While the problem covered in this month's column was not sent in by a reader, it appears to be a fairly common problem from the number of inquiries I've received over the last year, but especially in the last two month's from prospective training clients. For this reason I've decided to address it this month.
At the urging of friends I've started to compile an archive of previous horse tips. Just click on the link to the problem you are having. If your problem is not here, or you need some clarification of the problem email me. If I use your problem for the next month's Horse Tips column you will receiveyour choice of Cowboy Romance (of horsesweat & hornflies) or Cowboy Goremay (from hoof to palate).
Like humans, or perhaps humans, like animals have many different personalities. Like animals, we also have an infinite amount of degrees of sensitivity. Man is a very egotistical beast. We have used our "logic" to separate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom. However logic itself is a very vague concept. Just look at politics and the vast difference between the "logic" of the Democrats with the "logic" of Republicans. Recognize a logic or any trait which humans have in an animal and you will be accused of "humanizing" the animal. Actually in our quest to prove that we are "superior" we have de-animalized ourselves. Speech may allow us to better convey complex ideas, but it also allows us to mask over or ignore intuitions and gut level emotional feelings that other animals communicate by. After all we are the only animals with speech and therefore the only animal capable of "logical" thinking. This gut level communication is something that is hard for many people to recognize or accept.
Barn sour Loping /cantering loading
Horse changes personality/ performance at shows Colt Starting Competetion site map
However horses, like many other species can be very sensitive physically.. Many horses can feel a single fly on their body and twitch the area the fly lands upon. Yet this same horse having a disagreement with another horse will seemingly be unfazed by a kick to the ribs which would land most people in the hospital.
There are some people who seem to intuitively know when a person doesn't feel good, or if they are upset in some way, without ever asking. Then there are some people who are so insensitive they can watch a horse fall on a boulder using it's rider as a cushion and act as if there should be nothing wrong with the rider. That same range of intuition, or lack of it is also in horses. The degree of this intuition is due to both genetics and life experience. As the instigator of the act of our horse related activities, it is up to us, not our horses, to figure out the horse's degree of intuition. The only way we can have our horse performing to it's true potential is to enhance the horse's intuition by figuring out it's sensitivities and form of logic. The only way to do this is through focus, feel, balance and timing.
During the first few rides it may not seem like it, but our horses are focused on what we are doing and trying to figure out what we are asking of them. Unfortunately, many riders wind up focusing not on what the horse is doing, but on what the horse is not doing. There is also the small amount of indecisiveness in the back of the riders mind which serves to work against us. This indecisiveness comes from uncertainty of what the colt is going to do and that little feeling of uncertainty goes straight through us to the colt or even straight through to an older broke horse.
To really make the point, many years ago some people brought me a horse that had "turned into a bronc." They had bought this from a local riding stable. My ex wife had worked for the stable and this was one of her favorite horses as he was nearly bomb proof and would baby sit his riders. While riding along an empty irrigation ditch one windy spring day, a large piece of plastic blew up out of the ditch and wrapped around the horse's front legs. The horse spooked and tripped while trying to get free and fell down. After that the horse was spooky. Each ride would get worse until the point the horse was so spooky they couldn't even mount it to get out of the yard.
When they brought him to me I just saddled up and got on him. Not a bit of evidence there was anything wrong with him. After a couple of laps around the arena I asked a bystander to throw me a towel as I trotted by. Hardly a reaction from this "bronc." I went in and called the owners to come out and ride the next day.
As the owner tried to mount, the horse reverted to bronc status and wouldn't let him swing his leg over. The rider's fear was going straight through him to the horse. At that point I took the horse from him and climbed on. The horse stood perfectly still as I crawled up and clumsily swung my leg over as the stirrups were too long for me to reach once I was on. Then I trotted off and told the owner to throw me the towel. He refused because he thought the horse would buck me off, so a bystander threw me the towel. Once the owner saw with his own eyes that the horse wasn't spooky I had him get on. It was like night and day. With the rider not expecting the horse to do anything but stand still, the horse stood. After taking them out for several rides they were both back to their old selves.
Fear of a wreck combined with a lack of focus of what the horse is doing combines for a wreck. The horse is depending on you for guidance. When you are afraid, the horse actually believes there is something to be afraid of and will be fearful too. On the other hand, overcoming your fear and focusing more on what the horse is actually doing will help the horse out of the wreck.
