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Young Horse Training

Learn from horses for better people skills

“As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.” —Andrew Carnegie

You can’t buffalo a horse, and this is good training for dealing with people. It is funny how age breeds wisdom (at least with those open to new ideas and experiences).

If you’re having trouble getting your horse to listen (the voice isn’t a natural teaching tool for horses anyway), think about how what you do affects their behaviour.

Are you nervous, scared or impatient around your horse? Don’t expect them to be calm, confident and relaxed.

The same holds true for your people connections.

The next time you’re having trouble communicating with your peers, boss, subordinates or co-workers, go back to the barn and take a lesson.

Horses are honest. If you’re willing to hear what they tell you, you’ll learn that what you do has a much bigger impact than what you mean. Take heart and apply some of these teachings to your human interactions and you may find you become a much better communicator.

Of course, the rewards you reap from being able to “hear” your horse by listening to what he’s telling you about you communication inadequacies will also make your handling, riding and training experiences all the richer. Now, go enjoy the ride with new understanding on how to show what you mean.

Quick Tips on “hearing” with horses

Horses don’t speak our language, but they make it pretty easy to understand theirs. A good number even try hard to interpret messages that aren’t responsive to their style, but want to please so much, they figure out what you want and do it anyway. Being sensitive to simple to read horse cues and using human aids in a manner that is easier on the horse can make your equine interactions a lot more rewarding – and safer.

Watch the eyes
Forget 1000 words, your horse’s eye will tell you volumes more than any picture about what he is thinking. This can change quickly and it behooves you to be cognizant of the message when holding the horse for a vet or blacksmith, asking him to do something new, starting him under saddle or any handling or riding activity that may be cause for concern in the eyes of your equine buddy. If you spend a little bit of time focused on this body part, you’ll learn quickly how to read the eye of any horse. Notice what an eye looks like right before a horse blows, when he’s relaxed, when he’s scared, when he’s about to retaliate and any other time when it will help you and him to predict how he is reacting to what you are doing. Once you develop this skill, it can also tell you a great deal about the temperament and background of a horse you are to ride for the first time or one you are considering as a future purchase.

Pay attention to ears and head carriage
Of course, it’s obvious that ears flat back against the neck signify anger or the onset of aggressive behavior, but there’s a lot you can do to predict and avoid challenging situations when riding by keeping an eye on what’s going on in front of you. An attentive horse keeps his ears moving or tends to have one ear cocked back toward you. Ears straight forward rarely signals happiness – be ready for a spook or spin as this often indicates something ahead has the horse’s attention and concern. This is also the case if the horse suddenly raises his head slightly. By simply watching what your horse’s ears and neck are doing while aboard, it’s easy to change what you are doing to get his attention, calm him down or assure him all is O.K. Don’t stiffen, tighten and stop breathing if you see him ready to react, as this will only make him more concerned and you less secure in the saddle. Instead, relax, sit deep, talk to him, take a deep breath and try to see what may be bothering him. Most importantly, let him draw confidence and courage from you in your calm, assured and patient response to helping him concur his fears.

Yank and Kick doesn’t work very well with most horses
There’s a lot more to steering than hauling on the reins and far better ways to encourage a horse to move forward than ratcheting up your leg pressure. Want to get a horse to root, fling his head and neck around and learn to ignore your hand aids? Take a good hold of the reins and don’t let go when he responds. Want dead sides on your horse? Kick harder and harder when he doesn’t respond and make sure you keep doing it when he gives you a little bit of what you want. Sure, an old seasoned lesson horse will tolerate this and usually do what you want, but they’re not very happy about it. Try it with a young horse and you’ll have years of undoing to fix the problems that ensue. Instead, learn it’s the release that usually gets the reaction. Always take and give and stop the pressure the minute you get any response in the direction you seek. Learn to use your seat in a deep and relaxed fashion to slow or stop a horse and in a driving and slightly behind-the-vertical position to send him forward. The seat is so overlooked by many who ride, yet communicates more to the horse than any other aid. Be conscious of what you are doing with it.

We’ll expand on this a bit in a later blog post and explore body language and other tools you can use when working with a horse from the ground.

Quick Tips on working with Off-The-Track Thoroughbreds

Chill time can be critical
Many Thoroughbreds (TBs) behave differently on the farm than they do at the racetrack. Still, if you’re looking for a good plan to begin on the best note, give your project a couple of months of turnout and gentle handling prior to hopping aboard. Recognize many TBs have not seen a paddock (at least not the grazing kind) for their entire racing career, so make sure you start with small spaces and, done best, a single, proven companion to help keep them calm, ease them through the socialization transition and stay safe. Know too (although steroids and other drugs that they actually test for are now becoming banned in many states) that there may be products in your horse’s bloodstream that impact his behavior and thinking process. Let them dissipate prior to throwing on tack and a rider.

Pulling on the bit often doesn’t mean stop for racehorses
Many TBs are taught to pull against the bit and this can also serve as a cue to go faster. Do not make the mistake of applying non-stop contact with the bit on a horse you are trying to convert to a riding horse. As in any discipline (in my opinion, anyway), it’s best to give and release if you want a horse to feel your request. Often, simply releasing the reins will cause your mount to slow down or stop.

Remember to relax
TBs are a hot-blooded breed, and the tenser you are, the more concerned and hotter they will get. If your horse is anxious, hyper, spooky or concerned, take a deep breath, let your seat sink deep into the saddle, stop gripping with your knees, shortening the reins, tipping forward with you upper body and simply sit up, stretch down and be a quiet and encouraging force with your horse vs. a impediment to his reaching a calm understanding.

