One of the best things about horses is the limitless variety of things you can do together. Even the most mundane activities become fresh and interesting if your horse joins you in the process. Not only that, but the more diverse tasks you undertake with your horse, the more opportunities you have to establish control and cooperation in all sorts of situations.
For example, take the simple task of getting the mail. It doesn’t sound that complicated or taxing. Just ride down to the road, grab a handful of bills and catalogs, and head back home, enjoying the scenery along the way.
Except: Will your horse calmly approach that oddly shaped object on a pole next to the road? Can he pay attention to your request to go forward toward the mailbox even though he’s never been close to one? And what about when you open it or-possibly even more frightening-reach inside it and bring out a fluttering handful of mail?
Even though the task itself is basic, it presents several challenges that require you to establish or reinforce good control over your horse. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether you’re introducing him to a scary mailbox or riding over to reach out for a friend’s cell phone or asking him to walk across a puddle.
The issue isn’t the object you’re facing or even the task at hand. The issue is determining what cues you need to use to get your horse to do what’s required in the situation-and giving him enough practice so that he will respond even when he’s distracted. To see what we mean, let’s look at some training basics and then see them in action when John decided to ride Preacher out to get the mail.
• Save some junk mail to use as a prop for practice sessions.
• Keep your focus on your horse, not on the mailbox.
• Work on the approach, determining what part of the horse’s body needs to be repositioned to get closer to the box.
• Reach for the mailbox only when your horse is standing calmly beside it.
• If your horse spooks, drop the mail. Remaining safe and in control are most important.
Before you begin to practice the mail-fetching exercise, replace your real mail with some dummy mail. You don’t want to have that tax refund check or postcard from Aunt Kate trampled underfoot if your mail winds up on the ground.
The Basic Steps
You should do all your foundation work before approaching the mailbox, so start the lesson at least 50 feet away from it. In fact, the mailbox doesn’t matter. What’s important is providing clear cues for your horse and having him respond to them.
In this situation, you might start by working on the calm down cue to make sure your horse will readily drop his head when you ask. Have him move his right shoulder to the right and his left shoulder to the left. “Connect” the rein to his hip by taking up the slack on one rein and holding it until he takes a big step to the side with his hips.
Remember, good control comes from telling your horse what specific part of his body to move and the direction you want him to move it. Want to turn you horse 45 degrees to the right so he’s facing the direction you’d like to be heading? You don’t have to steer the whole horse as if he were a car. Just have him move his right shoulder over a step or two.
It’s also a good idea to refresh your horse’s responses to cues such as speed up, slow down, stop, and back up.
When you feel you have good control at 50 feet, move him closer to the mailbox until you get to the point where he seems wary of it. Allow him to stop and then pet him. He’s telling you that’s as close to the box as he feels safe.
Practice the same cues as before, but remember that he may not respond as well because part of his mind is now on the mailbox. You may have to run through some extra repetitions before you start getting consistent results.
From this point on, what you ask your horse to do will vary depending on how he responds to your cues. Ideally, you’ll be able to walk close to the mailbox without incident and then turn him around and ride away. If things go that smoothly, repeat the process several times.
But what if things don’t go so smoothly? For example, say your horse plants his feet and refuses to take another step closer, or he spins around and tries to leave in a hurry. In that case, think about what part of his body you want to move and what cue will tell him to move it.
If he’s frozen in place, or acting like he’s about to bolt, give him something else to work on: Take the slack out of one rein and get him to step his hips over. Repeat the process until you’ve put some distance between you and the mailbox.
The hips-over technique provides an excellent way to get a horse moving if he’s frozen-but without pushing him into panic mode. It also gets him focused on your cues when he’s distracted. Once you feel he’s under control, return to the spot where he can obey your cues consistently and practice there until you think he’s ready to try to approach the mailbox again.
Focus on the Horse, Not the Mailbox
Remember that the mailbox is just a minor character here. Mailbox, dirt bike, barking dogs-it doesn’t matter what the distraction might be. The key is to focus on your horse.