Anger is another emotion the horse will easily read.The horse can only assume that your anger is directed towards it and will act accordingly. We all have good days, bad days and mediocre days. So do horses. But however or whatever we are feeling emotionally will go straight through to our horses no matter what kind of day the horse is having. Because of this it is extremely important to have yourself in the right frame of mind whenever you ride, but especially during those first few rides or with a problem horse. The problem horse's problem is usually ninety percent human caused.
Back to those first couple of rides. If you have done the right kind of ground work, the horse is trusting you enough to stand there and let you climb on it's back. It is focusing on what you are asking but has first to gain it's own balance while figuring out what you are asking of it. This is when it is time for you to focus on balance, feel and timing.
By balance, we are not talking of your balance, but that of your horse. One of the biggest mistakes a person makes is to try to "help" the horse turn by leaning in the direction they want the horse to go. This only serves to throw the horse a little off balance. In order for the horse to remain balanced it will want to go to the opposite side of your weight. Some riders will have a problem with their horse drifting to one direction or the other and blame it on the horse. In reality this is usually caused by the rider having their weight off center causing the horse to drift. Over time and with a lot of effort on the rider's part, many horses will learn how to go in the direction of the rider's weight shift. The problem here is that the horse does not move in a natural, balanced way. By using their natural tendency of catching their balance by going away from the weight you can position yourself to allow the horse to go in the direction you want rather than having to force it.
Feel and timing are as important as balance. Here we are talking about you feeling your horse and timing things to be easier for your colt to feel and understand what you are asking.Don't just pull their head around and expect them to turn in that direction. If the horse is picking up it's left front foot and you pull it's head around to the right it will naturally resist your pull and drift left (especially if you have your weight to the right of center). Wait to ask for a turn until you can use the horse's position to your advantage and balance yourself so that the horse can take advantage of it's own balance. Use not only your hands, but your legs and body to help guide the horse.
When turning to the right, wait until the right front foot is beginning to leave the ground and give not a steady pull but a gentle bump to ask it to tip it's nose right. At the same time displace a little weight onto your left hip while applying pressure to the left cinch area. If the colt doesn't turn to the right wait to ask again until that right front foot is leaving the ground again and repeat, this time adding a little pressure to the right side, several inches in back of the cinch. This will tend to bend the colt a little in the middle making it easier for the colt to feel, understand, and do what you are asking.
You also use balance, timing and feel for speed control. Your horse can feel your body position and the subtle changes you make in your balance. While this is a fairly complex subject which could take a chapter or two in a book, there are a couple of examples which illustrate the basic principal.
To pick up speed, ask your horse to flex at the poll by slightly lifting the reins (and your body) while driving forward with your legs. This will keep your horse in frame while allowing the hindquarters to move underneath for more impulsion. Unless you drill your horse to only having several speeds (such as in Western Pleasure) there is nearly an infinite amount of speed control here. You can speed up the walk a notch, move into an easy jog, extended trot or lope.
There is a dressage exercise in which they will slow their horse by simply relaxing and exhaling to increase their weight in the saddle. Amazingly enough, this will also work on colts which are fairly green. Use this to your advantage. When you are wanting to slow your horse, lower your hands, relax your weight into the saddle and gently bump the reins in time with the front feet. ie: Bump the right rein as the right foot is leaving the ground and the left rein when the left foot is leaving the ground. This will allow you to slow each side independently using very little pressure while at the same time allowing the hindquarters to move up under the horse setting it up for a balanced stop.
Picking up leads is another area that horses have a hard time getting their people to understand. Few horses will pick up the incorrect lead when not being ridden, but a lot of them seem to "forget" how to pick up a lead when packing a rider. The cause of this is not the horse being one sided, but rather the rider being off balance and out of time for what they are asking. It seems to be fairly common for people to shift their weight to the side of the lead they want. Oddly enough they seem to do it more to one side than the other which winds up with the horse being consistently "one sided" to the opposite side of the rider's problem side.
