I received an interesting email from a client today who recently purchased a horse from me. I live in the mountains in thick timber. I have thousands of acres to trail ride my horses. They are accustomed to the typical sounds, sights, and smells a horse might encounter in the forest. Coyotes howling at the moon, owls hooting, wind blowing through the trees, wild horses calling to them from the tree line, skunks spraying the dogs, birds chirping, deer stealing a meal from the hay stack, and a hand full of other “nature” sounds, sights, and smells.
I specialize in helping horses become good trail and mountain horses. My horses don’t have to pass cement trucks, honking horns, sirens, speeding cars and other scary things that might “eat horses”. For my needs, my environment is perfect but what happens when someone buys a horse and takes it to a new world with completely different sounds and stimuli? Chances are, the horse will act completely different than he did here for a while. Desensitization through habituation will eventually cure that problem to some degree. That simply means that horses will get use to the stimuli in the environment in which they spend most of their time.
This is exactly the situation my client found herself in but she doesn’t want to wait until the horse has slowly become accustomed to the sounds, smells, and sights in his new stomping grounds. She contacted me on several occasions for some ideas that might help. Of course I had a canned answer that all of us have heard time and time again. “Before you do anything else, you should do a bunch of ground work with him to establish that you are the herd leader so that he will find a sense of confidence and safety when he is with you.” is what I told her. How many times have we all heard that? Through several email’s and conversations, she mentioned that she just doesn’t have the room for a round pen. She doesn’t even have room to lunge him on a lead line. My answer was to find a place to do the ground work, even if you have to travel a ways to do it. You just need to get it done. Today when I received another email in which she expressed her frustration about her lack of space to do ground work, it suddenly dawned on me. I don’t know why it didn’t sink in before now. A lot of people REALLY don’t have access to a round pen or even room to lunge a horse. Looking back, I remembered that I found myself in this predicament many times myself. I was somewhat embarrassed when I realized that I was giving her a canned answer that just didn’t work for her. I wasn’t really listening and really understanding that her problem was real and that if she was going to move forward with this horse, she desperately needed advice that she could apply given the space restraints that she was faced with.
So what is the solution to this problem? What if you don’t have a thousand acre ranch with all the luxuries that you see the TV rock star horse trainers use? How does the average horse owner who keeps one or two horses in the back yard develop a relationship of trust and leadership with their horse? After thinking about it this morning the answer came to me as if someone had dropped a brick on my head!
Ground work isn’t just about lunging a horse until their hooves sweat. The real reason that we do ground work is to establish that we are the herd leader and that if the horse follows our lead, we will act as a good herd leader would and protect our horse from any harm that might come to him.
Horses need to feel safe and comfortable. They feel safe and comfortable when they feel like they are being watched out for my their herd leader. Horses NEED a herd leader! They don’t just want one. They truly NEED one! So, since we know this to be true, how do we become the herd leader when we don’t have the typical tools that people use to accomplish this? The most common tools are a round pen, and a lunge line. The answer is really quite simple.
If you have ever observed several horses in a small corral, there is always a herd leader. They don’t have the room to run the other horses around a 40 acre pasture but they still establish that they are the leader. They might, pin their ears at another horse to move him away from the water trough. They might lower their head and swing it towards the other horse to move him away. They might bite at the air to move the other horse away. They might, turn their hind end towards the other horse to move it way. Do you see the pattern here? When a horse finds himself in the same situation that my client found herself in, they establish that they are the leader by using subtle methods that cause the other horse to move his feet.
The real lesson here is that the horse who consistently causes the other horse to move his feet is the leader.
It’s as simple as that. Knowing that, we can employ all kinds of tactics to become the herd leader. Below is a list of simple ground work exercises that we can do to “move our horses feet” when we are restricted to a small area.
We can back them with a halter and lead rope.
We can back them in circles, in figure eights, around and over obstacles.
We can lead them over and around obstacles.
We can pivot them on their front end or on their hind end.
We can bend them.
We can load them in a horse trailer.
We can move them sideways.
We can move their front end, then their
hind end, then their front end over and over again.
Do you get the picture here? We just have to be creative and find ways to cause a horse to move his feet when we ask him too. This is just a short list of ideas. Be creative and come up with your own ways to ask for the horse to move his feet as subtly as you can. If you do this, and the horse consistently moves his feet when you ask him to, you are the leader. And since you are the leader, the horse will begin to find comfort and safety when he is with you. Consequently, when you take a horse away from his buddies or into a new environment with new sounds, smells,and sights, your horse will know that he is safe. The result will be that he will cope with the things he encounters better and he’ll be a safer and more enjoyable horse for you to be around.