We often get caught thinking our training begins once we have our horse saddled and ready to be ridden. It’s as if we are unconscious or robotic while we perform the repetitious tasks associated with this preparation. If you are trapped in this scenario, you are missing out on a lot of valuable training time. We should remember that as soon as we are within sight of our horse, the training process begins. Does your horse turn to face you as you approach? Does he try to ignore you thinking if he doesn’t look at you, you won’t see him? Does he run off? Hopefully your horse reacts to your approach in a positive way by turning and facing you. (Bonus points if he comes to you!)
If you would like to have your horse acknowledge that you have entered his world, you can. Start by getting his attention with a kissing or similar sound. When he looks at you, take a step or two in his direction. If you think he wants to walk off, turn around and retreat before he does. If he is comfortable with you moving towards him, continue until you can rub his face, then retreat. Repetition of this procedure of kissing, advance and retreat will teach your horse to look at you when you are there and allow you to walk up to him without him moving away. This horse will be easy to catch and halter. You will have to remember to review the exercise or keep him sharp or if you horse doesn’t complete one of the steps. This exercise can be taught any where. If your horse is already hard to catch, try using a smaller enclosure to speed the training along. If you can’t and your horse walks away from you, continue to keep him moving and cause him to make several changes of directions until he chooses to stop. With horses that are more timid with the approach, the direction you approach them from may be a factor. Experiment a bit and see if not walking directly at them helps. Horses are excellent students of body language and need time to learn what ours means.
Once we have our horse haltered and are heading back to the barn, we can also make good use of this time. I encourage my students to become a moving post. To do this, you take the lead firmly in your right hand and lock it on to your hip, in front. Leave enough slack so your horse can walk comfortably but not too close that he may step on you. Hold the remaining length of lead in your left hand. You set the pace, not the horse. If your horse lags behind, keep moving at the same pace. Do not turn your body to look at your horse…..he’s still there! If we turn to look, our body signals the horse to slow down or stop – exactly what we don’t want. You will feel your horse put pressure on the lead. Keep your hand on your hip and use your body to help maintain your speed. Your horse will figure out that he must speed up to relieve that pressure. If your horse is not responsive to the pressure, it may take some time til he responds. It will feel like you are dragging him to the barn but don’t worry, you won’t need to go to the gym that day! Just be careful not to snatch away the slack when he gives it. That’s why it is important that our hand remains anchored on our hip. Repetition of this pressure and self-given release will teach the horse to keep slack in the lead. If he moves faster than you, you will change direction to the left, immediately, again keeping your hand locked on your hip. This puts unexpected pressure on the lead and puts the focus back on you. As your horse begins to stay behind more, you can add changes of direction to the right. This exercise teaches our horse to give to pressure, stay by our shoulder or behind and look to us for both speed and direction.
So here you have already put some training time in on your horse and you’ve only just caught him and led him to the barn. With only a few sessions you will be amazed at how much improvement there is in your horse’s response to you and your lead rope. Remember you lead the way!