Spring can be a time of uncertain weather and un-ridden horses. So this article will explain another step in training your horse to control its natural emotional response to the winds and the wilds around it. You have chosen to ride an animal that is in the same division as the 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 instinct to save its life first and think later is still in its DNA.
Let me start by saying that this lesson is for a horse that already has a fair understanding of how to respond to bit pressure, whether you are working with a young horse just getting started or a riding horse with spooking issues. I would not do this with a horse that has not been properly taught how to respond when slack is taken out of the rein. It is unfair to expect our horse to choose the “right” response when we have not taken the time to teach it. And it is much harder for them to find it when they are distracted or scared. “You cannot demand what you haven’t taught, but you haven’t taught what you can’t demand.”
If you have followed my articles, you have been doing lessons to gain basic control and to teach a conditioned response to pressure. You may have been through a series of lessons in the round pen. Then you put the bridle on and worked through a set of exercises to connect the reins to specific body parts. You 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 you control of any foot in any direction.
Wow! Sounds great! But how can you be sure you have made the connection strong enough to hold up under pressure? You are satisfied that your horse will respond well when his environment is quiet and safe, but will he still ‘remember’ his lessons when anxious or frightened? You need to be next to positive that when you apply the “brakes”, they will stop your horse. And when you “turn the wheel”, it will direct the horse just as expected. You need to have a way of testing your “bit to body” connection to be sure the horse will respond no matter how emotional he gets about the world around him. It is not smart to assume all is well and just hope you can control the problems that might arise after climbing in the saddle.
If I am going to ride a horse, it is not a matter of “if” but “when” something is going to excite him. I would much rather control when that ‘something’ comes along than wait for the unexpected to happen. So, as a way of improving my bridle connection, I can “present” emotional situations to my horse while focusing on the Bridle Dance lessons I have already taught. This allows me to control how exciting the stimulus gets, how excited the horse becomes and to show him exactly how I want him to respond when he gets scared. Whereas in the saddle, I might need to back off to avoid getting hurt, from the ground I can persist until he works through the emotions to get the right answer. I don’t have to give him a release for being reactive instead of responsive.
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 twin bed sheet or towel, 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 idea. Then you will want to arrange them in order from the least to the most scary 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 Bridle Dance several times, using just one rein at a time. 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. Start small, maybe just one shake and stop. If he moves, disengage his hip until he stands still. You may have to move the hip several times, releasing between each step, before he will stop his feet. 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 testing to see that when he gets scared, he will still listen to the bridle. Gradually open the towel or sheet 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. Leading him a few steps each time you switch sides is also good.
When he can handle the stimulus standing still, refold your object, ask him to walk and repeat the steps. This can be a bit more challenging. Movement adds emotion so the horse has to increase his self-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 always 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 him staying responsive and keeping his head at a relaxed level. Remember, it is not about getting your horse used to what you have in your hand. The sheet is only a tool to improve the horse’s responsiveness even when distracted.
When his reaction is minimal, keep the stimulus going at a consistent level until he gives you a good response before releasing. The more correct responses you get, the faster your horse becomes solid so take your time and build it strong. If he gets really excited, remove the stimulus and get him to give, relax and stop. He is telling you that 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 because you cannot release the pressure to drop the emotion.
You can move onto the next object when it is next to impossible to get any emotional change with the one you are using. Take your time and be creative. The stronger you build this foundation 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 training. When you compare the short amount of time it takes to teach these lessons with a stay in the hospital, a broken leg or maybe even a broken neck, it is a very small price to pay for safety.
If you want more details or want hands-on instruction, come to my Sensible Horsemanship Spring Tune-up Clinic/April 20-22 in the Spokane area or my Sensible Horsemanship Spring Clinic/April 28-29 in St Maries, ID. Bring a friend and enjoy the weekend. Until next issue, God Bless and be safe…..
Ann Kirk is available for Sensible Horsemanship Clinics, Workshops or Lessons in your area. She also offers her services for evaluations. For more information on Ann Kirk Sensible Horsemanship Programs go to www.annkirk.com. Beginning Sensible Horsemanship is available in a DVD series with a new addition – Sensible Trailer Loading.