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You've found your confidence and are beginning to believe your goals can be realized. You've mustered your courage and conquered some respect-earning territory. You've honed your techniques on the slippery rock of self-control...and now the fun begins! Of all the qualities I look for in a horse, INTEREST is always at the top of my list. No matter how beautiful or structurally correct a horse may be, if his attitude is bitter, dull, or unapproachable, it is like a gold ring in a pig's snout. Cultivating your horse's natural curiosity is the most versatile tool in your toolbox. Let's start with the kitchen sink.
I - is for Interest
Foals are so curious. They come to you readily and investigate everything. Unfortunately often, by the time she is a yearling, she has been convinced that halters mean work, work means circles, circles mean boredom, so she dislikes halters. Or more accurately, people with halters. Her curiosity has been squelched and her interest diluted to a passing glance. Whether a weanling colt and a horse you've had for years, maintaining her interest is where every teachable moment resides. When I start a horse, I want to expose her to everything I can think of, INCLUDING the kitchen sink! Think of her mind as one of those tiny rubber bands you put in a mane. You want to stretch her tolerance, little by little, until her brain is so flexible it like a hundred foot long bungee cord! As I describe some suggestions keep in mind that the benefits are two fold. We are not only using a variety situations to pique her interest, but at the same time we are introducing some serious desensitizing exercises for a much braver horse later. If done correctly, your horse will look forward to your time together with anticipation and wonder. Your training sessions can't always be fun and games, but they can certainly begin and end with them!
For horses that are more sensitive to change, I usually do not do this next step until she has experienced several different objects hanging on the fence during multiple sessions. By then, she is really beginning to wonder about all those 'things' hanging around. Then, at the end of a lesson, I lead her over to the object, let her touch it with her nose once, then lead her away. Often, you will hear a big sigh...question answered. And boy! Did you get a lot of respect from her as you displayed so much courage in the midst of such danger. (A scary stuffed teddy bear sitting on top of the fence post). When you begin to add various objects to this game, it becomes some major league desensitizing. But, the great part is the day she walks into the arena LOOKING for objects to investigate. I love to witness this transition and delight in ignoring the elephant in the room until she is dying to go exploring. At this point, I begin to say the word “touch”, just before her nose makes contact with the object. Remember to walk away immediately after a single touch. Before long, you are actually SENDING her to touch things. This 'touch' cue transfers beautifully to the trail. Whenever one of my trainees sees something 'spooky', whether we are leading or riding, I give her some slack and say 'touch'...then, fear becomes curiosity because she knows the game is not scary, so this must not be either.
Start by placing an object in an arena or pasture. I like to hang something on the fence where I usually work. Start with just one item, then before long you will have a half dozen. Lead your horse to that area and go through your normal routine, completely ignoring the object. Observing him closely will tell you the proper distance to stay away from the item, to keep anxiety to a minimum. Your ultimate goal here is to teach him self-control. His instincts tell him to run, but your body language tells him it is a non-issue. It is critical that you appear completely unaffected by the object. He is going to scrutinize your tone of voice, posture and expression for even the slightest indication that it is time to RUN. If he is anxious and you stop your routine and pet him, you are rewarding his fear, as well as confirming it. If the object is more distracting than interesting, move farther away, but continue your routine. When everything else stays the same, especially you, he begins to go through his mental list and ask himself questions. Your self-control teaches him self-control. Your calm demeanor conveys to him that the object is a non-issue. Stopping and staring at it simply doesn't work for me. I think he just wonders WHEN it is going to eat us both.
Skills are taught layer upon layer. Decide what you are going to work on that day
and what new elements you are going to that day. I like to train in the same
pattern every time.
1)Warm Up His Brain(review)
2)Warm Up His Body(conditioning)
3)Today's Lesson(new element)
5) Relax(cool down & flex)
Every moment you spend with your horse, you are training him. Make the most of it.
Believe in yourself, so he will too.
Control the territory, so he will follow.
Communicate clearly, so he will understand.
Kindle his interest, so he will let you in......and....finally...
This pattern works for me with horses at all levels of training. Whether your horse is under saddle or just starting ground work. Be clear with your communication, keeping your posture, voice and expression balanced. Begin to minimize your cues, while picking up tempo. In my experience, it is great way to keep him interested and really using his mind. Make it challenging for both of you. HAVE FUN!