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How do I teach without a fight?

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - March 17th, 2011 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: I own a big Warmblood that’s sometimes like a ton of bricks when I turn him under saddle. His nose will point where he should go, but his body does everything but follow. Then he gives me attitude if I try to use my leg or spur to straighten him out. What can I do to fix this without picking a fight I might lose?
Tony DeCamillas, Windermere, FL.

HEY TONY!: Your question is very telling. It appears we’ve got a horse that may have some understanding and/or training about what is expected of him. You seem clear about what you would like him to do. You also seem confident enough to use spurs to persuade your horse to do the right thing. My concern is that you may bite off more than you can chew – unless you are absolutely clear on how to counter every move your horse will throw at you in this chess game.

Since you already have doubts about losing the fight if it goes that way, let’s approach it from another angle. Your horse is behaving like a baby even though he is not. When young horses are started under saddle, they don’t usually follow their nose either. It’s all about the preparation they get initially (from the ground) and whatever understanding they pick up along the way that makes them come up with choices that make sense to them. Try to keep these suggestions in mind while working toward your goals:

LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS. You shouldn’t have any problem lowering your expectations if we simply assume your horse is young, and doesn’t understand or sees the value of what you are asking of him.

DON’T FIGHT BACK. Sometimes, there is no sense in flexing muscles that aren’t there (“bluffing”). Even if your horse is clearly looking to hook you into a fight, perceive it as your horse asking you to praise him for another slightly more taxing exercise you can control.

BE OK WITH YOUR HORSE SAYING NO! This is your opportunity to have your horse recognize why saying “no” may be OK – but still not in his best interest.

Your specific challenge is not only common to all horses and riders at some point in their education, but easier to resolve than you think. Follow these three steps before putting your horse to the test:

1. You should start by working from the ground. While standing on the left side of your horse, hold the line or reins in your left hand and move towards his hind quarters. If you feel resistance in your hand, don’t pull. Instead, move the hind quarters assertively away from you and around his foreleg. At the moment he turns his head in your direction, the connection will lighten and you will have achieved the desired result. Repeat again and again equally on both sides until he is soft and responsive.

2. Next, lunge your horse at a walk about 15 feet away from you. Now that your horse has learned the value of how to give to the connection of the rein or line, gradually begin to reel in your horse. It’s important to keep the line taunt until the horse makes an effort to give, before letting him go back out into a bigger circle on a loose rein. (Keep it TIGHT, until it’s RIGHT, before you go LIGHT.) This will be an opportunity to polish your timing and feel. You should repeat this exercise equally on both sides until you both get it.

3. You now need to bridge the concept he learned from the ground to what it will now mean in the saddle. NOT TURNING = TURN ON THE FOREHAND, followed by flexing him to a halt with only one rein ( one rein stop ). The rein should be anchored to your leg and short enough to put his nose by his side. Wait until he flexes, stops, and gives before releasing.

This next exercise will be the test that will clarify to your horse why it’s a good idea to follow his nose when turning. Simply anchor one rein to your leg short enough to bend your horse for a circle. The flex will be half as much as you did for your one-rein stop in the previous step. Do not allow him to go straight until he turns and gives to the rein. If he doesn’t turn, that’s ok. Allow him to go sideways and make his mistake; then push his hindquarters out with your inside leg into a turn on the forehand and back into the circle. Don’t force your horse to turn. Let him figure out on his own why it’s a good idea to follow his nose.

Practice this over and over again until it’s second nature to your horse. In the event that you feel threatened in any way, simply gather up the rest of your rein and spiral him into a stop through flexion, and then continue — if you feel safe.

Tony, once you begin this process, you will soon realize how simple and effective this tool will work for you.

When in doubt 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 horse-and-human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco CA, at his bustling StarBrite Riding Academy. Does your “horse-human” relationship leave you with a question for Ray? Just go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Hey Ray!” section, then submit it!

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