A cloud of dust encircles both horse and human. Sweat beads have gathered above her eye and her body rises and falls with her every breath.
“Great circles! Keep up the good work,” your horse cheers from his relaxed vantage point in the center of the ring. Appearing quite content, with a hind leg cocked, your horse admires your diligent efforts.
You’ve waved, you’ve flailed, and have even pulled and shoved. But at the end of the training session you’re the one who has received the workout, while your horse hasn’t budged.
Last week I introduced the concepts of sensitization and desensitization and provided you with some desensitizing exercises to enhance trust and confidence in your horse. Click here to read Controlling Movement (Part I): Understanding Sensitization vs. Desensitization. This week I will discuss sensitization and give you some exercises that are a must for establishing a respectful relationship with your horse.
The ultimate goal is to cultivate an equine partner that is equally balanced in sensitization and desensitization. A horse who has trust in you as a leader to be calm and relaxed in certain situations, but having enough respect for your leadership to move willingly when asked.
Recall from last week’s article that every interaction with our horse results in their either becoming more sensitive (sensitized) or less sensitive (desensitized). Which one occurs is determined by when we maintain pressure and at what point the pressure is released.
Remember the release is the reward to the horse. It is the release from pressure that tells the horse they did the right thing.
To earn the position of herd leader, you must be able to consistently influence the movement of your horse. In this week’s lesson you will learn how to control your horse’s movement forward, backward, left and right. These exercises serve as the foundation on which we will build future skills, so I encourage you to take the time it takes, so that your horse understands these communications.
Before I jump in to this week’s sensitization exercises let’s review some of the principles of proper sensitization.
When sensitizing a horse, keep doing what you’re doing, using increasing stages of pressure until the horse responds with movement. As soon as the horse moves away from the pressure, release.
Remember that leadership is determined by control of movement – in short, who moves whose feet. Therefore it is imperative that your message get down to the feet of the horse.
When asking a horse to yield out of your space, it is not enough for the horse’s head to bend away, while his feet stay stationary. You must get movement in your horse’s feet to earn the position of alpha in the herd.
Since the goal of sensitization is to cause your horse to have a greater regard for your communication, it is important that you use body language that is in alignment with your message. Remember, you want your communication to reflect the qualities of being clear, committed, consistent and congruent. As well, when sensitizing a horse I recommend using a focused and specific intent on the part of your horse’s body you want to move.
Last week I mentioned the value of using a training stick to support your communications. I propose getting comfortable using a sturdy training stick and string.
I also want to offer some suggestions regarding types of halters and leadropes in order to maximize communication. While the traditional nylon web halter is fine for some things, I strongly suggest using a rope halter for your groundwork exercises. In fact, my belief in using rope halters is so high, that I use rope halters exclusively at my training facility. Not only do the flat and wide straps of nylon web halters prohibit much in the way of specific communications, they can actually encourage a horse to lean against you. The rope halter facilitates a more direct and sophisticated contact with your horse, while also discouraging the horse from pulling on you.
As well, I advise using lead ropes made of high quality yachting rope that are a minimum of 12 feet in length. Ropes that are too short or too light make it difficult to have finesse in your communication and can be potentially unsafe. A yachting rope that is 12 foot or more in length has a much greater weight, allowing it to convey more life and feel to the horse. It also enables a greater distance from your horse while he is learning, which increases your safety as the handler.
Practicing the qualities of correct communication, using the proper tools and maintaining increasing amounts of pressure until your horse responds with movement of his feet will result in a responsive and respectful horse.
Recall these principles as you practice the following sensitization exercises with your horse.
Goal: To be able to send the horse backwards out of your space by shaking the leadrope.
Instructions: Stand directly in front of your horse with the very end of the leadrope in your hand. Assume a focused and intent stance. With the same hand that is holding the leadrope begin assertively wiggling your finger at your horse. Maintaining the same body language, progress to shaking your wrist, then moving your elbow and ultimately swinging your whole arm back and forth, until your horse yields his space. As soon as the horse takes a step backward, release all pressure by ceasing movement of the rope, rocking your weight back into a relaxed stance and smiling at your horse.
These progressive movements of your hand and arm will cause the rope to move back and forth causing the horse an increasingly discomfort. The momentary discomfort of the swinging leadrope motivates the horse to seek another option, such as moving away from the pressure.
