This has been a year of uncertain weather so it is fitting that we are going to be looking at ways to train our horse to control it’s uncertain emotions and natural responses to the winds and the wilds. You are going to be riding an animal that is in the same division as that white-tailed deer that runs off in a panic as a natural response to most anything unknown. Horses are far easier to domesticate than a deer but the tendency to save its life first and think later is still in its DNA.
We have been working for months to gain basic control and to teach a conditioned response to pressure. We have been through a series of lessons in the round pen. Then we put the bridle on and worked through a set of exercises to connect the reins to specific body parts. We have sought to gain a soft, immediate movement from the hips, shoulders, neck and nose in response to the slack being removed from a rein. This has given us control of any foot in any direction.
Wow! Sounds great! But how can we be sure we have made the connection strong enough to hold up under pressure? I need to be next to positive that when I apply the “brakes”, they will stop my horse. And when I “turn the wheel”, it will direct the horse just as expected. So I need to have a way of testing my “bit to body” connection to be sure the horse will respond no matter how emotional he gets about the environment around him. I can speak from experience (and some battle wounds) that it is not smart to assume all is well and just hope you can control any problem that might arise after climbing in the saddle. So let’s run some tests.
If I am going to ride a horse, it is not a matter of if but when something is going to come along that excites him. I would much rather control when that ‘something’ comes along rather than wait for the unexpected to happen. So, as a way of improving my bridle connection, I will present “emotional” situations to my horse from the ground while asking him to focus on the bridle lessons I have already taught. This way I can control how exciting the stimulus gets, how excited the horse becomes and when to raise or lower his emotions. And I can work through it to the desired end without having to quit for fear of getting dumped off and hurt. I am already on the ground.
To prepare for this lesson, gather a few things that you will use. Those of you who have been following these lessons will recognize this part from our round pen session on spooking in place. Some of my favorite objects are the lariat I use for the round pen lesson, a 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. The list could go on and on but you get the picture. Then you will want to arrange them in order from the least scary to the most to make it easiest for the horse. The more correct responses you get, the faster your horse becomes solid and sure of himself.
Put his bridle on and take him to an enclosed area. Warm him up by going through the entire Bridle Dance several times. In review, start on the circle with nose in and soft. Move the shoulder off on the diagonal, softening the nose to the shoulder point, back to the circle, disengage hip and back up. Switch sides and repeat. When he is warmed up and listening to you, get your first object which would most likely be the towel or the sheet folded rather small.
Begin by just having the horse stand while you move the object around without touching him. If he moves, disengage his hip until he stands still. Then, remove the pressure of the object and praise him. Switch sides and repeat until you can rub the folded object all over him without him moving. You are not trying to scare him or get a big reaction. You are checking to be sure that if he gets scared, he will still listen to the bridle. Then begin to open the towel or sheet bigger and bigger until it is full size and you can touch him and flap it all around his sides, neck, rump, legs, etc. and he will not move. Remember to spend equal time on both sides and move his hip over each time you switch sides so he isn’t standing just because he is frozen in one spot.
When he can handle the stimulus standing still, you are going to ask him to walk and deal with it. This can be a bit more challenging. As soon as you add movement, the horse has to increase his emotional control. With one hand, you are going to focus on having the horse give softly to the bit and move his feet accordingly as if you have nothing in your other hand. With the other hand, you will slowly create some movement with the object. You don’t usually need to start with it folded but be willing to if necessary. Create just enough stimulus to get a slight rise in his emotions. Focus on his staying responsive and keeping his head at a relaxed level. Reduce the stimulus and disengage his hip to switch sides.
If his reaction is not uncontrollable, keep the stimulus going at the same level (if you can safely) until he gives you a good response before releasing this mental pressure. Remember, the more correct responses you get, the faster your horse becomes solid and sure. If he gets really excited, remove the stimulus and get him to give, relax and stop. He is telling you you did too much too soon. You are looking for the balance. You want to raise his emotions enough to gain ground but not enough to make him worse in the long run. Never attach any of the objects to him. If he should panic, either one of you could get seriously hurt.
You can move onto the next object when it is next to impossible to get any emotional change with the one you are using while he is walking through the dance. Take your time and be creative. When he’s good in the round pen, move to a larger enclosure. Then maybe to the pasture. The stronger you build this lesson of responding to the bridle in spite of his environment, the safer he will be and the easier the rest of his training will progress. Don’t skimp on this phase of his work. This is also a great lesson for already broke horses who have spooking issues.
Wait on the saddling if your horse has never been saddled before and we will go into that next article. God Bless and have a great month…….Ann
For more information on Ann Kirk and her Sensible Horsemanship Program, you can email her at email@example.com These lessons are also available on the Sensible Horsemanship DVDs.