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Smokey: A study of heart

By Sheryl Lynde / Horsetrader columnist - February 1st, 2018 - Trainer Tips, Training

Trainer TipsSmokey is a 3-year-old Quarter Horse gelding. The owner needed my help with some fear-related issues that Smokey had. Although he had been started, the owner had some concerns and didn’t feel comfortable riding him.

He had quality breeding that showed in his natural athleticism, but his moves were bigger than necessary and unpredictable. When he first arrived, I put him in the round pen just to let him get acclimated to his new surroundings. I stood in the distance and watched as he spooked at something, lost his footing and actually fell over — all by himself! The owner’s concerns were well-founded, and I had to get Smokey’s behavior corrected not only for the owner’s safety, but for Smokey’s well-being, too. Horses don’t want to live in fear any more than we do. They are looking for someone whom they can draw confidence from, someone to show them a better way to handle their emotions. If he didn’t get help with his fear at this juncture, then his reactions would have continued to escalate. He couldn’t resolve this on his own.

So, I saddled him and took him to the round pen. I wanted to move him around from the ground and get him thinking about me. It was clear he felt he was on his own. His nose angled to the outside of the round pen making sure he never threw me a glance. He had a preference for going to the right, and he stuck to it. If he wouldn’t pay attention to me on the ground, I knew I would have a difficult time getting it when I was on his back. I continued to work with him, asking him to go in the direction I chose at the speed I wanted. I worked on his stop as well as his speed control by relaxing my energy. If he didn’t make a definable speed change, I asked for an outside turn and repeated until he responded. I put a small loop at the end of a 25-foot cotton rope and hung it from the saddle horn and asked him to execute outside turns. When the rope hit his hindquarters, he went to bucking. I repeated the exercise until he accepted the touch of the rope without overreacting. I didn’t want him dull to the rope; I wanted him to move off it with light pressure, calmly. It took about a week for Smokey to relax and not overreact. I worked each exercise until he was calmer at the end than when we began and I gave him several breaks during the training.

With each training session, he showed progress. It may have been just one percent on some days, but it was in the right direction. The keys were (1) that he can’t get hurt, (2) that I can’t get hurt, and (3) that he would be calmer at the end of the lesson than when we had began. Once I felt he had a grasp of the ground work, it was time to take all that he learned on the ground to the saddle. He was over-reactive to my legs at first, and we wound up across the round pen a couple of times. But I just kept my leg on him until he moved the body part over that I was requesting him to move. When I felt I had a pretty good handle at the walk and trot, it was time to increase his speed. He was insecure carrying me in the lope. He was eager to move when requested, although he would dart out a couple of steps, and then stop. We built on that until he would stay in the lope and stop only upon my request. At each new step of training that was introduced, Smokey would have a fairly big reaction, but we worked through it. He taught me patience like no other. I knew he would get it on his own time, and he did. My trust in him was richly rewarded.

The first time I brought him into the arena, I had him on a long lead line. He spooked, bolted and wrenched the lead rope from my hands. He was so quick, he caught me off guard. I just gathered him back up and tried again, making sure when he raised his emotions, I kept mine low. These episodes subsided with repetition.

I’ve worked Smokey on the flag, tracked cows and ridden him out at an event center during a reined cow horse show. I’ve even thrown a rope off him and he didn’t blink an eye. He still takes more time to teach maneuvers, but he thinks through it now before he reacts. You give him the time he needs, and he will give you more than you have asked — he has talent. I’m pretty proud of him. Smokey, the horse with heart.


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