Imagine a world where teenagers responded with, “Sure thing, with pleasure!” to the requests you made of them. Or better yet, what if they not only willingly acted upon your request, but also offered to go above and beyond with additional efforts. “Hey Mom, the kitchen is clean, would you like me to take out the trash as well?”
While I don’t claim to have the solution to handling unwilling teenagers, I can teach you to develop a horse that readily offers this above and beyond attitude.
The horse is one of the most sensitive and perceptive creatures. When our horses act dull or unengaged around us, it suggests a lack of respect and interest and is not a reflection on their mental acuity or physical capabilities.
When attention, respect, and understanding come together, the result can be a horse that offers more physical softness and mental responsiveness than you could have ever imagined.
We will continue to strive toward having this kind of willing, attentive partner in this week’s sensitization exercises.
To stay in balance between sensitization and desensitization, I suggest you review last week’s article on stage 2 desensitization. Click Here to read Controlling Movement (Part III). I encourage you to intersperse these desensitization exercise as you do this week’s sensitization exercises.
This week’s exercises are similar to the last set of sensitization exercise from Part II of this series, but they involve teaching our horse to respond to steady, physical pressure rather than the rhythmic, energetic pressure. I teach the concepts in this order because a horse is more apt to lean against and ignore a steady physical pressure than they are a rhythmic energetic pressure. Therefore, by teaching my horse to move away from the energetic pressure first, he is able to apply the concept to the steady physical pressure and is better prepared to respond with lightness. This is not about using physical force to get our horse’s to do things, but about gaining mental acuteness and understanding.
Even though the type of pressure we are using has changed, the quality of our stages of pressure should be the same. The first stage of your physical touch should be like you are trying to just touch the hair of your horse. Keep in mind that your horse will never get any lighter than your lightest offering.
Also, when you do touch your horse with your fingers, do so in a steady and clear way, but not in a predatory way. Horses perceive us as predatory when we get tense, emotional, and reactive.
When you touch your horse, be sure that the rest of your body reinforces the desired motion in a supportive, but calm manner. Practicing the Four C’s (clear, committed, consistent, congruent) in all your communications will help your horse see your intentions as trustworthy.
It is also important in the following exercises that you rub your horse on both sides of the physical pressure. Let the first contact you make with your horse be a reassuring rub. Rub until your horse accepts the touch and can read it as a friendly gesture (desensitize). Then work through your stages of pressure asking the horse to move off the pressure (sensitize). Once the horse has responded to your request, rub the horse again in the same location you put the pressure. Starting and ending with a rub ensures that your horse responds out of trust and confidence, rather than fretful anticipation.
Although this week’s exercises will be done with pressure from our hand, keep your training stick with you, as we will use it to support our horse’s learning if they get confused in the following lessons.
Backward Movement (Physical Pressure)
Goal: To have your horse willingly back up from pressure on the bridge of his nose.
Instructions: Stand up near your horse’s nose, but slightly off to one side in case your horse moves forward. Lightly place your hand over the bridge of your horse’s nose, laying your thumb on one side of the nose and letting your fingers rest on the other side. Offer your horse a friendly rub with your hand in this position. Once your horse trusts your fingers rubbing on his nose, begin lighting squeezing your hand together, putting a slight pressure over the bridge of the nose. Continue increasing the squeeze as much as need be to cause the horse to take one step backwards. As soon as your horse makes an attempt at yielding backwards, release the squeeze and rub your horse’s nose until he relaxes.
Practice this until your horse willing steps backwards without rooting his nose to get rid of your hand. With consistent practice your horse will feel increasingly softer and lighter in your hand.
As your horse is learning what this cue means, he will likely try other options before stepping backwards. Do your best to maintain the same steady pressure on his nose with your hand, regardless of where he moves his head. He will likely try to raise, lower and turn his head to escape your hand, until he understands that the desired response is to move back. It is important that he not find a release from the pressure until he steps backwards.
If the horse tries to walk forward into the pressure, increase your squeeze significantly enough to discourage the horse from trying to walk through the pressure, as this is something we want to deter for safety reasons.
