Each horse that comes to me for training teaches me something. As I approach every new horse, I bring my breadth of experience, but also leave a space open to learn. I am receptive to new ideas without any preconceived judgements as to how I can bring out the best in this horse.
How much pressure can I use until I get the desired response? How much time can I work on one particular exercise before their resistance turns to frustration and they cease to try? Are they fearful, aggressive, disrespectful? Have they been given enough time to learn the exercise?
There is one consistent theme that I have discovered as a common thread with each horse and that is: Take it slow.
The fearful horse’s progression into becoming a more confident mount depends on the timing of your release, not pressure. This goes without saying for any horse, but it’s most crucial in the fearful horse. Why? Because the fearful horse isn’t as forgiving, and a hole in your training is much more apt to produce a dangerous behavior.
“With each ride, we increase time in the saddle and speed. Good training takes time. As long as I get one percent improvement with each ride, in 100 days, I will have 100 percent improvement.”
Last issue, I introduced Bella, a 7-year-old Thoroughbred that came to me from Horse Nation, a horse rescue operated by Dr. Carole Harris in Huntington Beach. Bella was extremely fearful and exhibited dangerous behavior, like rearing and bolting when led.
Regardless of Bella’s past, we didn’t train around her issues. Instead, we met them head-on, and she progressed more quickly than anticipated. I used the appropriate pressure — if her resistance was a level 5, then my pressure was a level 6 — and I released only when she showed signs of being calm. She has been saddled, ponied, bridled and ground driven and, at the end of each lesson, she is calm. Her behavioral symptoms have subsided, and she is handling her emotions successfully. Now, it is time to ride.
“Don’t train around problems -- meet them head on and train through them. This eliminates stagnant plateaus in her training program and presents opportunities…”
Bella is a 7-year-old Thoroughbred who was abandoned. All that could be established was that she was severely underweight and extremely fearful. She eventually landed at a rescue owned by Carole Harris, Horse Nation, where she has remained for the past couple of years. Early on, getting close, touching or haltering Bella was difficult. Even after they were able to halter her, she would frequently bolt or strike as she reared. Bella’s potential adopter, Diane, needed reassurance that she would be able to safely handle — and someday ride — the mare. Over the past two years, Carole and Diana sought outside help, and there had been improvement in her handling, as Bella eventually could be haltered and lunged. But her behavioral issues endured, and although Carole and Diana recognized potential in Bella, the mare’s reputation as being dangerous prevented progress – like being saddled, bridled, rode or exposed to different areas and terrain. Instead, she was relegated to her stall and round pen.
What is your definition of a “broke” horse? You may be able to ride your horse, but this does not necessarily imply that your horse is broke to ride.
For instance, does your horse kick out or buck when you urge him to go forward? Does he spook or bolt frequently, or panic while out on the trail when his companion horse gets out of sight? Does he threaten to rear when asked to leave the barn, or need to be in the lead position when riding in a group?
“When I try to ride my horse away from the barn, he starts popping up in the front and refuses to go forward. The more I kick, the higher he goes and I no longer feel safe.”
Even though this was the initial concern of my client and, as discussed in Rearing to Go, Part 1 in my column last month, trail is not where we started. We worked on his issues of lack of respect, lack of lateral softness, and a no-go attitude in the first week of training — beginning in the round pen, and then graduating to the arena.
In order to correct the lack of respect safely, I needed lateral softness. I spent the first week just softening his head, neck, shoulders and rib cage by taking the slack out of one rein at a time and adding leg pressure until he softened. I began by taking the slack out slowly because he became easily frustrated and was ready to rear. Also, because of his resistance and lack of softness in his body, if I was too quick with my hands, I ran the risk of him falling over. Maintaining and increasing pressure from both my legs was important for three reasons. First, by keeping forward momentum with the slack out of one rein limited his ability to pop up. Secondly, using my legs loosened up his rib cage and helped soften him laterally. Third, he needs to respect the use of leg pressure.
“The hardest part of teaching is to get people to push past their comfort zone, but that is where growth takes place.”
Some horses are independent. They exhibit a low level of separation anxiety that can be handled easily by the rider. Other horses display a strong herd-bound mentality that, when separated from their companions, creates an almost dangerous behavior.
This is partly their personality, and just like people, horses have different traits. However, whenever you interact with your horse, you are either (A) supporting or (B) correcting the behavior.
"Awareness is crucial to the recovery of any injury. Keep vigilant of any changes in your horse's behavior and take up any concerns with your vet."
Athletes who play sports are susceptible to injuries specific to that sport. Common basketball injuries include ankle sprains and shin splints. Football injuries include shoulder separations and torn rotator cuffs. Horses are athletes, too, and whether you ride trail or perform in a specific discipline, injuries will occur when there is repetitive use, conformation challenges, and fatigue.
In addition to starting colts, I do get a lot of problem horses to remedy with issues like bucking, rearing and bolting. The first thing I want to rule out is pain. I will ask a great deal of questions pertaining to the specific problem such as when it began, where does it occur and has the horse’s demeanor changed. If there is anything that points to pain, I will require a lameness exam. When starting colts, I require teeth to be floated and wolf teeth removed prior to their arrival. Awareness is crucial to the recovery of any injury. Keep vigilant of any changes in your horse’s behavior and take up any concerns with your vet.
"You cannot make changes by focusing on what isn’t working; you make changes when you determine what you want to see happen, and then be open to trying something different."
If you want to see a different result, an improvement in your riding ability, or an improvement with a specific issue that you experience with your horse — no matter how big or small – then you need to make a change in your current approach. Learn to break down the task into smaller components that your horse can better understand.
They say the definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over, yet expect different results. You need to change the formula.
I use affection and praise for the correct responses to build confidence, reinforce boundaries and establish leadership.
Anthropomorphism is a term used to describe people attaching human emotions to animals. It’s something commonly found in the horse world, and it often creates stumbling blocks in training programs.
For example, an owner may interpret a horse’s habit of crowding their space as a way of showing affection, but if the owner understood the nature of horses, they’d recognize that the horse is attempting to establish dominance. In this case, as the pecking order goes, the owner is on the bottom and the horse on top. By not setting clear boundaries and correcting disrespectful behavior for fear of not being liked, you are on the way to creating a dangerous scenario because the severity of this behavior will increase over time if left unchecked. It’s important to be a leader that your horse will respect.