Respect Starts Here!

Credit: Robin Duncan

By Jonathan Field

Respect is when a horse loves you like his mama and follows you around like his best friend. When you have clear boundaries without tension, you’ve got it!

It starts with us. We need to have the right attitude to really have remarkable success with horses. When we get this right, special connections can happen between a horse and a human that are indescribable. We have all witnessed these special moments such as at the Olympics when one of our top riders looks as if he is one with his horse. You will know when it has happened to you because you won’t be able to tell where you stop and your horse begins. This all sounds very cool, but what are the steps necessary to achieve this goal?

This article focuses on the very basics of daily care and handling. These are daily rituals that will change the way your horse looks at you and, more importantly, change the way you look at your horse. I picked these specific exercises because they are things that are done every single day. In time, these concepts will become habitual behaviours.

Great horsemanship starts with the way you think about horses (we spoke about this in last issue’s article), and how you apply this to each task you accomplish, from riding and training, to catching and turning your horse out. These positive daily rituals will seep into every facet of your life, and your horse’s too. 

So let’s get started! Here are four areas to focus on which will help you become a better leader.

Personal Space

This can be looked at from two points of view: your personal space and that of your horse.

Horses are herd animals. The lead horse is largely determined by which horse controls the feet. If a horse can’t be moved off its food, he or she is typically the leader. If a horse can move all the other horses off their food, then that horse is definitely the leader.

Horses decide who the leader is, both with people and with other horses, very subtly and/or aggressively. With a person, the horse can subtly give you a hard enough rub that he shoves you over a few feet. With another horse, he can aggressively remove hair with a strong kick or bite. It is all about body position and who is the worthy leader. Remember that horses are prey animals; for survival, they need to know who the leader is.

When a horse disregards a person and shoves him around, the horse knows that person is not a good leader. In a horse’s mind, if the person is not even good enough to control its feet, then how can he trust that person to take him away from the herd, down the trail, or past a scary object? Believe me, control of the feet, in a horse’s world, relates to everything!

When a horse pushes into my space, I don’t look at this as being bad, but as asking a question: “Are you a leader?” I simply block the horse and answer the question of leadership by stopping him from moving my feet. Every time this happens at a weekend clinic, I am always amazed at how powerful the leadership issue is with each horse. The horse will often want to go with me when I walk away to the next horse. It is a very intense first impression from the horse’s point of view.

The exercises listed below will allow you to be able to maintain an arm’s length distance between yourself and your horse — unless you invite the horse into your space or you go into his. Don’t be fooled by this distance, especially if you are the one getting out of the horse’s way. Make sure he is backing away from you and not vice versa.

Three Ways to Create Personal Space

Steady Pressure Hand Horsemanship Training

Using the steady pressure of your hand can be an effective way to move a horse out of your personal space. Photo: Angie Field 

1. Using your hand on the horse’s nose above the nostrils, apply steady pressure with your fingers and thumb until the horse backs away. Don’t try to shove him back or he will just push harder into your hand. Remember to release the pressure as soon as he moves away from it.

2. Drive the horse backward by making small, rhythmic waving motions with a stick or whip towards his chest. As soon as the horse takes a step back, release the motion. If he doesn’t move, intensify the movement until he demonstrates a try. 

Horsemanship Horse Training

Create personal space by using the intent of your body supported by the wiggle of the rope or the driving of a stick. Photo: Angie Field

3. Wiggle your lead rope lightly, intensifying the wiggle until the horse takes a step away, and then release.

Cultivating Respect Horsemanship Horse Training

Allowing a horse in for a nice rub is also important as long as the horse doesn’t become disrespectful and give a shove. Photo: Angie Field 

A final note on personal space here: although it is very important to be able to establish this, it is also important to go in close and give the horse a nice rub. Just make sure that the little change to a friendly reward doesn’t mean the horse is allowed to push you around.

Catching Horses

When I catch my horse in a stall, paddock, or big pasture, I always want to first get my head in the right place. If I am in a rush or am irritated, the horse will feel this and likely head off in the other direction.

Here is what I do to catch my horses in these three areas:

Box Stall — When I take a horse from a box stall, I like to have him come meet me at the door and then wait for the halter to go on before being invited out. If he instantly turns his bum, avoids the halter, or barges past on the way out, there is a problem. I handle these issues by standing in the open door and lightly swinging my rope at the horse’s hindquarters until the horse begins to turn his head toward me. When he does, I release, stopping the motion. I continue this until the horse at least faces me or comes all the way to meet me at the door. I don’t go into the stall until the nose is facing me because of safety. When I have the nose, I will step in and close the door to put the halter on. Once haltered, I will open the door and go through first, insisting the horse wait to be invited out, even stopping him several times in case the horse tries to rush out.

