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.

 

 

 

A Little Work on the Legs

It is so important to get your horse use to having his legs touched and his feet picked up.  More than likely you will at some point want to have your horse’s feet trimmed, and it’s also good practice to clean your horse’s hooves from time to time.  If you are working with a colt that has never had his feet messed with, you probably don’t want to just run up to him and try to pick up his feet.  Odds are you will scare your horse, and you may end up hurt.

Once my colt is okay with me brushing his legs, I start working on getting my colt use to more handling of his legs.  What I have found works the best for the following is a nice soft cotton lead rope that is around 15 feet long.  Your colt should be use to being touched with this rope on his legs if you properly desensitized him to it.  If he is nervous about the rope go back and do a little more desensitizing.  Horses tend to get a little nervous when we first start messing with their legs, so it is important to try to stay relaxed and calm when performing these exercises.  If you try to rush this you will stress your horse, which will increase your odds of getting hurt.

To get started

Before I will ask my colts to pick up their legs for me I want to be sure they are comfortable with their legs being handled.  I accomplish this by using my rope first then moving to using just my hands.  By using the rope as an extension of my arms and hands, I can handle my horse’s legs while remaining at a safe position should the horse decide to kick.  The following pictures are of me working on Cobain’s legs.

Notice when I start I’m standing slightly in front of his shoulder.  I have a hold of the lead rope next to his head with one hand, and I am touching him with the tail end of the rope with the other.  I’m making sure that he isn’t going to spook from the rope.  I rub his shoulder with the rope, then move down to the outside of his leg.  If he is remaining relaxed I see if he will let me rub the rope on the inside of his leg.  If at any point he becomes a little nervous I just go back a step and restart from there.

Once he is okay with the rope touching the inside of his leg I go ahead and loosely put the rope around his leg. I then move the rope all the way up and down his leg a few times until he is completely relaxed with this process.  If he is standing nicely and seems relaxed, I will remove the rope from his leg and step back a couple feed and let him stand.  By letting him stand for a little bit, you give him a chance to process what has just happened.  More than likely, after a couple of seconds he will like his lips (a sign that he is thinking), and if you are really lucky, he will let out a big sigh.  Repeat with the legs.

If you are unsure about wrapping the rope around the back legs, you can use the alternate method of getting the rope around them.  For this you will need something firm to drag the rope with such as a carrot stick.  Stand by your horse’s shoulder and swing the rope so it wraps around the ankle of  your horse.  If you have properly desensitized this shouldn’t be a problem.  If he seems a little jumpy just keep repeating until he relaxes.   Also you want to take your stick and rub it on his leg to make sure he isn’t going to swat at it when you reach for the end of your rope (in the picture to the right I am using a whip, it happened to be what I had laying around handy) Okay now you want to swing the rope around your horse’s ankle so that enough of the tail is sticking out between his back legs that you can catch the end of it with your stick.  Using your stick drag the end out towards you until it is far enough out that you can reach down and get the end.  Make sure to keep a good grip on the end of the rope attached to the halter so you can pull your horse around if needed.

Giving to pressure

After the horse is comfortable with having the rope around his legs, I start applying pressure to his legs and asking him to give to that pressure by lifting his leg.  I first do this using the rope and eventually move on to using my hand.  Once again I will put the rope around my horse’s leg.  Let it slide down around the fetlock.  Then I apply constant pressure on the rope.  For starters I ask the horse to give me his leg to the front.  The instant the horse makes an effort to pick up his foot, release all pressure on the rope.  Then repeat, repeat, repeat.  Continue to repeat until your horse will pick up his hoof with the slightest amount of pressure.  Then repeat with the other legs.  At this point we aren’t asking him to hold them up for any period of time, we just want him to get the idea  that when we apply pressure he should give to that pressure.

Finally Picking Up the Foot

After my horse is giving to pressure of the rope well, I start using my hands to ask him to actually pick up his feet.  To start I position my self by his shoulder holding on to the lead rope with one hand.  I then run my other hand down the leg I wish to pick up.  If all goes well I apply a little forward pressure to his leg and he will pick up his foot.  Then let him put it down right away.  Then repeat, this time when he picks up his foot move it back and hold it up for a couple of seconds.  You may have to start holding it low so your horse can keep his balance better, but eventually you should be able to lift it as you would if you were going to clean it.  I work all of the feet this way, starting out with holding the foot up a second or two and then adding more time.  The goal is to eventually be able to hold his foot up long enough to clean or trim it.

