Even when you find a good match with a horse whose personality suits yours, you can still make serious mistakes in working with him. Like that old saying, “A one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind,” we’ve all been guilty at some point of thinking we know more than we actually do.
At expos and clinics, I see many of the common errors that horse owners routinely make. More often than not, they aren’t doing anything intentionally, but need to polish their skills or simply don’t understand the horse.
Let’s look at a few of those mistakes.
Being angry, impatient or passive
Many years ago, when I first started helping people with their horses, I saw a trend of people being too aggressive. What they were doing wasn’t working, so they got angry and took it out on the horse. Whenever I see someone who’s beating up on a horse, I see someone who’s come to the end of their knowledge. If I start to get frustrated when I’m working a horse, I realize I’m coming to the end of my knowledge and this motivates me to learn more instead of getting angry. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be firm with a horse, but you must always be effective and you can’t be effective if you’ve lost your cool and let anger take over. Don’t take it personally when a horse does something wrong.
Don’t hold a grudge; don’t try to “get even” with him. If the horse does something dangerous, you need to be assertive, firm and effective. You have to correct him and then let up as soon as you get the response you need. Today, most of the people I see at clinics are too passive and are actually teaching their horse to become dangerous. It goes back to the issue of being friends with your horse. Your horse needs you to be a leader more than he needs you to be his friend. He won’t respect you if you can’t or won’t lead. Treats and petting will not overcome or solve bad behavior.
You have to always keep in mind that body language is crucial ““ both yours and your horse’s. This is how the horse relates and you will be a step ahead if you remember this. Your horse instinctively understands the demeanor and expression of your body and face. How fast or slow you move around him, how your weight is distributed (for example, if you are leaning towards him or away), and if you are moving passively or purposefully, are all things that send a direct message to the horse.
I don’t use much in the way of verbal cues around my horses. Instead, I rely on putting that expression into my body for the horse to read. I’ve found that the more I use my voice, the less I use my body, and that shouldn’t be the case. You can communicate clearly with your horse without necessarily saying a word out loud.
“Lying” to the horse
So much of being a success with horses is about being consistent. If you are inconsistent and don’t follow through, you are literally ”lying” to your horse. Some owners confuse their horses by not using the same cues each time. Others may give the correct cue, but don’t persist until the horse responds correctly. Both examples show inconsistency, and you have to remember that the horse craves consistency. If you want positive results, you can’t be hit and miss. Your horse is just a product of what you’ve applied, even a great horse isn’t going to perform unless you know how to raise your energy level and ask him to perform accordingly.
Many times an owner will assume the horse understands what he is being asked to do and is just being disobedient. The horse seeks weakness and will take advantage of weakness in the human. You have to remember that horses understand if you’re hesitant, timid or uncertain. This is why you’ll see a horse buck with one person but not with another rider. Horses like that need a dominant, assertive leader. If you can step into the saddle and be the leader by instigating the activity and telling the horse what to do and how much to do, he won’t even think about bucking or acting up.
Asking too much too soon
Everything you do with your horse should be built on in steps. In fact, it’s exactly like building a staircase. You can’t expect to get to the top unless you’ve climbed all the steps to get there. Asking your horse to perform a task or maneuver he isn’t prepared to do, or doesn’t understand because he doesn’t have the foundation, is only asking for failure. You want to set the horse up to succeed, not fail. You do this by building step-by-step and not moving on until you’ve accomplished each lesson along the way. If every horse owner would work their way up gradually and perfect the skills it takes to move to the next level, there would be a lot less injury and a lot more enjoyment with the horse. Asking too much too soon also applies to you as a horseman or horsewoman. It’s not just about training the horse; it’s about preparing and training yourself. Once you’ve done this, it’s easy to train your horse because he can accept the techniques you’re applying. But you need to learn ““ and continue learning ““ in order to improve your relationship with the horse.
I always say that anyone who is successful with horses learns directly from the horses. I think people are often just impatient and don’t fully understand the time and effort that it takes to really become good with horses. You have to adopt the mindset that you’re on a mission to work on your inadequacies, to perfect your feel, timing and awareness, to be more sensitive to what the horse is telling you ““ all the things it takes to effectively communicate with that animal. If you have a systematic training program, this will encourage you and build your confidence. Then you’ll get into a groove and it becomes addictive to want to continue to better yourself. As you improve, every horse you work with should become better and better. We can always learn more and do better. This is what motivates me; I’m always looking for ways to improve my horsemanship skills. Find someone who is skilled with horses, whose horsemanship demonstrates his or her knowledge and ability, and follow their example. If you emulate someone average, you’ll never be anything but average, if you emulate someone excellent, you’ll become excellent.
The motivation and confidence we gain in working with horses shows up in everything we do in life. The horse is just a vehicle to help us get there. I think God put horses here on earth for us to enjoy and also to learn a lot of life’s lessons through them.
Up Close with Chris Cox
Ranch raised in Australia, Chris came to the United States in 1986 to make a career of working with horses. Years of working horseback on the ranch near Queensland gave Chris a healthy respect for the horse’s ability and intelligence, and helped him develop his own methods of individualized training. Active in the cutting horse world as both a trainer and competitor, Chris has trained a variety of breeds for different disciplines. He travels the United States, Canada, South America and Australia appearing at expos, conducting clinics and horsemanship demonstrations. His ”Come Ride the Journey’ tour takes him to cities across the U.S. each year. Chris offers week-long intensive horsemanship clinics at his Outback Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas. We s t e r n Horseman recently released Ride the Journey, by Chris Cox with Cynthia McFarland, a 225-page, full color book that details Chris’ practical methods and training techniques. Packed with step-by-step exercises and color photos, the book will help you improve your horsemanship skills, no matter what discipline or breed you ride. Visit www.chris-cox.com or call Chris Cox Horsemanship Company at 1-888-81-HORSE for information about the Ride the Journey book, upcoming course dates and appearances, equipment and training DVDs.
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