Morning feeding: Phil backed away and let me pour his feed. As I approached to rub his head he swung his head in circles and danced in place. His body posture told me he was not being aggressive or pushy; he wanted to play. Phil is still very much a colt. This is behavior that needs to be addressed. I am a human; I am not his play buddy. The biggest mistake handlers make, in my opinion, is they think their horse is their buddy and encourage this playful behavior because it “is cute.” It is not cute when a 1200 lb. horse escalates the play behavior by rearing, charging, biting, or kicking. This should not be tolerated! In the herd the Alpha mare does not have a buddy. Sure, she will graze and engage with the other horses, but she does not have a “best friend” or ‘buddy.” This statement is reflecting a true wild herd. The lower members of the herd buddy up. My goal with Phil is to establish in his mind that there is no doubt I’m the Alpha mare. I didn’t even have to send Phil around the pen, a stern “NO” and raising my hand to block him (kind of like “talk to the hand”) switched his behavior mode immediately.
A little insight: I love my horses. I do not love on them. My horses are not my best friends. I do have great partnerships and relationships with all of them. I respect the horses for what they are and what they are capable of doing. I try not to put human thoughts or emotions on their behavior. All of my horses are extremely well balanced animals. They are mentally and physically happy. I do not have “behavior issues” with any of my established herd; not even the foals. My horses are happy because they know what is expected of them and are comforted knowing that I am the leader. Sure, I pet them, talk to them, wish them a happy birthday, and bring them treats from the kitchen, but this is purely for my fulfillment. I provide a safe, clean, stimulating environment and a nutritionally sound diet. They are not fat. In fact, I adjust the weight of their pellets and hay continually to keep them at a body condition score of 5-7. My husband says I cook for them, and he is right. I never change the rules and am always consistent in my expectations. Yes, I do have days where a horse may be a little pushy or doesn’t want to get caught right away, and I will drop everything and address the issue ASAP even if I have a million other tasks/responsibilities to finish (horses do not have schedules to keep). I have even been late to teach a class before because I had a horse that was rude and needed a refresher course in respect. In return, for my dedication and honesty, my horses are very easy to work with and a joy to be around. Ok, I’m off my soapbox.
I worked Phil in the round pen. He is usually stiff in his hind end so I let him warm up a bit before I ask him to move out. He was goofy today. Phil wanted to canter and shake his head. This was fine as long as he was out of my space and responded to my cues. Phil now circles in to me to change direction about 50% of the time: Celebrate the little victories! Phil also kept one ear on me the entire time even though I had loose horses around the outside of the round pen. I did not have to compete with those horses for Phil’s attention!
I find it interesting that Phil chooses his right lead. The round pen is good for him to learn that it is easier to canter on the correct lead without the weight of me on his back. I am teaching pre cues before I ride Phil. For example, a cluck is trot and a kiss is canter. I have found it is easier to teach lead changes when your horse knows what a kiss means. This way I only have to use a leg cue to signal which lead I want him to take. I left Phil in the round pen for a change of scenery and give him a chance to soak up the lesson. Remember, I always keep water in the round pen.I have really worked on sensitizing Phil to pressure. Ok, now I’m sure I’m going to confuse everyone. There are many things that I have desensitized Phil to, but Phil’s lack of motivation stemmed from he didn’t see a need for humans (no respect). He was already desensitized to humans. I have made an impression on Phil by putting uncomfortable pressure on him and then I magically hold the power to take the pressure off. Only by making Phil very uncomfortable have I been able to sensitize him to my presence. I see the results as Phil hustles his feet to change directions with a point of my finger. You may think by putting Phil in an uncomfortable position I may make him scared of me or not like me. These are human thoughts and emotions. What I do is make it very difficult to choose the wrong option and easy to choose the correct one. Horses understand the feeling of pressure; they want the pressure gone. When I put Phil in his pen he follows me to the gate in a submissive manner. If he was scared of me or didn’t like me (human thought/emotion) he would run away from me as fast as he can and may even “give me the middle finger” by kicking in my direction. Quite the contrary, Phil finds me comforting and prey animals are comfort seekers.
I am about to touch on a subject that you will not hear much about from the “traveling trainers/clinicians” because it elicits a lot of emotion out of people and is very taboo. You will see these clinicians use the leather popper, stick, or whatever tool they use, but they will never really talk about it. However, this is it “the good, the bad, and the ugly”. As I have said previously, training horses is not glamorous. If you have any questions please ask.
Sensitizing to pressure: To sensitize a horse is to cause them to become responsive to a specific cue or stimulus. I do not think I need to explain that abusive behavior (verbal/physical) is never to be used on your horse. The reality is I think I need to persuade most of you to become more firm with your horses and quit nagging them; step up to the plate and fulfill your end of the bargain. Your horse will be happier. Horses communicate through posture and contact; plain and simple. When posture is ignored, immediate contact is made. When you add the human and the human’s emotions simple communication through contact is often escalated into abuse. If you have no choice but to take your communication to the next level you must do so within 3 seconds, communicate in a quick and clear fashion. If you miss your 3 second window your correction is considered a sucker punch or low blow. I only use a rope halter/lead combo with leather poppers under the chin and on the end of the rope. I do not use lunge whips, stud chains, twitches, or harsh bits, etc.
When I first met Phil I could yell, scream, stomp my feet and he would not even put an ear on me much less an eye. I could wave a lunge whip all around him and he would just ignore me. Many people would say Phil is bombproof; this is what gets people hurt. Phil did not have any respect for me or any other human. This meant when I asked (hold lead up in direction I want him to travel), then told (swing rope to promote visual and increase my energy) and still no response I will follow through with a promise (step in his space and spank w/popper). The promise or follow up could be kicking dirt at him or administering an accurate spank or pop with the popper on his rump. I have set Phil up for success by asking, then telling, and then following through. He has learned through repetition “to know what is going to happen before it happens”. DO NOT NAG YOUR HORSE. Nagging doesn’t work with your children and it won’t work with your horse. Do not ask, ask, ask, beg, plead, ask, beg, pretty please, beg, and then out of frustration pop him like there is no tomorrow. This is completely unfair and you don’t deserve any respect. I will not hesitate to spank/pop (one quick, clear, concise spank/pop) a horse on his rump with the leather popper on my lead rope after I have politely asked, then firmly told and blatantly ignored. This “pop” sends my energy directly to the horse. The “pop” from the lead is merely an annoyance to the horse; you can’t hurt him on his rump. If you use the end of your lead (nylon, leather, cotton, rope, NEVER the stud chain) make sure you always use a downward motion. If you swing the rope up you may catch your gelding or mare in a sensitive area and you deserve to be kicked. With Phil I had to lunge at him, pop him with the popper, squeal and move his feet backwards around his pen or down my driveway countless of times to sensitize him. Each time I had to increase the distance and my energy level (this was only done when I was completely ignored). Do what ever it takes to move your horse as long as you and your horse are safe; you are being fair to your horse; you are setting him up for success (meaning when he makes an effort you reward immediately) and most importantly you will follow up consistently. Pick your battles.
Pick your battles: Know when you have the ability to follow through with something. Rather than flail away aimlessly with something that you have never worked through before or are having problems with; know your limits and abilities. Most of all make sure that you correct a horse for a response you are after, not for something you did wrong.
Phil is beginning to understand that I will always follow through with my requests. He knows what is going to happen before it happens. I have not had to follow up with any requests in several days. Throughout our training together he will continually test me to see if I am going to hold up my end of the bargain. Once I have his respect I will just have to suggest pressure to get a response.