Ground Training – Day 1 – Phil’s Courage

When I first met Phil he was absolutely stunning, a real eye catcher. I was in awe of his stature and magnificent beauty. My “awe” quickly was replaced with “oh, no” as soon as the human element entered the picture. While Phil was magnificent in his world, he didn’t quite fit into the human world. Phil was pushy, mouthy, and did not know there were rules when interacting with humans. This was only because he is a bottom of the pecking order kind of guy and desperately wanted someone to tell him the human rules. I was informed that Phil had some training issues such as balking, not walking through gates, and rearing. I’m sure I’ll uncover some more “holes” as I begin our journey.

Phil was labeled a stubborn horse.

In reality, Phil is not stubborn and this is far from the truth. When Phil becomes overwhelmed and unsure he shuts down. He will plant his feet. Phil demonstrated this behavior when he was asked to load onto the trailer. Since Phil had not been exposed to my handling techniques I had to find a way to communicate to him in a way that he would understand that he was being asked to go on the trailer. I had to set him up for success, use a method he could easily understand. I used a very basic method. I tapped him on the hindquarters with a lunge whip with rhythmic tapping and only stopped tapping when he made an attempt to think about loading. The goal was to teach Phil that standing outside the trailer was an irritating experience and inside the trailer he will have peace. I tapped for 40 minutes until he moved away from the annoying tapping.

This is a very safe method for horse and handler. Do not hit your horse with the lunge whip, crack the whip, wrap the lunge line behind his butt, or try to pull him on the trailer. I will say that if you try to pull and he does not move be prepared to keep the tension on the rope until he releases himself with a step forward. Most of the time, he will find the release by rearing or stepping backwards and when this happens you have no choice but to release your tension on the lead…you have now taught your horse this is appropriate. The next time he does this he is only doing it because he was rewarded with a release in the past.

Once Phil was on the trailer, he kicked, pawed, and rocked the trailer back and forth. This was not only poor manners, but he could get hurt or damage the trailer. I let Phil stay on the trailer for quite a while and only unloaded him when he was quiet.

Phil unloaded in a rush. I hung the lead around his neck and let him unload himself. I did not want to put myself between him and the trailer. I ignored Phil’s excited state of mind because he was in a new place. Pick your battles wisely. If you cannot win, don’t ensue the fight. You are not going to be able to communicate with a horse that is in the excited state of mind. I did step in when he was pushing me and jumping to close to me. He can jump around at 6ft away from me in his own space. I spent 1/2 hour ground work session. It was pretty intense. I rewarded Phil when he became soft and light on the lead and made an attempt to stay out of my 3 foot bubble. When I refer to light, I mean I can tip his nose and move his feet by just holding on to the lead with fingertips. It was time to put him away. Phil planted his feet and refused to go through the gate. That is ok, he didn’t have to go through the gate head first. His backward gear worked just fine, so I backed him through the gate. I repeatedly walked in and out of the gate until he didn’t give the gate another thought. I use this technique on all the foals.

All new horses live in a quarantined round pen. It is a large round pen that is set up next to our house. Phil can see all the horses around him. I can see him from my dining room windows. This allows me to monitor a new horse for stress. The time spent alone in quarantine is a valuable training opportunity. This is the time I can set up my own herd pecking order with him. I am the Alpha mare. I do not have to compete for Phil’s attention if I take the horse herd hierarchy out of the equation. The corral is small enough he has to interact with me. This is my chance to show him I feed him, I give him water, I keep him safe, and I also can move his feet in any direction. This would be impossible in our 5 acre pastures, because Phil would just run away from me and I would create some other issues such as not being able to be caught.

Feeding: Phil was not aware that proper horse manners are for the horse to stand quietly away from the food dish until the handler was done pouring feed and invited him to eat. In order for Phil to succeed with this task I sent him to the far end of the corral. I would have plenty of time to pour the feed and stop him in his tracks before he reached the dish. As I predicted, Phil headed straight for the dish, but I stopped him and drove him in circles around the dish. If he stopped, I sent him on again. I gave a submissive posture to Phil and he stopped, turned in to face me. I did not let him go to his dish until he acknowledged me, even if it was for a brief second. H
e also had to be in a submissive posture (look for head lowered, licking lips, blinking eyes, or lowering head with floppy ears). Any aggressive posture, keep your horse moving.

Phil whinnied all night long. He is looking for the support of the herd. Each day he will gain confidence. This same technique is used for weaning the foals. I do not recommend isolating horses from other horses completely. As long as, other horses are in sight your horse will be ok. If your horse learns that being by himself is ok, then you will never have to deal with separation issues. Phil will join a herd once we have established my herd dynamics.

I include daily aspects of my schedule to show that training doesn’t have to be working your horse for hours, or taking you horse to the arena. Training is done in little increments starting with the foundation basics such as haltering, catching, leading, food/de worming/vaccination manners. If these day to day activities are not built into your horse it will show up under saddle. You may wonder how de worming etiquette can show up under saddle? Well, just read on about my journey with Phil’s Courage.

While these techniques are working for Phil they may not work for your horse. Every horse has a different learning style.

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