Who's Leading Whom?

Part 2

In part one I talked about the basics of teaching your horse to "Heel", or walk along beside you of his own accord without you having to pull, push, drag, or otherwise fuss with him. Remember, training your horse doesn't have to be about formal "training sessions", but rather making a point to handle him properly every single time you are near him. This can be as simple as when you turn him out and bring him back in, whenever you catch and halter him for grooming, riding, or so the farrier can work on his hooves. Like any physical skill, the more you (both) practice, the sooner you'll become good at it, but even if you only handle your horse once a week, make that time count.

Especially in the beginning, most people do a better job if they are not setting up a formal session, but rather doing the practice work as part of getting ready for something else. Sometimes our predatory natures get the best of us and we get so focused that we make our students feel too pressured and nervous. By taking the pressure off and letting our minds relax a little, we can focus on the small subtleties of the movements and let go of the micro-managing behavior that so often upsets our horses. It's good to be picky, but not about every little muscle twitch. If you are one of those worriers who get caught up in all the smallest details, I recommend you try an MP3 player and headphones. Set your player on your most relaxing favorite music and let it play while you are working your horse. I find this to be a relaxing way to take some of the pressure off both myself and the horse. I often listen to music while I'm training horses and people watching have even commented about how much better the horses perform when I'm doing so. It's funny to think about, but I realize what is actually going on there: the horses are more relaxed because I'm more relaxed. It distracts the overly busy part of my brain so that I can better focus on the important stuff and stay mellow.

After you've gotten your horse to the point he'll attentively walk beside you, stopping and starting smoothly, you can add more complex maneuvers to your session. Remember, this isn't just about being able to lead him to and from the barn, but also about getting him to navigate obstacles that may be frightening to him, trailer loading, and even having someone work on his feet or take blood for Coggins testing. The more he understands and makes a habit of being polite, staying with you, and trusting you to make good decisions for him, the easier he'll be to get along with in every aspect of your relationship.

Once he's walking, turning and stopping from your left or right side, it's time to try the same at a trot. Again, you're going to use your stick or whip in your outside hand (the hand farthest away from him) and hold the lead rope at least a couple of feet away from the halter with your inside hand. When you take off at a trot, I want you to really take off. Don't just doodle up to it. Get your energy moving and MOVE ON OUT! If you go slowly, he won't recognize the difference between you asking for a trot or a walk. Remember, you already know what you want to do, but he has no way of knowing it until you actually do it. Now, chances are that the first few times he'll just start walking, or may even stand there staring at you as you hit the end of the lead and snap it tight. Pay no mind. Simply take off a trot again and if he doesn't follow, use your stick behind you to tap at his rear end. Always start with a subtle cue, and then build the intensity accordingly until you get the desired response. You're trying to communicate your wishes to him, not scare him. The goal is to teach him attentiveness and that it is safe for him to try without fear of you getting angry or mean. If he's made to feel that everything he does is wrong and will only make you mad, pretty soon he'll either stop trying altogether, or get so nervous that he becomes an emotional wreck. This applies to teaching anyone - children, adults, or animals. In other words, never knock the "try" out of anyone. Once it is gone, it is difficult to get back.

Practice walking and trotting, and alternating between the two, while moving around your practice area. Add in some obstacles like a manure cart, a couple of hay bales stacked up, a plastic tarp wadded up on the ground, barrels, or anything safe that might be worrisome to your horse. If you've got some hay bales or wheat straw, set up a maze and see if you can walk him through it. See if you can back him through it. The more distractions you can add at this point the better you'll both get at navigating them and working together. Your horse has to learn that he can trust you to make good decisions for the both of you, and that he MUST go with you when you ask.

