by Laura Crum
I am going to continue on the subject I brought up last week, because there were so many good comments and then Kate did a post on the topic over at “A Year With Horses”, that was really interesting, and I just think its worth discussing—a lot. Of all the things we horse people talk about, how to create or find a reliable riding horse has got to be high on the list of what’s truly relevant. And confident horses, in general, are reliable riding horses.
Think about it. If more people were satisfied with their horse, rather than ending up disenchanted because the horse hurt or scared them, there would be a lot less horses cut loose to end up at the sale…and on a truck to Mexico. And the best way to be satisfied with a horse for many of us is to be confident in that horse as a reliable riding horse. So how do we get there?
Last week I talked about what makes a solid-minded horse, and I recommended buying an ex-team roping horse that had been a reliable babysitter for his previous owner and was in the double digits. I still recommend this approach. Its how I acquired my two bombproof trail horses, Sunny and Henry, who have carried me and my son on hundreds (literally) of trail rides without one bad moment.
But what if you have a horse that is not yet solid-minded, and you think he could become a nice horse, and you want to get there with him, rather than giving up and buying another horse. What do you do then?
I’d like to offer some “tricks” here that have worked for me, back in the days when I was training horses. I commented on one of Kate’s posts that giving a horse a job to do, where your focus is not entirely on the horse, but is also on getting this job done, is very helpful in building a horse’s confidence. It’s the main reason good team roping horses are often very confident horses. They understand the job (catch the steer) and are willing to put up with a lot of adversity to get it done. Now not all of us are team ropers, or would want to be, but we can still use the principle.
Back when I worked on a commercial cattle ranch, I owned a green horse named Ready, who could be a little looky, and if he got anxious, he was capable of both bucking and bolting. I never did turn Ready into what I would call a truly solid-minded horse, but I did turn him into a reliable enough riding horse that (after I sold him) a good horse trainer I knew sold him to be a trail horse for a beginner and the beginner kept him and rode him happily for many years. I got a lot of compliments on that horse, from both the trainer and the new owner, so I think I achieved my goal (and he wasn’t an easy horse). I used a pretty simple system to get him reliable—I call it the “ranch horse” program. Maybe others will find it helpful. It was based on my observations of how reliable some of the ranch horses were—despite the fact that they’d had little formal “training” and weren’t really very well broke. I took a good hard look at what was done to get them confident/solid and I used this to help Ready.
First off, as Linda mentioned in her comment on my last post, all the ranch horses were caught, saddled, and tied up every working day, unless they had a hard day the day before and were given a rest day. With a green horse like Ready, even if I wasn’t going to ride him that day, he got tied up every day with the others. The horses were given water at noon. They spent the day tied (they spent the night turned out). If/when I had time, or an appropriate chore, I used Ready. Otherwise he just spent the day saddled and tied.
Do not underestimate what an effective training tool this is. In the days when I worked for professional horse trainers, many of them employed this system. Believe me, a whole lot of negative behavioral traits will just disappear if you do this for several months. Without you doing much of anything (or risking your neck). The horse must be tied in a safe place (where he can’t get hurt or get loose) and normally we didn’t leave them by themselves—they were tied in a row of horses—though a horse can be tied alone if it seems needed for that individual.
Standing tied all day for many days teaches a horse patience. It teaches him not to paw or fret (eventually). It teaches him to be calm when things aren’t going his way. It gives him a kind of “work ethic”—when the saddle is on I am at work. It will (eventually) give almost any horse a fairly calm frame of mind when he is under saddle. At least to start out with. So this is the first tool in the ranch horse program.
The second tool was equally simple. I had trained Ready myself (in arenas) and he knew the basic stuff. But none of that was helping with his habit of being looky and then turning it into a buck/bolt fest. So on this ranch (which had no arena) I only rode Ready when I had a job for him. Or a pretend job.
For instance, if I was done with my work for the day, I would decide that I needed to check the fence in a certain field. It didn’t matter if the fence really needed checking—fence can always be checked. In actual fact, most of the time I was just taking this horse for a ride. But I didn’t think about it that way.
And this is the crux of this trick. It matters what you are thinking. I would hold the thought that the fence needed to be checked. And we’d start out around the field. Eventually we’d come to a creek crossing or some such thing that Ready didn’t like and he’d resist. Of course, I’d make him cross the creek, but I held the thinking, “we have to get across here to see the rest of the fence, its needed to do the job. So you’ve got to cross.” You might not think this makes much difference from thinking that the horse must cross the creek because I told him to. But you’d be wrong.
There are a lot of subtle things that happen differently when your focus stays on checking fence. For one thing you don’t overeact to the spook, balk, whatever. Your responses tend to be more matter-of-fact. “Come on, we need to go through here. Let’s go.” And you don’t tend to be too picky. If he wants to cross up here rather than over there, fine. We just need to cross and get the job done. At the same time, you aren’t likely to baby him too much—“Come on, we need to get around the field and get done.” The net result is a calm, firm rider, who is sending a very subtle message in everything that happens. “You and me are a team doing a job, pal. Lets get on with the job.”
Over time, this approach works wonders with most horses. I did not dink around with Ready for a solid year—I used him to do ranch “chores” and rode him “outside” until I felt he had grown through his spooky/resistant phase (he was four at the time) and then I returned to training on him a bit. In those days I had pretensions about showing cowhorses, so I taught him a nice sliding stop and a decent spin. Unfortunately he grew to be 16 hands and 1400 pounds, and it was clear he was not handy enough to make a cowhorse. So I taught him to rope cattle and sold him as a team roping horse prospect.
Now a lot of what I did with Ready was gather cattle..etc. And I know this isn’t available to all. But you can use my checking fence trick if you have a big field you can ride around. Just try to keep your focus (or some of it) on being sure you look at all of the fence. Remind yourself that its important and you’re going to be responsible about getting this job done. And see if you notice any changes in your horse. (It may not happen the first ride.)
If you don’t have a field, you can select a certain landmark on a trail that needs to be “checked”. Keep your focus on the notion that you need to see it and be sure its “OK”, rather than letting yourself get caught up in whatever little drama your horse wants to play out. Yes, you still address his “stuff” and with the same tools. You just don’t get too involved with it because, whatever he does, you still need to get the job done. Get your mind in ranch hand mode. I have found that this works—to a certain extent—on almost all green horses if you persist with it (though a horse with a bad habit will not instantly drop his habit—don’t get me wrong). Nor will a spooky, reactive horse become a quiet, solid horse. However his spooky behavior can become a lot more manageable.
So if I had a green horse that I wanted to help become solid-minded, these are the first two tools I’d pull out of my chest. The “tie-up” tool, and the “do chores” tool. If I only had an arena to ride in, my chore might be dragging a tire from the horse until the arena was drug smooth (don’t try this unless you know how to teach a horse to pull a drag). But I do believe a course of poles or cones could define the “job” as long as you were clear that you needed to get it done—even if (to begin with) you had to lead the horse through some of it. The trick is to define a simple job you need to accomplish that does not require much from the horse other than persisting—and you make him persist. Not because of a whim, but in order to get the job done. It’s a mindset.
Has anybody else used this approach? Any thoughts?