Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Training a Confident Horse

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?

34 comments:

Dreaming said...

Pippin spent a month with a trainer last summer. The trainer would saddle all of his trainees and tie them to his trailer. They stood there all day, except when it was their turn to work with the trainer. Pippin was terrible at this. He eventually was moved to the old trailer because the trainer found him standing with his front feet on the fender of the trailer! Mine don't stand all day, but many days I'll bring them out and tie them - do a cursory grooming, and make them at least stand there for a while, even if I'm not going to ride.
Love the idea of envisioning a job to do. I think we are going to do a lot of fence checking!

Deanna said...

Couldn't agree more! Awesome post!! So well said!! A good reminder for all of us.

Laura Crum said...

Dreaming and Deanna--Glad you liked it. I was hoping that some of my old tricks would be useful to others.

Kate said...

Good ideas, and a great continuing discussion.

I'm a wimp about tying - I come from a H/J background where horses were never tied but only cross-tied with panic snaps (which were often in use as horses sat back and otherwise misbehaved). Pie comes from a ranch type background and ties really well - he just goes to sleep like a proper ranch horse (although he on occasion will untie himself and wander off). Dawn also oddly enough ties well, due to all the practice my younger daughter gave her. Drift does not tie well (not surprising) - he fidgets and paws and acts like the baby he (mentally) is. I need to work on tying him, but it worries me. I haven't got a suitable spot for a high line, and worry about him getting spooked and struggling against a hard tie - visions of neck injuries, pulling over fenceposts, etc. Would you at some point give advice in a post on how to safely teach a horse to tie in a way that won't lead to injuries? I expect the best method is to start when the horse is very young, but advice on what to do with a grown horse that doesn't tie would be appreciated.

Kate said...

Also, like your "riding fence" example - I've done that one myself. I think it's all about being focussed on a task, and therefore proactively giving the horse leadership and direction that the horse can rely on - I think that's what gives the horse confidence as well as just getting through things together with the rider. The horse can only care about what you're doing if you care about it too, and having a job, however artificial, gives you something to care about together.

I use cones a lot when I'm working in the arena - it helps me get into that same "job" frame of mind. There's another fun exercise if there's another person around, and you can do it in an arena or in a field, and I suppose even on the trail. If your arena has objects/landmarks around the perimeter (dressage letters work too), those work. The second person calls out directions to the rider: "trot to A, then halt", or "canter to the pine tree, canter in a circle around it", and as the person and horse are about to finish a leg the second person calls out another "job". Can be varied in all sorts of ways. I do this myself - giving myself "instructions" and then the next instruction and so on - mixes things up and keeps them fun.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--That is a really good point about tying. Horses can and do get hurt pulling back, sometimes in permanent ways. I like to tie to use overhead ropes hung from solid tree branches, but we talked about this before and you said you had no helpful trees. My second best approach would be rings bolted into solid barn walls. If you truly think the horse is likely to pull back hard you can use a loop of inner tube to tie to--this gives a little. I know there are products out there that people use for pulling back, but I personally don't use them, relying on my tree ties, which work well. Certainly I have very often tied horses to solid pipe fencing, but yes, there is the potential for them to get in the fence. At some level you just need to decide if the benefits of tying (which are many) are worth the risks--and this choice may be different for everyone.

Stilllearning said...

Hi Laura, I'm off-topic here but wanted to say how much I enjoyed "Moonblind". It was a great read and filled in the missing pieces, since I've read all the others. Kudos on managing to create a horse-y chase scene with a very pregnant heroine :)

Thanks again for running the contest.

Laura Crum said...

Stillearning--Thank you! I thought it was an interesting challenge--trying to write an exciting mystery with a pregnant protagonist. It sort of eliminated a lot of the usual options. Glad you liked it.

Minus Pride said...

Very interesting. My horse ties very well (she was started by a roping trainer) but we do not have a job. I'm going to try this.

What advice can you offer for a horse that gets a little worked up when horses on the other side of the fence run up to it?
Thanks!!

Laura Crum said...

Minus Pride--I would say that's pretty normal. Most horses get a little worked up when horses gallop up to them. If your horse stays under control and just dances a little, I'd ignore it and focus on the task at hand, whether that be arena figures or getting on down the trail. If she gets too excited and you feel she's not under control, I'd do what it takes to get her attention, whether some exercises (serpentines, circles), or doubling her, whatever it takes to get her attention back on you. Then I'd carry on. I don't blame a horse for showing a little excitement under those circumstances. Its natural. I just expect/demand they keep their main focus on me and the job at hand.

