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Getting Respect From Your Horse


Horses will rechallenge each other and humans every once in a while. Ideally, they want to live in a linear hierarchy where every horse has a place and no two horses are at the same level. The challenge is to find out if a horse is no longer strong enough mentally or emotionally to be a superior.

The good news is that this means you can engage with your horse at any time and reestablish your position in the herd as being his superior.

There are different levels of this work that you need to perform, but the key is to remember that this work starts from the moment you encounter your horse to the moment you finish with your horse. During that time you need to focus only on the horse. Not on your cell phone, your friends, the pigeons in the arena, or any other horse - pay attention to nothing but your horse every moment.

Dominance among horses is about one thing - who gets to make who move. So when your horse swings his head toward you and you lean back out of the way - your horse just made you move. When you let the horse push up against you, your horse just made you move. When your horse walks away from you as you try to mount and you follow, your horse just made you move. Which means you are, to your horse, the follower, not the leader.

Watch your horse and other horses closely to see how they settle dominance. They typically go to each other and breathe into each other's nostrils. Then one nudges the other and vice versa. Finally one gets bold and tries to nip and the other one either nips back for feigns a bite. Someone backs off or squeals. This is the kind of thing horses expect you to particpate in. The methods below are how "humans can always win".

So, if you pick up your horse from turnout and take him into the inside to be tacked up, you need to think about how - literally - to control his feet and how and when he moves. For instance, walking down the alley, stop walking and if the horse doesn't stop. snap the lead rope hard until he stops. If he still doesn't stop, walk ahead of him and make him back up. To do this you need to be prepared to intimidate him, not frighten him. So stare right at him, make yourself tall and wide, walk with detemination toward him, saying loudly:"back up, back up, back up". You can also carry a crop and use it to poke at or tap on his chest for extra emphasis. And believe he will back up. He will. It doesn't take much. Even one step back is a victory.

In the stall or outside, wherever you tack him up, you need to take any opportunity to move his feet. Ideally, push his hip so his back feet have to cross over each other, as this will recall to him how his mother treated him when he was a foal and you will take on some of that role to him.

When he steps into your personal space, point your elbow outward so he runs into it. Or carry a crop at all times and tap his shoulder starting soft and getting harder and harder until he moves away - then stop.

There's also a game you can play to stop his fidgeting, but you need to be serious and patient to win.

You can start doing this (on a small scale) in the stall and move later to the alley, but the alley gives more room to operate and is safer for you.

This game is all about moving him so he won't move. Use the lead rope to put him in position and say "stand" (this is the cue you want to teach him). Count to fifteen. If he moves before fifteen. walk him around and make him back up. Be vigorous about getting him to move so that not standing still causes a lot of work and standing still doesn't - and then put him right back where he was and say "stand". Repeat. On the first day, you may never get to fifteen. But when he stands for at least a few seconds, say "good horse" or whatever you use to praise him, and pet him. Do this every day before you tack up, and after you untack.

Eventually, he will get to fifteen. It may take a week or two.

If he starts to wander when you are ready to mount, you can also use this strategy. If he backs up when you don't ask, carry a crop for a few days and tap him on the butt, harder and more frequently each time until he stops. Then you stop.

If he tries to step on you at any time, smack him hard on the offending shoulder or flank with a flat open hand. Then walk firmly toward him looking really big and push hard against his barrel to make him move sideways. Say firmly "move, move, move", while you push. He will move.

If your horse swings his head toward you, whether or not you move back out of reflex, push the flat of your hand against his jawbone, hard enough to shove his face away - and glare at him. He will move. If he tries to nip at you, if it is a light nip, pinch his lip with thumb and forefinger - this is fundamental horse manners as they test each other (with horses, the one who moves or squeals at a nip loses). If he attempts to bite, slap hard with an open hand on his neck, yell something like "hey" and glare at him until he backs down.

Yes, ground work is important, and lunging is important. But you can do all those things and if you don't do the above, you will still not have respect from your horse.

In the saddle, respect comes from never allowing the horse to not respond to your cue. At a minimum, he must respond with some kind of movement. At the next level it needs to be the kind of movement you asked for. And at the final level, the response must be immediate.

When you cue, you need to use levels of intensity that you can think of as "ask, tell, command". For instance, "ask" in a turn is looking in the direction you want to go or a very light touch of leg, "tell" is a push or thump with the calf, and "command" is spur pressure or a light swat with a crop or a yank on the reins. But the key is to always start with "ask" and never go to "tell" or "command" when the horse responds to "ask" and never go to "command" if he responds at "tell". This trains the horse to respond to to respond at "tell" to avoid "command" and at "ask" to avoid "tell".

Again, this is all about making the horse move. Now, not later, with light pressure, not with heavy pressure or leg thumping. Never ask if you don't intend to make him move by going all the way to "command". And even with "command" , you can escalate to reprimand slow response or no response. With spurs this is from light tap to a hard pressure or poke.

But when you have to go to "command", you need to immediately go back down to "ask" the next time, or your horse will just get to feel heavier and heavier, when what you want is lighter and lighter. And over time you need to make "ask" lighter and lighter and the time between going from "ask" to "tell" to "command" shorter.

Remember that none of this is an excuse to hit or abuse your horse. It is about the minimal pressure needed to get a response and about quickly deescalating to the softest possible request. If you let much more than a second go between "ask" and "command", your horse may feel you have rebuked him for no reason.

I hope this helps you get started. Good luck!

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Cashman (unless otherwise indicated), All Rights Reserved