Training Your Horse

Written By Walt Friedrich

Here's some dialog between you and your horse. Does it seem familiar?

You: “I want to pick up your foot.”

Horse: “I don't want you to.”

You: “I'm gonna do it anyway.”

Horse: “No, you won't, I won't let you.”

Then it becomes an argument, then a fight as you apply force, and you finally walk away, disgusted with your uncooperative horse. You may even be hurtin' from where his kicky hooves caught your hands as you tried to impose your will. You may even have smacked your horse on the butt for his recalcitrance. “Dammit, I need to see his feet,” you mutter.

Don't be too discouraged when that happens – it's actually quite a common event. Bear in mind that every horse once behaved the same way, but most domesticated horses have graduated from the School of Doing It the Hard Way because a human finally did his part right. That means someone taught the horse to give his feet when asked, and not make a fuss about it. That little bit of teaching is more accurately known as “training”, and that's the theme behind this writing. That little bit of dialog, above, is with a horse that has not yet been trained.

I trim barefoot hooves. I was trimming a client's horses' hooves a couple weeks back, doing the third horse of the client's herd of five, and all was going very nicely and efficiently, when my client remarked, “Walt, do you realize that horse is standing free while you're trimming him?”

That meant that he was not haltered nor being held by a lead rope. A little background; her herd is always wandering free -- in, out and around the stable, which is in the middle of a pasture. Very nice arrangement; the horses are never confined, they're allowed complete freedom within the pasture and stable 24/7, and trimming day means the nearest horse gets trimmed, repeated until they've all been done. They are usually haltered on trim day, but weren't this time -- I never notice whether they're haltered or not, anyway. They have no problem with the arrangement, and all I do is choose a “customer”, tap a front knee, the horse lifts his foot, and I trim. Piece of cake.

The trims went smoothly, as expected. The client watched the trimming, saying nothing, just observing and noting that the horses had stood perfectly still, untethered, through the process, and she finally felt compelled to comment – the client had never before watched a bunch of them being done free-standing, and was most impressed that the horses cooperated so well.

I was delighted that what is actually a routine event made such an impression on the client because it opened up what turned out to be an important discussion, the essence of which follows.

Of course, the client is aware that an untethered horse being trimmed is not under absolute control and could be a danger. But in order for a horse to become a trusted and predictable member of human society to go along with his herd membership, he has to learn to meet us half-way: a horse that has met us half-way is what we actually mean when we refer to a horse as having been “trained”. Basically, training teaches him to replace his natural reactions to certain external stimuli with other, different reactions of our choosing, with the result that he continues to be his magnificent self, while also fitting in much more nicely with our needs from him.

Let us explain. To illustrate the general case, let's stay with and consider an untrained horse who needs a trim. His natural reaction to our gently gripping his foot to trim it would be to deny any handling at all of his legs and feet, and he'll do it by immediately pulling his foot away from our hand. If we persist, he'll become more emphatic, shaking his foot, hard, to discourage us, and finally, if we still persist, he'll start kicking at our hands. All that fuss is his natural reaction to our external stimuli, and he needs training to replace that dangerous natural reaction with one we can work with – in this case, it would be no reaction at all except compliance with our request.

Let us make clear that there are two considerations at play simultaneously, whenever we're dealing with a training situation: in the current example, the big one is getting him to give his foot when asked; the “minor” one is what we do with the foot once he's picked it up for us and we're holding it. We won't deal much here with the “minor” problem, but rather the training itself; the hard part. The objective is to replace that natural reaction with a learned reaction we'll teach him – compliance. The result of the training will allow us to trim him safely for the rest of his life, but we need to get to that point first. It will require an intense, extended and repeated effort in some cases, but it gets done in a comparitively short time. That's the training; it doesn't matter if we're teaching him to give his foot, to load into a trailer, to respond to pressure cues under saddle, just walking side-by-side down a trail, uncountable other jobs – it's all training and presents the same requirements of the horse – give up his natural reactions to our stimuli and replace them with reactions which we teach him.

