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Build the fearless horse and rider from the ground up

By SHERYL LYNDE - Horsetrader columnist - September 18th, 2014 - Feature Article

A fearful horse can chip away at a rider’s confidence. Similarly, a fearful rider can make a horse fearful , so there lies the potential for a never-ending cycle. The more fearful the horse, the more fearful the rider becomes – and vice versa.

Horses are herd animals. If they spook and you are a reactive rider, as we discussed last column, you are riding the spook. You may be missing the tools you need to help your horse work through his fear, so he reverts to his flight instinct. In essence, you have been fired, and now his only concern is to find safety where he can — with or without you.

Horses really aren’t much different than you and me. In times of crisis, we look to anchor ourselves to someone who shows a quiet confidence and exhibits control by directing us step by step to thwart the danger and safely deliver us from the predicament.

This is the leader your horse needs you to be. It’s a realistic goal. But, just like anything, you don’t start with your goal. We need to back up in our training and build the foundation from the ground up.

Start in the round pen by sending off your horse and getting direction changes. I normally do not have them complete a full circle without asking them to turn, either inside or outside. If they are disrespectful, I will ask for outside turns, meaning they are turning into the rail. You do this by putting pressure with your lunge whip towards their shoulder and nose at a slight diagonal as you take a step toward them. One of the added benefits of outside turns is that it helps teach them to respect your space. As you step toward their shoulder and nose with the correct amount of pressure, they will yield and turn away from you. If their resistance is a level 6, then your pressure needs to be a 7. Be as light as possible, but as firm as necessary.

I want inside turns if the horse is more fearful and sensitive. I want his eyes looking at me for instruction — this is where the relationship begins. The round pen is not a place to “run the fresh off.” I need energy to train. It’s about directing their feet in the direction I want them to go at the speed I have set.

Once the horse is making an effort and gives me a couple of good turns in each direction upon request, I will release the pressure. He doesn’t have to be perfect; he just has to make an improvement and once he does, it’s time to move on. I use a halter with a 12-foot lead line, and I start desensitizing him to tarps, flags, plastic bags and items that fall off the saddle while he is moving. Your timing is critical because you teach the release. If you start shaking the flag or tarp and he wants to bolt – you have to stay with him – if you release the tarp while he is trying to run from you, you have just taught him to run from you when you shake a tarp.

You must also have feel – your intensity cannot be at 10 if he can only tolerate a 2. Go in at 3. Conversely, if his resistance is a level 10, don’t go in at 2 – your pressure level needs to be 11.

I have three rules that I train by: 1. I cannot get hurt, 2. The horse cannot get hurt, and 3. The horse has to be calm at the end of the session. You can stop at any time once the horse has made an improvement and pick up again the next day.

After I have successfully desensitized my horse, it’s time to ride. I practice a few one-rein stops prior to riding out of the round pen, and once I’m assured that I have a stop, it’s time for trail. For our first trail ride, I’m going to pick an area where I have room to work. This is about training, not the trail ride. Just like in the round pen, I’m going to direct his feet in the direction and speed I want. I start by trotting him around brush and trees, changing direction frequently to get his attention. He may feel strong at first, wanting to charge or just feel tense – and that is OK. I just continue the exercise by directing his feet and changing direction frequently. Once he has made an improvement by slowing his feet and relaxing, I will let him rest.

This may take 10 minutes or it may take an hour – it’s about the improvement, not the length of time. Once he is calm, we head back to the barn.

Each day, repeat the exercise and increase your time out on trail. Release only what you want to teach.


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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