There’s no precise “training recipe” you can follow that works the same for every horse and every handler every time. That’s because people and horses have different personalities and what works for one is the wrong approach for another. And from day to day they’re different, too. You need to understand the goals and the sorts of things you can do to reach those goals. Then you have to experiment a little to see what works for you with that horse that day. The one thing that’s true for every horse is that you don’t control a horse by controlling his head with a halter and lead rope. You control a horse by first controlling his attitude and then you can control his mind.
We’ve talked about working a baby green horse in a pen for the first time. Our first goal was to get the horse used to our presence without building any emotional charge. We wanted him to be comfortable with having us there. So we never did anything the horse might perceive as predatory or punishing. We experimented to find the least bit of pressure it took to make the horse quietly aware of our presence and attentive to where we are. Then we started to control his individual strides by following him on his primary line as we moved from side to side to make sure we had his attention.
So we walked along quietly behind him, working to keep his attention on us and maintaining a quiet emotional connection. When I moved to the right of his primary line, I wanted to see his head swing to the right just enough so he could keep on eye on me. When I moved a little to the left of his primary line, he moved his head to the left so he could keep watching me.
My next goal is to introduce the feeling of a corridor of pressures that he’s moving in. Creating corridors of pressure that create a feel in the horse of the shape we want him to take is basis of the training program we call “heeding” here at Meredith Manor.
I’m going to use the flat wall of the arena as the pressure on one side and my own presence just off his primary line on the other side as a corridor of pressures to move him forward in the direction I want him to go. As he gets near a corner, this corridor of pressures is going to make him feel trapped in the corner where the pen’s walls meet. So I move back onto his primary line and let the pressure of the walls turn him. Then I move back out and create that corridor of pressures again.
Depending on the personality of the horse, they tire of this game pretty quickly. When they do, they will turn off the wall and look at you. My goal is for the horse to turn his body to face me but most horses don’t give me that right away. They usually start by just turning their head. Whatever way the horse offers to look and give me his attention, I stand dead still. I stay quiet and don’t move. I just look at the horse. By standing still, I make it very clear that I’m a calm presence, not a predatory one that he has to worry about.
As soon as the horse looks away, I use as quiet a movement or sound or whatever fuss as I can to bring his attention back to me and I go back to following and creating a corridor of pressures that makes him feel like moving his feet. Since the horse is going to keep looking for a way to get rid of those pressures, I’ve found a way to communicate to him that I’m the center of where he needs to have his attention. When his attention is on me, he gets to stand.
We’ll repeat this stop and look away routine as many times as it takes until the horse not only stops and looks at me but stares at me to see what’s next. Then I take a quiet step back. If the horse keeps staring intently, I’ll take another step back. The horse stops and stares at a distance where he is accepting of the pressure of my presence. When I step back, I’m stretching that distance. That will either make him feel like leaving or pull him toward me, which is my next goal.
When the horse first starts turning to stare at me, I often won’t have his full attention. I want to see his ears listening to me as well as his eyes looking at me. If he’s looking but not listening, I don’t have enough pull to bring him to me. Even if he’s facing me, if his ears are swiveling and scanning or turned back, I go back to following him and pushing him. This is all tremendously boring to watch. But I am developing an intimate and accurate communication with the horse that is important to everything else he needs to learn.
If the horse leaves when I start stepping back, I just start following him again and creating that corridor of pressure between me and the wall again. The horse pretty quickly learns that when he moves, he feels pressure and when he stops and looks at me, the pressure goes away. As he continues looking for relief from that pressure he’ll stop and stare and give me his full attention for a longer and longer period of time.
When the horse finally gives me his full attention and feels a pull toward me when I back up, I keeping backing quietly and slowing to see if I can get him to turn around and face me. This happens quickly with some horses. With others, it can take a lot of repetitions of stopping, looking and following (remember, there’s no recipe that fits every horse). It may take three or four or ten or even more tries until the horse will come all the way up to me and stop next to me. If he’s coming with both eyes and both ears on me, I know he’ll come directly toward me. If his eyes are on me but his ears start scanning or he looks away before he reaches me, I know he’s going to go past me. Just to be safe, I’ll step back out of his kick zone. As he goes by, I’m in a perfect position to fall in behind him and start following again.
So you can see there’s no precise recipe. There’s just a sequence of goals that you have to figure out how to reach with whatever horse you’re working with at the time. I want the horse to be ambidextrous, so to speak. So I make sure I can work him from either side. I watch carefully for any sign of intense or scurried or quick activity. That show’s he’s not learning. He’s initiated an escape or I’m using too loud a pressure and I need to be quieter. While I’m working on getting his attention, I remember to keep my movement and breathing rhythmic and relaxed so the horse stays relaxed. I want the horse breathing calmly and quietly, giving me the impression he’s almost bored. At some point, he’s going to come up to me with both eyes and ears at full attention and stop next to me instead of walking on by. What comes next is the subject of the next article.
Contributed By: Ron Meredith