What if you got in your car tomorrow to find that when you turned the steering wheel, the front wheels failed to follow suit? What if you pressed the gas pedal, expecting the car to travel in its usual predictable fashion, but instead it didn’t budge-or worse yet, took off with an out-of-control burst of speed?
You may first holler at your husband or car-savvy teenager to have a look, but if that doesn’t render a solution, I am sure you would hustle the car off to a mechanic. You wouldn’t put up with erratic behavior like that from your car – it simply isn’t safe, much less functional.
And yet too often we do not realize that our horse’s components have started to rust and are in need of a tune-up. Putting up with unpredictable and less-than-functional behavior from our horse is no more safe than driving a vehicle in dire need of repair.
We have spent the past weeks learning various desensitization and sensitization exercises that make up the foundation of our horsemanship. Click here to read Controlling Movement (Part IV). In essence, you and your horse have been practicing your ABC’s-and without this solid grasp of the alphabet, future spelling and correct word use becomes difficult.
Horsemanship (and life, for that matter) is no different. It is essential to be well versed in the basics before you may find true success with more advanced skills.
Hopefully by now you and your horse have achieved a mutual understanding of the basics of movement: yielding backwards, yielding the hindquarters, and yielding the forequarters; and can do the exercises equally well on both sides to a rhythmic, energetic pressure cue and a steady, physical pressure cue. You will find that being able to move your horse’s body independently of other parts (i.e. moving just the hind feet, or just the front feet) will greatly enhance your success in these next skills.
Taking these skills to the next level is simply a matter of putting them together so that they may be of practical use. The ultimate dream is to be able to creatively and purposely play with your horse for hours. But to make sure it is constructive and interesting play (for everyone’s sake), it is important to have a mutually understood language and skills. This is what we are building upon each week.
Let’s go back to the analogy of your car to better understand how to communicate with various parts of our horse’s bodies.
In simplified terms, the horses’ nose is like the steering wheel of your car. Where the steering wheel points, the car goes – where the nose points, the horse goes.
The horses’ front legs are like the front tires on a car. If your car works, as it should, the front tires are influenced by the direction of the steering wheel and should travel in the according direction. Similarly, the direction of the horses’ nose influences the direction of travel of the front legs. (These two principles are altered in certain advanced riding maneuvers where the horse’s body is asked to move independently from the direction of the nose, but serve as a sound reference for introductory horsemanship).
But what good is the ability to control direction without the means of movement? A car has an engine to facilitate power. A horse too has a specific part that facilitates power. Any guess? Take a look at the lovely buttocks on your horse. A horse’s power comes from their hindquarters. A highly muscled and well-toned rump gives the horse the power and speed necessary to run away from things that intend to eat them (almost makes me want to run from some mountain lions for a while, if it means getting a butt like that).
Before I jump into this week’s exercises, let me explain some terminology that I will be using in the following instructions:
Send – The “send” is what gets movement from our horse. In order to do much else with the horse, we have to have adequate movement; therefore getting a good send is imperative. A “good send” to me is having my horse leave with energy and intent, such as at a brisk walk or easy trot. I like establishing this amount of energy right from the get-go because it tells me my horse is perky and paying attention. It is easy for a horse to tune out when they plod along at a slow walk. Partnership cannot occur if one party is not offering their attention.
To get a good send, first point with your arm in the direction of travel (stage 1 pressure), then lift your stick out so it is pointing out to the side of your body (stage 2 pressure), lastly reach out and tag your horse on whatever body part is still in your space (stage 3 pressure). I recommend counting to two at each stage, before moving onto the next stage of pressure. This gives your horse enough time to think about what you are asking. So to send your horse point (wait two seconds) – lift (wait two seconds) – tag. If your horse leaves with effort at any point during those stages, drop both arms to your side, offering your horse a release.
Tag – When I say tag the horse, I do mean actually tag – this means if your horse is close enough to make physical contact (remember between your arm, stick and string you can reach out a good 12-14′), do so. Notice I do not say ‘hit the horse’. The intent and energy behind hitting is aggressive, angry and mean, and will interfere with our horse’s trust and understanding. We never want to get mean or mad with our horses, but we do always want to be clear – sometimes this means getting firm. Therefore learning how to get firm correctly is important.
If I have to use an advanced stage of pressure with my horse to get the message across, I want to be firm only once or twice– and then not again. This means I need to be effective. When people (yes, particularly women) are reluctant to really “say what they mean, and mean what they say” with pressure, the horse never really believes them and they end up in a nagging relationship with the horse. Nagging is not partnership! Keep that in mind, so that when you need to get firm with a horse, you do so with enough commitment to it that your horse gets the message the first time.
Remember, progressive stages of pressure are the horse’s language. The ‘point – lift – tag’ is based off the horse’s language. For example, watch how horses will ‘pin ears – bare teeth – bite’ (physical contact) or ‘pin ears – lift hind leg – kick’ (physical contact). Horses are firm (not flimsy) in their leadership with one another, and therefore want this same kind of leadership from us.
Allow – The “allow” is when you leave your horse alone because he is offering the movement you wanted (remember the release tells him he did the right thing). When we allow our horse to do his job, it is our duty to not bother him. Try to stand in a quiet and neutral position. I tend to cock a leg, so as to bring my energy down. I also rest the stick at a 45-degree angle with the nose of the stick pointing into the ground and the handle resting against my stomach. In this position it is easy for me to pick up when I need to communicate with it, without it putting undue pressure on the horse. This also leaves both my hands free to manage the lead rope.