 

 

 

 

Never Enough Desensitizing

In my opinion, you can never desensitize your horse enough.  There will always be something new you can introduce your horse to.  And even with massive desensitizing there is still no guarantee that your horse will not spook. No matter how broke or old a horse is they still can spook.  However, we can  lessen the chances of your horse spooking by desensitizing them to many different “scary” things before we start riding.

After my colts are leading well, are comfortable with me brushing them everywhere and will let me touch them everywhere on their legs and body with the rope and a blanket, I break out the scary stuff:  plastic bags and tarps.

First I will work with the plastic sack because it is smaller than a tarp and easier to handle.  Begin with it wadded up in your hand and only a small portion sticking out.  Let your horse see it, and then crinkle the plastic a little so the horse can hear the noise it is going to make.  Warning:  this make spook your horse, so be sure to have a good hold on him.  Let your horse sniff the sack, then starting on your horse’s neck rub the bag all over his body.  Take your time.  If you rush you may cause your horse to get uncomfortable or to spook.  If he starts to get a little antsy, back up to a place where he was okay being touched with the sack.

Once he is comfortably being rubbed with the sack wadded up, unfold it a little and go through the process of letting him see it, sniff it and then rubbing it over his body.  After you’ve done this you can attach the sack to a stick and repeat the process once again.  Make sure to take your time.  If he is ever uncomfortable go back to a place where he is calm then work from there.

Desensitizing your horse to a tarp can be slightly more of a challenge, mainly because the tarp is a little more awkward to work with.  Also because it is a little bigger it can seem more threatening to your horse.  I start with a tarp that is around 8 X 10 feet in size.  When I first start introducing it to my horse, I fold it up so it’s a pretty small square.  Then I preform the same steps I use for desensitizing my horse to anything:  First I show them the tarp;

Next I let the horse sniff the tarp;

Then I will touch my horse’s nose with the tarp;

I then proceed to rub the tarp on the horse’s neck;

You need to be aware of your horse’s body language.  In the following photo you can see by Cobain’s body language that he is becoming extremely uncomfortable with the tarp.

When my horse starts to get nervous like this, I back off and let him sniff the tarp again and start the process over.

After your horse lets your rub one side of his body pretty easily with the tarp, repeat the process on the other side.

Notice in the last picture above how Cobain’s head is lower.  This is a sign that he is starting to relax.

Once I am able to rub the folded up tarp all over my horse on both sides of his body, I partially unfold the tarp and repeat the process on both sides of the horse’s body.

The ultimate goal here is to get your horse comfortable with the tarp touching anywhere on his body.  Eventually you will be rubbing your horse with the tarp completely opened up.  You are not done with this process of desensitizing until you can have the tarp opened completely and pull it over your horse’s back, head and through his legs.  It may take you several days to accomplish this.  Take your time.  Don’t get in a rush and skip desensitizing your horse thoroughly. After you’ve moved on to ground driving or even riding your horse, you may want to come back and work with the plastic sack or the tarp just to help keep him trusting you and well desensitized.  Remember you can never do enough desensitizing.

 

 

Desensitizing — Sacking Out

When I first start messing with my colts I like to really desensitize them to everything I can think of.  Horses are prey animals and are always on alert that something may be coming to eat them.  I want to expose my horses to as much as possible so they will be less likely to spook later on.

I like to start by desensitizing my colts to the everyday tools I will be using.  I take the object I’m desensitizing my horse to and first let him sniff it.  The first object I usually use is my lead rope.  I  rub him on the forehead with the rope, and once he relaxes and doesn’t seem to mind the rope touching his head, I rub the rope down his neck.  I then proceed to rub the rope all over his body.  If I come to a place that he is starting to act a little spooky, I just move back to a place where he was relaxed.  Let’s say you are rubbing his neck with a rope, and he is nice and relaxed with that.  Then when you start to move down his shoulder onto his leg he starts to move around.  I simply go back to rubbing the rope on his neck and work my way back down to his shoulder then onto his leg.  Again if he starts to act up go back to rubbing his neck.  Eventually he will be okay with the rope touching his legs.  You also need to make sure to desensitize you horse to everything on both sides.  Something may be okay with your horse on one side and completely freak him out on the other.  The following pictures are of me desensitizing Cobain to a rope.  Notice how in the first couple pictures he looks a little unsure.  Then in the bottom picture he seems completely relaxed.  It is at this point I will either quit for the day or move on to another object to desensitize him to.

