Who's Leading Whom?
Talk to any vet or farrier, and they'll tell you that few things drive them crazier than trying to treat a horse or mule that has never been taught to respect its handler. Owners who obviously love their horses and want the best for them may sometimes be guilty of letting them act like hooligans when a professional horse care person comes to take care of them. We've all seen and heard this in action. It usually goes something like this:
"Whoa. Whoa. It's okay Smoochiedoodle. Be a good girl. You're okay! Easy. EASY girl.
Whoa. WHOA. WHOAAAA!!!!!"
Their plaintive cries demonstrate the Doppler Effect in full stereo as they are dragged unceremoniously across the yard by the aforementioned Smoochiedoodle, who, by the way, is not the least bit concerned with any of this "Whoa" nonsense. All Smoochie knows for sure is that she has no time for silly human games while there remains even a single blade of delectable grass beckoning from across the yard. And besides, she's certain that the evil person in the lab coat is no one she wants touching her, so surely her owner won't mind being dragged across the yard. It's for a good reason, after all!
Meanwhile, all the vet or farrier knows is that it may only be 9 AM but they're now behind schedule and they've got four more farm calls to make before lunch. It's already becoming a long, exhausting day. Such is life with horses, and those horse owners who love their equines and mean well, but who may not have a clear picture of who is supposed to be leading whom, or how.
We all want our horses to love us. I think we all can agree on that. From the youngest little girl to the toughest old ranch-hand, I believe most of us truly want a good relationship with our horses. The problem arises when folks unwittingly allow their horses to walk all over them. Most people will tell you their horse is "halter broke". Many of those horses will show every indication that they are NOT. So, for the sake of clarity, let's go over the differences.
The average horse I meet when making farm calls behaves like this:
- The owner can catch it, with or sometimes without, some fuss.
- The owner can tie or buckle the halter while standing on tiptoes while the horse lifts its head higher and higher and says "No. I never wear a halter on Thursdays."
- The horse will allow itself to be dragged around with some varying degree of compliance. (Sometimes there is lots of begging and cussing involved. Sometimes they lead along nicely then take off too quickly and drag their owner along when heading for grass or feed.)
- Some of the horses can be tied, but can't be trusted to stand quietly. Some paw and fuss, some pull back and break the lead or halter. Some just dance the whole time. (Some do stand there like champs.)
- Many will lead along politely, at least until they realize they are going somewhere they don't want to, or are asked to navigate an obstacle, then all bets are off and it's back to the barn they go.
- Some horses won't even allow themselves to be led across the yard without heavy equipment to push them along. Some horses will be polite for the most part, but will not tolerate when someone tries to pick up their feet or give them vaccinations. After all, they know full well that you are trying to murder them.
Any of those sound familiar? I hope not, but if they do, please don't feel discouraged. Everyone has had to deal with these otherwise lovable, but trying, beasts. If you notice that your new horse isn't like this, but that every horse you get eventually STARTS acting this way… then it's time to take a long, hard look at the way you are handling them because you are likely contributing to the delinquency of your horse by allowing him to behave badly. Every horse will eventually rise or fall to the level of its handler's skills.
How horses that have had clear and consistent boundaries set for them behave:
- The owner can catch it without a fuss. (Yes, there will be days when some horses will still act silly, but those should be outnumbered by the good days.)
- Once caught, the horse will lower his head and turn it towards you for haltering. (Yes, really.)
- He will walk side by side with you, keeping his shoulder even with yours, and without you having to pull him along.
- The horse will not suddenly decide the grass is calling and try to leave you behind to go answer it.
- He will pay attention to you, going where you direct without stepping on you, pushing you, or violating your personal space.
- The horse will patiently stand tied without throwing a fit. (This can take some practice with horses that have been spoiled or frightened badly while tied, or that have learned to pull back any time they no longer wish to be tied.)
- The horse may not be thrilled by the vet or farrier's wish to do things to them, but out of trust and respect will attempt to comply with your wishes that they stand quietly and allow it.
Sound like a lot? It's not really. Any horse can learn to do these things, but first the owner has to learn how to request it, how to politely demand it, and how to not lose their temper or give up until the horse politely complies. It is exactly the same as raising children with good manners. Polite, clear, consistent demands combined with unyielding patience and insistence will do wonders.
