Your horse is a happy and willing partner when he/she decides you are a competent leader.
This means you are clear & concise, confident, fair and consequent.
The following points as well as exercises to improve them will help you establish this position.
Two things is all we ever really have to insist on. This is the foundation of working safely with your horse, nobody wants to be jumped into or run over.
These are especially two points a young horse needs to learn.
Number 1: Personal space
young horses vs. older horses
Personal space issues in humans are uncomfortable and sometimes annoying, in horses they are flat-out dangerous. A horse that does not respect your personal space might easily jump into you when spooked, run you over or step on your feet – not a great experience!
Now, young horses tend to crowd whomever they are with, they are not balanced and confident yet and they are looking for protection with a human. Don’t be flattered!
It is very important for your safety as well as your young partner’s confidence that they are comfortable walking next to you at a defined distance or that you can let them stand a few feet away from you while you are having a chat and are possibly not paying too much attention to your buddy with the hard hooves.
Most older horses are much more comfortable with a bit more distance to their humans, as well as with their horse buddies in the herd. However, it’s important they learn that early on.
Here’s some tricks to help you practising personal space etiquette:
Use a jumping or dressage whip to point at their inner front shoulder to keep it away from you when they’re next to you.
Wiggling the rope or reins (of course, without pulling on the bit if you use one) usually helps when you are standing in front of them.
And as always when working with horses: check and use your body language. Straightening your spine and turning your pelvis towards your horse (“confronting it”) will drive it away. Moving pelvis and shoulders away, invites them in with us.
What to watch out for when working or playing at liberty and lunging is always that inner front shoulder. Be attentive and quick to not let the inner front shoulder collapse inwards to you, keep it away with your body or a short whip to work savely and harmoniously together.
Exercises to practice this:
On the lead rope: Define a position you want your horse to walk in. I like walking in the partner position, alongside their neck, but in front of their shoulders. This way I’m in the driver’s seat but I can still see their ears and eyes and react fast to whatever might demand my attention.
Then make sure you can walk with your horse at a comfortable distance you have defined, practice this with stops and starts, turning left and right. Again, use your arms or a whip to keep them at a distance, also through the turns. Praise your horse when it comes into the position you asked for.
Now try and stop your horse and walk a few meters in front of it, as far as the rope let’s you. Praise them when remain in their spot. When they come after you and too close, stop and back them up. Backing up is especially useful for horses that tend to take over the lead position when they get nervous.
And don’t forget to praise your horse for everything it does you ask for! Your horse should be looking for praise.
At liberty: Play the game “your spot – my spot”. This means you let your horse walk around an enclosed arena or round pen at liberty, leaving it alone. Once it’s standing in a spot, calmly walk up to it and drive it gently away from that spot to claim it. Then stand there for a while. Herd leaders do this all the time to assert their position. Just be careful to not chase your horse away, chasing is always counter-productive with a flight animal.
“Herding”: Move that horse! Herding at liberty is great fun and an amazing way to learn about how your body language influences your horses movement. In an enclosed area you start moving your horse forward from behind (not directly behind!) at a save distance, for this you use “confronting” or driving body language, you might also use a whip with a rather calm horse.
Again, it’s important your horse doesn’t get nervous, panicky or stressed-out, do not chase it! Start out doing this exercise in the walk only.
Number 2: Paying Attention
“Hey, I’m talking to you!”
Do you say this one often? I know I certainly do!
Why do I get on my horses case so much with this one? It’s again a safety issue as well as a curtsey I expect from a partner.
See, a horse that is completely concentrated on something else, maybe a buddy somewhere on the horizon (still amazes me how interesting another horse is!), a scary noise in the woods or just the big red bucket full of yummy muesli – I’m shut out.
And in this one case, I always recommend demanding your horse’s attention. I never demand anything in training, I ask politely and try again if something doesn’t work. But I do demand a horse’s attention. And when I finally wrestle it back, I praise him/her for it profusely.
You have you horses attention when at least one ear and one eye are with you and their head bends over to you to see what you want. Vocal cues are vital here!
I’ve made the experience with young horses that their attention span is just very short, so diverting them usually works great when they are very concentrated on some suspicious activity. Just asking them to back up, do a few turns or a few sideways steps usually does the trick.
With older horses on the other hand, I tend to lose their attention while practising some trick, for example. It’s just that a young horse wants to do stuff with you all the time, an older horse might think “it’s been 5 Minutes and my human still hasn’t gotten the message”. That’s why I decided to use treats when practising with my oldie on the ground, it keeps him on the task and he’s polite enough not to wrestle them from me.
I can’t recommend treats with pushy horses, though. That way lies trouble!
With the pushier ones I wiggle my whip in front of them (all horses I train know not to fear the whip, so they don’t panic when I do this) until they look at me, then praise them.
These solutions on how to get back your horses attention need to work effortlessly when in routine surroundings, because you’ll really need to be able to break the spell when you’re out and about on the trail or riding alongside a busy road.
Your message should be: “Yes, the tiger is scary, but please don’t forget I’m around.”
Exercises to practice this:
Stopping when asked: being safe on the ground, in the saddle and especially on the trail.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that your horse stops when you ask it to. If this doesn’t work when all is sweet, how do you think it’s going to go out in the country with a wire wrapped around your buddy’s hoof?
Ground exercises that require your horse’s brain: This is a great way to start a training session and make sure your horse is with you. For example, bends and turns, leg yields, sideways steps, stops and starts. Be very vocal when demanding attention that is elsewhere. Do not praise your horse for jumping around, do praise it for giving you back their attention immediately!