Sunday, February 12, 2012

Life Skills for Horses

Equus had a brief article about "show skills" that every horse should have. Among the skills they list are loading and unloading from the trailer, having the patience to stand still, being able to be tacked anywhere, begin accustomed to a ribbon flapping near the face and remaining calm with a PA speaker blaring.

That started me thinking about the skills or behaviors I want my horses to demonstrate or what behaviors I wish they would acquire. Those that come to mind include:
  • Trailering: there is nothing worse than the frustration of having a horse that won't load. I think about emergencies when you have to get a horse on a trailer, quickly and calmly. What if there was a wild fire approaching? What if your horse needed to be taken to an emergency vet clinic? I need to do some work on this with my horses. I can get them on and off by myself, with a little persuasion needed for Doc. I usually have to make him 'move his feet', going around in circles for a bit before he becomes resigned to loading. If he were injured, that would be a problem. 

  • Standing: for grooming, the vet, the farrier and for mounting. Doc wins in this category, well, maybe not all of the time when I'm mounting! He's actually great if I mount from the ground, but if I use a mounting block he decides to swing away from it. For grooming he stands stock still and will even lift his feet for me or the farrier. Pippin isn't bad - he just has trouble standing still. I call him my ADHD horse. He will stand for the farrier and the vet, when he isn't looking to see if they have cookies in their pockets. Our first farrier always gave out cookies, repeatedly while he was working on the horses, at least two treats per hoof. Pippin hasn't forgotten that lesson! I have worked on this with Pippin, using Julie Goodnight's "stand still like a statue" techniques. What a difference that made! When I went to the first clinic session with Brent Winston, you may recall that Pippin did not 'stand like a statue' then. I need to be a bit firmer with Pippin as he always tests the limits and if you give him an inch... he'll take a mile!
  • Respecting my space when I am leading or working around them. This seems to be a corollary of standing. When I was in high school the horses in our barn would all stand to one side of the stall when the barn manager walked in to muck out the stall. On an almost invisible signal from him, they'd move to the other side so he could do a thorough job. Although I don't require quite this level of obedience, I do ask my guys to stand back when I am coming in the stall door, especially with their food. I also demand that when I am in their presence they refrain from crowding me. Again, this is one where Doc shines. Pippin needs reminders. 
  • Whoa means whoa! Again, this goes along with standing. This is something I constantly work at. When I ask for a whoa, I want my horses to stand and wait for me to tell them to proceed, whether I'm on the ground, in a carriage or on their backs. Last year I took some lessons with Gerrie Barnes. She does a lot of versatility ranch horse work and explained that experienced versatility horses get more than 75% of their cues from the rider's weight, seat and hands. She asked us to exhale and put weight in our stirrups when we want our horses to stop. I've been working on this with both horses. It's nice to have the horse stop without hauling on his mouth. I'm hoping our constant work on this will carry over as we do more trail riding. A 'not so funny at the time' note about whoa; when I was going to college I had to sell my hunter. Quite a few prospective buyers came out to the stable to try him. One rider was having some difficulty controlling him, so as she was careening down one side of the arena I said, "Whoa" My horse responded. The rider did not. She sailed over his head. That was the only 'sail' that day ... my horse was a 'no sale'!
  • Proceed at the speed and direction I ask of you. I've heard this from several well-known horse trainers. It is rock bottom basic... but for me, is one of the hardest things to accomplish with my horses. We work on this just about every time I ride them. So, I'm thinking, maybe I am not insistent enough. Maybe I just hint or tell them, over and over. Nag, nag, nag! Perhaps if they aren't taking my hint, I need to make myself clear and use a bit more force. And, as Brent would remind me, using force doesn't mean bringing emotions into the situation. In describing and demonstrating his "hint, ask, tell, demand" philosophy he is quick to point out that this doesn't mean you get angry at the horse. You simply tell the horse, with a bit more force, what you want. Yesterday, in a lesson with Brent, I had a chance to 'demand' that Pippin move laterally. I really had to boot him. But, the next time I asked, he responded to much less pressure. Oh, and Pippin didn't take it personally!

So, what other skills or behaviors are among the basics? What do you require of your horses?


  1. Those are good! I am lucky that Shy came with good ground manner! She is respectful of space (or maybe too shy or scared to get too close to mist people), she stands like a champ, and she is great for the vet and farrier.

    Whoa is something we need to work on! We have a competitive reining horse at our barn and her whoa is amazing! The cue is to push your legs out in front of you and sit back. My goal is to teach Shy that. Her saddle manners need a lot more work and I know I need work too!

    Easy is one that I use on Shy and it calms her when she is agitated from something new and scary. Back up is also important (and something else we need to work on).

  2. The space thing is definitely a biggie (that and staying away from my toes ;o)

  3. One thing we need when out with strange horses is "stay out of the lead horses butt" With familiar horses Camryn doesn't do this at all and is content where ever we are in the line up.

  4. What an interesting post. It would be useful if I wasn't absolutely terrified of horses. I used to love them but one bit the heck out of me when I was a teenager and I've been scared of them ever since!


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