To correct this problem I like to have the rider practice a lot of lateral movement. Trot your horse in both directions for several minutes. Once the horse is warmed up, start tipping it's nose a little to the outside at the corners. Shift your weight to your outside hip and push your horse to the inside of the turn while trying to keep the body fairly straight. Your fingers are going to be as busy as a piano player checking and releasing to accomplish this. All you are looking for is a step or two across the turn rather than bending into it. After a few laps in each direction extend the trot to the point the horse is ready to break into a lope and hold it steady until you are ready to lope.You are not ready to lope until you can get in time with the horse. Once you feel you are ready, lightly check the outside rein, shift your weight to the outside hip and, push with your outside leg while picking you with your body. This all has to be done in the same instant as the inside hid foot is leaving the ground. By lifting your body up while asking (as opposed to driving your weight into the saddle) you are allowing the horse to round it's back and reach up with the correct foot. Rather than trying to force the horse to collect and pick up it's lead, you are allowing it to flow into a relaxed, collected, lope, on the correct lead.
The easiest thing (and possibly most natural for many people) is to blame the "stupid animal" for not reacting the way we want it to. Most of the problems we have with horses are human caused. They can only react to us in a way which they understand. If what we do is confusing to the horse, there is no possible way they can respond in the way we want them to.
When you have "problem" with your horse don't automatically blame the "stupid" horse. If you are sure you're doing everything correctly and your timing is good, remember that some of the problems a horse will have in response to training is physical pain or discomfort. Some horses may not seem lame or even sore to pressure. The movement you are asking for, combined with your weight will cause discomfort or pain and the horse will either refuse the maneuver or possibly even buck to avoid doing something that hurts. (In cases where the horse bucks in order to refuse, pay close attention to how the horse is bucking, in particular how it lands. If the pain is in a leg, the horse will protect that leg when landing by planting it after the other three have hit the ground.
Another sign of soreness is tongue chewing. This releases endorphins similar to a twitch whereby the horse can help alleviate his own pain. The interesting thing about this is that the tongue will generally be hanging out on the side which the pain is on. Keep in mind that the horse can be in discomfort, or pain without neccessarily showing signs of lameness. Several years ago a client was showing me some videos of his race horses. He was telling me the story behind one horse how it had acquired the habit of sticking it's tounge out to the right. As we watched the video he also told me how the morning after the race we were watching, the horse had a swollen right knee and could not walk. Up until that point no one, not even his hall of fame trainer, had noticed any lamness. X-rays revealed that the colt had calcium deposits from chipping his knee sometime earlier. These deposits had broken free during the race and damaged the knee to the extent the colt's racing career was finished. If they would have realized that the tounge chewing was in fact an indicator of physical discomfort and not just a nervous habit, this colt's successful racing career might not have ended so soon.
There are basically five keys to success in training your horse:
1) Being totally focused upon what you are doing.
2) Staying relaxed so that your horse stays relaxed.
3) Working with the horse's natural balance.
4) Timing your cues to coincide with your horse's natural balance to take advantage of the optimum moment when the horse can most easily understand what you are asking.
5) Don't blame the "stupid" horse for your problems. Concentrate on doing things right, but also keep in mind that the horse could be having physical problems relating directly to your problems in training.
Barn Sour Horses
Denise wrote in with a problem which distresses many horse owners...what to do with a barn sour horse. Her horse will get approximately a quarter mile from the barn and his stable mate and refuse to go any further.
As many will do, in fact as most of us are told to do from "experienced riders" we try to force the horse to go on. This is in fact just the opposite of what we need to do. Our horse is thinking that a ride out on the trail, especially away from his stable mate, is not the place to be. When he stops we start urging him onward with our legs, spurs, the ends or our reins, a rope or whip. The more we keep after him the more he will despise being out on the trail. Yes, he may eventually go but he has also been reinforced with the idea that the barn is a "good" place and the trail is a "bad" place to be. When he is on the trail he is "punished" until it is time to go home where he can lie around the stall and talk to his buddies. This can also backfire as your horse may start to sour on you a little closer to home each ride until he begins the ride by refusing to leave the barn at all.
Rather than make your barn sour horse's life miserable on the trail and wear yourself out trying to argue with an animal which may weigh ten times more than yourself, take him back home. Then you work him hard. Lope a lot of circles, practice your lead changes, keep him on the rail...The choice is yours. Just make sure that he has worked up a good sweat before you even begin to think about putting him up. When I talk about a "good sweat" I'm not talking about his neck getting a little damp. Work him until he actually has sweat running down his neck. It won't hurt him but he will probably be working harder than he was on the trail and definitely not relaxing like he thought he was going to do...