Allison said...

Thank you for this post! I am working on confidence issues with my horse right now! She ties great and is patient, but I think getting a saddle on her and giving her a job to do each time is an excellent idea. I plan on trying it when I go out to the barn in a little bit. She does have cows right next to her paddock. . .I wonder if their owners would let me use them, lol!

www.adventureswithahorse.blogspot.com

Laura Crum said...

Allison--It never hurts to ask--though people with cattle can be a bit touchy when it comes to working them with a horse. If you do get permission, be careful not to do anything that would cause the cattle to get excited and potentially run through a fence--owners hate that.

When I worked cattle on the commercial ranch, I was almost always doing something that needed doing--moving a group from field to field, or just doing a count to see that they were all there...etc. Of course, when I was training cutting horses and cowhorses, we worked cattle to train the horse--which is a completely different deal.

Allison said...

maybe one day i can ride with the cattle, I am not at that point yet! I did go to the barn today with a job for Shyloh. I tacked her up and lunged her and got a much better response than previous times!

Funder said...

You know, I think that is what I did with Dixie. I took her out for rides almost daily in early 2010, and our job was to get down the trail. She was awful. Spinning, bolting, freezing in place (usually hypnotized by a deadly rock). Sometimes I did get off and lead her but mainly I just kept her moving down the trail because by god we were going to get down that trail that day. She has become quite confident and steady (for me, at least - no one else has ridden her in years). I love the way you articulated "having a job." Good post!

Francesca Prescott said...

Hmmm...not sure about the tying up all day thing! I reminds me of sad horses in the Camargue (south of France) waiting for tourists. I couldn't do that. I can see how a horse needs to learn to stand quietly while tied, and maybe I've been lucky, but none of my horses have ever had a problem with that. I get that the tying up for long periods of time teaches them more than just standing quietly. But still...

I like the "having a job to do" idea, and although I've never thought about it quite this way, I realize I also work like this, even if I've never done it consciously, and definitely not in the checking the fence/herding cows Western riding sense. Recently, I've fiound that props are very helpful when I'm riding Qrac, if only for giving me a marker to focus on. Our arena is huge and oval shaped and has no letters, and I've found that just a couple of poles on the ground help me ride Qrac more precisely. It's hard to ride a circle on a relatively green horse without any point of reference, and the markers help him focus too. So, during one session, our job might be to ride a series of good circles, without drifting all over the place.

I'll keep the "job to do" analogy in mind as I'm sure it will help in all sorts of circumstances. Thanks, Laura!

Breathe said...

It's funny, I started the "blue bag games" to give us a job to do. I need to move that out to the trail next. The best days we have are blue bag days.

Because it's a job. A silly one, but still a job...

Fantastyk Voyager said...

This is a great post and reminds me of what I need to do. I am sure my horses could use some of that tying up training, if not for hours then at least daily. I especially need to tie up Yalla! and Scout more often. Annie is a puller so I dare not tie her up. She will sit back over and over until "something" breaks. She almost always ends up badly injured too. I think that's why I neglect to do it with the others.

I often ride focussed on specific tasks in the arena. Go to that post, turn 90 degrees, walk forward 300 yards, stop, back up, etc. It keeps the horse focussed on me more than what is happening around them. I like the idea of going out to "check fence" too.

Breathe- what are the "blue bags games?"

Laura Crum said...

Funder--Yes, I totally agree that you gave Dixie a job and that caused her to become confident.

Francesca--Tying all day is something that can help a green horse become solid. I don't believe either Kwint or Qrac were all that green when you got them, so there is absolutely no need to do that with them. But yes, the sort of "adversity" that tying all day represents can be very helpful to getting a horse "solid-minded". It may not be something we think about, but most horses don't get reliable without going through a little adversity--when we buy a broke horse we often forget that the adversity was simply dealt out by someone else--and we are reaping the benefits. To be quite frank, the tying all day represents a very benign form of administering "adversity". I don't do this with broke horses (myself)--its done for a reason and is part of the training process.

Breathe--Yes, what are the blue bag games?

Voyager--Yes, I would not tie a horse solid that was known to have the habit of pulling back hard. Something will get broken--and often its the horse. However, good "tied up" time when a horse is green can often prevent a horse from ever pulling back. My horses Sunny and Henry can be tied for as long as you want--they don't wiggle, much less pull back or paw. They both came from a ranch background, and spent, I'm sure, many hours tied.

Shanster said...