The goal may involve the mailbox, but achieving the goal is entirely about solving control issues-having your horse move forward, not balking, jigging, or turning around and heading home. And those issues always boil down to controlling one part of your horse: nose, shoulder, or hip, possibly in succession.
As you work on this (or any other) lesson, keep asking yourself “What do I need to ask my horse to do now?” If the answer is “Go forward” and he doesn’t go forward when you cue him, work on that until you get a correct, consistent response.
When you can get him to walk up to the mailbox and calmly turn and walk away, the next step is to ride up to the box, reach out and touch it, and then pull your hand back. Again, if this goes off without a hitch, practice it until you’re sure you’re genuinely in control of your horse and it’s not just beginner’s luck.
If, upon that first physical contact you make with the mailbox, your horse braces, spins away, or throws himself into reverse-respond by taking control of one piece of him. Maybe you can ask him to drop his nose with the calm down cue this time. Or maybe the hips-over exercise will allow you to regain control.
Once your horse is unconcerned with you touching the mailbox, the next part of the sequence will be to open and shut it, which you should do several times.
As you work through these interim steps of getting your horse used to the mailbox, periodically ride away and then come back to it. Every time you ask him to approach the mailbox again, you reinforce his habit of responding to your cues. Spend a little time just hanging out next to the mailbox, too, so that he has a chance to relax and process what you’ve been working on.
When you can open and shut the mailbox without undue concern, leave it open and ride away. Now when you return to it, you may have to stop some distance away again, at the spot where he feels comfortable. An open mailbox may appear to be a different creature altogether. If he seems worried, just handle this stage the same way you did the first time you were working at this distance, practicing various cues until you can move closer again.
Tips on Shoulder Control
When we talk about controlling specific parts of your horse, we have specific goals in mind. For example, having your horse drop his head allows him to be more comfortable and relaxed and makes it easier for him to do things like slow down and give to pressure. Moving his hips over enables you to turn him and slow him down. And getting him to move a shoulder over helps you get his feet pointing in the direction you want them to go. For this lesson, shoulder control is a primary positioning tool, so you’ll want to practice it in advance to make sure your horse responds well to the cue.
To practice the shoulders-over technique, have your horse walk forward. Then, take the slack out of one rein, asking him to bring his nose to the shoulder on that side. For example, let’s say you want him to move his left shoulder to the right (which will move his entire front end to the right). Apply light and steady pressure to the left rein. He may initially try to pull his head around to the left, which you can counter by sliding your hand about a third of the way up the left side of his neck, without releasing the rein. If he responds by stepping his hips over, keep him walking and maintain that steady pressure so he knows that isn’t what you’re asking for. Then, as soon as you feel him shift his weight onto his right shoulder, release the rein. This is the response you want, and after you’ve practiced it for awhile, your horse will know which part you’re asking him to move.
As soon as he’ll calmly approach the open mailbox, reach inside and pull your hand back out. Do that several times before actually picking up any mail. Then, when you decide to pick up some mail, be ready: In the case of a spook, drop the mail if you have to and regain control over your horse by asking him to move his shoulder to one side. Let the mail land wherever it lands-the only thing that matters at the moment is control and safety.
After you have your horse under control, you can regroup and work back to the point of pulling mail out of the box. Eventually, you’ll be able to take the mail out and hold it, then put it back in the box and ride away. As with the other steps, you should practice this part until he’s 100 percent responsive to your cues.
To make sure your horse has a solid understanding of what the entire process entails, you’ll want to go back to square one. It doesn’t have to be today (although it can be). Starting back at the barn, ride your horse matter-of-factly out to the mailbox, making sure he is responding to all your requests along the way.
If there’s any hesitation or confusion, ask yourself, “What cue isn’t working?” Is he bulging his shoulder to evade the approach to the mailbox? Move that shoulder the opposite direction to line him back up and turn his nose toward the mailbox. Be as specific as possible. Don’t think, “He’s veering off course and we’ll never get to the mailbox.” Think, “He’s turning his left shoulder away and I need to turn it back two steps.”
This mailbox journey may not be perfect-and the next few times may not be, either. But if you stick with it, before long you’ll be getting the mail like he was a regular part of the Pony Express.