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Training horses is about respecting and understanding the mental state of the horse, then training them based on their personality and their ability. Not every horse is mentally or physically capable of doing a 30-foot slide or jumping a 5-foot fence. But most can be a good partner, as long as we have a realistic understanding of their mental state of mind and their physical abilities. If you have goals that don’t fit your horse’s mental and physical abilities, perhaps you need to divorce your horse and get one that is a better fit. Life is too short and this “hobby” is too expensive to force your horse into a partnership for which he is not suited.
For ground work/training, I use rope halters. I like a halter that has evenly placed, well tied knots. To tell if a halter is made well, look at it from the side; from the throat latch to the nose it should form a square. If you are going to use a rope training halter, learn how to tie it properly. Take the top piece (that comes over the poll) down through the loop and around the loop, not above the loop, with the loose end pointing to the back of the horse (see pictures).
We tend to think of training a horse in terms of the physical goals; that slow lope, the sliding stop, the smooth as silk lead change. But the physical actions are the result of mental training. Horse training is more than getting a desired action. It is teaching a horse to accept learning. Sometimes I get horses in for training, say a 3 year old that has not had a lot done with them. They have to learn to accept training. What I mean by that is ... learning to figure out what I am asking of them instead of resenting the fact that I am asking them to do something that they don't understand. The have to learn about learning. Once you have that, you can teach them to do just about anything that is within the scope of their physical capabilities.
I started riding ponies when I was probably about 5 or 6 years old. By the time I was about 7 or 8 years old, my older brother and I were off galloping across my grandfather’s farm. My parents didn’t worry about us. Maybe they were glad to have us out of the house! We rode and rode our ponies. We learned balance, gained confidence and we fell off occasionally. We were not great riders, but were thought we were. We had fun! Our ponies were not expensive, not worth a lot of money but to us they were the best. Back then, there were no computers, no cable TV (we only had three channels, all in black and white), no video games, no social media on cell phones. Boy, we had a great life!
There were lots of kids to ride with and places to ride. Kids could ride down the road and cars would slow down when passing us. Seems like today people about run you off the road or speed up and blow the horn at you! When I rode, in my mind, I was Roy Rogers or Maverick. All the westerns on TV made us kids want to be cowboys. I guess some of us never grew up!
The types of ponies my parents bought were not expensive, but we rode them so much they became really quiet and broke. Not well trained, but broke. Today people are buying two types of horses. First there is the horse that is not broke enough to teach their rider anything (and perhaps is unsafe). So this rider is never able to learn balance, confidence and basic skills. The other type of horse is one that they spent a lot of money for and is strictly a show horse. The horse is well trained for a certain discipline, but maybe not what I call broke. The rider may learn how to get around the show pen, but they never learn to truly ride or what to do if they have a major problem. Plus, when people spend a lot of money on a horse, they don’t exactly want their kids taking off and riding down the road or across a farm field. I get that.
Today there are so many pressures and barriers for kids and adults, that they aren’t developing that natural ability that so much time in the saddle will give. People may have long work days and hectic schedules. Kids seems to be into so many activities that horses come last. When I was in school there were few sports options and each sport had its season. Today there are so many sports and they seem to run year-round, with traveling teams, camps and preseason conditioning. Add demands at school and all the distractions of social media and our digital world, it’s no wonder our kids have no time.
So, I think we can all agree with these things reducing time in the saddle today, people don’t have the opportunity to learn the riding skills that I did as a kid. People, adults and kids, are learning to pose on their horse for the show ring instead of riding. There is a difference in riding/training versus showing. It takes hours of riding and training both horse and rider to do well in the show ring. You have to maintain your riding fitness as well as your horse’s fitness and skills to be able to show. That takes practice and time. Then you go to a show and you are in the show ring maybe 5-10 minutes per class.
For those of you that remember a childhood similar to mine, like me you are old! But as I compare these “olden days” to today, it’s easy to understand why horsemanship is declining. The point of all this is that people need to learn to ride. If you want to ride, you need to find the time to do it. Kids need to put away the cell phones and spend time in the barn. Don’t have an indoor arena? Weather is usually not an excuse. In Ohio, during the course of the year, we really don't have that many days that it is brutally cold or pouring down rain. Get out and go spend time with your horse. Like the saying goes; time spent in the saddle is never wasted.
