People have many different ways of gentling and training their colts. Not every method works with every horse, and not every method works with every person. Because the horse I am using for this process is a mustang that was born in the wild, I will be using methods that won’t make him feel trapped or in danger. If I put too much pressure on him, he will feel captured. At that point he will only have escaping on his mind and won’t be in learning mode.
I actually have been extremely busy this first week that I have owned Cobain, my 2 yr old mustang, gelding, so I haven’t been able to spend much time with him. But I have taken several steps to get him ready to be worked with.
When I picked him up at the BLM, Bureau of Land Management, they ran him through a shoot to load him into my trailer. While he was in the shoot I had one of the BLM employees slip a halter on him so that would be one less step for me. Because this halter is going to be left on Cobain for several weeks, I selected a nylon halter. I love rope halters for training horses, but I find them dangerous to leave on a horse full time. You also want your halter to be well fitted, so it won’t slip off of your horse, or he get a leg caught in it if he reaches to scratch his face. Cobain has a smaller head for a mustang so I ended up using a halter for a horse 500-800 pounds. It fits perfectly.
Because my resources allow it, I have placed my colt in a pen that is away from other horses. This will help him bond more quickly to me. The pen is constructed of heavy duty panels. The pen is about 50 feet in diameter and is attached to a small barn so Cobain can get out of the weather. I do not leave a bale of hay in the pen that he can eat off of when ever he wants. I pitch hay to him twice a day. This actually is important. By me coming out to pitch hay to him, he recognized that I am a source of food for him, and he gets excited to see me. Also it forces me to make an appearance twice a day. I figure the more Cobain sees me, the better he will know me.
I like to get my horses trusting me and wanting to come to me. I like to give them a little grain from my hand to get them wanting to see me. I know some people disagree with this, but they can start their own blog on how to do it their way. Because Cobain had never had grain, I had to get him use to eating it before he would even consider eating it out of my hand. To do this, Cobain’s first few days at my place I put grain in a grain tub for him. The first time I just put the grain in the tub and left the pen. The next time I put grain in the tub and messed around in the pen. Then the next couple of times I put grain in the tub and stood a few feet from the tub. Now he loves grain. Here is where I add a catch. He only gets grain if he will eat it out of my hand. He knows the bucket grain comes in, and the first time it took him a little while to actually take some from my hand, but now he will come right up and get the grain from me every time. As I feed him grain with one hand, I will take my other hand and rub his face. He is now starting to let me rub his face when I don’t have grain and will come check me out when I come in the pen.
Another part of training I’ve been doing with Cobain is a little round pen work. Because my family has had such a busy schedule the last week, I haven’t done as much round pen work as I would have liked to with Cobain, but he is such a smart little guy and is catching on quickly. When I first do round pen work with colts, they are “at liberty”. Which basically means I don’t have a rope on them and they can go where they like.
I would like to mention that parts of this process would be slightly different if the horse that I would be working with was some what tame. These are the steps that I use on a horse that has never been around people. I have found that this process works best for me in most situations as building trust of the horse.
In the Round Pen
The only equipment you need for this first process is a lunge whip or a stick and string. I use a lunge whip because it’s what I have, I don’t whip the horse with it. I basically use it as an extension of my arm.
To start I will ask the colt to move. Now Cobain has not ever really been handled so to get him to move, I just walk towards him a little and he starts to go. If your horse is a little reluctant to go you can move your arms a little, click to them or whatever it takes to get them traveling around the pen. I then quit moving and just let the horse go until they stop. When they stop moving I take a step or two backwards to see it I can get the horse to turn towards me. If they turn towards me I let them stand until they turn away, then I ask them to move again, and continue to repeat the process over again several times. If the horse doesn’t turn towards me I make them move out again right away and keep repeating the process until they turn towards me.
The second thing I like to do while my colt is at liberty is to get him a little desensitized. To do this I will swing the tail end of my lunge whip, or the string of a stick and string, up over my horse’s back. The horse will probably take off running around the pen. That’s okay. Try to keep the whip riding on the horse’s back if it falls off swing it back onto him. Eventually the horse will stop and stand still. When he does so, immediately remove the whip from his back and let him stand a few seconds. Then repeat by swinging the tail end of the whip back onto his back and wait for him to stop moving. The goal here is to get it so you can swing the tail end of the whip onto him without him moving. Some horses will figure this out more quickly than others. Don’t give up eventually every horse will figure out what you are looking for. I continue this exercise daily until I can go out and throw the end of the whip over the horse and he doesn’t move the first time I try it. (If working with a horse that is halter broke and willing to let you touch him, I start out by just rubbing him all over with the whip until he lets me touch him everywhere with it.)
Cobain figured out really fast that if turns and faces you, you will quit swinging the whip at him. Here you can see the tail of the whip hanging over Cobain’s back. He’s facing Dan, and Dan offers him a “hand shake”.
After I get my horse so he is standing when I am tossing the whip over his back, I start to rub the stiff part of the whip on his back. I will rub it on him and try to work my way closer to him until I am actually touching him with my hand that is holding the whip. To start I usually can rub him with the end without much problem, but as I get closer to touching him with my hand I can see he starts to get nervous. At that point I will back off to a point where I can see him relax and try to work my way closer. Eventually I will get to where I can touch him without first using the whip. Just like everything, some horses will except you getting close to them faster than others. If you want it done right take your time and let your horse be the one who tells you he’s ready for the next step.
For the next part of my round pen work, I use a 20 foot cotton lead rope with a bull snap on the end. This is one of the tools I use most during training so I highly recommend buying on. I prefer the bull snap to other snaps mainly because they are very strong and will hold up to just about anything. And I recommend buying ropes that the rope is braided back through itself where the snap is fastened on. Ropes that just have clamps holding the snap on tend to break easily. I prefer the cotton to nylon because it won’t create burns as easily on you or your horse as the nylon will. I have tried the colored cotton ropes, but I think that the coloring must make the ropes more fragile because they seem to break easier. (Starting to sound like I break a lot of stuff, huh?) Anyway, the rope pictured is the type I prefer.
With this rope you will basically go through the same process that you did with the whip. This will help get your horse desensitized from the
rope. You will HOLD ONTO THE CLASP END and throw the loose end over your horse’s back. Your horse will probably start running around, and you will hold the clasp end of the rope and let the other end ride on your horse. If it falls off toss it back on the horse. When your horse stops running, pull the rope off of his back. Repeat until your horse just stands and lets you toss the rope onto his back. Eventually you want to get where he accepts the rope sitting on his back, and he will let you come up and pet him. (The process here with a tame horse would be to rub him all over with the rope then proceed to swing it onto him. Because the horse we are working with isn’t tame, he probably won’t let you get near him with a rope until he figures out it isn’t going to eat him.)
I really feel that it is important to do these exercises with any colt you are starting. They really help desensitize the colt to sudden movements and help them realize that you aren’t going to hurt them. I repeat and repeat every exercise I do with my colts until they will stand relaxed while I performing whatever exercise we happen to be working on at the time.