We've used the example of giving a hoof to explore the meaning of training and its importance. Let's now touch upon a few other examples of natural reactions that need to be replaced with learned reactions for practical reasons. Moving him during ground work offers perfect examples: when we push on a horse's hip to move him over, it's natural for him to lean against us -- he naturally moves into pressure, but that's the opposite of what we want; training is required. And have you ever watched a novice trying to trailer-load a horse up a ramp? He'd pull on the lead rope, urging the horse to come on up – but the horse actually backs away – again, leaning into the pressure -- taking the poor fella back down the ramp with him. By training, we induce the horse to abandon his natural defensive response, in this case, pushing back, and replace it with just the opposite -- compliance, the very definition of horse training.

The same principle applies to working with a bridle; we tug on a rein, he balks by clamping down on the bit – again, it's his natural reaction, and he becomes an immovable object. Training removes that natural reluctance, and he remains “soft” to our cues. It's ironic: when you're on saddle, he's actually so sensitive where his mouth is concerned, that he recognizes even the slightest touch on the rein, something that no visitor can see, and by responding, it looks to spectators like you're controlling him by ESP!

So, who's going to do all this training? One option you have is to hire a guy. Be very specific about what you want taught, and don't ask anything more of him. You'll know if he's the right choice or not after he's done his job, but you need a pretty good idea about him beforehand; get several references from him, and you must speak with each reference in detail – then decide whether or not to hire him.

Whomever you hire, it will be immensely easier on everyone concerned if the trainer shows and practices complete respect for the horse. Training can be frustrating for the trainer – sometimes mind-boggling frustrating – but it can be minor compared to what the horse will be going through. Remember, he is being asked by someone he doesn't know to set aside his natural reactions to various outside stimuli, and he won't be able or willing to do that without a great deal of help from the trainer. The objective is to have developed a trained horse who is a happy horse, so the training should be done with extreme patience, kindness and understanding.

Your other option is to do it yourself. It can be a daunting undertaking, but the rewards are quite high: you'll have a horse that responds willingly when asked, you'll have learned much more about horse training in general than you'll get from a book, you'll learn important things about your horse, you'll learn the value of patience, and you'll learn quite a bit about yourself at the same time.

Where do you start? Let's stay with teaching him to give his foot when asked. There's only one way to do it – just keep asking. Eventually he'll give up and give you his foot. You have a bond with him going in, you'll still have it coming out, probably even stronger. But be smart about working with him. If you show your frustration at his constant refusals by anything from a verbal rebuke to a severe smack on the butt with your rasp, you're actually making things worse – you're thinking about your problem with his behavior and not about your actual goal of teaching him, and despite how obvious it is to you, he won't understand why you struck him. He'll just remember it as his best friend hitting him, so be nice. The irony is that little you (comparitively speaking, of course), as well as even your six-year old child can get him to give his foot every time it's asked for, if you're patient, gentle, persistant and consistent about teaching him how. Believe me, all that niceness will pay off bigtime in the future.

The gentle, patient approach to training applies across the board; it's exactly the same, easy and successful way to teach him to accept a halter, or a bit, or to trailer-load. He can (and will) appear stubborn, and you'll swear that this @#$%& animal will never give his foot – but he will, if you stick at it and never lose your cool. When he resists your training, it is because he doesn't understand it yet, he doesn't know if it will result in pain, and he would much rather be nibbling that little grass patch over there. Don't take his resistance personally – you actually have nothing to do with it. Teach in short periods of time, like 10 minutes at a time, and always end each of those little sessions on some sort of positive note, like when he's actually given his foot one time, reward that with a treat and let him relax for a few minutes.

Nothing wrong with a little positive feedback for him, either – clicker training has made training easy for many horses. It's kinda foolish to try to change his ways through physical force anyway – his 1,000 lbs-plus and extreme power prove that. You may want him to learn what you want immediately, but in truth, he controls the time frame – you won't get what you want until and unless he's willing to give it; and when he finally gets the message, you'll have made a smart horse even smarter, you've made him safer to turn loose; he's learned that you are someone whom he can trust, and you've made the next training job easier.

The take-home: when training, the cardinal rule is do not allow yourself to lose your temper.

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