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The buck stops where? The foundation, of course

By SHERYL LYNDE - Horsetrader columnist - July 17th, 2014 - Special Section

Head tossing, bucking, bolting, biting, rearing, striking — whether you ride arena or trail, English or Western, having a safe, broke horse is built from the ground up.

Let’s take bucking for example. Bucking, like all other unwanted behaviors, is a symptom of something else going on. The behavior always escalates in severity and never stays at the same level. If your horse crow-hopped or kicked out today, it won’t be long before it turns into a buck.

Sound familiar? Can you see a pattern in his behavior? For example, does he buck when you ask for the lope or a specific lead? Does he buck out on trail when his buddy gets out of sight? Does your horse go into a buck when he spooks? Does he buck when you put a leg on him to yield to pressure? These are all identical symptoms, but they all may have a different cause — always either (a) lack of respect, (b) fear, (c) aggression or (d) physiological, like pain.

When someone sends me a horse that bucks, the first thing I do is back up a step in training and go to the ground to determine the cause. If you can ride a buck, then good for you -– you are a great rider and that is impressive. However, if you get the horse to never buck in the first place, then I think you are on the right track.

Let’s face it, the older we get, the harder the ground gets. We can’t afford to get hurt, not to mention hitting the ground is not a confidence-builder. The more you fall, the better your groundwork gets. Since the bucking is a symptom, you want to determine the cause and eliminate it, then the symptom disappears and you never have to ride the buck.

Step one, go to your round pen and move his feet, change direction often by asking for inside and outside turns. Ask for frequent speed changes, and ask him to canter without micro-managing him. Then, watch his reactions to your requests. Is he oversensitive, overreacting to your cues and wanting to jump out at times? That’s a fearful horse. Is he pinning his ears or rearing at your requests for movement, threatening to charge, kick or run over you? That is aggression. Is he a sluggish “no go,” difficult to get him into a canter, and when you insist he reacts with a kick-out? By the end of the session, are you the only one out of breath and exhausted? That’s lack of respect.

If you are working with the fearful horse, the first thing you need to do is bring down the amount of pressure you are using in your cues. If your horse is overreacting to your requests, then you are putting too much energy behind them. The horse is a mirror image of you. If you want to make a change in your horse, you have to first make a change in yourself and be 100 percent consistent. Consistency builds trust. With consistency they learn when they give you the response you are asking for that there will be a release of pressure. Give him space, don’t crowd. Make sure your body is relaxed, exhale when he builds up speed and consciously lower your shoulders.

These small adjustments are enough to make a big change in your horse’s reactions. It’s not the big things that make a difference, it’s the small things. Most importantly, you need to take the time necessary for your horse to make a change. When he does something right, let him soak on it for a few minutes. When he has made a noticeable change, then it’s time to move on.

Start desensitizing him and start with the lead rope. Again, audit your body posture – are you relaxed, shoulders lowered, breathing slow and methodical. Once he is relaxed, move on. Always release the pressure when he is calm. If he reacts to whatever you are using, stay with him until he exhibits one of the five signs that signals he is relaxing: 1. slow blinking of the eyes, 2. exhaling, 3. lowering of the head, 4. cocking a hind leg, or 5. licking the lips. Find the holes. He may be fine when you toss the lead rope over his back and hind legs as he stands still, but comes uncorked when something falls off the saddle near his hind legs as he is moving. Set those situations up again and again until he no longer reacts. Find each hole, fix it and move on. Remember to look for small changes each day. If you get 1% a day, in 100 days you will have 100% improvement.

Horsetrader columnist Sheryl Lynde is a John Lyons Certified Trainer who specializes in foundation training, colt-starting and problem-solving. She is based in Temecula.

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