Monday, December 27, 2010

You can't bluff your horse so stop trying!

This story begins pretty much like most of my stories when I receive phone calls from horse owners. A woman called saying she had a three year old mare - a Shire/Thoroughbred Cross. She asked when I could come to her ranch to give her an evaluation and maybe some guidance about what could be going-on with her "pushy" mare. Unfortunately, it didn't sound at all unusual considering that people call me 90% of the time when there is trouble so we made an appointment for a few days down the road.

When I arrived to the ranch I was met by the woman's husband who began giving me the low-down on the situation. The horse, which they had purchased about six months prior, had never been ridden but had been saddled a few times; and not easily saddled by the way. But the wife had read some books and watched some videos and CD's and had been "training" and driving the horse using a surcingle and long-lines. But the serious problem arose when the wife attempted to mount the horse. Somehow the woman landed on the ground and the horse kicked her pretty good in the thigh leaving a huge bruise. I guess it was just luck that she didn't get hurt much more severely. At this point, and after various other issues with the horse, the husband and wife decided they needed some professional guidance. That's when they called me.

When I arrived the horse was in the field with three other horses and had her own ideas about being caught and haltered. It took quite a while before the owner could halter the horse and this was only accomplished by entering the pasture with a grain bucket. Normally I'd not go for that but before I could begin to change the scenario I figured getting her caught any way possible is sometimes the only way to begin.

In the round pen the mare totally ignored me; constantly looking outside the round pen with her nose in the air and turning her hindquarters towards me at every opportunity. It wasn't rocket science what she was saying loud and clear but then again she had no reason to respect me at this point in the game. But she sure was speaking volumes about what she needed as my training routine began to formulate inside my head. 

It was obvious that she had never been taught to lead properly nor did she understand the concept of coming off of pressure. Imagine thinking to ride such a horse? She was always fussing around and jumping ahead of me, bumping into me and then not wanting to move her feet at all. I had a good feeling that all this bad behavior was just about to change. By the way, it's not the horses fault if the horse owner allows the horse to be in charge. And it's not the horses fault if that horse decides to act stupid or silly or even dangerous. It's our job as horse owners to know how to remedy such behavior. A horses behavior is simply a direct result of the training they've had or have not had. Just like in the wild, horses are always attempting to climb the ladder in the herd towards dominance and leadership. If we as horse owners allow them to dominate us then, by nature, they will take over. Not to understand this basic aspect of horsemanship is to start-off on the wrong foot with a horse.   

Sometimes a trainer has to come on a little stronger with such pushy and dominant horses. And by coming on strong I simply mean that it is important to establish alfa-ship right off the bat. My job as trainer and the job of horse owners in general is to take over the herd of two and to allow the horse to take second position - but to establish this relationship in such a way that the horses dignity is left intact; that's the real art. After all, if this herd of two is to work harmoniously with dignity and honor in tact leadership is simply established and then we all move forward. So please understand that I don't mean come on strong in a macho and exploitive manner. There has to be rewards and there has to be positive recognition of the horses attempts to take steps in the right direction. Otherwise the leadership is flawed and the horse will pick-up on it. This horse only needed to relinquish her erratic behavior that was getting nobody anywhere and this would happen all by itself when she recognized that an alfa horse was now present. And it should be mentioned here that horses are generally looking for an alfa horse to arrive on the scene. The alfa horse treats them the way they want and actually need to be treated so there is more to training a horse than just getting them to do things - it's knowing how to build and generate a relationship based on honor, dignity and respect. Who in the heck wouldn't want that guy to arrive on the scene :)  

So, it should be clear that horses know immediately when the boss shows up. And they know precisely if one doesn't show-up by the way. In the presence of a leader the rest of the herd just steps into place and if the trainer knows his salt it happens right in front of his eyes in minutes if not sooner. When this mare stood with all four feet locked when I attempted to lead her I knew she understood what I was asking but she was just being defiant - after all - she always got her way so why should things change now? With the lead rope held loose in my right hand I took the long tail-end of the rope in my left hand and behind my back I gave her a commanding crack on her hind quarters. I wasn't mad at her I just wanted to be very articulate in telling her that things are now going to change - the first step of establishing alfa-ship.  She immediately jumped forward and looked at me out of the corner of her eye as though to say "Hey, this isn't how we do things around here". It took only two more stout cracks on the hind quarters for her to step in line. In only a matter of minutes she was leading properly, backing up on command and relinquishing her attitude. And it was clear that she was even happy to relinquish leadership to someone deserving. From that moment forward she took her proper place in our herd of two and now, and only now, could her training begin. 

The moral of this story is simple. Before you decide to train your own horse know that unless you have knowledge, technique, feel and timing you just might be training your horse to do all the wrong things. And it's not the horses fault. You must exude and embody leadership or the horse will become defiant. Horses are absolutely smart in this regard. You can't fake being a leader to a horse. They have you figured-out as soon as they lay eyes on you and especially when you enter their presence with a bunch of gear. Before anything else, know what it is that you are attempting to accomplish. With young and/or totally green horses you must know where to begin the training and how and when to proceed forward. The best place to start with such horses is at the very, very beginning. Saddling and riding your horse should only come after a lot of ground work and relationship building.  Primarily, the horse must continue to see you as leadership quality through all the various aspects of the training time you spend together. If this is done properly the horse will be more than happy to let you lead because you have continually proven yourself worthy. But don't fool yourself by thinking that you can wing-it and maybe fool your horse. That doesn't fly as I said before. 

   If you're going to learn anything from this little story I'd like you to clearly understand that the horse knows if you're bluffing. And if you're bluffing your bluff won't last and you'll get yourself into a wreck sooner or later and most of the time it's sooner. Wrecks, much of the time, happen sooner as opposed to later because horses have tremendous difficulty putting up with people that don't know what they're doing around them. On the other hand if you know what you're doing you'll gain your horses respect and things will build from there but while training a horse one can never stop being the leader. There is no time when you are with your horse when you stop being that leader. Do you think that alfa mares in the wild take days off and get sloppy? Not a chance. 

Many people and horses get hurt every year and it's often because the person is trying to bluff, manhandle or exploit the horse. Our horses behavior tells us what kind of horseman we are. Period. This is why I no longer take horses into training unless I train the horse at the owners place and with the owner present. I do this mainly because most of the time the owners are really the ones that need to learn how to be around their horses. So, if you're having difficulties with your horse find a good trainer and learn the basics from him/her. Learn to duplicate the trainer; it could save you from a whole lot of difficulty and possible injury not to mention that this is the only way you are honoring your horse - with proper handling and training. Our horses will make us better horsemen if we only learn how to listen to them and how to understand what they are saying, and many times screaming, to us.  

Thanks for listening and Happy Trails!