Saturday, March 3, 2012

Starting Early: Drag ropes

I get a lot of questions about how to get the horse to respect my space. For me, this is the number one must-have for EVERY horse. Respect is the key to training. A horse can trust you but not respect you. He can fear you but not respect you. He can appreciate you but again, not respect you.

So what's the easiest way to earn that respect? Let the horse learn to respect something that you control.

I acquired a mustang filly not too long ago because the owners did not know how to train a horse. Her mother was adopted by these kind people and Shiane was born not long after they brought the mare to their property. They started the filly off the right way; halter and drag rope. It is an easy, safe way to teach the horse how to respect without you having to work at it.

Now, to be clear, a drag rope is not a 6ft lead line attached to a nylon halter. It is a 3ft soft, slightly stretchy rope that is not abrasive and cannot get wrapped around fragile legs. There are a lot of folks who do not believe in drag ropes. I've found most of those people don't have horses that tie well or respect the halter at all. To each his own; I believe that starting a foal in a breakaway halter with a good drag rope can save you a lot of fighting when it comes time to teach a much older, stronger horse how to respect you.

Why does the drag rope work? Well, basically the foal teaches itself that ropes are something to respect and not work against. They learn that its something they will never win against. A foal will step on the drag rope. They will probably be upset about it the first few times- after all, its holding their head down and running under their hooves. Most will learn quickly that fighting the rope doesn't work - that its an immovable force. So when the human picks up the rope and puts pressure on it the horse already understands that fighting against it is useless - if she moves forward the pressure will be released. An easy way to teach a horse to lead. Apply pressure, wait for the horse to give in.

Now the drag ropes can't teach them everything. This little mustang was sharp as a whip and quite the bulldozer. The girl that stepped her out of the field had some pretty well trained horses that she rode, so a little half-handled 4yo with a lot of brains figured out that she could pull and [literally] push this girl wherever she wanted to go. I honestly saw the horse do this a few times, a couple times a bit aggressively and it had me worried. I took the rope, about 6ft long connected to a pretty well-fitted rope halter.

Within 20 minutes I had the horse stepping sideways, backing out of the 'personal bubble', eating grass with permission only, and lunging at the end of the line. How is this possible you ask? Well, having a drag rope for 2 years taught her 90% of that before I even laid a hand on her. She already knew how to give to rope pressure; ie backing up. The herd taught her to give her haunches and shoulders [what is lunging but moving away from pressure?], the drag rope teaching her to respect the end of the line and not take off to turn away, as well as stop on command.

I did eventually take this filly home. Easiest horse to break I've ever had. Teaching a horse to respect the halter and lead is half the battle. I had the filly under saddle in a week and kid-safe in 6 months. As in, kids brought her in from the field, tacked her up, mounted without assistance, and could walk and trot in a small arena. And I probably can't call them kids, more like children; all under 10. How? I honestly chalk it all up to her start with a drag rope.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Chapter One - Part One

So... my computer died early this year and I'm FINALLY getting back into the swing of things. I'm back on track, and sorry for those of you who have watched and waited for me.

SO - to continue with the discussion of chapter one - communicating with the horse.

I'd like to comment on the most common miscommunications I see. Let's begin with the simple things, like going forward!

Even on the ground, people don't seem to get how the horse moves or how it influences other horses/people/animals to move. Wild horses, for example, must rely on other horses in the herd to lead them away from danger. The stallion stays at the back, keeping stragglers tight to the herd, and the lead mare dashes away in the front of the herd, leading them away to [hopefully] safer ground. If one watches on any YouTube video on the web of horses in a herd, it is the dominant, stallion-like horses that direct the herd. How do they do this? With bared teeth, swishing tails, pinned ears, and stomping feet. The 'wrath of god' look.

Now, horses usually do this without actually touching the other horse. The less dominant animal says 'oh yes, I believe you know best' and walks away. So what can humans do to get the same reaction? Why is it so hard to get that submissive, quiet admission of power from a horse when you're a human? Usually, because you're not asking the right question. Getting a response from a horse is not about forcing them to do it, its making them believe that if they don't listen, the only other option is to be eaten. Path of least resistance.

