HEY RAY: When I try to flex my horse and he gives to the rein, the minute I give release he grabs and pulls. Do you have any suggestions?
–Francessa Loftis, Placerville, Ca.
HEY FRANCESSA: The good news is that he already gives to the rein, so we might not have to start from the very beginning. For folks who may have a horse that pulls on the rein but doesn’t flex well, they might want to try this:
I’ve talked in the past about patting the horse’s head and or neck until they flex without moving their feet. You can simply use your hand or any extension of your hand that you may see fit to teach them this. It’s important that when the horse is flexing away from you, he makes contact with his belly as if he is going for a target. There are a few reasons why this exercise is valuable.
1. It becomes a clear destination for the horse’s nose.
2. The horse will learn not to overreact to a stimulus that may be unsettling to him. (“desensitization”)
3. This is an opportunity to put meaning to sensation while having the horse trust your hand.
4. It introduces the notion of setting his head in a specific spot, continuously.
These experiences will carry over nicely when you go back to asking for the flexion with the bridle.
While on the ground, work with your horse in a halter. Try not to influence the flexion with the rope — pull until he flexes easily and calmly with the patting. Later, you can transition this into the bridle. When the horse touches his side, rub his nose or the side of his face, but immediately pat again if his nose stops touching his belly. The horse needs to feel that the hand not only initiates the flexion but also finishes the exercise as soon as he gives to it, followed by praise. The horse needs a hand to give to in order to reward himself. The hand teaches the horse the concept of a self-rewarding system that carries over into situations that do not include the hand (i.e. being tied, the constraint of a side rein, or the accidental stepping on his own rein when ground tied. We, as humans, need the hand to influence, but the horse needs our hand to know when he has gotten it right.
Remember that the horse should continue to touch his belly with his nose while you’re rubbing. If he takes his nose off, then go back to the patting until he learns the lesson. Now it’s time to ask for flexion by pulling on the lead rope to a specific spot on his side. While anchoring it, wait for the horse to give. If he does give, release immediately at first, but prolong the release as he gets better. This will teach him the patience that he will need, so that he will stop snatching the rein from you as before. The benefit of patting on the opposite side of the horses face (as opposed to jerking the face back to you with the bit and rein) is that he will learn the lesson without being resentful of your hand, rein and bit. In essence, what you are doing is taking the opportunity away from your horse to pull on you. He cannot pull on a rein that is not there. The new rein aid will simply suggest, not reinforce. The reinforcement will be the job of the patting.
When the horse has no issue maintaining the flexion — for however long you want by this approach — the next step will be to bridle your horse. Ask for the flexion with the rein to a specific spot on the belly of your horse. Francessa, since flexion is not an issue with your horse, this step should go easy. The key here is to remember that as soon as your horse makes the attempt to grab and pull, you should restrain yourself from snatching the rein and pulling back yourself, because he will be expecting that. Instead, proceed with patting as you have been practicing before. Continue this until you have clearly broken the pattern in his mind of pulling and grabbing the rein. Then, and only then, should you attempt to ask for the flexion more assertively with the rein. Initially, the sudden increased pressure may cause your horse to react by resisting or throwing his head. It won’t be long before he will recognize that you are asking him to target that spot on his belly by trying to beat you to the pull. The exercise of patting has prepared him for this step. As he gets better, you will find that he will flex sooner and sooner with less and less resistance. The moment you flex and anchor the rein, your horse should do two things:
1. He should give to the rein and keep his head there without pulling.
2. When he tries to check if it’s okay to straighten himself out (by feeling the hold of the rein against your hand), he should bounce off of it towards his belly.
At that precise moment, give him his head and throw a party. You have both just graduated to another level. You can now move the lesson under saddle.
Francessa, you have given your horse a whole new meaning to the term give and take. This lesson will carry over nicely into many challenges that will include your hand. Have fun with it!
As always, trust your instincts and think safe,
Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!