the Jaquima and the Spade Bit, or books from Tom & Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Martin Black and Buck Brannaman to provide us with philosophical guidance for our principles of training and understanding horses.
While all of these principles run counter to much of what we actually see in the arenas, they can also be incorporated into any discipline that we chose. Find your training principles, those that appeal to your own sensibilities and adhere to them, you advance much more as a horseman than if you follow random advice, or stay with one narrow idea of competition.