Horse Training

Are you leading your horse with fear or confidence?

One thing that I always keep my eyes out for is how people lead their horses.

I remember when I was learning, in riding school, we were routinely taught to lead horses by holding the reins or lead rope as close as possible to the horse’s jaw. And while I understand that in a large riding school, with a lot of people coming and going, new and old riders, it was probably a safety thing.

But the bottom line is that even the smallest horse is stronger than most people, and certainly able to use teeth and hooves to do incredible damage to people, so physically trying to restrain a horse is always a losing game.

The much safer (and smarter) thing is to control a horse’s mind. And you control the mind by controlling the feet.

Don’t fall for the illusion of control.

It’s very common in the horse world to teach people to lead horses very tightly, especially if the horse is considered to be flighty or volatile.

In the last ten or so years, I’ve noticed a shift in how people are taught to be around horses. Specifically, I’m talking about wearing safety gear, like a riding helmet, whether you’re going to ride your horse or not. I first noticed this happening with rescues, where they’d require you to have a helmet on, just to be near the horse, go into the stall or groom it.

Now, I understand that when you’ve got a lot of unfamiliar people coming and going, and a lot of churn with your horses, the animals never really get to settle as they would in a forever home. You might also get a lot of issues with horses that go unaddressed at a rescue where they can’t afford to do extensive medical check-ups as well as train horses in the basics, so having this extra gear on can make it easier for (or even be required by) insurance.

While I wholeheartedly endorse wearing protective gear in addition to just a helmet, I do think that wearing safety gear around a horse yet not working on the safety of the horse itself can lead to a false sense of security.

Absolutely, when you’re training a horse that is feral, has learned some aggressive habits, or that isn’t safe to handle (e.g. kicks out when trying to pick up the feet), it’s a good idea to wear a helmet. But even more important is to put safety first, not just safety gear. For instance, if you’ve got a horse that doesn’t pick up his feet without kicking, use a rope to train the feet first, don’t go putting even your helmeted head down near those feet.

What I want to say is: wearing safety gear safe horse.

While you can argue that no horse is a safe horse, because even the calmest, best trained horse can spook or lash out in pain, there is a lot you can do to ensure that your horse has all the information she needs to live in a human world.

Since your horse doesn’t use spoken language to communicate things, i.e. you can’t explain why your horse should behave calmly around people with words, you have to communicate this information via channels that your horse understands. This means using her sense of touch, her sense of smell, understanding how her vision works and using the communication points she herself uses with other horses. Put that all together, and you’ve got a common language with her.

You can’t explain abstract things to her in words, but you can show her what behaviour you want from her and reward her when she gives it to you. Being knowledgeable about horses and understanding how they see the world is the best safety buffer you can ever have, it’s the only way for you to exert control over an animal that can so very easily hurt you.

No kind of equipment will ever make you safe around a horse.

Knowledge and understanding how to control your horse’s mind are the only things that can create true safety. Training your horse and giving her the skills she needs to live in a world that her brain hasn’t evolved to live in (technically, neither has ours) is be biggest safety bubble you can construct for yourself and your horse. And even then, accidents still happen.

So, train your horse daily, rigorously, so that her human-world survival skills are as sharp as they can be. And then train yourself to practise a pathological level of calm around horses, open your eyes to how they see the world, and understand that how safe your horse is, mostly comes down to how safe you are to be around, because your horse is a reflection of you.

Train your horse to control her own body.

Have you ever thought about what happens to your body and mind when you’re leading a horse from just under the chin? Why do you even lead her from under there in the first place? Is it because you feel like you have more control? Did someone tell you that’s how you control a horse?

You actually have more control, the more room you give your horse on the lead.

Take a minute to think about it: to lead a horse from under the chin, you often have to unbalance yourself, reaching in under the chin and keeping your hand there even if your horse moves her head, and put yourself at risk.

Most people don’t realise this, but to lead a horse by the chin, you have to get in really close to the horse. Okay, that part seems obvious. But by being so close to the horse, you’re increasing the risk of injury. Mostly to you, since you’d have to work very hard to physically injure your horse.

I’ve had horses inadvertently step on the heel of my shoe when leading from under the chin, and considering that I’m partly in a blind spot when I’m that close, it’s not surprising. But don’t let that fool you into thinking your horse isn’t spatially aware.

Horses that are habitually lead from under the chin, are also very rarely trained to keep their focus on the handler. Nobody’s asking them to mind the personal space or instructions of the handler, so I’ve had a lot of horses not pay attention to when I’ve stopped and had them simply barrel into me with a shoulder before stopping.

