Ground Work & Handling

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Build Your Horse's Confidence - In the previous article Build Your Horse's Confidence Part 1, I demonstrated how to build confidence around a horse’s personal space bubble by dragging a post with my new seven-year-old Canadian Warmblood named Bellagio, or “Geo.”

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Helping a Worried Horse - I do a wide variety of exercises with my horses to help them become calmer and braver in various situations. My goal is to have them trust what I ask of them, and be okay with it because I am asking. In other words, for me it’s not about the tarp but about Geo’s trust in me to put the tarp on his body. If he trusts me at the heart of it, then tarps, garbage cans, or stumps on a trail won’t bother him.

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This is the first of a two-part article about a special horse of mine named Bellagio (barn name Geo), a nine-year-old Warmblood gelding I’ve had for about three years. He is super sensitive and doesn’t have a lot of natural confidence. When he came to me he was very explosive, would react at the slightest thing, and was becoming very dangerous to ride.

In last issue’s article, A Foal’s Safe Trip Home, the challenge was to get my colt from Innisfail, Alberta to Abbotsford, BC as safely and stress-free as possible. At the time he didn’t lead and had never been in a trailer, and he was weaned the moment we left the property. Under these circumstances, I was concerned that the experience would be a lot for him to take in.

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The goal: To safely transport my newly-purchased five-month-old colt 1,000 kilometres to his new home. Recently, I went to Alberta to pick up my next equine partner – a Quarter Horse weanling raised by my friend, Ida Newell, in Innisfail, Alberta.

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Helping a horse that is fearful and claustrophobic around his legs to become confident and respectful for grooming, veterinary, and farrier work is a delicate process. If done wrong, the result can be a more fearful horse. Horses are flight animals and their legs provide the means for their primary survival tactic.

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When it comes to asking your horse to ride in a trailer, there are many things that can go wrong. Most of these situations present themselves due to the confined space of the trailer. When you think of it from the horse’s perspective, it is no wonder that he might hesitate to climb inside, and therefore not surprising that he might want to fly out backwards like a rocket when the door opens.

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There are some legitimate reasons why horses do not like horse trailers. To a horse, even the most open, spacious trailer is still a small, confined space. Being a flight animal, nature has wired horses to be claustrophobic in order to protect them from predators. Because trailers are off the ground on wheels, climbing inside is a bit unnerving to a horse as the trailer moves around. Once inside the trailer, horses are further confined with the closing of the divider, and the shutting of the door. Finally, after being locked inside, the trailer starts to move. It bumps along the road, eventually stops, and then the doors are opened, and by this time the horse is thinking “Get me out of here!”

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Three-year-old Daisy had done relatively well at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, BC. She had won her first race that season, and had placed in many others. When she came home that fall, we decided to breed her. She would have some downtime before going off to the stud farm in early spring. But over the winter, I realized our smart, high-strung filly would need some retraining to reinforce basic manners not only for safe handling, but for her future as a pleasure riding horse.

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Although food rewards can definitely reinforce a riding lesson, in my experience the drawbacks of using food rewards far exceed the benefits. While it is important to reward horses to affirm every correct response, I feel there are other more valuable ways of doing so.

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