Over the years, people have often asked questions about specific problems they were encountering with their horses and we’ve tried our best to provide them with the answers they sought. More importantly, however, we try to encourage people to change the way they think about horses in general. Yes, there are specific fixes to specific problems, but a better solution is a “fix” to all our problems. The magic fix is to build a real partnership with our horse.
You might ask, “How do we do this?” While we’ll try to answer, we must first discover how horses think and figure out what they want.
Horses are prey animals with a flight response (spook and bolt) to danger, whether real or perceived. We are predators; we have a fight response to danger. Horses have their eyes on the side of their head, resulting in bilateral vision. This provides them with a wide field of sight, almost 360 degrees. This is nature’s way of giving the horse a chance, with this broader range of vision, to see approaching predators. The drawback is that they sacrifice some depth perception. We, as predators, have our eyes closer together in the front of our head. Our binocular vision gives us great depth perception, but comparatively poor peripheral vision. We are good at catching things, or judging how deep a stream might be.
Horses, when confronted with a new object, approach cautiously, a little at a time, to make sure it isn’t harmful. Once they know that they are safe, and that the object won’t hurt them, then it’s time to mess with it! We once left our disabled tractor in a paddock overnight. As we were leaving the horses were snorting and running away from it. However, when we returned in the morning, they had pulled all the rubber off the pedals, the plastic balls on the shift handles were gone and they were playing soccer with the seat!
In contrast, when we are confronted with something new, we walk straight up to it, look at it, touch it, and either eat it, sit on it, or otherwise engage it. When we’re riding our horse he might hear or see something we don’t, and become anxious. Just because we don’t hear or see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. When we attempt to cross a small creek or stream and the horse balks, we’re tempted to yell “It’s only three inches deep!” but to the horse it may seem like the ultimate abyss.
Now that we’ve considered a few of the many differences between prey animals and predators, let’s look at how this knowledge can be put to work.
Horses, unlike people, don’t thrive on praise, recognition, or monetary rewards. These are things we need. Horses, first and foremost, need to feel safe. Then they can get comfortable and feel secure and trusting in us, their partners and leaders. When all the above is accomplished they’d like to have some fun.
So it’s up to us to show them that it is safe to be around us. We must keep them comfortable and be trustworthy, firm but always fair partners. We added the word “firm” because once they aren’t afraid of us, they may try to “mess” with us, just like they did with the tractor!
Here’s an exercise designed to establish the foundation of our partnership. Start by haltering your horse, and clip on a 10-12 foot lead rope. Hold the lead rope about half way down its length so you’re not tugging on him and begin to pet and stroke the horse all over. This “sacking out” process builds trust. Make sure you can touch any part of the horse without his flinching or being scared. If you touch a sensitive spot use the approach and retreat method (as a horse would approaching the tractor in the field) until he’s comfortable with your touch. Now that he feels safe, let’s teach him to move forward, sending the nose away as we swing the end of the lead rope towards his hip to send him forward and let him continue to move around us in a circle. Allow him to circle once or twice and then reach down the rope to slowly take out the slack until he stops. He might leave with a little trepidation when you first chase his nose away and drive his hip, but when he learns this lesson he’ll be comfortable with both going away and stopping.
Now it’s time to have fun! Ask him to circle, but place poles on the ground for him to go over and later jump. Follow up by raising the height of the jumps. Next ask your horse to move his hindquarters over, backup or move his front end over just by pressing against him until he moves. Pet him when he does!
At this point we’re ready to ride using the same principles. Keep him feeling safe by not jerking on the reins or kicking his sides. Provide comfort by asking for him to complete simple tasks, building slowly towards more difficult ones. Help your horse to succeed, don’t test him to failure.
As we better understand how our horses think and what their true motivations are, we are more able to change our own attitudes, which will allow us to have more fun with our partners.
© May 2007.
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