Top Dog: Establishing Safety Zones

WAVERLY, WV–I was young and pretty cocky when I started working with horses. Back then, I figured that the first thing I had to teach a horse was that I was the top dog. Then it was the horse’s job to pay attention to me and do what he was told. Like a typical person, I was always thinking about the end result I wanted and jumping right to telling the horse what to do. If he didn’t do what I wanted, I’d go to enforcing my supposed authority and make him do it. The horse had to acknowledge me as the leader and understand that if he didn’t do what I wanted, there were going to be consequences.

I hadn’t yet learned to horse-logically break whatever I wanted the horse to do down into the smallest possible steps and introduce them one by one in a way that the horse never felt threatened or attacked. I hadn’t figured out that the real herd leader is the smartest, most confident horse in the bunch, not necessarily the bossiest, nastiest one. I hadn’t figured out that rather than being the scariest thing in the horse’s universe, I really wanted to be the safest place to be.

If memory serves, one of the horses that changed my thinking about training was a three-year-old Arabian stallion named Gydames. There was a young girl who planned to take him into the show ring. Like most young stallions, he had a tendency to be mouthy. So when they were walking along, he’d duck his head like he was going to nip. She’d pop him with this little tiny whip she carried. Then he’d look at her and frown a little. And then they’d just go on. Her father, however, was afraid of the stallion and afraid he was going to bite her eventually. So he asked a local hot shot trainer to fix the problem.

My training plan was simple. I put Gydames on a lunge line with a chain under his chin and began to startle him into having a good attitude about being led. I’d poke him. Then he’d look and frown. Then I’d jab and he’d frown. Pretty soon, I’m really working him over and not letting him get away with anything. If memory serves, I was standing right in front of him while I was making my point because the next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground looking at the underside of a stallion going over the top of me.

I still had a hold on the lunge line so I swiveled around and was able to stop him before he got completely away. I knew I was hurt but now adrenaline was pumping and that helped me ignore it for awhile. I got off the ground, got the stallion turned around and started running toward him which is the sort of thing pumped up young guys do when they’re scared. I was still in startle mode so I still kept jabbing him and making a huge fuss.

Then something about the sequence of events suddenly became crystal clear to me. I realized that whenever I quit poking and spanking, Gydames quit fighting, too. When I forced the fight, it only lasted as long as I decided it was going to last. The horse was totally frustrated. He was simply mirroring my behavior, responding in kind to whatever I was doing. If I attacked, he fought back. If I quit, so did he. For me, that was the beginning of some important learning about how horses learn.

I finally got the stallion calmed down, figured he’d learned enough for that day, put him in barn, and went into the house to think about things. I’d felt several different hits when the horse knocked me down but hadn’t really assessed the damage yet. I found bruises on my thighs and my chest. He stepped on my right bicep and pinched it, leaving a souvenir I have to this day. There was also a bruise on the side of my throat that helped me become a born-again trainer. If Gydames had set his foot down just an inch or so over to the side, my training career would have abruptly ended and I wouldn’t be writing this.

So Gydames got to rest while I healed. And while I healed, I had a lot of time to think about our training session from his perspective and about what I might have done differently. Here are a couple of the things I concluded I’d learned:

Be aware of the horse’s primary activity line. That primary line runs the length of his spine and out the front and back. The horse’s ears and eyes are on his primary line. When all else fails and he can’t figure out what else to do, the horse will flee in the direction his primary line is pointing. That’s just what happened when Gydames got frustrated by my poking and slapping and fussing. The fact that I was standing in his way didn’t mean a thing. He just went up and over me to get away from my attack.

Work in the safety zone. Horses also have a secondary line that runs from side to side about through their shoulders. If you stay near that secondary line, you’re in the “safety zone.” The horse can’t attack you with his front feet or his back feet and if you’re paying attention to what he’s doing with his head he can’t get you with his teeth. Stay by the horse’s shoulder, control his head, and you have control of the horse.

This is a concept I’ve used even with horses that have been taught to fight you. When I get a horse that wants to fight, I put him stall and quiet him down. Then I stand beside him in the stall in the safety zone and continue getting him used to me. If you stand alongside the shoulder of a horse that wants to fight with you and grab a chunk of mane right as his withers, you can stay alongside him quietly while he backs up, spins, or goes up in front and he can’t hurt you. As soon as he realizes that fighting isn’t the game you’re playing, he’ll stop fighting you. This leads to the third thing I learned from Gydames.

Choose the game you want to play and don’t let the horse choose for you. Nowadays, if I had someone with a nippy baby stallion, I would tell them to put dropped noseband on when they went to working him so he couldn’t open his mouth and start the nipping game in the first place. That way, corrections for nipping wouldn’t interrupt the rhythm of whatever else that person was trying to do with the horse. Pretty soon the whole nipping thing would just go away because a game isn’t any fun unless you can get somebody else to play it with you. And then the person could forget about the noseband.

Gydames was a really nice guy. Despite all my good training, he turned out to be a fantastic halter horse and then he became nice cutting horse. He was a high-headed Arabian so his form wasn’t pretty but he could hold cow with best of them. He liked that game much better than fighting.

Instructor and trainer Ron Meredith has refined his “horse logical” methods for communicating with equines over 30 years as president of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre (Route 1, Box 66, Waverly, WV 26184; 1-304-679-3128;, an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.

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