One final thing to remember…horses don’t make mistakes, people do. Don’t make the mistake of not truly developing a relationship with your horse. The effort you put in will be returned many times over.
A relaxed stomach equals a relaxed back and a better seat position. Some riders confuse stiffness with a straight back. You can maintain a straight back without adding stiffness to the back.
The stomach should move front to back, in a relaxed manner, with the horse’s movement. How is your horse affected by a tense stomach? A tense stomach area will result in the rider bouncing more on the horse’s back due to the stiff seat and back. The more the rider bounces, the more the horse is affected by picking up his head and hollowing his back. The rider can feel the horse becoming quicker and bouncier. This can become a difficult cycle to break because once the horse starts to hollow his back, the rider stiffens the stomach area even more. To add to this picture, the rider usually takes a hold of the reins and starts pulling to try to slow the horse down, which causes the horse to stiffen and pull against the bridle even more. It’s a vicious cycle.
You cannot ride with a relaxed stomach if you arch your back. Riding with an arched back creates several problems. It tips the pelvis forward, stiffens the entire upper torso and puts the rider’s leg in an incorrect position. Think about it, your stomach is your shock absorber. Assuming that you like your horse, you want to have a shock absorber of Cadillac or a Lincoln Continental. When a rider arches their back and locks their abdomen, they will have the shock absorber of a Mack truck on a bumpy road. Be a Cadillac, not a Mack truck.
Relax your back, roll your pelvis under to enable you to sit on your Ws (the pockets of your jeans on your behind, mine are always Wranglers), and relax your back. That will give you the Cadillac stomach shock absorber!
Here's a winter time tip for those people who don't get to ride much during the winter. Be sure that you are still brushing your horse and going over him. I can't tell you how many horses have been brought to me in late winter for a month or two of training and they are a bit thin. The owner had not done much with them for several months and did not realize that they had dropped weight over the winter. A turn-out blanket or even a heavy winter coat can disguise the weight loss. When you put your hands on them and can readily feel the ribs, they are probably too thin.
Tip #1: Move their feet. If you can control a horse’s feet, you can control the horse, whether you are on the ground or on their back. This is why I like round pen work. You are making the horse move, turn and stop by using your body position. Just like the boss mare moves toward a horse to make them move, you can make a horse change directions (turning in or out), go faster or slower and stop all by the position and posture of your body. It is known as the approach/retreat method of training, which creates and releases pressure, causing the horse to respond accordingly. With 20 minutes of working a horse in a round pen, most horses will then follow you like a puppy dog. The reason this happens; most horses are like me, they are lazy. The horse says I will stay with you and follow you, as long as I don’t have to go back out and work. In doing this, you have established yourself as the leader in the relationship and the horse follows in submission.
Tip #2: Ground work for respect. The importance of ground work cannot be overstated. It establishes respect and basic control, making your horse safer to lead and handle. I teach my horses to lead by moving with me, without me putting pressure on the lead rope. Think about it, if you are always pulling back on the lead rope when leading your horse, you horse learns to pull back against the constant pressure. Then you have a situation where is hard to tell who is leading whom. By teaching a horse to lead by moving with you instead of ahead of you, they will (usually) respect your space even when nervous or frightened.
Tip #3: Never pull with constant pressure. Think about how you lead or ride your horse. Do you have constant pressure on the lead rope or reins? If the answer is yes, I’m willing to bet that your horse pulls back against that pressure. Remember the old saying…it takes two to pull. Instead of constant pressure, work the lead rope or reins with an intermittent pressure so that the horse has nothing on which to brace.
Tip #4: Control the movement. When a horse is nervous or fractious, letting them move their feet helps them deal with their nervousness. But they need to move in a way that you are controlling their feet. For example, in my clinics when I have a rider whose horse is nervous and won’t stand still, I tell them to make the horse give their face and walk a small tight circle. When the horse wants to stop, you reward them by releasing all pressure and patting them. If they move without being asked, repeat until they want to stop. This is a little reverse psychology. The horse won’t stand so you make them move by controlling how they move. Next thing you know, the horse says this is too much work and wants to stop. I use a similar technique for a horse that won’t slow down. I push them into the bridle into collected frame, making them work harder than they want to work. Eventually they decide they want to slow down. The idea of slowing down becomes the horse’s idea.