Many horses will panic when they first see a tarp on the ground, especially if the wind is blowing it and making it crinkle. Some horses will immediately want to play with it. If yours is one of the ones who is frightened, then stop the leading lesson and in a safe area like a round pen or good sized corral introduce him to it. NEVER approach the horse with the scary object to begin with, but rather pick it up and allow him to follow it. Even panicking horses will walk after a tarp if it's moving away from them and they can follow behind. Make sure you are watching the horse and don't allow him to run over you! If you need to, walk backwards (make sure the area is clear of anything you could trip over and that you pay attention to where you are walking) so that you can be ready if he darts towards you. A horse's survival instincts drive it into the center of the herd when it's being attacked. If you are holding onto the end of the lead rope and are near your horse, then you are the herd. This is why horses will do (what seems to us) the stupid thing of running us over when they get scared. We have to teach them to think and get control of themselves in these situations, it's not natural for them. By practicing, not only are we teaching them to think under stress, we're teaching ourselves to pay better attention to what the horse is doing, to know what to expect when he does panic, and to react immediately when he does temporarily lose his mind and try to bounce onto your head. In my experience, most people who get very frightened of upset horses are scared because they don't know what to expect. They have no idea what the horse "might" do. By putting your horse into scary situations and then handling those situations correctly, you each gain confidence in yourself and each other.

Once you have your horse tolerating the tarp while following it, allow him to approach it and smell it. Have him move around it. Drive him around it. At first he may run past it, and that's okay. Just keep sending him by it, over and over ,it until he gets over worrying about it. If he tries to stand beside it, that's great! Let him stand and rest near it. If he wants to panic and act silly, keep his feet moving. It's his choice, keep working or stand and be sensible. Always make sure you aren't taking the pressure off at the wrong time - you want to release the pressure when he's being sensible and calm. If he stops beside the tarp and licks his lips, then immediately relax and let him stand there for a minute or two. Take your time; there is no need to rush. This is a process you may have to do more than once, depending on the horse. Some horses will settle down and be fine after one time. Some may need to practice this over and over and then again from time to time. The important thing is not to get mad at him about it. The tarp is nothing to be concerned about, so don't act concerned! Set a good example for your student; remember that they notice body language in minute detail. If you get tense and upset, so will he.

At first you may want to work on picking up and holding your horse's feet yourself, but eventually you'll want to have a friend help out. Having you pick up a foot is one thing, but a relative stranger trying to do it is completely different. Have someone you trust pick up a foot and hold it. Start out holding it for just a second or two and then build up to longer periods. Try not to let the horse take its foot away, but don't let it become a life-or-death battle either. If you need to let go of the foot, by all means do it, but then pick it right back up again, or make him work at moving his feet for a few minutes. It doesn't really matter if he takes his foot away IF you make him work harder when he does. Either make him work before giving him another chance, or simply pick the foot right back up, just don't let him trick you into letting him stand there at rest.

Each time you ask for a foot, you need to make sure he's standing fairly square and doesn't have his weight on the one you are trying to pick up. I can't tell you how many times I've watched in fascinated horror as someone got violently mad at his or her horse for not picking up a foot that his weight was obviously on. Ask him to shift his weight over to the opposite side, and THEN ask him to pick up the foot. Trust me, it'll go much more smoothly. Once you've got him giving up his foot pretty politely, you can add more difficulty by tapping the foot with a hammer, brush, or anything (safe) you have lying around. Desensitize him to motion and noise with his feet just like you would anything else - don't take the pressure off while he's misbehaving. Wait until he's standing quietly and calmly to reward him. Don't overwhelm him with stimuli, but don't underwhelm him either. A few minutes here and there are sufficient for most. You don't have to spend days working on each exercise. A few minutes spread out over a long period of time can actually be more effective for many horses. If at any time you feel yourself getting frustrated, stop what you are doing and either take a breath, or if you are really tense, put the horse away and go do something else for a while. Better yet, work on getting emotional control of yourself with deep breathing exercises for a few minutes and then go back to working with the horse. He can stand tied while you are getting yourself sorted out. Most horses need to spend more time standing tied anyway! Think of it as a cooling off period for him as well, plus it's always a good idea for horses to learn that they aren't going to be put away every single time you finish an exercise. With young colts as well as problem horses I'll often work them for a short period, let them stand tied nearby as I work another horse, and then go back to them. With particularly spoiled horses and mules, I may do this several times during the course of a day. They learn not to get into a hurry because there is no obvious "finish" point, and they learn to appreciate standing quietly since they have no idea how much more work they'll have to do before we're done.

To be continued...