When your horse isn’t tasked with being aware of what you’re doing, she’s going to prioritise her own agenda. For instance, you might be the one to bring her in from the pasture, but are you just an ornament on her rope while she takes herself to her stall? If she wants to focus on something in the distance while you’re leading her, and you don’t tell her to play Follow The Leader with you, she’s not going to really care about what you’re doing.

One of the fundamental principles of good, safe horse handling is for your horse to respect your personal bubble. Your horse isn’t allowed to encroach on or barge into another horse’s personal space, why should it be any different with you?

When you use psychology to control your horse’s feet, you’re already 80% of the way to safe handling. Imagine a personal space bubble around you that’s sacred. Your horse is only allowed to come into this space with respect and when invited. And at all times, your horse needs to be aware and respect your personal bubble, so that she doesn’t (inadvertently or not) run into you and knock you over or knock you into something. And the only way to control this safety and respect buffer between you, is to control the psychology of your horse.

Imagine this.

Imagine yourself in a room. And the floor is teeming with little baby chicks. Tiny, fragile, squeaking, milling chicks. The floor is practically covered in a carpet of chicks. Now you need to walk through the room to get to the door on the other side.

How do you walk through the room? Do you barge through, not looking where you step? Stomping your way across the room, stepping on chicks as you go?

No, not unless you’re a psychopath. And these people do exist. We once had a big, lumbering man as a neighbour, and he once stepped on a kitten because he was full of himself and in his mind, the only person who’s space, point of view and existence mattered, was his. He didn’t even feel bad about stepping on the kitten, he was just annoyed that it had “got in the way”.

Now, you open the door and all the chicks run outside, leaving the room empty. You walk back across the room. What has changed in your stride?

So, what kind of attention do you want your horse to pay to you? Do you want your horse to be aware that the bipedal beings around her are much more fragile than her and deserve for her to be mindful and in control of her body? Or do you want her stomping through the world, flattening hypothetical chicks (but very real human beings) as she goes?

Obviously, we want our horses to control themselves around us, around people in general. But this comes with training and demanding that she apply what she naturally applies to other horses to people as well. And your horse can do it. She drops out of her mother’s womb with a fully functional brain, ready to live in a herd with a social hierarchy and a lot of social rules.

If you haven’t trained her to make full use of that big brain of hers, and all that potential she’s sitting on, you’re failing her as her liaison to the human world. So, let go of that tight grip under her chin, do your groundwork and lead your horse with confidence instead of fear.

An exercise to realign your body in your own space.

As with everything that I write, take what resonates and leave the rest. This may be one of those things that you think is weird, and that’s fine. Just don’t do it.

But if you want to make sure that you’re centred in your own body and space as you lead your horse, try this. Take hold of the lead rope near the end. Step away from your horse, so that there’s slack rope hanging between you. Plant your feet at hip width, stacking ankles, knees, hips, ribcage, shoulders and head all on top of each other.

Shake out your arms, include shoulders if you feel like it. Now observe your own body; is it in alignment? Are your shoulders level? Are your hips even? Is the weight distributed evenly on both feet?

If you’re unsure where your centre is, or want to check if you accurately can feel it, begin to slowly moving your weight forward, but without letting any part of your foot come off the ground. Just feet how the weight shifts on the soles of your feet. When you’ve gone as far forward as you can without lifting your sole off the ground, move your weight back onto your heels. Again, don’t let your toes come off the ground. Then do the same to the left and the right. You can cycle through these directions, searching for where your centre of balance is.

Leaning in closely to lead your horse for a long time can cause your body to bend to accommodate the action even when your unconscious mind is wary of having a heel stepped on. This can cause your hips to be further out and your shoulders closer to the horse, fundamentally misaligning your spine and body.

To counteract this habit, routinely check if you’re centred, in mind as much as in body, when you go to interact with your horse, and you’ll find that a kind of balance will flow in more easily into every interaction with your horse.

Once you’ve centred your body, take a step forward and begin walking. Observe, if you can walk in a straight line and maintain your centre. Also ensure that your hips are rotating in a kind of figure eight, meaning that the motion of walking is a full-body activity that doesn’t only happen in the feet. If you get really observant, you can feel how walking affects your spine all the way up to your head, and engages your hands as well.

Also observe, does the energy and demeanour of your horse change as you change? Does she pay attention to you differently, even if all you do is change your own behaviour?

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