Rider body position is the center of my teachings. In our quest of learning to dance with our horse, we need to consider rhythm or cadence of stride. As with any dancer, you have to dance in a tempo that matches your music. With horses, you need to develop a method to feel the rhythm or cadence of their feet. Not always an easy thing to do, but it is essential to becoming a dance team with your horse.
You can change the way a horse walks when you are leading them just by changing the way you are griping the lead rope. When leading a horse, even with slack in the lead rope, your horse will change how it moves when you make a fist on the rope. Your horse can feel the tension through the lead rope and change the movement of their feet, becoming slightly forehand heavy. By opening or relaxing your grip on the rope, your horse will relax their movement and actually stride out better and smoother. That is just how sensitive horses can be.
One of my pet peeves is when someone brings in a horse for training and they lead them into the barn while having a death grip on the lead rope right below the snap. The horse is usually tense, walking all over the person and leaning on them, with the horse leading the person instead of the person leading the horse. The horse has learned to brace and pull against being braced and pulled upon. If someone grabs you by the sleeve of your shirt or better yet, the collar of your shirt and tries to drag you along; your first response is to brace and pull back. Same deal with your horse. By teaching your horse to lead on a slack lead, rather than a taught rope, your horse will learn not to brace while you are handling them on the ground.
To be successful when with working with your horse, you must first understand your own instinctive reactions before you can understand the instincts and reactions of your horse. Most human instinctive reactions are not conducive to good horse handling. As with many situations, we are our own worst enemy.
The most common and yet most difficult instinctive reaction that people must overcome is fear. In my opinion, fear is without a doubt the biggest obstacle with human/horse relationships. For example: when fear sets in for a rider, the rider will usually stiffen and squeeze with their legs, their heels come up which then tilts them forward, they stiffen their torso which causes the horse to hollow their back and they clamp their elbows down. To add to all the mixed messages of squeezing, stiffing and leaning forward they are giving the horse, they pull on the horses’ mouth. This is an accident in progress.
The good news, we have the ability to change our reactions, to condition and train ourselves to act and react in a way that the horse can understand. In fearful situations, humans can reason, horses cannot. A story from my teenage days can illustrate my point. I was 15 years old and working for a guy showing draft horses at the Ohio State Fair. One evening my buddies and I walking down the noisy midway, with all the carnival type sideshows that are too politically incorrect for today’s society, when we came upon a sideshow called Zambora. This sideshow was about a woman who would turn into a gorilla “before our very eyes.” Outside this tent, there was a sign that said “Danger Exit.” Thinking that we were tough farm boys, afraid of nothing, we paid our money and went into the tent. The announcer began to tell the loud and elaborate story about this woman that would turn into a ferocious gorilla after they gave her a shot of a mysterious medicine. This woman was sitting calmly in a cage. They gave her the shot, and after a minute or two of the announcer’s voice building the excitement, the lights started flashing lights and then, low and behold, the woman in the cage was now a really angry gorilla. As the announcer was reassuring us that the cage was secure, the door drops open and the ferocious gorilla jumps out. Next thing I knew, I was outside the tent. I was not sure how I got there, but I looked back and realized I had been tricked.
What’s the point of the story? I reacted with fear, just as a horse would. In the face of sudden perceived danger, I reacted as a prey animal and ran, just as a horse would. However, reason set in and I quickly understood I was not in danger and had been duped, where as a horse would still be running until they were certain they were out of dangers’ reach. The difference between me and a horse is that I could reason and change by reaction.
In working with horses, we have to understand our instincts before we can appreciate the horse’s instincts and reactions. The good news is that we can retrain ourselves and gain knowledge and skills which will help us control our reactions produced by our instincts. When riding or working with our horse, if we can control our fears and develop confidence that we are not going to be harmed in stressful or questionable situations, we become the leader that the horse looks for in us.
As with all horsemanship skills, self awareness is the key to understanding how we can achieve the best results with our partnership with our horse. In future articles we will talk about specific actions you can consider when handling your horse
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