Training the Horse to Think (#6)

At Susar Farm we teach horses to do all kinds of different things that help tighten the human/horse bond. Some of these things, like sidepassing strange objects, and working around the leg in turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches, are practical for times when you need to be able to get out of tight places or open and close gates, but others are strictly geared at helping the horse learn to trust his human. I am going to describe several exercises that you can teach your horse, and give you a step by step method to help you and your equine friend understand the principles involved.

I am going to start the description of some of these movements by showing how they would be taught on the ground to a baby. We start our babies doing unusual things as soon as they are leading well and that really paves the road for them to become great riding horses. Desert Arabians have such wonderful dispositions that they are willing to do many things if only they understand what it is we want them to do.

One of the first things we teach our young horses is to accept all kinds of machines around them. This may be anything from clippers to the vehicles we use on the farm: mowers, weed whackers, and so on. Most horses are going to encounter loud mechanical things from time to time, so we like to start early encouraging them to trust such things.

Although totally unthreatening, many young horses do not at all like the sound or vibration of hand held clippers. Horses who do not show will probably never have to be clipped, but if a horse should be so unlucky as to need stitches, clippers will be in their future. Even if clippers are never needed, the acceptance of them strengthens the bond of trust between the horse and the handler.

Introducing the clippers

When first introducing the young horse to clippers, we simply run the clippers and let the horse sniff them and become accustomed to them. If a horse is really upset by this initial step, we talk to the horse, reassure him, and keep the clippers going until the horse settles and reaches towards them. As soon as the horse shows any inclination to accept the strange sound, we reward with a carrot bite. Generally acceptance of clippers goes pretty quickly and smoothly, but we never try to rush it. If step one has been successful, we next put the noisy, vibrating clipper on the horse’s shoulder so he can feel it as well as hear it. If this step is readily accepted, reward again. When training a horse, you must consider your individual pupil and observe his/her reaction to what you are doing. If the horse accepts the feel of the vibrating clipper, go to step three, letting him touch it with his nose. The sensitive nose will give the young horse a lot of information. We usually stop here for the first lesson.

The next clipper lesson will be a review of the first followed by rubbing the silent clippers all over the horse’s neck, face, and forelegs. When this activity is tolerated, we turn the clippers on and repeat with them running. If the young horse accepts running clippers being rubbed on its body, we reward him and proceed to the final step, trimming a small bridle path behind the ears.

Clipping the bridle path

Depending on how much tolerance to clippers you feel is necessary to your horse you can simply repeat these lessons periodically until clippers are a total nonissue, or you can proceed with teaching the young horse to tolerate facial and ear trimming.

Modern horses are going to have to deal with all kinds of vehicles, so we make an effort to ensure that young horses are accepting of whatever kind of machine they encounter by having them actually go up and sniff anything they show the slightest fear of.

Introducing the young horse to new objects

When they approach something strange with a willing heart, we instantly reward them with a carrot bite. My horses will walk up to anything, no matter how scary it is, because they love their carrots and they know that if they try to do what I am asking, they will be rewarded. I do realize that some people feel that food rewards will cause a young horse to be nosey and to nip. It has been my experience in well over fifty years of training horses that as long as they are only given treats for work done, they consider the treat a reward, not a right.

Accustom the young horse to having strange things on and around its body

Almost anything can scare a horse so we try all kinds of different objects when teaching our horses to accept strange things in a willing and curious manner. I frequently go to the toy section of local stores and find brightly colored objects to use around the horses.

The horse trailer is sometimes an issue, so we start our babies young on bridges where they have to learn to step up onto something, and then back off of it. This lesson can have many applications in real life, and it is also good just as an exercise in trust and learning.

Leading onto and over obstacles that make noise and are different from the ground

With all of these exercises, we start with a very small step and ask for more and more as the horse exhibits a willingness to comply. Timing is very important and the trainer will gain insight by observation. You can tell by your horse’s face how he feels about something. Do not progress to step two until you are sure that step one is fully accepted. This goes for every single stage of training. Many horses have been “trained” to distrust learning because they have had too much thrown at them too fast and they decide that “new things” are dangerous.

The whole point of training is to teach a horse to be able to handle new things, so to that end, make sure you observe your horse carefully before asking him to progress in a lesson. Frequently it is a good idea to stop if you are unsure and let the horse think about it and return to the lesson another day.

When presenting strange objects and strange movements, remember that a horse learns things from two sides. Do not assume that because your horse approached the bridge happily from that left that he will approach it equally well from the right. Treat both sides as new experiences and reward the horse for his trust in you in each direction. This characteristic is most apparent in teaching the horse to sidepass up to a mailbox to “get the mail.” It has been my experience that even though a horse is sidepassing very well in both directions, he will always have a preferred way to sidepass to a mailbox and frequently much work is needed to get him to do it equally in both directions.

We teach our horses to move away from a signal. In other words, if we want them to move their bodies to the left, we use a touch on the right side. We always give our signals in the vicinity of the where the leg will fall in riding, as the ultimate goal is to produce a riding horse that will move instantly off your leg in any direction.

The beginning of this training takes place on the ground. The trainer stands in front of the horse and uses a whip (an extension of your arm, not a weapon), to touch the horse lightly on the side away from which the horse is to move. If you put a slight pressure on the halter towards the same side, the horse will step with his rear legs away from the pressure on his side, but will hold his front end still. This does not always happen right away, and it takes some practice for the trainer to get the right amount of pressure on the halter, the right angle, and the right touch with the whip, but with practice, it soon becomes second nature. As with everything you teach your horse, as soon as he attempts to do what you ask, reward him either with a treat or a pat. As he becomes more proficient, make your demands gradually more difficult until he can be expected to do a perfect move, be it moving away from the leg, backing, or whatever. Perfection does not happen in the first several tries so be patient with your student and with yourself. As you and your horse become more comfortable with this learning environment you will find that it gets easier and easier.

Teaching the horse to go over obstacles in-hand

While we do not jump our horses much until they are fully trained, we do show the young ones that jumping is fun and not at all scary by taking them over small obstacles at both the walk and trot. This way they are using the curiosity of youth to form their adult ideas about things. If you wait until a horse is 4 or 5 to introduce him to odd things, his attitude is going to be much less open than it will be as a yearling. Like children, young Desert Arabians are very curious and learn very quickly. By instilling the love of new things in a young horse you are assuring yourself an adult horse who is easy to train and who will approach new things with a positive attitude.

Leading in patterns and around obstacles

Anything can become a learning experience,  from walking around decorated traffic cones to exploring funny hats and sparkly, blowing things. If you make it a game, your horse will learn to love the new experiences and will consider his lessons fun. Don’t be afraid to reward your horse with both voice and treat. You won’t spoil them as long as your are consistent and insist that they comply before they get their treat.

Let your horse relax and be rewarded for a job well done

While the above exercises are illustrated with babies on the ground, they can be done equally well with adult horses either on the ground or on their back. If you will take the time to do this kind of exercise with your horse, you will find that you will be rewarded with a horse that has a much improved attitude toward learning and who will trust you when faced with strange situations.