Patience is key
It’s likely going to take you a while to understand how your OTT TB horse has been conditioned and trained to react. Don’t assume he’s misbehaving if he doesn’t do what you ask. Take your time and be ready to try different approaches to problems that aren’t getting resolved. Give him the opportunity to shine by watching and listening to what he’s trying to tell you and adjusting your approach to accommodate his needs and concerns.

Be ready to call it quits
Sometimes it’s best to admit you don’t have the horse and/or the skills to bring him to where you want him to go. There are tons of great OTT TBs who are eager and willing to consider a new career and prove to be safe and dependable mounts for their new riders and jobs. It’s easy to fall in love with a horse and be determined to ‘fix’ them, but some are just too far-gone and/or unsuitable for you due to your skill level or interests. Consider improving your quality of life (and in many cases, your horses) by being big enough to admit defeat and move on.

Do you really want your horse to be a dog?

The popular buzzword from the horse training marketers and their disciples these days seems to be “desensitizing.” Now, there are certainly some benefits to helping your horse handle standard requests placidly and doing so through repetition, but when does this go too far? When the process turns your horse into a drooling, treat-happy canine that ceases to think because you’ve conditioned him to wait on your every cue and carrot before they proceed (and I do have two wonderful dogs that I adore, so this is not a slam on dogs – just a point that we’re talking about two different species here). Horses that think are usually a lot safer than those that depend entirely on their human handlers to make decisions.

Do you want your horse to jump away from a poisonous snake? I sure do. If you see a bad spot to a big cross country fence, would you rather be on an equine that’s confident enough to adjust and ignore your bad cue, or one that follows your orders to the letter and proves it by summersaulting over the fence to please you? Is a partnership of mutual respect what you seek, or do you prefer to be the puppeteer?

While horses may have a relatively tiny brain, I haven’t encountered too many dumb horses in my life (although have definitely met some). Horses have a sixth sense that gives them an innate ability to know what’s going on around them. Allowing this to be present in all you do with your horse can be a huge boon. This instinctual trait also enables them to assess the humans they encounter with a good deal of accuracy. Over the years, I’ve learned to listen to my horses’ reaction to people that come into the barn, and they’ve been more accurate in their read than my gut. I want the horses I work with to be sensitive, telling and able to provide their own input in everything they do and express.

Horses work from association. By making them submit all the time, (and this is really what desensitization does) you turn them into robots. Some people react with glee to a horse that always follows their lead. I don’t. The most talented horses I’ve encountered push back – but relish the opportunity to be a team player with someone they respect. It’s an art to channel the energy of horses with a lot of heart, but the rewards are immense when you set the foundation for working together vs. posturing with an attitude that makes you the dictator and the horse the controlled.

I’ve seen a lot of horses come to Halcyon Acres that were misunderstood. They didn’t fit into the formula training regimen of the prior facility and were labeled dangerous, problem horses. Interestingly, these horses came to relish training and exceed requests when presented with an opportunity to be heard and understood. I give the folks who are selling their DVDs promising an easy and universal fix for all horses credit for their marketing savvy. Most horsemen I know realize that every horse is different and dumbing them down with standardized rituals that apply the same approach to all equines robs each of their potential.

What do you think?

Nanette Levin

P.S. I have not yet figured out (if this is even possible) how to disable the approval requisite for comment posts on WordPress. Know, though, that I am not screening comments to reject contrary opinions. All relevant comments on this thread will be posted.

Welcome to the Horse Sense and Cents blog

Young and dumb can sometimes be a great asset when dealing with dangerous horse situations – particularly if it comes with a no fear mentality. Eventually, though, anyone who seems drawn to difficult horses over time – or feels they can save money by taking on a horse that has issues – logs enough injuries to happily prefer wisdom gained from the experience of others.

The Horse Sense and Cents™ notion comes from a lifetime of feeling compelled to learn lessons the hard way that finally gave way to a more mature perspective. Interestingly, the many horse training professionals involved in this project are quick to admit when they’ve been wrong, have chosen to adopt a more intuitive and careful approach to working with horses and have come to realize it’s a lot easier to learn from others’ successes – and failures. They’re wise and generous with their advice and can help you address easy issues and more dramatic cases.

If you’ve caught the horse bug in a big way and are ready to join a crowd that knows what they don’t know, you’ll have a lot of fun following this blog. Here you’ll find tips and stories to help you avoid some bruises and a whole lot of headaches and expense. Of course, anyone who’s been around knows you never stop learning on the horse front, so don’t expect formula answers that work in every case. We’re all here to discuss and share what’s worked for us and try to help you find ways to figure out what might be best for your horse.

We’ll start with five weekday posts and switch to a Tuesday and Thursday schedule once we get enough comments that keep us busy responding to reader questions and requests. In addition, we’ll let you know when particular professionals will be responding to reader comments so you can ask questions of those you’d most like to talk to when they are available.

We get that many who catch the horse bug aren’t wealthy and today, even the most established equine concerns are struggling, so we take the “Cents” part of our mission seriously. Creative, productive and budget-conscious tips will be offered every week. Let us know what you’re looking for and we’ll respond either as new posts or through the comment feature of this blog (which we hope to have up and running in the next two weeks – feel free to e-mail to questions @ HorseSenseandCents dot com in the meantime). If we don’t have the knowledge you need, we’ll try to find people who do.

This is a community designed for you – the horse owner, lover or professional who isn’t afraid to ask questions and seek help from others who have traveled the path before you.

We hope you decide to join a gang of equestrians determined to put their heads together so all can enjoy the ride!

Nanette Levin
Publisher of the Horse Sense and Cents book series