When you’re working with horses, two decisions take priority. First, from the moment you begin interacting with a horse, you must use your line of direction. Second, you must decide how you get there. You can’t just wander aimlessly; you need a plan. That’s true whether you’re thinking about jumping a course or how you will train the horse.
As you go on this journey, be aware that you take on a daunting responsibility as a rider: You are the custodian of the horse’s trust, honesty, integrity and dignity. You must respect the horse and make sure he has everything he needs.
History has too many examples of horses’ trust and dignity being taken away by force. Thankfully, we live in a more enlightened age, where people are learning that you don’t force horses to do anything. Instead, you communicate what you want. And, because horses are such genuine souls, they pretty much want to do it for you.
My wife, Karen, and I enjoy helping others learn how to understand and appreciate their horses the way we do ours. When we teach camps, people are with their horses seven hours a day. Being with them so much, either sitting in the saddle or holding them at the end of the line, gives them opportunities to gain insights into the character of animals they may have owned for years.
Most people don’t spend enough time with their horses to understand them properly. Take a lesson from the Native Americans who just sit quietly in the pasture and study their horses. Try doing the same thing; watch how your horse behaves. You’ll learn about his personality and how he thinks. You’ll see his social interactions with other horses and the way he reacts to a new stimulus. All this information will be very helpful as you train him.
Studying your horse while he is in the pasture, away from your influence, will make you much more aware of his personality type. Try this experiment: If you have four horses in the field and put a bucket of feed out there with them, typically you’ll find that one horse goes right to it, two of the others run around complaining but not getting anything done, and one stands off in a corner, waiting for everyone else to be finished. He’s submissive, but he’s not a whiner like the two who were running around.
If you have a “bucket” horse—if yours is the one who eats first—you may have your hands full. You need to be a leader when you’re dealing with him. If you’re not a natural born leader, he’ll try to take charge.
When you’re looking to buy a horse, ask the people selling him whether he’s a follower or a leader. That will help you to tune in to what kind of personality he has. And be honest about assessing your own personality as you try to find a match that’s compatible for you. If you’re not honest with and about yourself, your horse will make you honest—probably the hard way.
Communication and leadership are especially important when you need to help a horse overcome fear.
Whether a horse’s fear involves riding or stable management or anything else, think “small” when you’re helping him to overcome it. For instance, if your horse has a ditch problem, don’t take him right to a scary ditch. Instead, scale down the exercise until he has more confidence. You might start with a ditch that’s nothing more than a tire rut. From there you would introduce a ditch that is revetted at one side and sloping on the other. Make sure your horse is confident with whatever you have been doing before you move on to the next challenge.
Try to do the easiest thing first to build that confidence. Always start jumping up a bank rather than down a bank, for instance. If your horse is reluctant to approach a particular obstacle, start by finding a comfort zone from which he can gradually get closer to the problem. And start out walking by it, not at it. Get the two of you used to meeting the stimulus by degrees.
Here’s another fear problem you may encounter: clippers. The noise and vibration they make is huge and the big power cord can look like a snake, but you can take apart this problem and fix it piece by piece.
First, get an extension cord, gather it in one or both of your hands, and rub it all over the horse in a gentle manner. When he’s OK with that, find something that has a vibration, like those little massage gizmos you can get at discount stores. You can even put a cell phone on silent, so it vibrates when it rings. Put whatever vibrating device you’re using on your horse’s shoulder first, then his neck, and finally his muzzle and ears (or whatever other sensitive area you want to clip).
When he’s got that down pat, start a clipper. Keep it away from him at first, so he can hear the noise and get used to it but not have it on top of him. Then gradually bring it closer, and finally get him accustomed to the feel as you did with the vibrating gizmo.
Always desensitize in increments. Your efforts will fail if you give your horse too much to absorb too quickly. Rough stuff and using a twitch or tranquilizers are not the answer. Those may be fast fixes that get a job done once, but next time you’ll undoubtedly wind up with more trouble than you started with.
Follow this line of thinking when you’re jumping. Start with low and narrow obstacles to build confidence. Then regulate your challenges by changing height, distance and width gradually. Never over-face your horse—or yourself.
Finally, we find that it always helps to avoid reacting to what the horse is doing but instead to analyze what he is thinking. Put yourself in his head. Think what he thinks; see what he sees. Horses react to their own senses, so try to become sensitive to how his senses operate rather than relying just on your own reactions. In the end, you’re trying to learn the language of your horse, rather than trying to teach him the language of people.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #450, March 2015.