I was taking Rosso with me when I cleaned stalls and had lessons on Sera... he just had to stand there... and he became really good at just standing there and not fretting or worrying or flinging back and forth calling... when he was at the cowboy trainer, he spent his days tied up and tacked up til it was his turn.... I could definately see the benefits of that tool!!


and having a "job" to do absolutely makes sense... I can see how it would keep the focus without nit picking. Yes, think the mind set makes ALL the difference and it is subtle and yet it seems most anything worthwhile when training animals is pretty subtle... attitude and thought and how our bodies respond is pretty amazing.

Good post! Thank-you!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Shanster--I just read on Kate's blog from someone who thinks that tying all day is cruel, and I would like to say that those who have not used this method to create calm in a green horse may be unaware of the benefits. Those of us who have used it can attest that it is a very benign way to teach a horse patience and it is often the MOST humane way to work with a difficult horse who might otherwise endanger the rider--or cause him her to become so frustrated that the riding is an endless, unpleasant struggle. Not fun for either horse or human. No, you don't have to tie all day. The ranch horses were tied all day because we needed them to be available to do chores. But tying for a good long time--say two to four hours, is the only way to get much benefit from this method. Half an hour won't work. It merely frustrates the horse to no good end.

AareneX said...

Great post, Laura, thanks. I have inadvertently used the "fake work" trick on my horses for years, mentally telling them, "yes, yes, you are terrified of that rock HOWEVER we need to move on because I need to photograph something on the other side of this mountain before the light changes..."

I also teach stupid tricks (especially when the weather is bad and we can't get out to do REAL work) to help the horse engage her brain AND to give her practice in doing stuff that she believes is senseless. And who knows? Someday our lives may depend on her ability to climb up on a pedestal.

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--I find it fascinating that so many people have used the "fake work" trick without even thinking about it...and found it effective. I stumbled upon it from riding/observing ranch horses--who are never ridden other than to get a job done. It was a real teaching to me how calm and confident they mostly were--despite being, in many cases, very ill-broke. And I sincerely hope my life will never depend on my horse climbing onto a pedestal, cause I'm not sure he'd do it--though I know he wouldn't panic trying (!). But I do see your point. Thanks!

mommyrides said...

Great post Laura! When I was looking for my own trail horse, I came across many people who didn't tie their horses at all!! I guess the use of cross ties has eliminated this from many barns. But if you show, what do you do then, stand with your horse next to you all day?? And how do you use the porta-potty then :D

All my horses have to stand tied, no exceptions. I don't have a barn, I have a run in. So I'm out doors for everything, from grooming to tacking up to training. They have to be able to wait their turn quietly and with no attitude.

And they all do it. Usually they fall asleep at some point, even while grooming, so I'm constantly warning my kids to let the horse know where they are so they don't startle them!! Even then they will raise their heads and go back to "dozing".

I love your second point about having a plan. I'm trying to reinforce this with my 12 year old son. He often complains about being bored while riding in the paddock. I encourage him to have something in mind to do. We have poles and a bridge and different trail type obstacles in there so we are always re-arranging so the horses have something new to try.

I'm going to use that even as we trail ride, to help our herd bound grandmother to get over trying to mother/protect the pony while making sure no other horse gets in front of her, so she can still be the most aware so that any horse eating monsters won't get them. Well, maybe not her and the pony, my other mare she is not too concerned about, ha!

Again great advice, can't wait to hear what more golden nuggets you have to add!!!

Once Upon an Equine said...

Great post; great advice. I find it helps me just as much to have a job to do. Otherwise, I get worried and transmit that worry to my horse and then we both lose our confidence. We're a work in progress.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you Lynn and Once Upon. That's a really good point about having a "job" helping to keep the rider confident as well. I never thought of it that way but it makes great sense.

I'm always happy to share stuff that's worked for me--glad you found it helpful

dunslidin said...

