Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Leading a Horse

You may recall that I started out this winter spending a lot of time hand walking my horses on the trails and having all kinds of problems with them barging past me and pulling on the lead rope.  I tried a lot of different techniques to stop that.  Some worked, some didn't, some worked sometimes but not other times.  I honestly don't even remember what exactly changed, but my three Arabs are now really nice to lead on the trails.  I can actually take them jogging with me and they stay a safe distance to the side and back at the same pace as me on a loose lead rope.

However, now that we have the new horse Rock, I am back to trying to figure out how to lead him down the trails in a manner that is comfortable for both of us.  He has a tendency to walk directly behind me and then cross over to my left when we first start out, and then once we get a ways out, he pushes on me with his shoulder.  I view these as being insecure actions that are not only annoying, but dangerous.

I've tried a variety of common sense techniques, but the behavior seems to be getting worse, rather than improving, so I took the time to view some videos online regarding leading techniques.  Pat Parelli talks about the Yo-Yo Game and getting your horse to back up when he gets ahead of you or pushes into your space.  In his video, he is out in a grassy pasture.  Backing up is not always practical on a narrow desert trail lined with cacti.  If you use that technique, you'd better have excellent steering while backing or your horse may just end up with some cactus spines in his rump.

So, I looked around for some other suggestions.  What amazed me were all the different perceptions of where your horse should be while you lead him.  Some think the horse should be directly behind you.  I've never felt comfortable with that, because if something comes up from behind the horse and startles him, he'll mow you down while running away from it.  Some think the horse's shoulder should be next to your shoulder while you lead him.  That doesn't work for me, because then we just get into this pushing match, shouldering each other out of our space.  Plus if something spooks him from the side, he'll jump into me and knock me down.

Some think a horse's head should be by your head.  My problem with that is flies.  Whenever a fly lands on my horse's face, he throws his head around, sometimes in my direction, which could lead to him cracking me in the face and breaking my nose.  I decided that my favorite placement while leading is to have the horse behind you and off to your right.  The further away the better.  He just has to stay in that space and stop his feet when I stop mine.  But how do I get him there?

The technique I saw that I like the best involved leading with a fairly long rope.  If the horse drops directly behind you or tries crossing over to the left from behind, you can swing the end of the rope behind you and smack his shoulder with it until he moves back over to your right.  If the horse starts moving past you on the right, you can twirl the rope in front of you like a helicopter blade, essentially closing off a door and making him take a step back away from the spinning rope.

I have tried blocking Rock from moving forward by sloppily tossing the rope at him and waving my arm or my stick in his face, but those things don't faze him.  They may as well not be there.  He needs a more solid door blocking his path forward.  A fast spinning rope would sting if it popped him in the nose, so that was the next technique I planned to try.

If that worked, I shouldn't have to deal with him herding me around with his shoulder anymore.  In one video the instructor explained that foals tend to lean on their mothers for safety, but once the foal is weaned, if it gets too close to other horses, it gets kicked out of their space.  That's how horses learn to stay at a respectful distance from other horses.  Some horses grow up to lean on you as a way for them to get your feet moving away from them, which essentially surrenders the throne.  You may as well hand your crown over to your horse and bow down to take orders from him if you are going to let him move your feet around like that.

To give you an idea of Rock's personality, I tried getting him to move away from me by striking him repeatedly on the side of the neck by the poll with a stick (after using the lighter cue of tapping the stick in the air by his face, of course) and he completely ignored all of that.  Only when he happened to take a tiny step away from me and I praised and petted him did he make any kind of connection that I was actually asking him to do something, as opposed to just harassing him for fun.  Pumping the palms of my hands toward his eye while marching toward him with purpose again had no effect.

My horse trainer would have started popping him on the nose at that point to get him to move off the forequarters, but I've seen that make horses head shy, so I don't like to use that technique.  I'd much rather have the horse walk into a spinning rope and get whacked on the nose than to have my hand or my stick whacking him on the nose.  The difference is that the rope is already there and the horse chooses to walk into it, as opposed to the horse just minding his own business and then suddenly getting assaulted in the face by the same things we use to pet him with.

With that said, leading Rock in the arena is completely different from leading him on the trails.  After lunging him in the arena, I unclipped the lead rope from his rope halter and walked off.  Much to my amazement, Rock followed me in that sweet spot off to my right and behind me.  I walked all over that arena, not just around the fence line, and he continued to follow me.  My husband walked out on the porch and was baffled by what he saw.  He said, "That's amazing!  How are you leading that horse without a rope?"

I couldn't answer him.  It was just like there was this string of energy between us and Rock was totally zoned in on me.  I was concentrating on that space I wanted him to be in as he followed, and he stayed there.  It was like we were communicating telepathically.

It's much more difficult to get that kind of a response out on the trails with so many distractions.  This time of year my focus is more on spotting the rattlesnakes before we step on them, and seeing what kind of traffic is up ahead and behind on the trails.  What happens in the arena doesn't always translate out on the trails.  So, when P.S. came by today, we led Rock out on the trails and used the spinning rope approach to keeping him at bay.  He did whack himself in the nose a few times and backed off.

