Some journeys last for a particular season of your life, while others last an entire lifetime.
For me, understanding and learning more about the horse is the journey I know I was meant to take in this life, and sharing it with others is an enormous satisfaction.
There is no class on “horsemanship psychology,” no weekend clinic, no book or television program that can teach you what time spent with the horse himself can teach you. The horse can be the most effective teacher”¦if we are only willing to open our eyes, be humble, and drop preconceived ideas.
I was born in Florida, but my family moved to an island off the coast of Australia when I was just a young child. I was fortunate to spend many hours in the saddle every day and I made it my goal to learn everything I could about my four-legged partners. I couldn’t get enough of those amazing animals and the more time I spent with them, the more I wanted to learn.
Even when I wasn’t riding, I still wanted to be around horses. Watching how they interacted and communicated with each other taught me volumes, and once I began applying those lessons in body language, I found I could more clearly communicate with horses in ways they understood. Horses don’t use equipment to communicate with each other. They innately understand body language, posture, pressure, eye contact and personal space. That’s why I use all of these to communicate with my horses. Studying the horse over the years has given me the keys of horsemanship psychology that lead to success. Let’s look at some of these keys. Relief of pressure is critical to successful training. Pressure can come from your leg, hand, rein or spur. It can also be pressure from your presence through your body language and expression, even when you aren’t touching him. The secret is knowing when to give that relief so the horse learns in a positive way. Once the horse knows that relief of pressure comes from you, he will always look to you for relief. For example, if you put leg pressure on your horse to move, you should release that pressure the moment he moves in the direction you are asking. Too many people constantly pressure their horses without giving relief when the horse responds correctly. This leads to a lot of frustrated riders”¦.and horses.
You need to give something back to the horse when he gives to you. This respects his dignity and rewards the effort he has made. Always remember that relief of pressure is the greatest gift you can give your horse. In his mind, this is better than praise, petting or treats. Soaking is a term you’ll hear me use often. This refers to the brief period of rest you offer the horse when he’s done something right. When you ask him for something and he accomplishes the task with softness and give, then let him stand and rest a minute or two. Don’t be in his mouth or putting any pressure on him whatsoever for that short period of soaking time For example, when I get through roping a steer and my horse has given me the run I’m looking for, I will just sit there and let him soak instead of chasing the steer back to the striping chute. He might soak for ten second or a few minutes, depending on where I am, but I want him to have time to relax and absorb the success he’s just had. Whether I’m heading or heeling, I want my horses to know they can stand and soak in the arena. Too many times rope horses aren’t allowed to relax in the arena. When you always run a steer back to the chute, the horse will often get chargey and overly anxious because he’s never given time to relax. The idea is to reward correct response and especially, softness. When your horse is soft, he’ll soak up the lesson because a horse’s mind is like a sponge. When it’s soft and pliable, it can soak up a lot. When it’s hard and resistant, it can’t absorb much.
Repetition is essential if you want to teach your horse properly and repeating in small steps is the most effective way to build confidence and understanding in the horse. Once the horse understands, he can begin to work on the same team as his rider. When you repeat a step, the horse soon adds this to the list of things he knows. After this happens, you have built a step you can build on further. Consistency is a great reassurance to the horse. When he knows what is expected of him, he’ll be able to relax and start trusting you. If you use conflicting cues or have different rules for your horse in the stall versus the pasture, he’ll be confused and unsure. Know that every time you handle your horse ““ whether you’re on the ground or in the saddle ““ you are communicating with him. Make it a point to be consistent in what you’re telling him.
Preparation is essential to good horsemanship and this means preparing your horse step-by-step to do what you’re asking of him. You wouldn’t expect a first grader to understand algebra. It works the same with horses. Prepare your horse so he knows what you’re asking. When I refer to “preparing my horse,” I am not talking about “desensitizing.” I mean preparing him in small steps so he understands what you expect of him. You can over-do it with “desensitization” and end up with a dull horse. If you’ve prepared your horse properly, he won’t blow up and overreact. Create a job for your horse when you ride. You might be moving cows or just rid- ing to the mailbox, but I’ve found horses will try harder if they see the purpose in what you’re asking them to do. Every time I work with a horse I set things up using techniques and applications so he can please me. I look for him to make that effort. When you have a horse that puts his heart and soul into trying to please you, that’s when you know you have a real partner.
Keep it interesting! Mix up your routine and do something different with your horse. New experiences engage a horse’s mind and build confidence. If you focus too much on a single thing day after day, your horse may learn to resent it. Your horse can get sour from too much ground work”¦and it’s not much fun for you either. I recommend having a plan of what you want to accomplish every time you work with your horse. This will help you continue learning and help avoid wasted time, as well as boredom. Patience goes a long way with the horse, and you’ll need patience if you intend to success as a horseman. At the same time, patience isn’t any good without knowledge. You can have all the patience in the world but without a plan, you’re not going to get far. Knowledge and understanding will actually give you patience.
There are no shortcuts to good horsemanship.
You can’t skip steps. You can learn a tremendous amount of theory and great ideas, but they require time and practice to perfect, and that means you need to be patient. Over the years I’ve seen that when someone’s patience runs out, this usually means they’ve come to the end of their knowledge. Self-doubt and fear are also based on lack of understanding or information. Every dedicated horseman needs what I call a “reservoir of patience” to tap into as you work to improve your horsemanship. If you have a program you know will work, you can afford to be patient.
Up Close with Chris Cox
Born in Florida and ranch-raised in Australia, Chris returned 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 also loves to rope, having been into calf roping in the past, and in more recent years, team roping. He participates in the Reno Invitational each year, and beginning in 2009, plans to host an annual invitational roping at his own ranch. He will also be holding horsemanship clinics for team ropers designed to prevent and solve problems with rope horses and to help riders better maintain the competition rope horse. Chris 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. This two-time Road to the Horse Champion offers week-long intensive horsemanship clinics at his Diamond Double C Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas, and has a regular horsemanship program on RFD-TV. In 2008, Western Horseman 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.