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Developing The X-Factor: JJ Tate On Teaching Horses To Love Their Work

Spend a moment watching the world's top international dressage horses compete, and you'll see a slew of excited animals, puffed up and proud as they dance across a rectangular stage. In addition to possessing outstanding talent and incredible training, these horses grace the highest level of our sport by choice. When it comes time to perform they whole heartedly deliver 110%. So for anyone who has ever dreamed of riding at that level, or even just riding to the best of their abilities, these special horses raise the question - what inspires a horse to love their job so much that they give an unbeatable effort?

Jessica Jo (JJ) Tate riding in an open field. Photo by Richard Malmgren

(Jessica Jo (JJ) Tate riding in an open field. Photo by Richard Malmgren)

In a classic case of nature versus nurture, dressage trainer and international competitor, Jessica Jo (JJ) Tate, examines exactly what makes horses tick. "We definitely have certain bloodlines (that naturally live to work). I have a Florestan that would literally run through fire for me if that meant doing a good job." However, Tate acknowledges that even though "certain bloodlines promote better listeners", developing horses with good work ethic is a much more complex process than simply good breeding.

Sure bloodlines are a factor, but Tate says "I don't think that means though that other horses won't try." She believes that riders have a strong responsibility to shape their horse’s will to learn and perform. Much like a muscle that must be conditioned, Tate advocates that work ethic is built intentionally through a program based on positive reinforcement.

"One of the biggest things that is important to me is that the horses feel good in the work and in themselves, and that they feel that the work makes them more confident, and more comfortable in their own skin. We have to give back to horses and make sure that our programs don't exploit them. They are such amazing, generous creatures. I think with proper education people can learn how to build up their horse to the best of their own abilities."

According to Tate, horses that are willing to give their all in the show ring feel prepared physically and mentally, and are carefully monitored to prevent burnout. "When we talk about top level, world class riding you do have to be able to press that last five percent out of the horse, that's for sure, but I like to not squeeze that out of them every day. It's a little bit like a bank account. You have to put your deposits in before you spend the entire big amount. I tell my students that 'when you go to the horse show you're going to spend a lot in that bank account that you've built up' - and that's in both trust, and strength, - so I spend a lot of time during my week before the horse show and even after horse shows building up those important basics, and the horse's willingness to want to please me."

For Tate, being mindful of a horse's mental state is an important aspect of developing a positive work ethic. It's a process that begins as soon as one comes in contact with a horse and never ends. In general, Tate has experienced that "when horses feel in your spirit that you are fair, and you've explained it, and you've made them strong enough to do it, they will want to do it for you." However, she concedes that horses who have had a difficult start to their riding careers for whatever reason (pain, poor training, etc.), can respond with negative behaviors, and turning that around requires trainers to exercise some critical thinking. "Everyone can tell you the 'what', the thing that the horse is doing - it's rearing, it's spooking, or wants to run off with its head up - and to me it's interesting to figure out why does that horse want to do that? Is it pain related? Is it history? What has made it want to make these choices and how do I help it break that cycle?"

Sometimes the best way to break a cycle with a horse is simply to back the pressure off. Tate explains, "If we get a horse that's been really mentally shut down then we do a lot of outside riding. So a lot of hills and ground poles. We make it fun again. What I really attempt to do is continue to work the horse's body in a beneficial way yet I take the pressure off of them mentally."

(Jessica Jo (JJ) Tate practicing a gymnastic exercise over cavaletti. Photo by Richard Malmgren)

(Jessica Jo (JJ) Tate practicing a gymnastic exercise over cavaletti. Photo by Richard Malmgren)

Discovering how a horse processes their environment and what constitutes a positive "workplace" for them is the key to inspiring a horse to put forth their best effort says Tate. "I like getting into the horse's brain and exploring how I can convince a horse to do what I want, even if it's just starting in the round pen kind of playing with them. That has even brought some horses out of their shells which is really fun to see."

When you determine the best reward for your horse Tate suggests using it to make the correct response to aids crystal clear. "There are some horses that are very food motivated so piece of sugar is great and they'll do anything for that. Some horses would rather just stop the exercise, so if I have one that's been a little soured the minute he does what I want I just drop the reins, pet him, and walk away" explains Tate. She recalls at times even going to extreme lengths to make sure that her horse knew he had done a good job. "I had one horse learning changes and when he did them I would pet him, give him a sugar, and hand walk him out of the ring. So you have to really know the horse. "

When a horse comes to recognize their individual reward as a signal that they've chosen the correct "answer" to the rider's questions, they quickly become encouraged to offer possible responses even when prompted with new aids. With a horse that understands this pressure-and-release pattern Tate says, "you can often watch them go through their repertoire of 'how can I get the pressure off'? And if you can be really accurate with your timing and really positive when they do the right thing, that's where the really big learning moments come from."

Tate continues, "I'm a real proponent of positive reinforcement. My mentor (Charles De Kunffy) would always say that horses don't understand punishment. They don't process that they made a mistake - their brains don't work that way. If they just accidentally lost their balance and picked up counter canter, or they lost the bend and broke into the trot, and we go smack, smack, smack with the whip, we are just scaring them into a reaction. Then they learn to live in fear of making a mistake, which makes them motivated in the wrong way. We always laugh that the horse should never know that the rider made a mistake. He's just doing what he thought you said."

Lastly, for riders looking to entice that extra effort from their horse under saddle, Tate's final words of advice are to not be a stranger. It seems obvious that a rider should build a connection with their equine partners, but it's such an important component that it cannot be overlooked.

"I want to have a relationship with the horse" says Tate. This becomes even more important if she encounters a new horse with trust issues, or an aversion to work. "I would stay late in the evening and either hand graze it myself or groom them to establish some type of bond." Above anything Tate hopes that her presence elicits a positive reaction from her horses. "I want to walk in the barn and have them stick their heads out, you know. Now half of them whinny to me!"

It's in these moments between horse and rider that Tate believes talent takes shape, when a team is formed, and that special x-factor is born, thrusting good horses into greatness. She says, "I find that when I have a horse that digs deep not because they are afraid of me, but because I inspire them to want to do well for me - I get 100 times more from those horses."

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