Disengage – Because the hindquarters are the powerhouse of the horse, we want to be sure that we can “disengage” the horse’s hindquarters any time we want for safety’s sake. A horse can only run fast or kick up with their hind feet pointing forward. When a horse disengages (the opposite of engagement), one hind foot steps across the other, taking away much of the hindquarters’ power. Also, the process of disengaging actually helps the horse access the thinking side (the left side) of their brain.
In the following exercises, the horse will be further away from us than in the basics of movement exercises, therefore the way we ask for disengagement will be slightly different. To ask your horse to disengage his hindquarters, first bend slightly to the side toward the hindquarters with an intent look at your horse’s hindquarters (be specific in your look, not general – pick a cluster of hair to stare at). If your horse has not moved his hindquarters away from the pressure of your look, then pick up your stick and point it at the same spot you were looking. If your horse has still not yielded his hindquarters to face you, run your other hand up the lead rope, so that you can turn your horses head slightly toward you (this keeps them from running off faster), as you reach out and tag your horse in the same spot you were looking and pointing. As soon as your horse steps his hindquarters around and is facing you, stand up, soften your body and smile, releasing all pressure on the horse.
When I ask my horse for a disengagement I am saying to them, “Good job, game over!” Therefore I want them to come into me and take a breather. If you know your horse’s itchy spots, offer him a good scratch, if not, just stand together for a minute, enjoying each other’s presence. These moments of bonding will build rapport with your horse.
Driveline – There is a line on your horse’s body that determines what type and which direction movement is achieved. Picture a vertical line that travels down through your horse’s withers, behind his elbow and down to the ground, dividing your horse into a front half and a back half. Pressure in front of the driveline inhibits movement or changes direction. Pressure behind the driveline causes the horse to go forward.
Goal: To be able to send your horse from point-to-point along a fence.
Instructions: Stand with your back against a straight length of fence (try to find a fence that is straight for at least a length of 25-30′, so your horse has enough room for this exercise). You will want to have a rope halter and 12′ horsemen’s lead rope, as well as your training stick with string. We want to be able to send our horse from our left to our right on the fence, as well as from our right to our left.
If your horse is right on top of you, ask them to move backwards using energetic pressure with the lead rope (see Controlling Movement (Part II)). (The horse moves backwards because you are putting pressure in front of the driveline.) Once the horse is far enough away so as not to run you over, point your arm out and to the side in the direction of travel. Next pick your stick up from its neutral position and lift it out and to the side of your body. In this position, the stick is putting pressure on the horse behind the driveline, asking for forward movement. If the horse does not briskly move off to this, use an overhand motion to reach out and tag your horse. Remember to count to two before progressing to the next stage of pressure.
The location of your tag will depend on your horse’s position to you. If your horse is still facing you after your first two requests to move out and away, tag him on the shoulder. If your horse has turned so that side of his body is facing you, but he is not yet moving out at the speed you want, tag him on the hindquarters. Horses move away from pressure, so determine what body part is not in position to move out and around and help it move away through the language of pressure.
Once your horse goes out and around at the speed you want, assume your neutral position – this is the “allow” and tells the horse they are doing the right thing. Because we are working in half circles along the fence, your horse cannot go very far and you will need to offer more direction shortly.
When your horse is almost at the fence on your other side, ask for a “disengagement”. To do so, first look at the hindquarters, then point at the hindquarters with your stick, then, if necessary, reach out and tag the same point on the hindquarters with your string.
As soon as your horse disengages and is facing you, allow them to come in. Your horse’s body should have the side of his body along the fence at this point.
When you are ready to send them again, ask the horse to back away a sufficient distance and send them off using the same cues as above. Repeat this until your horse appears to send and disengage with confidence and understanding in both directions.
Goal: To be able to send your horse out and around and have him travel in a circle around you until you invite him back.
Instructions: For this exercise, position yourself in an area that has enough space for your horse to travel around you on the 12′ rope. Back your horse away an adequate distance so they do not infringe on your space when they go out and around. Send your horse using the ‘point – lift – tag’ progression (wait two seconds between each progression). Once your horse travels out as you want, assume your neutral position and allow the horse to go all the way around you in a circle. You do not need to turn with the horse as he goes, as this is micromanaging. Simply stand still in a relaxed manner and pass the lead rope behind your back to your other hand as your horse goes around you.
After 2-3 circles bring your horse back to you by disengaging their hindquarters.
As your horse is learning to be responsible for continuing the movement until you instruct otherwise, they will likely stop and want to come in before making it very far on the circle.
Allow them to make the mistake of stopping on the circle or coming in. We want our horses thinking and asking questions, and if you correct their mistake before they have even completed it, we end up micromanaging the horse and the horse is actually deterred from asking us questions. In doing so, the horse never learns their own sense of responsibility and instead believes that we will do their job for them. This is a nasty belief system to try and correct later.
If your horse fails to maintain the circle and stops or comes in, allow them to do so, but do not let them stay long. As soon as they come to a complete stop or make it all the way to you, back them out again and send them back off. After a handful of these the horse will decide that it is more work to come all the way in, back all the way out, and get sent off again, than it is to simply remain of the circle.
I have mentioned the horse’s responsibility, but don’t forget that you have responsibilities, too. It is your job to be the best leader possible for your horse. Assess your leadership throughout these exercises to be sure that you are practicing the 4 C’s of Horsemanship (clear, committed, consistent, congruent).
Lastly, don’t forget to be desensitizing your horse with the exercises you know throughout these sensitization exercises so that your horse’s trust remains high.
The saying “practice makes perfect” is only partially accurate. It is correct practice that merits perfection. If you are having trouble in these exercises, go back and refresh yourself on the skills in the previous articles to ensure that you are practicing the exercises correctly. Your job is to set your horse up for success, which means you have to be set up for success yourself.
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]