This month I did our problem solving article on trailer loading. In the article I discuss how you need to determine whether the problem is fear or attitude. In our case, it was an attitude problem that we ultimately corrected. Fear issues are a whole set of problems themselves. I talk in my book, Foundations, how a horse is a clean slate until humans shape them in a bad way.
The other day I was reading the book Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin. Temple is an animal expert who is also Autistic. She makes a strong case that animals think in a manner similar to autistic people. I ended this month’s Problem Solving article with the suggestion to introduce trailer loading at home and to not force the process. This approach is corroborated in Grandin’s book as she discusses fear memory in horses. Below is an exerpt from what Grandin has to say:
A fear memory can have two causes. The first is a past abusive experience and the other is introducing a new thing or a new sensation too quickly. It’s best to prevent fear memories from forming in the first place because a bad fear memory is very difficult to completely correct. A horse’s first experience with a trailer should be very positive. A bad first experience is more likely to create a fear memory.
Just another proof positive that doing things in baby steps like we teach in our program will help make you successful with horses.
We purchased a 15 year old thoroughbred gelding from a local auction to use as a subject in a video series we produced last year. The gelding, Cruiser, is a retired racehorse and is currently an excellent trail horse prospect. Cruiser was hard to load when we picked him up at the sale barn, so part of our training plan with him included working on getting him to load and unload easily.
When you purchase a horse like Cruiser, who has been raced and transported many times, you don’t expect to encounter trailer loading problems. When you do, it’s crucial to determine if the issue is fear-based or simply a result of poor training. Either the horse is scared due to a bad experience loading in the trailer, or it is an attitude that has allowed him to get out of loading in the trailer.
Since Cruiser is a tall horse, one might expect that he dislikes the trailer because he has previously hit his head on the trailer roof. On the other hand, he has somewhat of a stubborn streak, so maybe he has been able to buffalo his previous owners. Since our problem solving strategy will be different for each of these possible scenarios, the first thing we do is try to figure out if he is actually scared of the trailer, or if he has just become stubborn.
Our trailer is a 3 horse gooseneck with a high ceiling, so there’s plenty of room for a tall horse like Cruiser. The first time I started to walk Cruiser into the trailer, he pulled back, backing well away from the trailer. I then put a flake of hay in the front part of the trailer and tried again. This time he walked right in, proceeded to eat the hay, relaxed and happy. I then unloaded him, took out the hay, and tried to reload him. He pulled back again and would not load.
Well, that pretty much narrowed it down to an attitude problem, which is usually a lot easier to fix than a horse with a fear issue. So our plan was to put him through the Horse Sensible Level 2 Groundwork program. The lessons in this level will accomplish two things: change his attitude, whereby he views us as the leader; and reinforce his response to give to basic pressures which ask him to move and take certain shapes.
At completion of Level 2 Groundwork, we proceeded to load Cruiser. These are the steps we took in the first training session on loading:
I ended the first session with him loading and unloading willingly. Always end a session on a positive note.
For the next couple of weeks I loaded him after his training session without a problem.
So the main take-aways for solving this problem are:
Over the years I have come to gain a real appreciation for the Vaquero methods of training a horse. They not only spent hours in the saddle every day, but went to great lengths to transition a horse to a finished, in-the-bridle mount. Their methods to eventually get a horse in a high port spade-type bit were admirable, but not very practical for most horse owners who are, by necessity, “weekend-warriors.”
I have been fortunate to have learned a practical method for advancing a horse to a spade bit in much less time than the Vaquero method. My program methodology also allows you to stop the advancement anywhere in the process and stay with a lesser bit should you so desire.
Many people question the use of a high port spade bit, believing it to be cruel, hard on a horse’s mouth, and only to be used on a horse that is hard to stop. This is a gross misconception. A snaffle bit is great for training, but the fact is, horses hate having their mouths tugged. When conditioned correctly, they enjoy packing a spade bit, due to the lightness that it creates when the rider has feel and light hands. I call it the power steering affect that your horse will appreciate.
