By Ann Kirk
January 2021 is here!!! Last year was an interesting year here in eastern Washington. Hopefully most of you were still able to enjoy your horses and maybe even more so with the shutdowns and working from home. But 2020 is behind us and there is a whole new year ahead. It is time to continue progressing our horses towards that ideal mount we have always imagined.
For those of you who have been following the sequence, we ended the last session in the round pen by adding objects to our sacking out lessons to get the horse conditioned to stand and wait for our cue before moving or reacting to various stimuli. For those of you who are just joining us, I will review some of the lessons we have taught but to read the articles in their entirety, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send them to you.
I started the year talking about the two most important aspects to remember when you are working with a horse. First is the prey animal instinct. This dynamic is what causes the horse to over react and hurt you when things happen that it perceives to be a threat to its safety. The threat does not have to be real. In the horse’s mind, it only has to be a perceived threat for the alarms to go off, the panic to kick in and the fight for survival to begin. Remembering that your horse is wired this way will give you a better understanding of how to recondition its natural response to perceived dangers.
The second aspect is the herd dynamic or pecking order. Once the horse accepts you as safe, it instinctively wants to know where you stand in the pecking order. Most horses are not mean or willfully dangerous about this process but they will just assume you are submitted to them unless you step up and let them know otherwise. They don’t mind being led if they know you are a competent leader but if you don’t lead, they will do what comes natural to them. Others will look to assume the lead rather forcefully and, depending on their success with certain tactics in the past, they can become quite dangerous to work with if you don’t know how to change their behavior.
Then I went on to talk about the benefits of using the round pen to gain better control over the horse by getting mental control. By working the horse loose without attachments, the horse can be taught to stop reacting emotionally to every little bit of pressure and to begin looking for and trying to figure out the right answer. The release of pressure signals the horse when it is correct and building upon the correct answers will completely change your horse’s behavior and way of dealing with emotional situations. You can teach your horse to control its emotions and think before acting which leads to a much, much safer horse to be around.
I moved on to explaining my basic round pen lesson. This starts with gaining control of direction first. Then inside and outside turns, stopping on cue, turning to face and keeping both eyes on me wherever I am in the pen. Next is approaching the horse and touching it on the face and retreating. Many repetitions lead to sacking out with the hands all over the head, then body followed by adding objects such as a towel, lariat, saddle blanket, tarp and who knows what else to condition the “stand and wait” response that will keep us safe when unexpected stimuli come flying by on the wind. And that’s where we ended in July.
So, what’s next? The “Bridle” is next. I want to teach my horse to respond properly to the bit as soon as I can safely put a bit into its mouth. I am going to ride my horse from its very first ride to its last with a bit in its mouth unless it becomes so good, I feel confident enough to advance it to a halter or a string around its nose or maybe even nothing at all. But I will start with a plain stainless steel snaffle bit because I know with 100% certainty that I can teach my horse to respond flawlessly to this bit and I can have the best control over my horse to keep me safe.
A direct pull snaffle bit is the clearest form of communication I can introduce to my horse and therefore what I want to use. We start out speaking a different language, why add confusion by using equipment that sends unclear signals when trying to communicate? For me, the bit is much more effective than a halter, hackamore, bosal or whatever so the sooner I can begin the many repetitions it will take to fully condition the horse’s correct response to the touch of the reins, the smoother the rest of the training process will progress.
So the next step is to get a good bridle setup with a snaffle bit and reins. I prefer a continuous rope rein that is 5/8 to ½ in. in diameter. It should be long enough to work with one side without interfering with the opposite side of the mouth. If your horse has any issues with being bridled or if you just want a more convenient way of bridling, get some clips and hang the bit on your halter. The bridle work lessons that I will teach you can be used to eliminate a variety of ground manner problems too, so putting the bit on your horse as soon as you catch it can also be to your benefit, (more about that later).
Next article, I will discuss bridling, solving bridling problems and more about the language of the bridle from the horse’s perspective. The better you understand some of this, the more sense the bridle work lessons will make to you as you begin to apply them with your horse. This bridle work will be taught both from the ground and in the saddle at my Sensible Horsemanship Clinic coming up in April. Until next month, God Bless and stay safe. -Ann
For more information on Ann Kirk and her Sensible Horsemanship Program, go to www.annkirk.com