After you cool your horse down, loosen the cinch and tie him (preferably away from his stable mate...) to "soak". He will be wanting to get back to his stall but the point here is for him to realize that the trail is not such a bad place after all and that being back at the barn does not necessarily mean its time for R&R. After half an hour or so you can put him up. How often you ride your horse will bethe deciding in how long it will take your horse to go down the trail without wanting to go home. If you start riding your horse every day, it may get over the problem in as few as three or four rides. If you only manage to ride your horse once a week or so it may take a month or more.
The Lope or Canter
Changing Personality at larger shows
This month's column concerns a mare which
is hard to load. She will walk up to the trailer then refuses to go in
the trailer. This particular horse was recently purchased so there is no
telling how long the problem has existed. Once a horse has been taught
to load in a trailer there are basically three reasons behind the problem
developing and these reasons need to be eliminated or else the loading
problem will continue.
The most common problem is you're driving habits. Your horse cannot see what is coming up on the road and has no idea of how to adjust itself for the ride. It is a good idea for anyone hauling horses to go for a short ride in a trailer to see what your horses are going through. You will see how sudden starts or stops and not slowing down enough for turns can throw you off balance, which over time turns getting in the trailer into a very stressful situation.
The second most common cause of loading problems is hauling for extended periods of time without giving your horse a break. People have a tendency to want to get from point "A" to point "B" in the shortest amount of time possible. When you stop for fuel you have a chance to get out stretch your legs and maybe check on your horses then you are back on the road again. Horses need the chance to take a break and stretch their legs too. If you are on the show or rodeo circuit and making a lot of long hauls, you are less likely to sour your horse or cause road founder if you will give them a short 10 or 15 minute break. Take them out and walk them or lunge them a little so they can stretch their muscles and give them a drink. Its also a good idea to give them a little hay to munch on while being hauled.
The third reason is a little less common. Make sure that your trailer is big enough for your horse. It needs to have enough head room to keep from banging it's head on the top if it needs to raise its head to balance itself or to back out of the trailer. Also the trailer compartment needs to be wide enough that your horse has room to lift it's head when it shifts it's weight. In this last case, the best thing to do is to get a big large enough so that your horse can ride comfortably.
There are two methods I use to get a hard to load horse in the trailer. Both of these methods use the psychology of making it more comfortable for the horse to get into the trailer rather than refuse. The first is the most simple. As soon as the horse begins refusing to come forward by resisting pressure back it up quickly five to ten feet. Then lead the horse forward in a couple of small circles and head back to the trailer. Timing is important. You need to start backing the instant your horse stops. Horses don't like to be backed in a hurry, so that after a few times of backing the horse will often wind up going into the trailer.
The second method takes quite a bit of timing, feel and coordination. Park the trailer near a solid fence to form a wing next to the trailer. Run a rope from the horse's lead rope, through the trailer and out the escape door. This rope needs to be long enough to reach from the escape door to twenty or thirty feet in back of the trailer. Standing far enough in back of the horse that you can't get kicked, pull gently on the rope and click to the horse. Do not pull hard enough for the horse to try and pull back, but just gently enough that it can feel the forward pressure. (If the horse rears, you are putting too much pressure on its head) Start spinning the end of the rope in back of the horse. If it doesn't move forward, start brushing its rump with the spinning rope. The object here is not to beat the horse into the trailer, but to make it more comfortable for the horse to follow the pressure of the lead into the trailer. If the horse doesn't go forward with the rope just brushing its hindquarters slowly increase the brush to a slap, but keep the rope spinning at the same speed.
When the horse steps forward, you need to gather up the rope on the lead side to keep the same amount of pressure on its head. More likely than not, the horse will take a step inside the trailer then back out fast. This is where the timing feel and coordination will come in. You have to let the horse back out while keeping the same pressure on the lead and the spinning rope on the hindquarters. If you don't let the horse back, or increase your pressure on the lead, it will rear. By allowing the horse to back up, but not letting it escape the spinning rope, you are making the trailer be more comfortable direction to head. When the horse starts forward again, you have to once again gather up the slack on the head while keeping the tail of the rope popping the hindquarters. Using this method, I've never had a horse back up more than three times before going into the trailer, and I've loaded some pretty unruly broncs with this method.
If he horse rears when using this method it is because you are applying too much pressure on the lead and giving the horse a reason to rear. The only reason a horse rears when you are loading it, is because you are applying too much pressure on it's head and preventing it from backing away from the trailer and giving it something to pull against. Let the horse back into the spinning rope and suddenly the light pressure on it's head is more comfortable to follow than escaping into the spinning rope