Sequence of Bits in our Program
Our methods to condition horses to accept these bits incorporate bitting up exercises and recommended equipment specific for each of these bits.
We introduce neck reining in Level 4 of our program. We continue the same reining exercises through level 9 as we transition the bits as shown above. However, if your desire is to end your training at Level 3, you can still transition bits and continue working on reining exercises.
We teach neck reining by first making sure the horse will follow his nose. We want the horse to eventually tip his nose as soon as we lay the rein on his neck. We also get the horse to relate the rein and leg pressure. The timing of the neck and leg pressure is important. Most people error to the side of using to much leg pressure when they figure out the horse will move off of their leg. The exercises we teach for neck reining are:
The real rage these days is to ride with a solid rein. Solid rein popularity is due simply to the fact that it is easier than handling split reins. There is an advantage to using split reins, as you have the ability to feather the reins to tip your horse’s nose. It’s not “wrong” to use a solid rein, but we like to teach you the advantages of mastering the use of split reins. The exercises we teach will help you become a much better horseman or horsewoman and are listed below.
Split Rein Exercises
Picture yourself on your horse that handles like power steering, responds when you lay the rein on his neck – and oh by the way – you can now ride with one hand.
Last month, I gave you some of the take-aways from my past experiences that I incorporate in my program. The next topic in the Foundations section of my program is what I call Learning the Language. Before you can successfully interact with a horse, it is so important to understand as much as you can about a horse’s instincts, how they communicate, and how they think. Once you start thinking like a horse, the whole process becomes much easier. The really great horsemen and horsewomen have one thing in common—they understand how a horse thinks, and how to communicate with him in a language that he understands. They also have the ability to look at a horse and determine his state of mind, and whether that current state of mind is conducive to getting that horse to do what they want him to do at that moment in time.
When I started writing this section of the program, I thought, Wow, it would be great to interview a horse, if that were ever possible, to really get to the bottom of what makes a horse tick, and what are they really thinking. So the next best thing was pretending that we were interviewing a horse, and I titled it: From the Horse’s Mouth. It’s a great read, and you will walk away with a whole new perspective on how you view your horse. You see, most people kind of treat their horse like they would their pet dog. The differences are light years apart.
Next month I will discuss Connection, which is a principal in my training program.
Mike explained that his mare was deathly afraid of both the saddle blanket and the saddle. He further indicated that this fear was a result of the saddle rolling underneath her because the cinch was too loose. She spooked and crashed into the fence virtually tearing up his roundpen. Since that experience, they have never been able to get close to her with the saddle and blanket.
He set the saddle and blanket on the roundpen fence, and proceeded to lead her into the pen. She snorted and refused to even walk up to the blanket and saddle. After observing her it was obvious that this was a fear issue rather than attitude. As far as her nagality, I concluded she was more submissive rather than dominant, but Mike disagreed with me.
I proceeded to do some groundwork with her to begin building her trust. I finally got her to relax somewhat, and proceeded to pick up the blanket and carry it while I was leading her. When a horse is scared of something it is much easier to get them following it rather than being approached by it. Once I had her relaxed and following the blanket, I held it up next to her body while disengaging her hindquarters. Once she would stop, I would pull the blanket away giving her a release. By the end of the hour session, I was able to hold the blanket next to her right side with her standing relaxed.
We ended the session with me explaining to Mike that it was going to take a lot of time on his part to get her over this intense fear of the blanket and saddle. I further explained that the only chance of fixing the problem was taking an approach of building the horse’s trust, progressing in baby steps, and incorporating a method of approach and retreat. I left him with the following set of instructions to follow:
1) Ideally, take her through our Level 2 Groundwork program to build trust
2) Get her following him with blanket in relaxed fashion
3) Hold blanket next to her until she relaxes, reward by taking it away
4) Rub blanket on her until she relaxes, reward by taking it away
5) Lay blanket on her back remove right away, repeat
6) Lay blanket on her back and remove when she relaxes
7) Gradually leave blanket on her back longer periods until fully relaxed
Once successful through number 7, I told Mike I would give him the next set up steps to follow for reintroducing the saddle.
