A week ago, as a combination birthday/Mother’s Day gift from our eldest, the GunDiva, she and I spent the day at the Triple Creek Ranch in Longmont, CO – a training and boarding center. Julie Goodnight (of Horsemaster, RFD-TV) was donating time and the center was donating space as a fundraiser for an equine therapeutic center in the area – a noble gesture in itself. There was a large turnout and I think they probably met their goals, however, our goals were to learn more useful ways to work with our personal horses, and boy, did we meet our goals! I always need time to let ideas ‘gel’ before I can retell them, and I was so excited about MY ah-ha moment, that I am just now able to put some of this in print, so here goes ….
There were four sessions: Ground Manners for Young or Fractious Horses; Advanced Groundwork and Liberty Work; Riding Right: Balance, Rhythm and Feel; and Training Solutions: What do you do when your horse challenges your authority, loses his focus, spooks or becomes resistant?
Ground Manners for Young or Fractious Horses: The first session started off pretty excitingly with a 15 year old gelding, who had remained intact (a stud) for his first eleven years! He had only been allowed to breed two mares. It’s OK to let your imagination go for a minute; Julie did. Lots of frustration on the horse’s part and we all felt it. I’m sure you males out there think you can identify with this. The woman who had this horse has been working with him, using Julie’s methods, for the last four years (when she purchased him). It was obvious the horse had come a long, long way … and had a really L O N G way to go yet. Fractious was putting it nicely; his human called him ADD and Julie agreed. He did learn a lot about standing still and not running over the human, but was still far from being a safe horse to handle. For us spectators, it was great to see that even this type of horse can, and will, respond to the techniques we were watching.
Each session had two horses involved, so moving on to the second horse, things got a lot calmer and behavior changes came quicker with a much quieter Arab/mix gelding who had developed a habit of being ‘cinchy’ – meaning he didn’t like to have the cinch tightened around his belly. His lady had to have someone stand on the opposite side and pass the cinch under his belly quickly and try not to get bitten in the process. Julie broke this down to a loss of communication with the horse on a couple of ground manner basics: stand still when I tell you to, and nose to the front – always (hard to bite you when the horse’s head is pointed to the front and you are on the side). Equipped with a rope halter and 15 ft. lead rope, Julie stood in front of the horse, with the rope loose enough to touch the ground, and whenever, the horse moved a foot, or moved his head outside her specified range (from the point of one of his shoulders to the point of the other), she would snap the lead rope so it would ‘pop’ him under the chin. It only took a couple of pops for the horse to decide to keep its feet still.
A couple more pops and he had decided he should probably keep his head facing forward. Then she had the woman pick up the saddle pad and walk to the horse from the side, like she was going to put the pad on. You guessed it. If the horse moved a foot, or swung his head around, he got popped. Within a few minutes, the woman was able to walk directly up to the horse with the pad and lay it on his back without so much as a quiver. They moved on to the saddle in the same fashion. This was MY ah-ha moment, as Jesse had become very agitated with the saddle pad and I had put up with it. This explanation has been simplified, as the person placing the saddle pad had a few rules to follow also, such as a direct walk, expecting the horse to stand still, turning and walking away to take the pressure off the horse for a moment, etc. – and understanding it was going to take 50 – 100 times of doing this to overcome the older habits.
The best part of this story for me is that over the next few days, Bill and I worked with Jesse like this, and although she didn’t like the first couple of pops, she quickly learned that the pad was far less intimidating than that pop, and she is now much, much quieter about the process. It still takes one good reminder (we are nowhere near even 25 tries) then she settles down – but then she is a dominant mare with an over abundance of stubbornness, so I would not have expected her to just totally give in without some resistance. This is the same process to simply make them more attentive to you on the ground, and it has helped her with that also. By the way, we went for a ride today, using the towel to keep our jeans clean, and I could walk right up to her, toss the towel on her back and not a flinch. That used to send her scurrying to the side. Yeah!