How to get your horse to do this:
It all starts with the moment you halter them. Most people just grab the horse's head and try to clumsily force the halter on. Of course the horse hates that. Remember when you were young and some helpful relative would put a sweater on? They were probably abrupt and made you feel like you were being rudely jostled around; sometimes to the point you were worried because you felt trapped when it was stuck over your head? Horses are naturally claustrophobic and prone to entrapment panic, so think about it from their point of view. Be polite, deliberate and smooth about it. While holding the end of the crown piece in your right hand, place your right arm around his neck up fairly high. Put the near strap (at the cheek piece) in your left hand and start sliding the noseband up onto his nose and face. With your right hand, apply pressure on his poll to ask him to lower his head down. Use your left hand to pull the near side of the halter toward you while you stand to the side beside his shoulder. As soon as the head turns toward you a bit and relaxes downward, take the pressure off and rub him. Most horses will tend to keep raising their head as you slide the noseband on, but as he does, keep pressure on it and on the top of his poll with your right hand until he lowers his head again. As soon as he gives the first indication of moving downwards, take the pressure off. Do this as many times as necessary until you can get the halter fastened without him lifting his head. We tend to get into such a hurry when dressing our horses. Slow down, take a deep breath and let it out, and spend as much time as it takes in establishing this first set of ground rules. Make it a habit now. Later on you'll need to do the same with bridling.
Once the horse is haltered, make sure he is lined up with your shoulder and start walking. If he lags behind, like most will, use a training stick or whip in your left hand to tap backwards at his hip. For sensitive horses, that may be enough to send them forward, but for dull, lazy horses you will probably have to actually whack them on the butt a few times for them to get the message. It doesn't matter what he is acting like on any given day, work with the horse you have in your hand. If he's sensitive, be soft and slow. If he is dull and uninterested, be sharper and get his hiney if you have to. Only do as much as it takes to get the response you are looking for and then immediately relax your body language to take the pressure off. Once he is going along beside you, hold the whip or stick in a neutral position and simply walk along at a fairly brisk pace. Practice making the moves without your horse until you feel comfortable with the tools. Asking your horse to walk along beside you is same as asking a dog to "Heel". You'll want to practice starting and stopping several times to get the point across and make sure your horse understands what you are asking.
At first, it's easiest to make turns to the inside, to your left. If your horse isn't paying attention to you and lags as you turn, tag his hiney with the stick again as you give him a tug with the rope. Remember; make the force of the correction fit the drive and sensitivity level of your horse. If you know he's sensitive, DON'T whack him. Scaring him half to death will only make matters worse and he won't trust you. On the other hand, if he's acting like he's asleep and doesn't care what you do, by all means whack that butt! He'll likely just look surprised and speed up a step or two, only to slow back down immediately. Keep at it. Dull horses give people fits because the poor owner doesn't want to be mean to the horse, yet the horse doesn't seem to be noticing it anyway! If he's completely unresponsive, it is NOT mean to keep increasing the intensity until you get a response. What is mean is to slowly nag him to death. Ever see one of those grumpy husbands who've been nagged for thirty years? Ever notice how they completely tune out their wives? Don't teach your horse to tune you out! Ask politely, then tell him. If you get no response, then demand it. If he still isn't moving then it's time to really put some force into that swing - ONE time. If he moves out, immediately take all pressure off and walk with him. If he overreacts, let him and keep walking. Don't fuss and coddle him, just carry on as if nothing happened. The next time you cue him again, go right back to the subtlest cue. Make each successive increase in intensity totally predictable. Pretty soon, he'll get the idea and won't be concerned at all. The important keys here are clarity and consistency, and total emotional control of yourself.
Once you've got the hang of turning left, try turning to the right as you walk along. The horse probably won't notice you're trying to cut in front of him and will likely just walk right into you. It's up to you to make a barrier, either with your right arm or the whip, by holding it up like a crossing guard who is telling someone to stop, and using it to block the horse's face as you step across him. Sensitive horses may jump a little, and that's okay. Disregard it and keep moving in the direction you are trying to go. Dull horses will often totally ignore it and keep walking into you. In this case, you may want to move that blocking hand in a rhythmic pattern back and forth towards his face. "What if I hit him?" is a common question. If you hit him, it's because he wasn't supposed to be there in the first place and it's his fault. Trust me; you are NOT going to hurt him. It won't even scare him IF you are unemotional about it. Sensitive horses may overreact, but the key with them is to KEEP doing it very matter of factly and calmly until they can realize that you were just moving into their space and they didn't move out of the way in time. Horses push and shove each other out of the way all the time and they recognize when it wasn't meant as a threat but simply a case of them being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is where your attention to your body language is so very important. If you are emotionless and relaxed about it, it won't scare him.
