Restarting Halo - Part 1
By Jonathan Field
Halo is a sleeper. When I first met him, I was told that he was a really calm, cool guy. Only one problem: every once in a while, out of what seemed like nowhere, he’d buck and he’d buck hard. As I got started with Halo, it became very apparent to me that while he had been ridden for some time now, he would need to be essentially restarted under saddle.
The story of Halo and his journey through being restarted is one that provides so many good lessons that I decided to bring you along for the ride. This article will be the first in a three-part series and will describe how I got started with Halo. I’ll discuss the importance of thoroughly desensitizing the horse while also getting a high level of respect and willing yields: to have him desensitized as well as sensitive to move when I ask him to.
Before we begin, let’s get to know Halo better. Halo is a five-year-old Quarter Horse-Warmblood cross. He had been ridden by his previous owners and then turned out for some time before being purchased by his current owners, who took him on trial and rode him for a month before deciding to keep him. After a successful trial period, Halo had won them over. He was calm, quiet, and generally a really nice horse. They were starting some jumping lessons and things were going well until one day things began to unravel and Halo became unpredictable. One day his owner would ride for an hour without a problem; the next day Halo would throw her off as soon as she got on or at some point during the ride. It was getting consistently worse, which is when they called me.
While there are many horses out there with similar temperaments and characteristics, it is important to understand that every horse and every situation is different. This is in no way intended as a manual on “how to restart your bucking horse.” What I hope to do is help you better understand what can sometimes be going on under the surface and show you how I go about helping a horse like Halo.
During my first session with Halo it was clear what was going on. Halo is a very introverted horse; when something bothers or stresses him, his way of coping with the stress is by becoming very sullen, seemingly calm, and unresponsive. To most people watching, everything appears to be just fine, but what is happening inside Halo is not fine at all. Under the surface Halo is boiling up, the pressure is building, and all it takes is for his rider to reach up to touch her eyebrow to set off an explosion that will literally send her flying!
In order to help a horse like Halo, I had to flip over all the rocks in Halo’s world to see what was under them. I needed to keep Halo awake, conscious, and connected, and make it difficult for him to revert to his old ways of coping. I got him used to various things like balls, tarps, and plastic bags. The objective was for him to be able to stand and relax wherever I put him while I moved the objects around him, and for him to carry that relaxation and acceptance into movement when I asked for it.
When introducing a horse to any object he might fear, I will often start by having him follow the object while keeping him at a distance where I can maintain good personal space and stay safe. By having the horse follow the tarp, ball, or bag, he can become curious about it and gain enough confidence to check it out. It is so critical that we do not take away the curiosity or the optimism in the horse as we desensitize him. This means we must not force the horse to tolerate these items by confining him where he cannot escape. I will allow the horse to move his feet, build his confidence, and think his way through these situations. My mentor, Ronnie Willis, would say, “Confidence leads to curiosity. Confidence and curiosity lead to sensitivity, creating a sensitive relationship between you and your horse. If the horse has his confidence, if he has his curiosity, and he remains sensitive, then you’ve left the dignity of the horse intact.” (For an in depth look at desensitization, refer to Ground DVD 2 Ground in my Natural Foundation set: “Clear Communication: The Cornerstone of your Relationship.”)
The Plastic Bag
I tied the plastic bag to the end of my horseman’s stick, which allowed me to maintain a safe distance while desensitizing Halo’s entire body as well as the airspace around him. I started by having the stick out in front of me, moving it back and forth as I walked with Halo following me.
Then I turned around and had Halo follow the bag which was between me and him. Once Halo became curious, I allowed him to sniff the bag and then continued again, having him follow as I moved the bag around in a very relaxed and rhythmic way. Maintaining this rhythmic movement, I approached Halo until I could touch him with the bag and then take it away again. I watched Halo and retreated with the bag when he showed the most confidence.
I worked my way around the rest of his body, touching him all over and moving the bag over top of him into the airspace that I will eventually ride in. I continued to approach and retreat until he was confident all over his body.
As well as asking Halo to accept the bag touching him, I also used the bag to ask him to yield. I used the bag to drive his hindquarters around, to back him up, to move his shoulders over, and to send him out onto a circle around me.
Then as he moved, I went back to a relaxed intent in my body and saw if he could now accept the bag and relax with it touching him while he was moving. Then, I changed my body’s intent again and, using the bag, asked Halo to move his hindquarters away until he turned to face me and stopped.
By using rhythm, relaxation, approach and retreat, as well as developing a language with the bag to have Halo move his body, he replaced the fear he once had for the bag with communication and more positive thinking.
The ball is a great tool to prepare your horse for many situations, and it can provide tons of fun once your horse is confident with it! I like to play soccer on the ground with my horses and eventually a game of beach ball polo can provide some good fun, but not before the horse thoroughly accepts the ball. This is when the ball can go over him, under him, behind him, and bounce against and around him, while he remains relaxed the whole time.
For a horse like Halo, having the ball move around him really helps him stay interested and connected while building his confidence in me as his leader. When Halo first encountered the ball, it was sitting in the arena and Halo was circling nearby. Completely unaware, Halo did not notice the ball until he was quite close.
At that point you would have thought the ball had jumped up to bite him, as Halo leapt sideways to avoid certain attack by this completely stationary purple ball. Using the same approach as with the plastic bag, by releasing and retreating at the peak of his confidence I built Halo’s confidence to where I could bounce the ball alongside him, lift it up and touch him with it, bounce it off his body, and toss it over his back.
When tossing the ball over his back, I was especially aware of my personal space as Halo might have spooked away from the ball as it fell on the other side on him and possibly run me over. You can see in the photo that I kept my rope short enough that I could maintain control of his head if he tried to turn and kick at me.
I also got him used to having the ball touch his legs and roll underneath his belly.
To help Halo accept the ball, I tried to get him to give the ball a little push. By pushing the ball he really started to gain confidence. To desensitize him to the ball moving around his body, I kicked the ball against a fence and had it bounce back at me, stopping it before it got to Halo.
Before I saddle a horse, I like to see how well he can accept the placement of different things on his back. With the tarp, like the other objects, I want him to accept having it all over his body.
Halo appeared to handle the tarp over his back quite well when he was standing still, but when he began to move, he became more conscious and more reactive to the tarp coming on and off his back. I sent Halo on a small circle around me as I rhythmically threw the tarp up over his back until he could relax while the tarp came on and off. Then, I had him carry the tarp as he walked around me.
I wanted to see that Halo could maintain a relaxed circle around me while I tossed things like a cone up and over his back. I sent him out in a circle and, in a very relaxed way, tossed the cone over his back. I continued to have Halo circle as I walked over to the cone, picked it up, and threw it over him again.
I also put the cone up on Halo’s hindquarters and the cone took a little ride. So far so good, the cone didn’t get bucked off!
Read about Halo’s progress in "Restarting Halo, Part 2" and "Restarting Halo, Part 3: Heading Towards Success."
To read more articles by Jonathan Field on this site, click here.
All photos by Robin Duncan Photography