Horsemanship and Horse Training in the real world

Training with Reality

Most folks do not rely on their horse for their livelihood and therefore lack a perspective of what kind of quality partner they could have and would need if their life literally depended on their horse.

The picture I have included was taken from the time I spent on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Besides the modern-day truck and trailer, much of the day-to-day life was just as it was 100 years ago, including staying in cabins with no water or electricity 40 miles from the closes paved road.

If you notice the dogs in the back of the truck with us women and kids, we'd drive out into the remote country, and the dogs would bail off the truck as soon as they got the scent of the wild cattle that only saw humans once a year. We'd slam on the breaks, unload horses, and ride hard through the high desert to catch up to wherever the amazing Catahoula would be holding a group of wild cows. Never before had I experienced a true appreciation of why all the "details" mattered in my partnership with the horse. From there, with no fencing, we'd have to sort, tag, doctor, etc. There were many unexpected scenarios and it was a constant challenge of adaptability, with no "pause button."

But the common horse owner will never have that experience or exposure in educating themselves or their horses, and yet their conversation and partnership with their horse are just as important.

Too many times I’ve encountered horses that have been forced through the “school of hard knocks” training theories- whatever situations they had “survived” equal to the description of being an “experienced” horse.

I’m always surprised how often I see advertisements for horses for sale with “a ton of experience” but who needs a “confident” rider. To me this blatantly translates into the horse has been manhandled through scenarios, survived them, but because he is so concerned about what might be presented next he carries a lot of worry, concern, and stress. This categorizes him as a “hot” or “sensitive” horse. So he needs a “strong” rider to push him through the next experience…

The idea for this post came as I was thinking back to last summer when I was working with a three-year-old mare I was starting. Those of us in the northwest had been experiencing quite the rainy season with two weeks of almost nonstop rain, wind, hail, and snow up in the mountains. Not exactly ideal conditions neither for starting a youngster nor for me, who prefers my winters spent in the desert warmth. But without other options, one must continue.

Part of the less glamorous side of my lifestyle is the never-ending maintenance; the mowing, the pasture clean up of dead limbs, the dragging pastures, the fixing fences, clearing trails in the woods, etc. Usually, there’s one big clean-up in the spring when I return after a long winter, but last year with all of the blustery weather it seemed to have become part of my daily routine…

Many times owners are shocked at the changes in demeanor, personality, confidence, etc. in their horse after a few weeks spent with me. Part of the change they are seeing comes from my prioritizing spending quality time with the horse and to focus on creating confidence building, thoughtful, experiences every time I work with them. I also always try to mesh “reality” with my horse training.

It does not matter to me what long term discipline or direction the horse may be destined for. For me, I want all horses that I work with to have a solid foundation. I always say I want my jumping horses to be able to chase a cow, and my ranch horse to be able to pop over a fallen log on the trail.

Basically, the underlying theory of all that I attempt to do with horses is to create a mental availability to “try” no matter what scenario I may present for the horse. If the horse can mentally address what is being presented, eventually physically they will comply with what is being asked of him, without the stress, trauma, and drama that is more typical when someone just tries to manhandle a horse through a situation.

So back to the young mare, bad weather, and using reality to build quality experiences for her. I want to make clear that I’m NOT suggesting that you go out and try some of the things I’ll mention below, but this is to help expand your thinking for really could be possible when you work with your horse.

I also want to mention that there were many pieces of the “puzzle” I had to present to the horse before I did any of the following with her in order to create clear communication with both physical and spatial pressure, respect for personal space, and being able to direct her thought to something specific.

Without that clear communication established FIRST, the rest of what I presented to her would have been done with a “hopeful” feeling in me and challenging her, rather than a “supporting her”.

With all of the windstorms, I had a continuous flow of dead limbs falling off of trees in the pasture. After proper preparation of teaching the horse to think through and physically participate to pressure, ropes around her body and legs, etc. I then used her to drag out the fallen limbs to wherever I needed them.

Rock clean-up time in the arenas was another great “learning” experience for a young horse. Giving them the job of following you around as you’re “focused” on finding the rocks, plus throwing the rocks to the edges of the arena, can teach the horse to learn to wait, and also realize chaos around them, has nothing to do with them, therefore they do not need to "get involved" with it. This came from the sudden movement of the rock without the energy being directed towards the horse.

If I had to run to the far end of the property to fix the fence I’d pony her or just have her follow me and “hang out” while I fix the fence. When she was “just standing there” she’s not allowed to eat, focus on the other horses, etc. Rather it was a great opportunity for her to learn how to stand quietly, patiently, and wait for me.

As was moving hoses to different waterers, I used the hose dragging on the ground around her feet as another scenario to teach her to be aware of her surroundings, but not defensive towards them. Instead, be curious, without the fear.

As I fixed the hay tarps, her job was to focus on the noise and movement of the tarp flapping, crinkling, etc. As I rode through my woods on a more experienced horse to cut small overgrown branches on my trails (done from horseback- no I don’t suggest this to just anyone) I ponied the young horse so she gets used to noise above her head, the movement of the falling branches, and can pick up on the vibe from the confident horse I’m riding. At the same time, I'd usually have two dogs and a few cats or more with me to "help her" with being interested rather than being fixated on sudden movement from them “popping out” of the woods and running in front, behind, or next to her feet.

One of the hardest parts of working with a horse is staying creative enough to keep each session interesting. Depending on your facilities you may have to spend some time creating obstacles or ways of presenting scenarios with a variation. Too many times the horse and handler can fall easily into the routine or “patterned” behavior. This creates the false illusion that the horse is doing “well”- until a new scenario or one that is altered from what the horse is used to has been presented. Then the “real” feelings of what the horse has been carrying around come to the surface. A lot of people and horses become really comfortable with what they know and do not like change. The problem is the day you don’t have an option and must present a change from the “norm” you’ve then opened a whole new can of worms with your horse and its usually not the time for a “training” session.

But remember, the task is great to give the human direction and intention, but the CONVERSATION is what allows the task to be accomplished with quality. There is no point in focusing on hurrying, bullying, or dominating a horse through a task, if it decreases the horse's trust and confidence.

If instead, you can prepare both you and your horse to view any situation as one to expand their experience, exposure, and confidence you’ll be building a solid, trusting partnership for the long term. With this mentality, you may not seem to “accomplish” as much as “fast” as someone else, but don’t worry about keeping up with what other horse people are doing. Go with your instinct and do what is best for you and your horse. Both of you will be happier in the long run.

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