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Timing is everything, especially with fearful horses

By Sheryl Lynde / Horsetrader columnist - March 17th, 2016 - Trainer Tips, Training

Trainer TipsThe 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.

They are quick to react and revert to their instinctual flight or fight response when they feel threatened. It’s important to understand that horses don’t interpret threats on a sliding scale from 0-10, 0 meaning chancy and 10 being perilous. Nor do they perceive possible injuries in levels of severity like shades of gray. They are prey animals whose first response is to run at the onset of any apparent threat because they think they are going to die. In addition to the flight response, they may choose to fight which would include kicking, biting, rearing, bucking and striking. His fear will take precedence over anything else, including at times his own self-preservation. We cannot possibly sack him out to everything, and we can’t override his instincts, but we can teach him to handle his emotions.

The horse’s five senses alert him of impending danger. Equally perceptive is the horse’s ability to detect your emotional state and determine your intent, such as level of fear, anger or anxiety. A fearful rider can create a fearful horse, and an impatient or bad tempered handler will undermine the horses’ trust and confidence. The timing of your release is equally important to your demeanor and temperament. Remember that training takes time, consistency and your ability to be present. Are you being patient with the horse’s progress? Or, are you bringing the frustrations of your day into the pen with you? Is your horse able to make the connection between his behavior and your corrections?
Let’s say that you are leading your horse and he takes a nip at you. A bite is a very forward-moving, aggressive behavior, and if not corrected, it will increase in severity and attempts. You have one second to make your correction and your correction should be made with energy and last for three seconds.
If your horse took a nip, then you turn, face him, and back him up with energy for three seconds.  Then , turn back around and lead on — as if nothing happened. Repeat as often as necessary. By responding within one second of the behavior, the horse can connect the nip to the correction. The backing him for three seconds with energy creates enough of an impression to change his mind about the behavior. Backing your horse puts you in a leadership role and takes him down a notch in the pecking order. The energy you put into it will change his mind – was the offense really worth the consequence? Anything longer than three seconds turns into punishment. The connection to the behavior is blurred, and now you have become a threat to his well-being. If you are not able to correct within the one-second time frame, the correction becomes a random act on your part and the behavior likely will continue.

If I’m sacking a horse out to specific items such as a tarp, plastic, etc., I want him in a halter and lead rope. This way, if he tries to bolt or rear, I can stay with him. I continue the movement at the same level of intensity that caused his reaction until he stops moving his feet and offers one of the following signs of relaxing: softly and slowly blinking an eye, lowering his head, taking a big sigh, releasing his jaw or licking his lips or cocking a leg. As soon as he gives me one of those signs, I release the pressure and walk away. I will repeat on each side until there is no reaction. This teaches him to stand and face his fear rather than bolt. If I were to release pressure while he is reacting, then I’m teaching him to react and bolt. You teach your release.

Check yourself for any indication of stress, fear or frustration. Remember,  your horse also has a sixth sense: He can detect your intent and perceive your emotional state. You can’t expect him to handle his emotions if you are unable to handle yours. Make sure you are relaxed while working with your horse and not displaying any outward signs of distress in your body language or reactions. He is watching and paying attention to every detail of your demeanor. Is your jaw tight? Teeth clenched? Are you holding your breath or breathing slowly and rhythmically? Are your movements erratic and inconsistent? Training is not “Do as I say,” but rather “Do as I do”.

~Sheryl

 

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