Small Paddock I approach this situation similarly to the above, except that I step right into the paddock from the beginning so the horse doesn’t have the opportunity to get out of the gate. I want to get the hard-to-catch horse to at least face me by lightly swinging the rope until he does so. I will then walk up to him several times, back and forth, before slipping the halter on. I always walk through the gate first and then invite the horse out. Many people have been crushed by horses rushing through a gate at the same time that they did. Always have your horse wait until you go first.

Big Pasture When I enter the pasture I walk in the general direction of the herd. I do not go directly to horse I want. I first walk to the horses that love to be caught and rub them a bit. After that, I will work my way over to the horse I want to catch, only giving him a rub or maybe even a carrot and then leaving for another horse. After a little while, I will go back to put the halter on the horse I want. Only give a treat like a carrot once with the halter off; the next time it must be on. If the horse is really hard to catch, I will take all the easy to catch horses out first so I don’t disturb the herd and create bad behaviour in the other horses as well. I never drop special feed like grain to the hard-to-catch horse; I want to catch him and bring him in with the halter on first. This way, coming with me is a good thing. I use food very little in my program but on occasion it is very helpful.

Feeding Horses

Feeding horses is a great time to bond. It is done so often that it can really have an impact on the daily rituals that I spoke of earlier. The catch is that this can be positive or very negative. 

I never drop feed to my horse if he pins his ears, insists I hurry up and get the heck out of there, starts kicking the barn down, or tries to run over me (because now it’s a personal space issue). If the horse is out in a pasture and rushes in close, I will bring a stick and drive him away before I drop the food, especially if there is more than one horse. Horses can be like a mob; people can really get hurt in this mix. If a horse pins his ears or pounds the wall, I either walk to the next horse and come back later or drive the irritated horse back and insist that he waits and relaxes. A good attitude is a must. 

I vary the feeding times slightly or walk in and out of the barn close to feeding time so as not to create a pattern that can’t be broken. When I bring feed out, even the best grain, I want the horses in the barn to be relaxed and quiet. No particular order or exact time will help this. Try it yourself: go into the barn at feeding time and sweep the alley or feed in a different order. Then as you feed address each horse’s behaviours until, very quickly, all the issues will be gone. During this take a moment to give a quick rub or put a halter on each hard-to-catch horse.

Turning Horses Out 

At the end of the day when I let my horse go or when I turn him out in the morning, I want the horse to wait quietly while I take the halter off and stand relaxed for a quick rub before either I or the horse walks away. What I really want, of course, is for the horse to follow me back to the gate, hoping that I wasn’t actually leaving. This is the goal. It’s not always the case, but that is what I am working towards and thinking about when I train. I don’t want pent up resentment from the horse so that he wants to burst away from me the moment the chance comes.

If you have a horse that does the “I’m going to bolt” dance as the halter is coming off, don’t take the halter off! Fiddle with the halter until he relaxes. If that doesn’t work, move the horse deeper into the pasture and circle some of his energy off. Move him around until his excitement of getting turned out has dissipated and he has calmed down.

Don’t accept this kind of behaviour as it is a very negative pattern and can become very dangerous. Do it right and what happens last will start to happen first! The next time the horse sees you coming, he might just come right to you.

Respect for Horses

I want to share an impactful personal story about a lesson I learned from one of my teachers, Ronnie Willis. He has passed on to horseman’s heaven now but the times I had with him resonate with me as if they were yesterday. Ronnie was not only a master horseman but a first class human being.

Horses were drawn to him: I watched horses walk down a fence line to be with him or relax the moment he came near. It was so hard to grasp what he had, but on reflection I would call it integrity and respect. He had respect for everybody and everything.

One day I learned a major lesson. It happened in the most unusual of circumstances. We were standing outside a box stall. Before Ronnie opened the door, he emphasized to me that this was the horse’s home. It was his bedroom, a sacred place to the horse. He said to me that when you enter this place you need to have consideration and awareness of that fact.

This is the opposite of what most people do. They barge into the horse’s space with no regard for the horse, snatch him out, and get to it. After all they “own” the horse — and the box stall for that matter. This entitlement around horses is a sad thing, especially in young people. I want to encourage people to remember the next time they are mad at their horse to think about what a privilege it is to be riding another being.  Remember that the horse didn’t choose this or desire to look good or win a top ribbon. These are human desires, and while they may be worthy goals, we can never forget the back that is carrying us. Respect starts here — with us!

Main article photo: Robin Duncan Photography - When catching horses, the ultimate goal is to have them meet you at the gate, stand quietly, and allow you to catch them.

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