Every time I introduce my horse to something new I go through the same process.  I let him sniff it.  I rub his face with it.  Then starting at the neck I rub it all over his body.  I feel that desensitizing is a very important part of training and is a step that your horse can never get too much of.

Here I’m desensitizing Cobain to a brush.  Because Cobain was born in the wild, everything he sees he thinks is a potential threat.



Next I desensitize him to a saddle blanket.

I can’t stress how important it is to desensitize young horses to as many different things as you can.  While you can’t expose them to everything,  the more you do expose them to the better horse you will have.  Take your time in during the desensitizing process,  the results will be well worth the effort you put into it.

Sensitize or Desensitize?

When working with your horse you actually want to do both: sensitize and desensitize him.  However, if you make the wrong move at the wrong time you may end up sensitizing him to something you want to desensitize him to or visa versa. That’s why timing is so important when working with your horse.

Sensitizing

When you cue your horse, it would be great if he would do what you want with the lightest cue.  To achieve this you must sensitize your horse.  The concept of sensitizing is simple. You apply pressure to your horse.  Your horse moves away from the pressure.  You release pressure.  However, applying this concept can be a little tricky.  At first your horse may not know what the pressure you’re applying means for him to do.  He may move the wrong direction, and if you stop applying pressure here, he will learn to do the wrong thing.  Or perhaps your horse has moved ever so slightly in the direction you are asking, but you didn’t feel the movement so you don’t release the pressure.  This can confuse your horse.

To properly sensitize a horse you must apply a cue only until your horse makes an effort to perform what is being asked.  As soon as any effort, no matter how small, is made all pressure must stop.  Then basically repeat, repeat, repeat, until your horse responds with just the slightest cue. Here’s an example.  You want your horse to move smoothly into a trot from a walk.  You bump your horse’s sides with your legs and continue to bump him until he starts to trot.  The first step he makes that is a trot, you stop bumping him.  He may only take a couple of steps at a trot and slow down into a walk.  Once he starts walking again, you need to bump him again until he starts to trot.  As soon as he breaks into a trot, stop bumping.  Eventually, he will put it together that when you bump his sides, you want him to trot.

A mistake often made is that a rider will continue to bump their horse once he is trotting.  By doing this you will desensitize your horse to the cue.  If you don’t reward him by stopping the application of pressure, he will learn to ignore the cue.  What benefit would there be for him to trot if you are just going to continue to bump him.

Desensitizing

Desensitizing should be a major part of any training program.  When desensitizing your horse, you basically repeat the same action over and over until you get no response from your horse.  When I start training my horses, I first desensitize them with a rope.  I rub a rope all over their body.  At first most horses will move around and try to get away from the rope, but I will continue to touch the horse all over with the rope until he decides  the rope won’t hurt him and stands still.  I will repeat this with a brush, then a plastic bag, a saddle blanket and whatever else I find laying around.  Then I will take and twirl a rope around and swing it onto my horse’s back.  Again, I will do this until he decides there is no threat and stands still.   I will also take a saddle pad and rhythmically pat it on my horse’s back until he stands still.  Exercises such as this help your horse become confident that you aren’t going to  hurt him and tell him that you want him to stand still.  The most important part of these exercises are that you stop when your horse stands still.

I’m always doing something to desensitize my horse.  The more your horse is desensitized the safer he will become to ride, and the less likely he will spook.  Friends that ride often with me are use to me twirling my reins around and making goofy noises in an effort to desensitize my horse even more.

The most common mistake made when desensitizing a horse is when the rider or trainer stops applying pressure when the horse moves instead of when the horse stands still.  Let’s say you are wishing to desensitize your horse to having a saddle pad thrown on his back.  You start to swing the pad and your horse moves, then you stop swinging the pad to settle your horse down.  Because you stopped when your horse moved he thinks that is what you want him to do. Now you have sensitized your horse to the swinging pad, and he will move when you swing the pad at him.  It is very important to continue with rhythmic swinging until he stands still.

You can improve your riding time with your horse by properly sensitizing and desensitizing him.  With a horse that is sensitized to cues, you won’t have to try to pull your horse where you want him to go, and riding him will become less work and more enjoyable.  By desensitizing your horse he will become safer to be around.  He won’t worry about you touching him, and he will become less likely to spook.