By Ann Kirk
It’s hard to believe it is the middle of 2020 already! Many unexpected things have happened this year that have made it both exciting and challenging. I’m not sure how this will end or the changes this virus will have in the long run, but God knows. By trusting in Him, I can look forward to the year with anticipation and not fear.
This can also work well when working with our horses. Whether the last lesson worked out better or worse than expected, we should always be positively prepared for greater results the next time. Be careful not to take old baggage into the next lesson or it can produce a mindset that will determine the course before you even start. We can become very emotionally involved and take the horse’s reactions as a personal insult. If we do this, we will defeat the whole purpose of what we were trying to teach. I cannot expect my horse to get a grip on its emotions when I can’t control my own. So, take time to be mentally prepared for their learning process and look for the positives in each lesson.
This month we will add another phase to our sacking out session. Last month, we worked our hands over the entire horse, starting at the head and working towards the tail and legs. So this month, we will add some objects to get the horse even more solid on trusting us and on learning the correct response to unusual stimuli. This will be done in the same manner as when approaching him with nothing but your hands.
To prepare for this lesson, gather a few things that you will use. Some of my favorite objects are the lariat I use for the round pen lesson, a cotton twin bed sheet, a towel or saddle blanket, a piece of plastic (small and large), a whip to attach the plastic to when ready and a saddle or a saddle pad with stirrups. The list could go on and on but you get the picture. Then you will want to lay them out in an order that will make it the easiest for the horse. Don’t start with the scariest; start with what you believe will be the least scary for the horse to deal with. The more correct responses you get, the faster your horse becomes solid at facing his fears and not moving his feet.
Let’s say we start with the towel. Fold it once or twice to make it even smaller. Starting from the opposite side of the round pen with your horse facing you, begin to approach him just as before. Don’t try to hide the object or overly emphasis it. Just handle it like you expect him to be totally comfortable with it. Walk as if you have done it a hundred times already. Don’t sneak up to him or hurry either. Pay close attention to his response and try to stop your approach just short of him moving to get away. By not scaring him beyond his ability to control his emotional response, yet always seeking to challenge him to tolerate just a little more is how you build his confidence and trust in you.
Don’t get in a hurry to get him desensitized to the object. The longer it takes him to become comfortable with the towel, the more work you get to do on the emotional training with that towel. Do with the towel what you did with your hands starting at the head, rubbing it on him for a few seconds and walking away at an angle while kissing to have him face you. If he moves off, whether from fear or from disinterest, use the towel to excite him a little more and only drop it when he finally will respond by looking at you, turning in and stopping. The idea here is teaching the horse that as soon as he looks, the scary thing goes away. He will learn to stay focused on what scares him instead of wanting to run away.
When he is totally comfortable with the towel on his main body, then you have to change objects to continue training on his emotional control. Remember, you are not trying to scare him but you are not trying not to either. You would be surprised at how many “quiet” horses fall apart when their emotions are raised because the only response they know is instinct. If you don’t teach him how to handle his emotions, you are always at the mercy of whatever might trigger his fears.
This is a great lesson to do with any horse but especially your young horses. Weanlings and yearlings are so programmable because they have not been reacting like horses for very long. If you can condition their emotional response when they are young, it gives you an entirely different animal to train as they get older. That is what imprinting is all about; programming the kind of reactions we want to the stimulus they will encounter in life.
If I introduce an object to the horse and he seems fine with it, I do not spend much time on that object. I am not trying to make a problem so I can fix it. I will just go on to the next object. Different horses react to different stuff. One might be terrified of something like a tarp because they have never been around one. Yet the next horse has been fed on or near one and couldn’t care less. If you can’t find anything that causes undo concern, that’s a good thing. But, at least you now know a way to work things through with your horse if he is afraid of certain objects. Have fun and be safe… -Ann
For more information on Ann Kirk and her Sensible Horsemanship Programs, go to www.annkirk.com. And check out the Sensible Horsemanship DVDs now available!