The second session, Advanced Groundwork and Liberty Work, was the main fascination for GunDiva. We learned specifics of correct leading to go forward into liberty work (no attachments to horse). It all looked very simple; refining your own body posture for the horse to be able to ‘read’ and copy. N O T!!! My horses will follow just fine as I am walking along, on a loose lead. But trying to give the proper body signals adds a whole new dimension to a simple task. I will keep trying, I will keep trying, I will keep …. We won’t discuss the clicking of Jesse’s eyeballs as they roll back in her head – trying to figure me out. It all has to do with the positioning of your shoulders, such as a slight lean forward prior to actually moving forward, straightening up prior to stopping, pointing with your leading fingers prior to turning in that direction. Are you noticing all the priors here? Try it. Grab a partner, stand side-by-side, and link your adjoining arms together. Now walk along as though talking and make some turns. You run into each other; same thing happens with your horse. So you learn to give little clues, such as motioning ahead of time with your other hand to show which direction you want to go. We need to show the same courtesy to our horses, especially if we expect them to move with us without being yanked around by a rope. It was amazing to see how fast these two horses adopted the new technique … but it’s not a simple task for the human.
Riding Right: Balance, Rhythm and Feel: After lunch we moved on to mounted work. Each session had a horse tacked out Western and another tacked out English, just to prove that the same techniques work, no matter what discipline you ride. The tack is basically just for looks as far as horse behavior; he should respond the same no matter how he is dressed. (OK, you’ve all seen the towels we throw on our horses and expect them to behave as though they are saddled.) This was a more relaxing part of the clinic for both of us, as we watched this at the Rocky Mt. Horse Expo back in March. We were able to focus on the finer points of getting your leg in the proper position (for good balance), relaxing your pelvis to more easily sit a trot (rhythm), and not giving conflicting cues – which is so easy to do. Example: you want your horse to transition into a trot, but as soon as he does you pull back on the reins. He balks, basically saying, “Do you want to go faster or stop?” It was great fun watching the riders learn to relax and watching the horses do the same, trusting the horse to do what was requested, learning to FEEL what he is doing, the same as he feels you.
Last session: Training Solutions. We had one horse with “no whoa” and one horse with “no go”, so to speak. It wasn’t that the horse really had no whoa; it was a horse that was more forward than his rider was comfortable with, therefore the rider would keep a really tight hold on the reins when asking for forward motion and the horse wanted to push through the bridle (his trots and canters were ‘too fast’). Julie had the girl actually loosen her rein and just let the horse trot faster around the arena until it figured out it didn’t HAVE to try to get away, then the horse slowed down of its own accord. It then started listening to a slow down cue, understanding that the ‘death grip’ had gone away. Julie pointed out that this needs to be done in an enclosure so the horse knows there is nowhere to go but in a circle. You can also start guiding into smaller and smaller circles, which is harder work for the horse. Julie also touched on the one-rein stop, but that wasn’t what this horse needed.
The “no go” horse would just ignore cues to move or to speed up. It was old enough and had enough training to know the cues; it was choosing to ignore them. Julie got on this horse and explained that a ‘spanking’ was in order. “This is your captain speaking. I would like you to move – now.” When she touched her leg to its sides and he ignored her, she again cued, then it got a smart whap with a riding whip at the same spot your leg would cue from. You have to be ready for the horse to wake up and not punish it for moving, even if it jumps forward or to the side. You asked for movement; you got movement; you don’t punish for the movement. However, the next time she cued with her leg, the horse moved off smartly into a nice walk. The next cue produced a nice trot. A few practices with up and down transitions were in order, so the rider got to take over and practice. Julie said several practice sessions, usually just carrying the whip with you, would solve this problem – much easier to take care of than the “no whoa” issues.
Everything ended on a good note, with lots of things to take home and digest. In fact, I am still digesting. Now that I have gotten past my ah-ha moment, on to more fun stuff – like the at liberty work. Happy riding everyone.