Since we are dealing with a very bad past experience that has created intense fear in this mare, a quick fix is not likely, however with patience and perseverance, it can be overcome.
The whole premise of our training and riding pyramid is that we advance up the levels of our program teaching our horse in baby steps. The first level of the pyramid is called Foundations. This level is probably one of the most important since it lays the foundation for the rest of our program.
The first section in Foundations is called “The Journey.” Here I talk about some of the horsemen and horsewomen that I learned from over the years that had a major influence on my life with horses, and contributed to the principles I use in my Horse Sensible Program. As a member, you have access to the full version of these stories and their main take-aways. This is such powerful but simple stuff that many people never quite grasp, but for those who do, their life with horses will forever change for the better. I know mine did. Below are just a few of the Story Titles and Take Aways.
Hank and the Trophy Blanket
Jim and the Chicken Clad Beauties
The Colonel and the Message
Pres & Lorretta
Heidi the German Mentor
Clem the Pickup Man
The Expert & 66
Halbert & the Big Dive
Randy explained that his mare had been professionally trained and was good to ride. However, at some point in her life, someone had tied up her feet and now she is so bad that you can’t pick her feet up at all, let alone have the farrier trim her feet.
We took the mare in the roundpen and Randy attempted to pick up her front foot. She attempted to bite him, and would not let him lift her foot. He then tried to pick up her back foot and she resisted by trying to kick him.
I proceeded by doing some exercises to build her trust and get her relaxed. I then slipped a drop nose band on her so she would be unable to nip at me. I then proceeded to rub all of her legs starting at the top and moving down to her fetlock without trying to pick her feet up. She did not resist or kick at me, so it was apparent that she did not mind being touched on her legs, but rather picking her feet up is the issue. I also concluded that this was not an attitude deal but fear from a bad past experience. I also speculated that she was more of a dominant type mare.
I explained to Randy that our approach will be to take baby steps, incorporating pressure and release. I then took the lead rope and looped it around her front pastern. I applied pressure, pulling slightly until she started to lift her foot, at which time I released the pressure immediately. By the end of the session I had her lifting all four feet momentarily with the lead rope.
We ended the session with me explaining to Randy that to fix the problem would take a time commitment on his part to work through a series of pressure and release steps to eventually get her to the point where you could pick up her feet and hold them up. I left him with the following instructions to get started.
1) Continue getting her to lift her feet momentarily with pressure from the leadrope, releasing immediately when she begins to lift her foot.
2) Begin holding her foot up longer, only releasing it when she holds it up in a relaxed fashion. Don’t release at the kick, only when they get soft. If you release at the kick, or wrong time, you just taught her to kick. All horses learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself. So giving the release at the wrong time teaches the wrong behavior.
Once she was doing good through step 2 with all four feet, I told Randy I would give him more steps to work on to ultimately get her ready for the farrier to work on.
This is a somewhat easy fix as long as Randy works on his timing of the release, and has the time to work with his mare.
The other day I was thinking back to when I was a little kid, and every Saturday watching baseball on television. Back in those days there were only a few channels, and usually only one game on a week. I’ll never forget the announcers, Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese. Dizzy was the color guy and even as a kid I really got a kick out of his stories. One thing he said really struck a note with me– that baseball is one of the few sports we play in this country where time doesn’t matter. There’s no time clock. You play nine innings whether it takes you two hours or four hours.
So, you may ask, what’s that got to do with horse training? Well think about it. If you’re lucky enough to work with horses without having to meet a time constraint, it doesn’t get any better than that. Think about it for a minute. If you are a professional who trains horses for a living, you are forced to push horses maybe quicker than you should. But, if you are a weekend warrior like most horse owners, you can let the horse dictate how fast they learn, and have a whole lot more fun and rewarding experience. Our program allows you to progress your horse in baby steps, and enjoy the ride.