It was easier for me leading him out away from the house because he naturally walked slower.  P.S. led him back and had to pretty much keep the rope spinning the entire time or he'd barge ahead.  I noticed that she and Rock were getting way ahead of me on the trail, so I suggested that she stroll along instead of trying to keep up with his pace.  I think we subconsciously start walking faster and faster to keep up with the horse, and the horse is smart enough to know that it is controlling the speed, and thus really leading us.  I had the same thing happen yesterday when I was leading Rock and I looked back to see my husband way down the trail behind us.  He couldn't keep up because Rock was practically dragging me back home.

Overall, the spinning rope trick works as long as we are consistent with it.  Now it is just a matter of making the right behavior become a habit.  Now that Rock is feeling more comfortable here, he has begun biting everyone to try to assert his dominance.  That's a colt thing.  Bombay did it when he was younger too.  So, Rock got smacked on the mouth with the poppers quite a few times.  If we made him stop and he wanted to walk, he bit us.  If we got talking and stopped paying attention to him, he bit us.

We were able to work with all four horses in some capacity today.  I rode Lostine and P.S. rode Bombay out on the trails.  She worked on getting Bombay to walk up and down hills.  He tried cantering up a hill to catch up to Lostine, so we couldn't let that go.  It's hard to circle him on a narrow incline, so she tips his nose in when he gets going too fast.  I had her stop him at the bottom of the arroyos and flex his head from side to side, so that he couldn't use the momentum he had from trotting downhill to canter uphill.

At one point she was making him go up and down a smaller ditch while I waited at one end.  I heard a rattlesnake off the my left, and then a horseback rider appeared on my right.  Bombay was so distracted by the other horse and I wasn't sure where the rattlesnake was, so we pressed on to the next ditch to practice there.

P.S. got some good groundwork in with Gabbrielle too.  I'm really happy that we didn't have to stop riding several weeks ago like I predicted.  We just keep working the horses earlier and earlier in the mornings.  By the end of the week we will be in the triple digits again.  It doesn't get too bad until it stops cooling down in the evenings.  Then it's hard to get much of anything done outdoors.  I remember going outside at night last summer and feeling my skin burning.  It's hard to believe it can get that hot without the help of the sun being out, but it can.


fernvalley01 said...

I like them shoulder at my shoulder, arms length away ad I enforce that, the head at your head is iffy I have had the unpleasant feeling of a horse smacking me in the face with its head, friggin hurts!!!! but whatever works best for you , that you feel comfortable , safe and are able to enforce

redhorse said...

It sounds like Rock might have been overly desensitized at some point.

Sam said...

I've found that giving them rope relaxes them - of course, practice at home. So many people tend to walk with choke holds on their horses. Baron walks with a good 2-3 feet of loose rope between us and he is relaxed. If I choke up on the rope, I (without realizing it) micro manage his head which causes him to walk into me and barge ahead.


Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Sam - Yeah, we're aware of that. It's because we give him so much rope that he can roam and weave back and forth behind us. I don't give him enough rope that it drags in the stickers, though. That's a pain. I keep forgetting to take a comb with me to comb the stickers out and then what gets on the lead rope rubs off all over the horse and our clothes and we spend the next half hour plucking them out.

gowestferalwoman said...

Glad your "nipping" the biting in the bud so to speak - that is one horse behavior you cannot overreact on when correcting them...I do remember john Lyons once saying at a clinic - "i have three seconds to totally act like Im going to kill this horse when he tries to bite me - any time more then 3 seconds he will think Im crazy and not to be trusted, anything under that he'll think Im a weakling not to be trusted. the goal is to mimic a herd mare response, and that is to kill in those three seconds"...

people get skin/fingers/muscle stripped off of them all the time when they dont correct nipping/biting thinking its baby behavior - good thing youre on top of that!

Crystal said...

I never really thought about where my horses are when they lead, but mostly they are behind me, maybe slightly off to the right, but I also trust them that they will rather die than run over me so I don't have to worry about that (kinda exaggerated of course, lol) I also have a fairly long rope unless I am leading 2 then the ropes are shorter and I like them closer where I can see one (the bossy one) and make sure they are not picking on the other one.

achieve1dream said...

I agree with redhorse. It sounds like Rock has had way too much desensitization work! I don't think I would worry too much about making a horse like him head shy lol. I definitely agree with popping him in the mouth for the biting! With Chrome his biting was playful so going inside and ignoring him is what helped with him. If I didn't want to or couldn't leave him I would grab his upper lip with my fingernails and pinch really hard. He very quickly learned to keep his teeth away from me. And he's not head shy at all.

It sounds like he just needs a lot of work making him more responsive to cues. You're making good progress in such a short time though, so I bet you'll get him straightened out in no time. :) How is he doing with your Arabs?