Funny how one person sees cruelty and another sees tying up just a easy and calm training tool. My trainer will get off a woundup mare and calmly tell her to have a time out (rather than spurring and jerking) and just tie her in her stall, work another horse then get her out and she is always calm and ready to work. We bought a horse that pulled and flipped out so my husband made up a secure tie in our corral with an innertube and he tied him every day for 3 or 4 hours for 3 weeks, turned the other horses out and let him figure out what behavior got him released, his alternative was to be sold at auction and not have the wonderful life he has now. He is now our pocket puppy and can be tied for hours with no silliness or danger to us or the other horses or himself. I would rather do something like this than let a horse be a hazard at a show or trail ride or at my own house. Most of the natural horsemanship oldies do this with their 2 year olds, tie up 8 or 9 horses to something safe and secure, take one at a time to work them and then put them back when they are done. Bryant Neubert (one of the best young horse starters) says the first few days might be a little wild but by the time they have 30 days on them they are ready to go anywhere and be tied and ridden. If you tie high and have plenty of room between horses they can move around probably more than mind do in their stalls. My trainer uses tie stalls on difficult horses, he says they learn to be touched all over and that they become respectful and unafraid of other horses and people touching them. It just becomes their life and they are not claustrophic once he gets them to a show. Oh well, different strokes for different folks, my horses have a job everyday. Take my fat body wherever I want to go (in the arena or trail) and be respectful and easy.

Laura Crum said...

dunslidin--Thank you so much for that comment. I could not have said it better (and didn't). That is exactly the point. Tying is a very humane way to work with a horse that has issues, and the sort of reliable horse that tying can help create has a MUCH better chance at a happy life. That is exactly the point. Your examples are perfect. I couldn't agree more.

And lets not forget--tying is a way to work with a horse that is safe for the human, too--and sometimes that is the bottom line.

I dearly love my reliable riding horses (who have been tied a great deal in their lives and tie perfectly). I will darn sure retire them when their working life is done and do my best for them. And this would not have happened for either horse if they hadn't been such solid-minded, reliable riding horses. Tying is a very good method to help a horse become solid-minded, and becoming a solid-minded, reliable riding horse is absolutely a good thing for the horse (and the owner).

Minus Pride said...

Thanks for your advice Laura, I just got the chance to get back on here.
I like your thoughts. She mainly keeps her head about her. My boyfriend's gelding gets worked up, so I think we will try that with him.

dunslidin said...

I'm riding with Buck Brannaman next week and while looking for a clinic review I saw an interesting comment that using a hi-line (what we did with our gelding) is the safest because if they pull back hard it lifts their front feet which they don't like and they won't pull hard enough to hurt themselves. I remember Bryan Neubert saying the same thing. Maybe that is why it worked so well on our gelding.

Laura Crum said...

dunslidin--I use ropes tied to very solid overhanging oak tree branches. Same principle. Horses don't pull back hard (usually) if tied to a rope that goes up to a point above their heads. I use heavy "bombproof" clips and climbing rope. Works good for me. I definitely would try highlines if I didn't have the oak tree ties. We always tied our horses on high lines when horsepacking and it worked well.

Minus Pride--Thank you. I'm glad it was helpful. Maybe I'll do a longer post sometime on safe ways to do the tying. There are risks of hurting a horse if you tie to fences...etc. And some horses who are very confirmed in pulling back until something breaks should not be tied solid.

joycemocha said...

I like this training choice, and it's one that I realize I kind of sort of use. Mocha likes doing intricate pattern work, and she sees it as a job. Especially if cones or poles are involved.

I find it easier for a horse to understand what you're asking them to do in more complex movements if they have visual cues or a job-related cue to follow. So yeah...

And my trainer uses the patience post pretty consistently. Mocha spent her youth at the patience post. So did several other horses that started out in the barn. There's been a few times when Mocha and I have had to do our work around impatient horses in training, just puttin' in their time....

joycemocha said...

And now, after reading the comments...one thing I wanted to add is that the best thing that happened for my first little pony is that he had to learn how to live in a tie stall at a young age. He was able to see other horses next to him but he learned a lot of patience that way.

I move beyond training to tie to ground tying. I've always taught it, I guess. I remember it most with the big mare I owned in high school--no place to tie her up by the tack room in our garage, so she had to stand reliably. I started with holding the lead rope, but that grew old really fast. So by bits and pieces I taught her to ground-tie.

Mocha ground-ties, and I work on it consistently. When we work with poles or cones in the arena, it's nice to be able to park the horse and do what is needed to adjust poles or whatever obstacle we're working with. Now we're working on her standing quietly while untacked in the arena, and not moving off until verbally released.

Yeah, I'm into that kind of training stuff. It's helpful to have a horse trained to cooperate with you in the little things....

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--I admire horses that ground tie reliably, though I have never trained one to do it. But what a useful thing for a horse to know.

joycemocha said...

Laura--teaching to ground-tie takes a lot of consistent practice. You end up saying "whoa" a lot. Hopefully not while chasing a fleeing horse!

Grin. Neither Mocha nor Sparkle did that to me. But yeah, I practice the skill pretty regularly.