I have a high level of respect for those who work with young horses day in and day out. It takes a toll on your body and sometimes your spirit. It is a challenge, not for the weak or timid. I have had the great pleasure to start a good many young horses over the years and as I get older, I choose to do so less and less. I have recently offered to help with a very nice young filly that I had my doubts about at first. This prompted me to share a few insights into working with a pushy, young horse.
There are certain things that you just don't want to see in a horse that you are going to attempt to ride and have a relationship with. Teeth baring, striking and kicking are just a few. I have seen a very endearing little video clip going around of a baby horse lovingly laying down on a person sitting on the ground. Though, I love the sweetness of the moment, my mind wonders to a place in the near future where some poor soul will have the task of starting that young horse. I wonder how that will go.
We as humans love to give our animal friends the same emotions and feelings that we have. In reality, that just doesn't compute to them. We like to think that our little horses love us the way we love them. I know that they have bonds with us but I want to delve a bit deeper into how they actually think and why this affects the starting process when they are young.
When I raised horses and had a steady flow of youngsters in my barn, I was very careful about the amount of handling my babies received. Of course, they were taught the basics of leading, and yielding to my light pressure, within the first month of life. They were handled at birth and rubbed down and hugged. Then I liked to let them just BE. They went out to pasture with mamma, and other youngsters, and they learned they ways of the herd. They learned that space is valuable and not always given to them freely. They learned a pecking order and where they stood in it.
When it came weaning time, they were transferred to a different pasture with their buddies of about the same age and the process began again. This time, it was a little different. There was no established order. Occasionally, they would follow the herd order that was established by the mares, but often, they would challenge this and another would come out on top. They would begin to develop their own personalities and preferences. They played, slept and ate together. The play was rough and sometimes there was even blood shed. This is the way of the horse. They are tough on each other. They develop bonds, but the play is rough and establishing a pecking order can be brutal.
I liked to leave them alone until they were about a year and a half old. They were handled for hoof trimmings and routine vetting, but otherwise they had their own space with little human handling. This is my preference when I get a young horse to start. They have no fear of people, and it usually takes very little effort to gain their respect and establish a leadership role with. They understand what it means to be told no. They know what it means to be put into place by another. When I step in and tell them that I am now the herd leader, they understand the language. Some resist the new leader, but most accept it and gladly step into the job they have before them.
What makes the difference? Why are some horses so pushy and have no respect for the human in their life? I believe this goes all the way back to when they are babies.
When we take a horse that will one day weigh 1000 pounds and we turn him into a lap dog, we may inadvertently create a lifetime of problems. They will either think of us as their equal and constantly challenge us or they will think of us as their lesser and always try to push us around. When they understand a true herd order, they more readily accept a leader. Many horses are not given the chance to learn the valuable skills of a herd. This directly affects their training process.
What do you do if you are the lucky one who buys a horse that has never learned this? I want to give you a couple of specific exercises to use. Ideally, you want to work in a round pen but work with what you have. If that's a stall, you can still make it work, so don't be discouraged. You don't need any particular equipment except a good halter and a lead rope. I prefer a rope halter and at least a 10 foot lead, but again, work with what you have. Better to move forward in your training process than wait because you think you have to go buy some particular something to do it.
There's a saying that if you control the feet, you control the horse. The beginning of training should be with the feet; you are simply going to move the feet. With a horse that knows no boundaries, I use a dressage whip as an encouragement. I never hit, but rather tap on the leg I wish to move. The whip is only an extension of my arm so I don't have to put my face down by the leg I am trying to move. At the very sign of the weight shifting to move that foot, I stop; never continue to tap or ask after the horse has begun the movement. This means you have to really watch.
Most people don't notice the movement until the foot is off the ground. I challenge you to watch for the shift in weight to the opposite side. This is the point of willingness and this is when you reward and be still which takes practice! You will get better with time and so will your horse. This simple exercise of moving the feet, will improve on a pushy horse. Start with only a few minutes each session. You can do 2 or 3 sessions a day until you have it mastered. Don't work past your horse's ability to pay attention. Young horses can get bored easily. It's best to work in short efficient sessions than long unproductive ones.
After a session of moving feet, I like to let my horse stand tied for at least 30 minutes. This allows him to think and also reinforces that he is no longer the boss of everyone. If your young horse paws, kicks, stomps or throws a fit when tied, you need to do it more often and for longer periods of time. Provide a safe place with solid walls and nothing to get hung up in. Learn how to safely tie, for quick release, and leave him there. Busy yourself with barn chores so that you have an ear on him while he's tied. Don't give in to his demands. Eventually, he will stand longer and quieter.
Never reward the fit throwing with pats and cookies. When he is standing quietly, he may have a reward, not before. Keep your energy calm and collected. He will learn from you and eventually do the same. You'll thank yourself for this in the future. Think of it as an investment in your future partnership with your horse. We all know a horse that hates to be tied. Unfortunately, the solution lies within the problem. The more he gets to stand tied, the better off he will be. Patience is learned. I used to have a very large tree by my arena. I had a tire secured to it with a couple of good solid cotton leads attached. We called it the “thinking tree”. Every horse on the place stood there regularly. I have never had a horse that won't stand tied for any amount of time that I ask.
Last, avoid being his buddy. I don't mean forever, and I don't mean be harsh or cold. You just need to establish boundaries before you can be his buddy. If you have kids, you probably know what I mean; sometimes, you have to be the parent. Being parent to a horse can be quite tough if you are a pushy baby. Mom will kick or bite you back if you do the same to her. Other herd members will push you out of the way to get to food first. If you start with a horse that wants to push you around, you will benefit greatly by establishing that you are the herd leader from the beginning. This starts on the ground, in the pen, and in his stall. He will only be the boss if you don't step up to the task.
Most young horses are looking for guidance and leadership. Once you have this established, let the fun begin. You can play games, give big hugs, and be his best friend.
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