Whether you’re a weekend rider or a professional trainer, there is one thing that we all have in common: There are days when our horses just aren’t giving us the performance we want. And when that happens, there usually isn’t just one thing going wrong-there are lots of things happening all at once. It can be scary and frustrating, especially if we don’t know one of the secrets to training success-setting priorities.
Setting priorities means that you have to evaluate your horse’s behavior, and then address each behavioral issue, one at a time, in a logical sequence.
Let’s say you are on a trail ride with friends and all you expect of your horse is that he walk quietly down the trail while you and your friends talk. But today isn’t your horse’s day to walk quietly down the trail. Instead, he wants to trot, putting himself in front of the other horses. When you ask him to slow down, he throws up his head and prances sideways. If one of your friends rides past, your horse tries to bolt or rear. So, how do you set priorities to help you deal with the situation?
Priority 1: Safety
Your number one priority must always be safety-for you, your horse and anyone who is with you. The single most important key to safety on horseback is the one rein stop. You and your horse should be so familiar with this exercise that it becomes second nature. The instant you feel unsafe, you should react by using the one rein stop. This gives you a chance to reestablish control or dismount if you feel the situation is really unsafe. The more out of control the situation, the more important it is to use only one rein to stop your horse. In our trail riding example, you would want to use a one-rein stop if your horse tried to bolt or rear when your friend rode past you on the trail.
Priority 2: Control the Direction
Improving a horse’s behavior, any behavior, begins with getting the horse to move his feet consistently and to move them in the desired direction. This priority can be broken down into three steps:
1. Get the feet to move.
2. Get the feet to move consistently.
3. Take the feet in the direction you want them to go.
The first requirement is that your horse move forward when you ask, without needing you to kick him repeatedly. If your horse is sluggish about going forward, use the stop-and-go exercise to improve his responsiveness.
The second requirement is that the horse should go forward consistently. If you ask your horse to trot, he should continue trotting until you ask him to do something else. He shouldn’t break to a walk or go into a canter until you tell him to change gaits.
The third requirement is to be able to take the feet in the direction you want them to go. This means you should be able to ask your horse to go forward, back up, and turn left and right. The key to asking the horse to move left and right is to concentrate on moving the haunches under the horse to change direction.
Another consideration when we talk about controlling the horse’s direction is the fact that the horse should continue moving forward in the same direction until you ask him to change. Your horse shouldn’t wander aimlessly if you allow him to move forward on a loose rein. Think of a reining horse that’s been taught to canter a circle with no direction from the rider until he is asked to change direction. All horses should have this basic skill.
Say you’re on your trail ride and you and your friends want to stop and watch the ducks on a pond. But your horse won’t stand still. At this point, you feel safe, so priority one has been satisfied. Your problem is your horse keeps moving when you want him to remain stationary.
So what do you do? You ask the horse to move his feet-forward, backwards, left and right. But in this case, you get him to move his feet where you want, when you want. After a few minutes, you offer the horse the opportunity to stand still. It may take several repetitions, but eventually, your horse will stand still when you offer him the chance.
Exercises to Enhance Priority Skills
The one-rein stop is your key to being safe on a horse. To perform a one-rein stop, pick up one rein and bring the horse’s head around to your knee. At the same time, concentrate on pushing the horse’s hips over in the opposite direction from his head. This prevents the horse from going forward. The horse may continue to move his hindquarters in a circle for a few moments. Just hold your position and he will stop moving his feet.
To teach the calm-down cue, have your horse walking. Pick up one rein, taking the slack out of the rein slowly until you feel the weight of the horse’s head on the rein. Hold that pressure until the horse takes his head down. Instantly drop the rein. Repeat this exercise until the horse begins to lower his head as you reach for the rein. Be sure to train this exercise with each rein separately.
To perform the serpentine exercise, ask your horse to go straight. After a few steps, ask him to make a half circle to the right. Go straight a few steps. Then make a half circle to the left. Go straight, then make a half circle to the right, etc. Only use one rein when making the turn and be sure the horse’s haunches are moving underneath him on the half circle. This is the best exercise for slowing down a horse’s feet and relaxing a tense horse.
Priority 3: Control the Foot Speed
Once you can move the feet and control the direction, the next priority is to control the speed of the feet. In our example, your horse wants to trot when you want him to walk, and he tosses his head when you ask him to slow down.
For the moment, ignore the head-tossing and work on controlling the speed of the feet. The best exercise for this is the serpentine. The constant turning and changing of direction will cause the horse to slow down naturally with you lightly controlling the snake-like pattern of travel.
Even on a narrow trail, you can do mini-serpentines by making the horse walk three steps to the left, then three steps to the right. Always use one rein to control the horse’s direction. You will be amazed at how quickly he will slow his feet when he discovers he isn’t making quicker progress down the trail.
Using one rein to control the horse’s direction will also reduce the likelihood that he will toss his head when you touch the rein.
Priority 4: Control the Elevation of the Head
You should be able to control the elevation of your horse’s head, whether you want it low, like a western pleasure horse, or high, like a gaited or dressage horse-no matter what breed or type of horse it is. Even horses that are shown with elevated head positions can learn to walk down the trail with their heads low and relaxed.
To accomplish this, you’ll teach your horse the head-down cue, otherwise known as the calm-down cue. (Remarkably, when horses lower their head, they naturally become calmer.) It’s a training basic. You and your horse should practice this so much at home that touching the rein will cause the horse to lower his head, always.
This first set of priorities covers the basics you need to keep your horse under control in order to have a safe, enjoyable ride, no matter where you are. Next month, we’ll work on establishing priorities when you run into problems while working on more advanced levels of training.