Building My Horse From the Ground Up–Part 2

Even though this section is about starting colts any older horse can benefit from these exercises.  Especially if you have a horse that is pushy or bossy or shows little respect.

At this point your horse should be able to stand quietly while tied and being groomed and lead nicely without crowding you or rushing past you.  We also have worked on desensitizing our colt (which up to this point has been ground work, but desensitizing can also be done in the saddle).  Now we are going to start asking our colts to do some more advanced moves.

When teaching a colt anything new, I start with a small cue. Then make it bigger and bigger until I get the desired result.  Then once the colt starts to figure out what I want I refine them and make them smaller and smaller until the colt moves with just the slightest suggestion of what I want.  Also when first asking a colt to do something new, timing is very important.  You want to reward your colt for the slightest attempt at doing the right thing.  This will help develop him into a problem solver.  He will learn that when you are giving him a cue, he needs to do something to get you to stop, and it is his job to figure out what you want.  Most importantly you must not stop cuing your horse until he makes and effort in the right direction.  If your horse goes the wrong way and you stop cuing him, you’ve just trained him to go the wrong way when you cue him that certain way.

Lateral Flexion

Lateral flexion, to me, is one of the most important things to teach your horse.  It helps build softness in your horses.  It helps them relax.  And it is the key to a one rein stop.  Honestly  I’m a little nervous riding horses that don’t know how to flex their heads to the side.

To teach my horse to flex laterally, I simply stand beside my horse at the shoulder, facing the same direction as the horse.  I place my right arm over my horses withers, and with my left hand I grasp the side of the nose band of the halter and apply pressure towards my hip.  At first your horse will probably move around in circles.  Just stay with him and continue to apply pressure.  The second he quits moving his feet and tips his head slightly towards you release pressure.  Then repeat, repeat, repeat.  Eventually he will get so he will tip his nose all the way around to you.  Once he will reach his nose around towards you, you can hold his head over here for a couple seconds at a time.  Repeat with the other side.

Moving the Hind Quarters

This may seam like a pretty easy task to teach your horse, but it is very important that he learns it and learns it correctly.  We can easily move our horse’s rear end by pulling his head around and swinging the rope at his rear end, but we want to refine this so that when we are in the saddle we can disengage his hind quarters in and emergency.

The goal here is to be able to slightly tip our colt’s nose towards us and touch his side slightly behind where your leg would hang while riding (what I call foot position three) this will result in you horse crossing his back legs as he moves his hind end away from you.

To start I give my horse the cue as if he already knows what I want.  I tip his nose slightly toward me and gently touch his side.  Most likely he hasn’t a clue what I want and will just stand there, but if he happens to make an effort to move his rear end away from me, I release pressure, rub his neck and let him stand for a couple of seconds before asking him again.  If he doesn’t move I will apply more pressure with my hand on his side.  I progress from pressure to tapping his side, to swinging the rope at his rear end, to popping the rope on his butt.  I only up the pressure until I get movement in the correct direction.  Once I get movement the colt gets to rest a couple of seconds.  Then I repeat, repeat, repeat.  Always starting with the smallest cue and working up to only as big as necessary.

Once the colt is starting to understand what I want I ask for more steps.  Then I ask for him to do the same thing the other direction.  It is important to work both sides of your horse.  With a horse just because you do something on one side doesn’t mean he will understand what you want on the other side.  Also I don’t spend a lot of time working on this each session.  This is something your colt should pick up quickly and working on it a few minutes everyday should be plenty.  After my colts understand what I want from them, I move them a full circle each direction three times and call it good (Circle left, circle right, circle left, circle right, circle left, circle right).

In the first picture I show how I hold my rope, second picture is where I apply pressure, picture three is Cobain moving his hind end, pictures four and five are me moving him with just moving my hand and not actually touching him or you could say I’m driving his hind end around.

Moving the Front End

Getting your horse to walk around on his front end can be a little more tricky than moving his hind end.  I like to teach my horses to pivot on their hind ends (walking around with their front legs) for a couple different reasons.  One, if they are used in halter classes they need to know how to pivot. Two, it’s a lot easier to lead a horse that you don’t have to push around but will move nicely away from you when you step towards them. Three, it is easier to teach a horse to pivot under saddle if they were taught to pivot from the ground.

The most important thing to remember here is that a pivot on the hind is still a forward movement.  Your horse will still have 3 legs walking around one that is standing still.  Keeping that in mind, I start to teach my colts to pivot by walking them forward, then turning into them and ask them to step away from me.  What we are looking for is that the colt moves away from me and that he front leg closest to me steps over the other front leg.  To start we get one step and walk the horse forward.  So the pattern will go like this:  walk forward, get one cross over step, walk forward, get a cross over step, walk forward.  You want to make sure you are always walking your colt out of his pivots otherwise he will start backing his hind end around  Once he is doing one step well ask for two and build from there.  Don’t forget to repeat on the other side.

If you have problems getting your horse to step away from you, you can try a couple different techniques to get him to move.  To start I will pump my hand towards his nose.  Then I will push my thumb into the little groove between his shoulder and neck (see picture).  If he still don’t move I will twirl my rope at his shoulder.

Picture one, walking forward. Two, pumping my hand towards his nose. Three, where to push if he doesn’t move. Four, swinging my rope at his shoulder.  Five, he’s crossing his front legs over. Six, he moves with just implied pressure.

These ground work maneuvers are so important.  They are exercises that I go over and over till they are near perfect.  They are a great way to build a bond with your horse.  And they also help create respect towards you.  Even if you are riding an older, already broke horse, if he can’t do these simple maneuvers, go back and teach them to him.  I promise he will seem like a new horse.




In the Beginning

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.)

Here Cobain has started to relax and is facing Dan.  As a reward Dan will let Cobain stand for a few minutes before moving on.

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.