If your horse refuses to go backwards from pressure on his nose, you may shake the lead rope, as learned in Part II of this series, until he moves his feet backwards. Use your other hand to shake the lead rope, so that you can keep one hand on the bridge of his nose. Do not release the pressure on his nose until he moves backwards with his feet.
Forward Movement (Physical Pressure)
Goal: To have your horse willingly step forward to a forward pull on the halter.
Instructions: Stand next to your horse head facing forward. Grasp the base of the rope halter with your hand, just above where the lead rope connects. Begin placing some steady forward pressure on the halter, asking your horse to take one step forward. Continue increasing the pressure with a forward pull on the halter, until your horse takes one step forward.
Do not pull as hard as if you were physically trying to force your horse forward. Once you get a significant forward pull on the halter, just wait. Your horse will start seeking other options soon, as he will not be able to find maximum comfort with the pressure on the halter.
Good horsemanship is not about making horses do things, but rather, through the psychology of comfort and discomfort, knowing how to set something up so that our horse wants to offer the desired behavior.
Yield the Hindquarters (Physical Pressure)
Goal: To have the horse disengage his hindquarters by stepping one hind foot across the other when you place pressure with your hand.
Instructions: Stand at your horse’s hip with the lead rope draped in the crook of your arm. Lightly place your hand on your horse’s flank. Rub in that location first to gain your horse’s trust of you in that area. Once your horse can stand still and relax to your touch you may then progress to your stages of pressure. At first just touch with your hand, then lightly press, then press harder, then actually push into the muscle with your hand, if the horse has not moved. As soon as your horse steps one hind foot across the other, release the pressure and rub your horse in that same spot until he can stand still and relax.
If you are using a stage 3 or 4 physical pressure with your hand and your horse has not stepped away, or is leaning into the pressure, you may support the cue with your stick. Maintaining pressure with your hand, use your other hand to make a small, rhythmic, pulsating motion toward your horse’s hindquarters with the stick in an upright position. 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. Assuming your horse recognizes the energetic pressure request, this can be used to teach movement away from the physical pressure.
Practice this on both sides, until your horse has the concept of moving away from physical pressure. With time and patience on your part, your horse will get increasingly lighter to where they willingly yield to a slight request.
Yield the Forehand (Physical Pressure)
Goal: To have the horse move his front end out of your space by stepping one front leg in front of the other when you place pressure with your hands.
Instructions: Stand at your horse’s shoulder with the lead rope draped in the crook of your arm, so that both your hands are free. Place one hand on the side of your horse’s face and one hand on his shoulder. Begin by rubbing your horse in these two hand positions, until your horse is relaxed about your rub. The hand on the face bends the horse’s head and neck around, while the pressure on the shoulder encourages the shoulder to come forward and around. Use the same level of pressure in both hands. Begin with just a light touch, then a small press, then a harder press, and continue until it ultimately feels as if you are pushing into your horse’s muscle. If at any point the horse yields his forehand one step away from you, release all pressure and rub the horse with your hands in the same two spots. Remember, we want the front leg to cross in front of (not behind) the other.
If your horse is resistant to moving away from the pressure, you may use your stick to support this maneuver. Maintain the position and pressure of your hand on your horse’s face and with your other hand hold the stick. 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 with the stick parallel to your horse’s neck. Let your rhythmic motion get as large as necessary, even if it means bumping your stick against his neck. Only when he has taken one step away, crossing his front feet in front of one another, may you release pressure of your hand and stick. Remember to end by rubbing your horse in those same locations, until he can stand still and relax to your touch.
Practice this on both sides, until your horse has the concept of moving away from the physical pressure. With time and patience on your part, your horse will get increasingly lighter to yielding his front end from the slightest request.
Time and patience will pay off in all these exercises. Your horse will be most successful through quality teachings, rather than quantity. Get to where your horse consistently and willingly offers one quality step in these exercises, before progressing to two steps. Be sure your horse understands taking two steps, before asking for three, and so on. In offering your horse this kind of patient support he will be able to yield in a full circle before you know it.
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].