Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hands-Free Leading I

One of my favorite experiences is working with young or untrained horses and helping them along in their training using gentle methods. Lostine came to me fully trained, but I bought Bombay and Gabbrielle when they were yearlings. Bombay was the first horse I owned, and I had no idea what to do with him. I read books on horse training, but found that for beginners, too much basic information was left out. The book authors often wrote, "Ask your horse to..." How? Do I say to the horse, "Do this and do that?" As far as I knew, horses didn't speak or comprehend any verbal human language.

I hired a couple of professional trainers to get Bombay up to speed, especially with that part where you put the saddle on the horse's back and hop on. I also hired one of the trainers to re-teach me how to ride, as my only riding experience up to that point included riding on a bareback pad at summer camps, and in a western saddle at stables. I observed each of those trainers closely, probably making them nervous in the process. I explained that I wasn't judging them, but was trying to learn as much as possible so that I could one day train a horse on my own.

I often visit the local BLM station where they keep wild mustangs and burros until they are adopted. I observe the methods they use to handle these wild, powerful animals as safely as possible. When I was younger, I aspired to adopt a wild mustang and train it from scratch, believing it to be a rewarding experience. However, I wanted to hone the skills I had with my domestic horses first. Too many years passed in the process, and now I don't think my back would hold out being jolted around by an understandably scared wild mustang.

One of my least favorite experiences in working with young or untrained horses is being at the end of a lead rope when a horse spooks and bolts. Under such circumstances we have three options:
  1. Let go of the lead rope and risk the horse getting hurt.
  2. Try to hang on with bare hands and get the rope burn of a lifetime.
  3. Try to hang on with gloved hands and get your arm yanked out of its socket.
I prefer none of those options, so one of the many training techniques I work on is controlling my horse's movements from the ground without props: No halter, no stud chain, no rope, no whip. I start working the horse in a round pen using all the techniques that most horse training books suggest, putting pressure on when the horse does not give the correct response, taking pressure off when it does. I work on halting the horse, moving the horse up and down to different gaits, and turning the horse. We then move outside the round pen.

This is where the real fun begins. I set the goal of first herding, and then leading the horses into their stalls without a rope and halter and without food already being in their stalls. Lostine is the easiest, as she loves her stall and just walks right in every chance she gets. In fact, if I don't lock her stall door, she'll break in and hang out there all day. Bombay wants to go in, but won't do so until the alpha mare has been settled in first. Once Lostine has been closed in tight, Bombay enters his stall willingly. Gabbrielle, on the other hand, just wants to run free around the paddock and play all night. Being a youngster, she has no interest in being locked in a 12x12 box, no matter how cold it is outside.

I start the process of "leading" her into her stall by herding her first. By "herding", I mean placing myself in whichever direction I don't want her to move toward, as if closing a door, and then moving her forward into the direction I do want her to move toward by waving my arms, clapping my hands, clucking my tongue, stomping my feet, or whatever works without causing pain. She usually gallops all over the place for a while, and then returns to her buddies at the barn. I then back off on my herding, and only slowly walk at an angle from behind that pushes her forward toward the open door of her stall. Once she moves past the door, I move in front of her head and push her back toward the door by just using my body language and not my hands. I continue to alternate my location back and forth until she realizes that there is nowhere to go but inside the stall. I have found that developing my herding skills has come in handy when someone else's horse gets loose. You can't expect a horse who doesn't know you to allow you to lead it without a halter and rope. Your odds are better at being able to herd a horse who doesn't know you.

The next phase is to get the horse to walk beside you as if you were leading it with rope and halter. Years ago, I didn't know such a thing was possible, and then one day I released Bombay in the paddock after leading him around for a while, and he continued to walk alongside me even though I had clearly removed his halter. That behavior led to one of his many nicknames, "Puppy Boy", since he followed me everywhere I went. I don't think I'd ever be confident enough to try this with a horse outside of an enclosed area, especially with all the trucks rumbling past my house, but it is a nice perk when you want to save yourself from making another trip to the tack room to get a lead rope and halter. My next project with Gabbrielle is hands-free leading. I'll keep you updated on her progress. At the moment she's still learning where to position herself beside me when she is on a lead rope, so it may take a while.

DISCLAIMER: Please note that I am not a horse training professional. This is a blog in which I share what works and what doesn't for me and my horses. What works for you and your horses may be different.


The Energizer Pony said...

Welcome to the wonderful world of horses. (I know I know, you have had your kids for a bit! LOL) But still, isnt it grand!? ;)

I am looking forward to hearing how your learning is going, and how the horses handle things. Rememeber the power of thought and intention! ;) If you intend for that filly to follow, she will...

Happy New Year!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Hey Energizer! Working with horses is grand and amazing. No one can accuse me of slacking in my education. Thanks so much for the advice and encouragement. Happy New Year to you too!

Twinville said...

It's so awesome to read your posts and realize that you weren't born with horsemanship skills, or owned horses all your life, as so many people seem to have done.

It's refreshing to read that the correct place to start is the beginning. And it sounds as if you are quite successful in your techniques, but especially in building such a special relationship with yoiur horses.