Where the Horseshoe Meets the Road… Developing Respect
The little bay horse was released from his halter, the owner stepped out of the round pen, and I asked him to move out. He instantly flared into a full-out gallop, as fast as his legs would take him around the pen, eyes rolling and head tossing as though he’d just watched a re-run of The Black Stallion. His owner had told me that he was basically recalcitrant, stubborn, and tended to be headstrong; in fact she was very nervous about riding him as she felt that he was barely under control. As I glanced at him through the raised dust and talked to the clinic participants watching from the shade around the pen, I could see the little guy working up a full head of steam. He galloped and thundered for several minutes, and then I quietly stepped a few feet to the side. He responded by whirling around and tearing off in the opposite directions. Lots and lots of energy from this Morgan gelding.
After about 10 minutes of his energetic bluster, I raised a hand and again stepped a few feet to the side, effectively blocking his path. Snorting fiercely, the gelding suddenly raced straight toward me, skidding to a stop directly in front of me in a move that would have made a reining horse proud, and reared straight up! The audience gasped, sure that I was about to have my head bashed in. (This would be a good moment to make a case for wearing a helmet when you’re round penning a horse you don’t know.) The look on the horse’s face was absolutely fierce, determined, and BIG. I couldn’t help myself – I burst out laughing.
The gelding immediately deflated, dropped to all four feet, his entire demeanor one of complete dejection. “Huh? The bluster didn’t work?” In my opinion from watching the horse and from having had a conversation about his behavior with the owner, he wasn’t a mean horse, had no intention of actually hurting me, and his main problem was simply that he had learned that if he was disrespectful and defiant, he could bluster his way out of having to work. I just let him know that I wasn’t intimidated and that, without disrespecting HIM, I would be taking over as leader from now on, thanks very much. From that point on, we were able to work together pretty well and the horse went on to form a much more respectful relationship with his owner.
A word of caution – this rearing behavior was in fact dangerous and my laughing response was not as cavalier and casual as it might sound. I was in a good position to get away from the horse and knew enough about him that I trusted the situation and felt confident. I do have to say that my husband was not amused…
The American Heritage Dictionary defines respect as: Respect – v – 1) to have regard for, esteem. 2) to avoid violation of. 3) High, often deferential regard. The Webster’s New World Thesaurus further explains it as: To treat with consideration, appreciate, heed, notice, consider, note, recognize, defer to, do honor to, be kind to, show courtesy to, spare, take into account, attend, regard, uphold. These are all good things to keep in mind when we are working with our horse.
We have to remember to give respect when dealing with our horses; to treat them like a horse, not a human or a dog or a motorcycle! And then expect it in return – ask for it and insist on it, consistently. If we have regard and respect for our horse, we are understanding their viewpoint on the world. We are the acknowledged leader of the team, but we are still appreciating, considering, and being kind to our partner. We model the behavior that we expect them to respond with, much like parenting.
Be someone your horse can respect – in control of yourself, with a mission. Don’t approach him in fear or apprehension, and attempt to use force to bluster your way with him. He will recognize a false front much faster than I did with the bay Morgan, and probably respond with worse than laughter.
EXERCISE #1: Personal Space & Green Light/Red Light
Goal – to show our horse the “safety/respect” zone that should exist around our bodies.
• Set up some cones (or bricks, overturned buckets, crossed sticks, etc) in a figure 8 pattern. This can be in an arena, large round pen, or just an open area as long as it is safe.
• With your horse haltered and with an 8-12 foot leadrope, begin walking your horse around the cones.
• You should hold the lead rope with some slack, at least one foot between your hand and the horse’s jaw.
• You should maintain at least 2 feet of space between yourself and the horse.
• Stop at some point, saying WHOA as you do so. Within a second or so, quietly (not aggressively) turn your body so that you are pointing your belly button (front of your body) towards his shoulder (quartering).
• He should stop immediately. If he continues stepping, increase the pressure by doing the following in sequence if he has not responded at any point during these: lifting your own energy (squaring your shoulders, standing very straight)- looking him dead in the eye – introducing an S-curve in the lead rope – raise your left hand quietly to about chest high on yourself, saying WHOA in a quiet but firm voice. – taking a step towards him.
• If he still continues walking, you may chose to carry a small riding crop that you may also introduce (show him) as an incentive for him to stop walking.
• The moment he stops walking, say GOOD BOY in a quiet voice, and turn your face slightly away from him to relieve any pressure. Drop your shoulders to indicate to him that your energy is relaxed, he did what you wanted, you are happy with his response. Give an audible sigh and just stop everything for about 10 to 20 seconds as a reward for his good response.
• If he takes even a single step forward once he has stopped, repeat WHOA, then tell him BACK and pressure him with the above sequence until he backs up like number of steps, to the spot where he first moved from.
• You should get to the point where he is giving you a good 2 feet of personal space, and is attentive to your movements. When you stop, he will stop immediately, and continue to look at you for next instructions. You don’t want him to become nervous, so be FAIR in your application of escalating pressure. Give him the opportunity to succeed before you make things harder on him.
• ADVANCED – You should be able to do this with the horse at liberty (without halter or leadrope), by telling him WHOA and then pointing toward his chest to say BACK.
EXERCISE #2: Advanced Leading – Basics of Hobble Training
Goal – to teach your horse to lead by a foot, thereby giving up his “freedom” and acknowledging your leadership. This also prepares a horse for hobble training later.
• Place a soft lariat or long leadrope around your horse’s front fetlock.
• Hold slight pressure on the rope and ask your horse to move forward (clucking, kissing, saying WALK, however you normally do so).
• Take your time, don’t fight your horse. Help him understand by responding instantly to his Try – the instant you feel him lift his foot off the ground, release the pressure.
• If your horse shows difficulty with this exercise, you can use your lead rope attached to his halter and guide him with that at the same time, so that he understands your “move forward” request.
• You can try this with both front feet and then his back feet, one at a time.
Thanks to Craig Cameron Horsemanship for this exercise!
Respect is a critical component of your relationship with your horse, and you will find that he’s a better horse and you are a better rider when you place some emphasis on this issue. Our horsemanship program has always focused on Communication, Respect and Trust as the three main areas to develop with horses. We believe that if you do the same, you will find success with your animal.