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Turn disruptive behavior into learning opportunities

By RAY ARISS - Horsetrader columnist - February 21st, 2013 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: Whenever my horse would get heavy in my hands, what worked well was backing him up until he was “light.” This would keep him in self carriage and off my hands when moving forward again. Lately though, not only is he heavy going forward, but when I attempt to back him up, he’s remains heavy. Now I’m stuck with a horse that doesn’t mind hanging all the time. Riding him has become no fun — just a real workout. Help!
Patricia Wiggens, Las Vegas, Nev.

HEY PATRICIA: This is a great question because you were doing something that was working, and then it no longer worked. This happens to all of us one time or another. You would think that doing the right thing would be a long-lasting formula for success, but obviously not in this case. Let me explain what you are experiencing with your horse in terms that have nothing to do with horses – then, we will apply the solution to your situation.

Imagine you are driving your car down a winding road. Your car begins to pick up speed even though you have not accelerated. You proceed to apply your brakes, which in turn slows down your car. You now have your car rating at your desirable speed, and now maneuvering down the hill seems to be easy for you. Halfway down the road, you begin to experience the smell of burning rubber and your car seems to gradually begin picking up speed again. You naturally proceed to apply greater pressure on the brake pedal, which in turn slows your car down a bit, but not for long. You then apply the most pressure you have in you, but it doesn’t seem to help at all. What happened? We all know the answer to that. It wasn’t what you were doing so much as to how you were doing it. Without having to explain the proper way of driving your car downhill, let’s skip back to you and your horse.

You experienced exactly with your horse what happened in the car analogy. It wasn’t so much what you were doing as how you were doing it. We need to protect not only the horse’s mouth, but what the sensation in the horse’s mouth means to him — and what value or weight he puts on the correct response. It was not like your horse stopped feeling what you were doing. He felt it but chose to ignore it because it was of no value to him any longer. He made the conscious choice to put up with whatever pressure or discomfort he was feeling in his mouth over the burning he felt in his back, loin, or haunches when he was in self-carriage while light in your hands.

Just like when you rode your brake pedal on your car for too long, you ended up burning your welcome right out of his mouth when your horse recognized that whatever pulling you were doing wasn’t as bad as the alternative.

One way we could have saved you from this result would have been to give your horse more frequent breaks so that he never questioned your half-halts or rein-backs. Reality is, what used to work before will no longer work – no more than those burned-out brakes in your car. We now have to replace that preconceived notion your horse has about ignoring your hands with a whole new set of thoughts/brakes. This is what I propose you do:

1. While dismounted (and in-hand), make sure you can move your horse forward, backward and sideways easily (forequarters and hindquarters). Your horse should be able to do this athletically, responsively and in a timely fashion. This step and the next are the most important because it’s all about the preparation.

2. Next, while mounted, attempt to move your horse’s hind-quarters away from your leg. Spur or whip in a simple turn on the fore-hand. The moment he moves, take your leg off and expect him to continue moving. Do not apply the aids above unless he stalls completely then crank him over as if he was a car — once he moves, stop cranking/asking. Continue doing this on both sides until he can move easily, willingly and continuously. Do not move on to the next step until you master this.

3. Now we get to work on your issue. Think of pulling back on the reins as a mechanism that applies to reverse, not brakes. Every time you make contact with the horse’s mouth, and apply pressure, the horse should have the picture of having to back up. If you get the impression that your horse is not seeing that picture, you need to back him up. If he ignores or resists you, try this. Flex him to a stop, proceed that into a turn on the fore-hand, and finish by backing him away from one spur backwards and sideways (while in the turn on the fore-hand), until he breaks his feet loose and lightens in your hand. Now, stop and try to visualize this clearly before reading on.

The spur that you use will be the same side rein in your hands that he pulls the most on when you apply pressure. Continue this until he sees the picture clearly and is totally receptive to you. Once he stops choosing one rein to lean on over another, you can attempt to rein him back straight. If he slows or leans again, move him backwards and sideways as before until you can get a good rein-back once again.

When moving forward, if you feel the need to rate your horse and you apply pressure and you feel your horse responding by collecting, rebalancing and slowing down, release the pressure and let him continue forward.

Congratulations! You have experienced your first proper half-halt, and your goal has been achieved. Anything short of this should be routed back to the three steps above.

Patricia, your horse will only be as light and responsive to whatever standard or bar you expect your horse to reach. So pay close attention to his work and reward the slightest efforts.

Most importantly and above all, 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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