When handling a horse on the ground, I often see people 'pulling' their horse. The horse just doesn't care to follow the 'lead mare' and there is no mean-faced stallion herding them along. Or, you get the horses that have that look written all over their faces - the 'she's not going to protect me and oh my gosh the cheetah is behind that bush!' And my favorite, the nasty, dominating horses that have been allowed to take charge and lead the herd [or human] around by their nose.

Natural roundpenning, as commonly seen in Parelli or other Natural Horsemanship techniques, can be an amazing way to see the way humans move with their horses. A timid person will suck back and their horse will stand and ignore them or encroach on their personal space. An over-aggressive person will give their horse the 'She said there's a cheetah chasing me around and around!' or even give the horse the impression that humans are the predator. Then there are some humans that talk to their horses with their body in the roundpen and they don't actually say anything!

To get forward, you must walk towards the horse's "engine" - the haunches. This says 'forward'. Walking toward the head [of a submissive horse, of course] tells them 'back'. Walking towards their shoulder is nothing but confusion - 'where do I go, forward or backward? The wall's in the way, I can't go sideways'.

What if there is no roundpen? How do you make a horse walk forward quietly on the lead? Personally, I have a soft lead rope and turn my body slightly to tap their barrel with it. Some horses need more incentive, like a Dressage whip. I've even seen people putting plastic bags on the ends of whips to get more of a reaction - I personally think this is massive overkill and doesn't accomplish anything.

To get forward, a horse must be respectful. For a horse with no energy, you must engage them as the dominate stallion would.

Without forward, halt, and turn on the lead line, what respect could you ever achieve on a horse's back?

Tell me some stories - where have you seen people who have trouble getting their horses to move their feet? What have they done to fix it?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chapter One

Now, its just my personal opinion, but don't you think it is necessary for people to understand equine body language before anything else?

When I was young, and given my first lesson, I was not taught how to read a horse, how to understand its body. It took 6 years of fairly pointless [but to a youngster, endlessly enjoyable] lessons at a local barn, where I basically learned the phrase "riding is keeping the horse between you and the ground". The only real time I learned how to read a horse was the year before I left that barn - I was allowed to ride a 16 year old arabian mare, Gwazina, who was - to a greenie rider like myself - the upmost confidance builder. I was a fearless brat, and a spooky mare made me feel bold and powerful, because everyone else in my lesson was terrified of her.

This is when I learned body language. I knew every day this mare would spook at the open door, and I felt her body tense and bulge, grip tight as she inevidably bolted and threw her head. But every day, I kept her by that door. Now, with most riders, this would be the moment of make or break, and this horse made me, more than any other horse I've ever known.

Now, I watch trainers, and have watched trainers for many years in my thirst for knowledge, and I have never seen nor been taught to read a horse until nearly 13 years of horse experiance. I had to learn it, as many hungry horsemen have learned it, and I did so by watching. Observation. No number of books I've read have helped me nearly as much as watching horses interact. I have seen only a small handful of books even touch on the subject of equine interaction.

What do we see when we watch horses? The aggression, submission, passiveness, anger, terror, and love. How do they show us? What do they show us? This primative communication that humans seem to have forgotten. Those who wish to learn the language of the horse, must first forget their tongue and rememeber their eyes and ears.

In the Beginning...

This is the first entry of a draft-type blog. This blog, I hope, will generate enough of a population to assist in teaching me, and others, about horses. I have begun writing a book concerning all the little things that people do with their horses that are wrong, and all the things they need to know to be a good horse person. This book will not be a 'this is how you groom a horse' study, but a 'learn how to understand subtle gestures and communicate effectively to get a desired action'. The book will be titled EQ 101: Concerning the Equine-Inclined.

I hope others are willing to join me in this exciting and thoughtful adventure!