Question Category: Building a Better Relationship
Question: I got my first horse last October and things started out great but through the winter he started to become very buddy sour and now it is starting to get to the point where I can’t even take him out of the pen without him getting very upset. Do you have any suggestions?
Answer: It is not at all unusual for horses to become more herd bound through the winter, especially if they are turned out with the herd all winter and perhaps living in a more “natural” herd setting and being handled less by people.
For your horse, it is probably compounded by the fact that you had not had him long and therefore didn’t have a lot of history and depth in your relationship with him, before putting him with the herd. Through the winter, his herd mates became much more important to him than you. I’ll address how to resolve these issues and strengthen your relationship with the horse so that he is happy to walk away from the herd, knowing that he is safe with you.
But first, I should address another common theme that I read in your question. Many people buy a well-trained horse and then after a few months they discover that the horse has become untrained. The easiest thing to do and what I hear most often is to blame the seller for having misrepresented the horse. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me. The hardest thing to accept, but most often the truth, is that the buyer has deteriorated the horse’s training through indulgence and inadequate leadership. Horses do well when there is structure, authority and consistency in their daily routine. When a horse changes ownership and goes from structure and authority to no rules and a lack of leadership, he either takes charge himself or starts calling all the shots or he turns back to the herd for comfort and security.
It is never enough to just go out and buy a well trained horse. No matter how well he is trained, you can erode his behavior. When you get a new horse, you have to take on the responsibility of maintaining the horse’s training and establishing a relationship with him based on respect and authority—you can’t buy that, you have to earn it. To a horse, you have to demonstrate good leadership qualities 100% of the time—not just when you are thinking about it. Horses are excellent judges of leadership; in their minds, their lives depend on it. For a horse to be willing to leave the safety of the herd and go with you somewhere, he has to trust that you have the same leadership ability that the leader of the herd does and that you will keep him safe and provide the structure he needs to remain calm.
The most effective means for establishing a productive relationship with your horse—one in which you are the supreme leader and he is the willing follower, is through ground work exercises. In my groundwork program, we work on controlling all parts of the horse—his nose, shoulder, hip and feet, moving him out of your space, controlling his actions and getting his focus on you so that he is looking to you for the next directive and he tunes out all else in his environment.
You may want to start in the round pen and then advance your work on the long lead. As you gain control of the horse’s direction, speed and can move different parts of his body, he learns that you control him and he gets the sense that you control everything—and that gives him a great sense of security and peace. He will relax and focus more on you and less on the herd and he’ll tune out the rest of the world and relax once he feels that you have everything under control and are qualified to be making all the decisions, so he doesn’t have to think, worry or make any decisions. That is what horses want most—comfort and security; but that only is possible in the presence of a strong leader.
I have written a lot about the specific exercises you should do in the round pen and on the lead line and I think you need to go back to this basic work to establish your leadership with this horse. I have two DVDs on the subject, Round Pen Reasoning and Lead Line Leadership, which take you through a step-by-step process and explain thoroughly what to do, how to do it and why it works. In these videos I work with several different types of horses from hot to cold, lazy to fast, so you can see how the same process is applied even though the horse may respond differently at first. In the end, they all act the same as they accept authority and relax in the presence of strong leadership.
Check out related articles in my Training Library and consider ordering the groundwork videos so that you have a structured and purposeful plan to work on with your horse. With a little investment of your time and energy, your horse will gladly leave the herd and be happy with you.
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