Don’t be surprised if your horse tries other options before stepping backwards. If your horse tries to go left, right or forward, maintain the pressure assertively until the horse steps backward.
Continue this process, asking for one step and then releasing, asking for another step and releasing, until your horse is at the end of the leadrope. Repeating this same progression will help your horse build his understanding, out of which he will yield to one of the earlier stages of pressure. Remember to release all pressure as soon as your horse takes a step back.
There is a terrific example of asking a horse to back up utilizing the progressive stages of pressure as described above in Horse Behavior and Psychology (Part II) on page 4.
Goal: To have your horse willing come forward when invited.
Instructions: Your horse is now out at the end of the leadrope and you should be standing in an upright relaxed position, offering your horse a friendly feel. Begin combing the rope, hand over hand, with open hands. Next, progress by softly closing your hands around the rope without pulling on the rope. If your horse has not responded by coming toward you at this point, move on by taking the slack out of the rope while still using a combing motion with your hands. If your horse has still not taken a step forward, take one step to the side to slightly off balance your horse, set your weight against the rope and wait until your horse takes a single step forward. Once you get one step, release all pressure and start the sequence over again until your horse comes forward as far as you want.
Yield the Hindquarters (Energetic Pressure)
Goal: To have the horse disengage his hindquarters by stepping one hind foot across the other when you apply rhythmic pressure.
Instructions: With the lead rope draped in the crook of your arm (as shown in Starting the Partnership Off Right on page 3), direct your focus and intent toward your horse’s hindquarters. Holding the stick in an upright manner, begin making a small, rhythmic, pulsating motion toward your horse’s hindquarters. The same motion you would use to knock on someone’s door. Continue increasing the size of this motion, progressing to where the stick is actually rhythmically bumping into your horse’s hind end if necessary. Once your horse moves his hind feet one step sideways, out of your space, release all pressure and assume a friendly and relaxed demeanor.
Practice this until your horse is able to yield his hindquarters to one of the more subtle stages of pressure. Practice this equally on both sides of the horse.
Yield the Forehand (Energetic Pressure)
Goal: To have the horse move his front end out of your space by stepping one front leg in front of the other.
Instructions: Stand at your horse’s shoulder holding the stick parallel to your horse’s neck. Have a focused and intent feel in your body. Using the same rhythmic, pulsating motion you did when yielding the hindquarters, begin with a small motion and progressively work up to a bigger motion until your horse steps one front foot in front of the other. Let your rhythmic motion get as large as necessary, even if it means bumping your stick against his jawbone and neck. Do not cease the motion until you get one step away with the front feet. Only then should you release pressure and assume your relaxed and casual stance.
This exercise is more difficult for the horse to execute correctly than is yielding the hindquarters. Be patient and persistent as you teach him this maneuver.
If your horse tries to walk forward, shake the leadrope as you learned in the backing up exercise above.
If your horse tries to back up, put a clearer message in your body by acting like you are trying to walk through his neck, into his space.
If he raises his head high as an evasion, simply lift the stick as high as need be in order to maintain the pressure – this is where you will be glad to have the additional length of your training stick.
If your horse yields his forehand, but steps his front leg behind the other, continue asking for steps until he crosses his front legs one in front of the other. Again, act like you are trying to walk through your horses front end which will encourage him to come forward and around with his front leg.
Continue to practice getting one step and release, one step and release until your horse can yield his space to one of the lesser degrees of pressure. Practice this equally on both sides.
Now that you have a handful of sensitization tasks on top of the desensitization activities taught last week, I suggest you begin alternating the exercises, doing a sensitization and then a desensitization exercise, which will help create a balanced partner. You may refer back to last week’s article for ideas on which type of exercise to begin with based on your horse’s demeanor.
Throughout the duration of your horsemanship journey, the goal is to offer your horse the lightest cue possible, while being willing to get as firm as necessary to get your message across. As you practice these exercises, commit to yourself and your horse that you will start with the slightest suggestion but be willing to see it through to the upper levels of pressure until you get the desired result.
With time and your constant commitment to using stages of pressure, your horse will become an increasingly lighter and more responsive partner.
About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.
Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.
Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at [email protected]