Remember to always immediately stop the pressure and assume a neutral position when your horse responds correctly. That's the only way he can recognize that he did something right.
Once you've got left and right down pat, it's time to really work on that stop. Hopefully by now you'll be pretty clear in your brisk forward walking, so it won't go unnoticed when you come to a stop. When you stop, do it cleanly without dribbling down to a slower and slower pace each time. Also, don't stop as fast as you can, which will startle your horse. Just walk along briskly and then stop. Think of window shopping in the mall. You see something interesting and stop to look at it. When he hits the end of the lead, it'll let him know that he should have been paying attention to you. If he keeps trying to go, pull back softly a time or two. If he ignores that, increase the backward pulls until he notices. Again, sensitive horses will get it pretty fast, but those dull horses will likely keep ignoring you. Don't let them. Snap the rope back in a pull and release, pull and release motion until he stops for a second. As soon as he does, take the pressure off and rub him. Of course, you can say "Whoa" if you want, but if you do, do it just before you ask him to stop so he can start making the association of the word with the ceasing of all motion. Make sure you always present clear and consistent aids and cues, otherwise your horse won't have any idea that you mean for all that to actually mean something to him. And of course, whatever you do on one side, make sure to do on the other as well. All horses should lead smoothly from the left as well as the right side.
If you are having trouble with this exercise, it can help to pick an object on the ground to make your stopping point. If you don't have orange cones or markers, you can use a milk jug, a bucket, or even just a rock. (There's no shortage of THOSE around here in the Ozarks!) It doesn't matter what you use as long as it is something you can easily see and focus on. It will be of great help in getting you to focus on where you are going as well as where you want to stop. After a few minutes of you focusing better, most horses catch on pretty quickly and seem to be totally in sync in with you even without you cueing them. Your motions just seem to flow. Getting that kind of response on the ground will help things translate smoothly and quickly into your mounted work together.
How to hold the lead
Something that horse owners ask a lot about is how to know whether to give them a longer lead or to choke up on it close to the halter. These exercises should ideally be done on a 10 to 12 foot lead. Your right hand should be about two feet from the halter, with your left hand holding the excess rope and stick. Why so much slack in the rope? Because the horse can't do something wrong if you are holding him in place, and he can't learn something if he doesn't have the opportunity to do it wrong and be corrected. When I say corrected, I do NOT mean punished. I do mean there are consequences to his being in the wrong place, such as being pulled back toward you or getting his rear end tapped, but this isn't to scare him into being afraid to make mistakes. It's about teaching him that it's simply more comfortable (less annoying) to pay attention to you and stay with you than to let his mind (and therefore body) wander off and get him into an uncomfortable position. He needs to be made aware of where his body is in relation to you at all times, and that is something horses can learn quickly because it's a constant process within the herd. Horses demand that kind of respect and attention from each other, but they aren't used to people demanding it.
Sometimes, like when the vet is trying to work on your horse, it may be appropriate to choke up on that lead and hold your horse steady. The moment the vet is trying to stick a needle in your horse is NOT the time to be training and allowing him to move his feet all over the place. Remember, we all have to endure unpleasant things in order to be healthy. No one really likes going to the doctor. Your horse will not hold it against you for it as long as you don't lose emotional control of yourself and the situation. Stay calm. Be firm and as kind as possible, but get the job done. Later on, you can work on his foundation skills and get him better prepared for the next time.
Putting a good, solid foundation of mutual respect and trust on your horse is probably the most important thing you can do to make sure he has a long and happy life with humans. Getting him into the habit of noticing your personal space and where you are at all times is a good habit that will carry over into all aspects of your relationship. This is only the beginning, and is the most basic foundation of his education in good manners and politeness. Think of this first part as kindergarten and first grade. You can't go to high school, much less college, if you don't start with the important basics learned in grade school.
It's all about the relationship -- a relationship built on mutual respect, firm politeness and clear boundaries. Go for it. Your horse will thank you. (And so will your vet!)